Chapter Nine – Optimism
As we near the midway point of the book, it becomes more and more clear to me that I’m reading something extraordinary, something that will change the way I look at the world forever.
Chapter eight was tough going at times, with some complex ideas that I still don’t get entirely. Chapter nine, by contrast, returned to the direct simplicity of the earlier parts of the book, and rounds them out in a deeply satisfying way. This chapter redefines optimism, as well as evil.
All evil is the result of a lack of knowledge. This is what Deutsch calls his “Principle of Optimism.” Some examples. How many people in history have died of cholera within sight of the hearths over which they could have boiled their water? How many people have frozen to death literally on top of the material that could have served as fuel and shelter, if only they had known how? When bad things happen, we don’t mitigate their effects by retreating from knowledge. Instead, only through gaining more knowledge can we hope to survive the inevitable challenges we will face.
Deutsch completely changes my thinking on Thomas Malthus and his followers. Malthus’ idea is that since population increases geometrically but food supplies increase arithmetically, there will always be starvation facing any unchecked population. Malthus was right about how population would continue to grow, but his predicted disaster never materialized. Why? Because food production went up even faster. We solved our problems, which is what we’ve always had to do. Deutsch points out that Malthus, and all others who prophesy about the future based on today’s knowledge, forget something that seems so basic it almost makes you laugh in its obviousness.
“In reality they were all allowing themselves to be misled by the ineluctable fact of the human condition that we do not yet know what we have not yet discovered.” (p 190)
Prophesy is defined as using today’s knowledge as a guide to the accomplishments of the future. Physicists at the end of the 19th century thought physics was nearly done, new discoveries to be found only “in the sixth place of decimals.” Why couldn’t the physics at the end of the 19th century see what was coming in the 20th? Because the concept-shattering discoveries of the 20th century didn’t just seem unlikely in the 19th; those discoveries were not conceived of at all.
Also in this chapter, Deutsch discusses how powerful and important the Enlightenment was, and how the scientific civilization it spawned makes our time a uniquely safe time – for the first time in history, for instance, we can track and perhaps even deflect incoming asteroids. He also discusses some of the failed “mini-Enlightenments” in history, including Athens, Florence, and even the Islamic scientific movement of the 9th through 12th centuries. He does point out that the Islamic enlightenment, while clearly heavy on conjecture, may have lacked criticism. At any rate, all those mini-Enlightenments failed (though at least the final one eventually helped ignite our current Enlightenment world). Why did they fail? Deutsch supposes it is because they lost their sense of optimism.
Problems are inevitable. Problems are soluble. All evil results from a lack of knowledge.
More on optimism to come in the next to last chapter of the book. But first, Deutsch introduces us to Socrates.