War. Terrorism. Violent Crime. Economic Depression. The End of the Middle Class. Failing Schools. Natural Disasters. Drug Resistant Diseases. Toxins in the Environment.
Just watching the evening news or reading the headlines can be downright depressing. This is true even moreso when the economy actually is pretty bad and large segments of the population are financially going backwards.
Then we have nutcases like Harold Camping who proclaim that the end of the world is imminent. While most Christians don’t go that far, they do generally view the world as being on an inexorable downward path toward an eventual judgement day. Such a view is the only one compatible with their view of humanity as fundamentally flawed, fallen creatures in need of supernatual salvation.
Al Anon even claims Darwin, who some Christians regard as the patron saint of atheists, was a pessimest:
An associate of Charles Darwin recalled: “During my last conversation with Darwin [before his death] expressed very gloomy view future mankind.”
And according to a historian, Charles Darwin himself feared that the theory of evolution had “killed God and that the (harmful) consequences for future of mankind were incalculable.”
So with all this pessimistic consensus, who would dare suggest that humanity’s current trajectory might not be downward?
The Wall Street Journal, for one. In a recent essay, “Violence Vanquished”, Steven Pinker makes the case that:
Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living
in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.
Read the full article here: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180-lMyQjAxMTAxMDIwNDEyNDQyWj.html
Of course, some will conclude that anything like this appearing in the WSJ is just happy talk promulgated by businessmen who want to keep exploited consumers happy and spending. Maybe so. And besides, this is just about violence. Maybe we’re more peaceful but getting worse in other ways?
Then there’s these guys at Ode: “The Online Community for Intelligent Optimists”, http://www.odemagazine.com/, which has a decidedly leftward feel to it. Yet they also make a compelling case for optimism in “The best is yet to come”:
Humankind continuously exceeds its own expectations… However, we are really bad at one thing – predicting that development. And that’s a problem that leads to a lot of unnecessary pessimism.
Full text here: http://www.odemagazine.com/blogs/intelligent_optimist/23382/the_best_is_yet_to_come OK, but they’re talking about mostly the impacts of technological innovations. So maybe we’re making better gadgets and tools, and we’re not killing each other as much…but aren’t our culture and morals at least on a downward spiral, which will take everything else down with it?
What really has me thinking about all this is a recent book by David Deutch, “The Beginning of Infinity,” which he opens with:
Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in the history of our species. It began at approximately the time of the scientific revolution, and is still under way. It has included improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.
A larger excerpt can be seen here: http://beginningofinfinity.com/excerpt David’s is a tall assertion indeed - improvements in every aspect of human welfare that are still under way. It’s hard to find a greater contrast with the seemingly prevalent view of our country and our planet as a decadent cesspool of poverty, violence, base culture, and immorality.
True, even pessimists recognize that sometimes good things happen; to be a pessimist is not to view every event negatively. Conversely, optimists recognize that sometimes bad things happen and most recognize the possibility that a very bad event could alter humanity’s course. With all that said, there seems to be a pretty fundamenal difference in world view here. It’s not purely based in religion - while religionists do tend to be pessimistic about the only world that actually exists (the real one), many atheists are also pessimistic or at least seem to be.
One other point of clarification: some people will say that they’re optimistic, but ”only if…”, i.e. “only if we eliminate government initiation of force”, or “only if we return the government to the limits of the constitution”, or “only if we greatly increase taxes on the rich”, or “only if we overturn the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” or…whatever. The optimism in such statements is contingent on drastic and controversial and, at least in the near term, unlikely changes. That seems to me a mere variant on the fundamentally pessimistic world view. Like the Christians, they posit a downward spiral for humanity until and unless some revolutionary change that they advocate happens. They are pessimists on the question of where we are today and where we are headed, absent such a radical change.
So what’ll it be, folks? Are we currently in a bad state and headed for some version of armageddon, as the Christians believe, or are we at the beginning of infinite progress, as Deutsch assets? Or is it something else entirely? And I’m really interested in hearing your *reasons* for thinking optimistically or pessimistically about humanity’s current direction in comments.