PHILOMADRID

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Optimism

Optimism

There are some things that when we study them or investigate
them we stand to be negatively affected by these very same
things. I have in mind, for example, infectious viruses or
radioactive materials. For philosophers, optimism must
surely fall in this category of subjects. How we proceed can
determine our views on optimism; we can either end up being
all pro optimism (Leibniz) or all anti optimism
(Schopenhauer). Trying to be neutral about the subject is no
mean feat.

Many commentators have pointed out that our state of
physical or psychological well being directly affects our
level of optimism. The other thing commentators have
rightfully pointed out is that being optimistic does not
mean that we are less likely to be pessimistic. These two
insights might help us understand why someone might behave
as an optimist one minute or pessimist the next. However, we
can understand optimism by going behind what we think is
going on.

Why do we need to be optimistic or pessimistic in the first
place? I don't mean, because the world is full of evil or
that we should always look at the bright side of life. But
rather, what function does optimism play in our actions and
what is the nature of optimism? In fact, how can we explain
the causal relationship between our actions and optimism?

Optimism is clearly linked to our state of beliefs rather
than our state of knowledge. This is quite reasonable since
the only purpose we have for optimism is that it helps us
see the future in a certain light and as a consequence helps
decide what to do. If we believe that our job prospects are
good, we keep on trying to get the job we feel we deserve.
And we keep on trying irrespective of the state of the
economy, or our background or the fact that what we are
applying for might have gone the way of the dodo. On the
other hand, we might just get that job after all. The point
is that when it comes to the future we just don't know.

However, our knowledge that things are bad and the belief
that there are things we can do to improve our situation,
might seem to be contradictory. We cannot rationally know
that things are bad and at the same time feel good. We might
be tempted to say that knowledge pertains to our rational
being while optimism to our emotional self. Hence optimism
is just irrational. There certainly is enough evidence to
suggest that optimism does appeal to our emotions. In fact,
it is only when things are going wrong, and therefore when
we are emotionally vulnerable, that we need all the optimism
we can muster. When things are going well we try not to slip
up, and certainly try to enjoy our good fortune.

I am not convinced that there is such a contradiction
between knowledge and optimism. Apart from the fact that
there is no law which says that we have to be rational, our
state of knowledge and our beliefs (optimism) are not the
same thing. Sure we know that our present employment
situation is bad or that we are very familiar with the state
of the economy, but that is different from our beliefs about
future events and our employment prospects. To start with,
we can never tell what a manager might think about our
employability in their company, and by the same token it
also seems that not enough people can tell how the economy
will turn out to be in a few months time. In fact, we know
that our knowledge about the future is very limited indeed.
It is therefore not surprising that we make heavy use of our
beliefs when contemplating the future to compensate for the
lack of knowledge we have about the future. Hence, optimism
is forward looking , whereas knowledge is about facts,
truths, certainties and probabilities.

Furthermore, we can always argue the sceptic's position and
say that what we think is knowledge about a situation is not
necessarily solid knowledge. What we thought was a bad
situation turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Hence, our
claims about certainty are not as solid as we wish them to
be. The contradiction must therefore be based on the false
assumption that what we think is knowledge might not be so.
Strictly speaking, our knowledge might not always be that
solid and our beliefs about the future are not always worth
much any way. So, even if there is a contradiction it is of
no consequence anyway.

Optimism involves those sets of beliefs where our evidence
for any desired outcome is very slim or none at all. In
other words, we perceive that the probability of an event is
so low that we cannot use normal language to describe the
probabilistic outcome of an event. For example, we cannot
use such words as, maybe, possibly, a good chance to refer
to any future events when we have no evidence for such
events happening. However, we do understand the higher order
principle that if something is physically possible, then it
might possibly happen. There is nothing unreasonable in
believing that we can get a job. I suggest that optimism
taps into this sort of higher order beliefs that are
certainly based on our past experiences or even the
experiences of those we know. I would go further and suggest
that the more we know what is possible and what is probable
about the world, the more we are likely to be optimists when
the need arises. This is because the more real facts and
knowledge we have the better our judgements might turn out
to be. So, besides making us feel good, optimism also gives
us the impulse to act on things which we wouldn't have done
had we used traditional means of reasoning or motivation. It
is as if optimism appeals to a set of probabilities that are
more generic, more metaphysical, than our normal set of
daily probabilities.

Feeling good, which is an other characteristic of optimism,
should tell us more about the nature of optimism. For me,
feeling good is all part of the pain management strategy in
our life. If our level of optimism is directly linked to our
physical or psychological state of being then surely this
means that pain or the absence of pain is directly involved.
As I said above, optimism is usually required when things
are not going well for us. The issue is not about the type
of pain we feel, but the intensity and nature of pain.
Although society does not seem to give psychological pain
the importance it deserves, this is nevertheless a powerful
influence on our actions. An unfriendly boss might not be
inflicting any physical pain, but the psychological pain is
nevertheless taking its toll on our well being. The
question, in my opinion, is not whether pain is involved,
but how it is involved. Does optimism suppress pain or does
it compete with pain to attract the attention of our
conscious self? In other words, is optimism an emotional
force more powerful than pain or is a better competitor than
pain?

