Random finds (2017, week 31) — On the New Optimists’ ideological argument, our desire to know, and the death of reading

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

The New Optimists’ ideological argument

The headlines have never been worse. But an increasingly influential group of thinkers insists that humankind has never had it so good — and only our pessimism is holding us back, writes Oliver Burkeman in a long read in the Guardian, titled Is the world really better than ever?

“By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism — tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride,” Burkeman writes.

But a group of prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom. “The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled ‘the New Optimists,’ a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.”

From their perspective, the prevailing mood of despair is irrational and self-indulgent even. The New Optimists argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are — illustrating a tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. “And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah — but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.”

According to the Swedish historian and self-declared New Optimist Johan Norberg, it once was of great survival value to be worried about everything that could go wrong. But “in these hyper-connected times, our addiction to bad news just leads us to vacuum up depressing or enraging stories from across the globe, whether they threaten us or not, and therefore to conclude that things are much worse than they are.” On the other hand, “good news […] can be a lot harder to spot — partly because it tends to occur gradually.”

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Illustrations by Pete Gamlen.

In his recently published book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (“In the time it takes you to read the first chapter, over 2,000 people will have escaped from poverty.”), Norberg claims that we have made more progress over the last 100 years than in the first 100,000. For instance, some 300,000 more people have gained access to safe water every day for the last 25 years, and world poverty has fallen more in the last 50 years than in the preceding 500.

“The New Optimists invite us to forget our partisan biases and tribal loyalties; to dispense with our cherished theories about what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it, and breathe, instead, the refreshing air of objective fact. The data doesn’t lie. Just look at the numbers!”

But it turns out that numbers can be as political as anything else.

“The New Optimists are certainly right on the nostalgia front: nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century. […] The average European or American enjoys luxuries medieval potentates literally couldn’t have imagined. The essential finding of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a key reference text for the New Optimists, seems also to have been largely accepted: that we are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds — from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying — in steep decline.”

But “[n]estled inside that essentially indisputable claim,” Burkeman writes, “there are several more controversial implications. For example: that since things have so clearly been improving, we have good reason to assume they will continue to improve. And further […] that whatever we’ve been doing these past decades, it’s clearly working, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with. Optimism, after all, means more than just believing that things aren’t as bad as you imagined: it also means having justified confidence that they will be getting even better soon.”

“The despondent self-criticism that frustrates the New Optimists is fuelled in part — at least the way they see it — by a kind of optical illusion in the way we think about progress. As Steven Pinker observes, whenever you’re busy judging governments or economic systems for falling short of standards of decency, it’s all too easy to lose sight of how those standards themselves have altered over time. […] And so, ironically enough, the outrage you feel when you read the headlines is actually evidence that this is a magnificent time to be alive. A recent addition to the New Optimist bookshelf, The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer, binds this argument directly to the optimists’ faith in science: it is scientific progress, he argues, that is destined to make us ever more ethical.”

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But even if everything is indeed much better than before, why assume things will continue to improve? “Improvements in sanitation and life expectancy can’t prevent rising sea levels destroying your country,” Burkeman notes. It’s also dangerous to predict future results by past performance. “But the real concern here,” according to Burkeman, “is not that the steady progress of the last two centuries will gradually swing into reverse, plunging us back to the conditions of the past; it’s that the world we have created — the very engine of all that progress — is so complex, volatile and unpredictable that catastrophe might befall us at any moment. Steven Pinker may be absolutely correct that fewer and fewer people are resorting to violence to settle their disagreements, but (as he would concede) it only takes a single angry narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes to spark a global disaster. […]

‘The point is that if something does go seriously wrong in our societies, it’s really hard to see where it stops,’ says David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, who takes a less sanguine view of the future, and who has debated New Optimists such as [Matt] Ridley and Norberg. ‘The thought that, say, the next financial crisis, in a world as interconnected and algorithmically driven as our world, could simply spiral out of control — that is not an irrational thought. Which makes it quite hard to be blithely optimistic.’ When you live in a world where everything seems to be getting better, yet it could all collapse tomorrow, ‘it’s perfectly rational to be freaked out.’

Runciman raises a related and equally troubling thought about modern politics, in his book The Confidence Trap. Democracy seems to be doing well: the New Optimists note that there are now about 120 democracies among the world’s 193 countries, up from just 40 in 1972. But what if it’s the very strength of democracy — and our complacency about its capacity to withstand almost anything — that augurs its eventual collapse? Could it be that our real problem is not an excess of pessimism, as the New Optimists maintain, but a dangerous degree of overconfidence? […] The optimists aren’t unaware of such risks — but it is a reliable feature of the optimistic mindset that one can usually find an upbeat interpretation of the same seemingly scary facts.”

“But after steeping yourself in their work, you begin to wonder if all their upbeat factoids really do speak for themselves. Of course things are better than they were,” Burkeman writes. “But they’re surely nowhere near as good as they ought to be. To pick some obvious examples, humanity indisputably has the capacity to eliminate extreme poverty, end famines, or radically reduce human damage to the climate. But we’ve done none of these, and the fact that things aren’t as terrible as they were in 1800 is arguably beside the point.

Ironically, given their reliance on cognitive biases to explain our predilection for negativity, the New Optimists may be in the grip of one themselves: the ‘anchoring bias,’ which describes our tendency to rely too heavily on certain pieces of information when making judgments. If you start from the fact that plague victims once languished in the streets of European cities, it’s natural to conclude that life these days is wonderful. But if you start from the position that we could have eliminated famines, or reversed global warming, the fact that such problems persist may provoke a different kind of judgment.”

Burkeman believes that, at its heart, “the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they intend their sunny picture of humanity’s recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics.” This is a perfectly legitimate political argument to make, he says, but it’s still a political argument, not a straightforward, neutral reliance on objective facts.

“The claim that we are living in a golden age, and that our dominant mood of pessimism is unwarranted, is not an antidote to the Age of the Take, but a Take like any other — and it makes just as much sense to adopt the opposite view. ‘What I dislike,’ Runciman says, ‘is this assumption that if you push back against their argument, what you’re saying is that all these things are not worth valuing. For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the [unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.’”

Burkeman ends with Norberg. Although he is no Trump supporter, Norberg says, “I think it might be that in a couple of years’ time, we’ll think it was a great thing that Trump won. Because if he’d lost, and Hillary had won, she’d have been the most hated president of modern times, and then Trump and Bannon would have used that to build an alt-right media empire, create an avalanche of hatred, and then there might have been a more disciplined candidate the next time round — a real fascist, rather than someone impersonating … Trump may prove to have been the incompetent, self-absorbed person who ruins the populist brand in the United States.”

According to Burkeman, “This sort of counterfactual argument suffers from not being falsifiable, and in any case, it’s a long way from a position of straightforward positivity about the direction in which the world is moving. But perhaps it is the one genuinely indisputable truth on which the New Optimists and the more pessimistically minded can agree: that whatever happens, things could always, in principle, have been worse.”

Our desire to know

Science promises answers to the fundamental questions, but does knowledge have limits?, wonders Marcus Du Sautoy, mathematician, author of What We Cannot Know, and the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.

The pace of scientific discovery has been extraordinary in the past decades, Du Sautoy writes in an article for iai. “We