Furthermore, is optimism something we initiate consciously,
so that we can only be optimistic when we are conscious, or
does it stem from the unconscious self in us? I am not
convinced that we initiate optimism from the unconscious
self. To suggest that optimism is triggered by the
unconscious self implies some form of mechanism that gets
activated every time we are in a bad situation. If it is a
physiological process than we have to show why sometimes it
triggers optimism and sometimes not, and then why it does
not seem to function in some people. If the mechanism is
psychological, we would still have to show how the
unconscious self rationalises the activation (or not) of
optimism. However, we know that not everyone is an optimist
when experiencing bad situations, hence either the trigger
mechanism is broken in some of us or there is no such
mechanism that triggers optimism automatically. In any case,
we also believe that we are in control of ourselves whether
we are optimists or not.

An other way of showing that optimism is a conscious action
in us is by pointing out the very fact that optimism comes
in various forms and degrees. Some are always optimistic,
some are not, some can be optimistic and some are just
unable to be optimistic whatever the situation. This pick
and mix state of affairs suggests that at the very least an
element of training and learning is involved in being
optimists. Which explains why there are quite a large number
of pessimists as well. If optimism was an inherited trait,
we'll need something like this if it is to function
automatically, then surely pessimists would never get to
survive the evolution chain. Especially given how hard it is
to find a mate, let alone mate with someone to pass on the
pessimism genes.

In fact, pessimism can also help us understand optimism. So
far I have said nothing about pessimism, and like some
commentators I don't want to say that pessimism is the
opposite of optimism, but that pessimism performs a function
different from optimism. Opposites tend be "either or", they
tend to violate the law of non contradiction if found
together, but optimism and pessimism can go together without
contradicting this law.

If we accept that optimism is a state of mind to counter act
a disagreeable situation then what is pessimism? One of the
ways we use optimism is to motivate us into some action that
might bring about a desired effect. So optimism helps us do
things, against the odds, which we would not have done
otherwise. But we mustn't forget the importance of pain in
this; optimism is also there to limit or even stop pain.
Some might well jump to the conclusion that pessimism must
be some form of perversion or psychological malfunction by
maintaining pain or, as some would say, by wallowing in
pain; maybe pessimists are masochist. One thing is clear
about pessimism and that it does not try to do something to
get rid of pain.

To think that pessimists are masochists is of course
ridiculous. I would argue that pessimism is no less a
strategy to manage pain than optimism. If you like,
pessimism is a strategy to limit pain, a sort of damage
limitation exercise. Pessimism might stop us from doing
something that might hurt us even more. Pessimism is the
motivating force that will stop us digging if we find
ourselves in a hole. On the other hand, optimism is a
strategy to alleviate pain and even get rid of it
altogether. Something that will motivate us to get out of
the hole. So trying not to make things worse is no less a
valid strategy than trying to make things better. This
argument then explains how the same person can be both
optimistic and pessimistic. It is therefore not an "either
or" situation, but an if and when case.

The different functions of optimism and pessimism also
explain why optimism and pessimism cannot be totally the
result of some unconscious mental event. If we use optimism
and pessimism as a strategy in life and for pain management
in particular, then surely we need to be in some conscious
state of mind. For example, we need to be aware of what is
going on around us especially when we are assessing threats
and opportunities. In any case, we still think that we are
responsible for our action, and others hold us to be
responsible, irrespective of whether we were optimists or
pessimists.

So what is the problem with optimism if it is just a
straight forward survival strategy? The first serious
problem is that we might mistake feeling good, to our
problems or woes having been solved and so do nothing about
the causes of those problems. We might be tempted to think
that just because we feel good from being positive things
will turn out to be alright just by themselves. This might
be true of course, but I suggest we'd better feel lucky as
well if we adopt this approach to things.

An other serious problem with optimism is the fact that it
seems to come is degrees and levels of intensity. We can
find the evidence for this in our language. We can consider
some of the synonyms for optimism to see how this works.
Positive thinking is a very strong form of optimism. Not
only does it mean an ability to think how things can be
good, but also to act as if things are going to be better.
Positive thinking also seems to imply a meaning of being
permanently in optimistic mode irrespective of the
circumstances. Hope is another form of optimism, but maybe
without the aggression of self help gurus usually associated
with the term positive thinking. In fact, hope has been the
currency of most religions for hundreds of years. However,
hope, in the context of religion is a spring board to trust
and belief in a god, whilst positive thinking clearly pins
trust and belief on the individual. Of course, positive
thinking is not the same as being positive. When we are
being positive we are just looking at all options that might
work in our favour or maybe simply not giving up in our
quest for a better life. A lesser degree of optimism than
positive thinking or hope.

Wishful thinking and over confidence have a degree of
negative meaning in them. This is because we use them to
refer to situations when we're over optimistic and things
turn out badly. This links back to the condition that we are
still responsible for our actions and still have to evaluate
our actions. In my opinion its also links back to the degree
of certainty and knowledge we have about things. The wrong
facts can easily lead to disasters. However, the
consequences of being over optimistic might not only affect
us, hence the importance of responsibility. History is
littered with casualties of wishful thinking and over
confidence; just pick an example for yourselves.

Given that optimism comes in degrees it can easily backfire
because we might misjudge our actions or misread situations.
This is because optimism, like most of our conscious life,
requires that we not only make value judgements, but
strategy judgements as well. Which might explain why
sometimes we need a dose of pessimism, just to keep things
balanced or simply to mark time for a while.

Take care

Lawrence

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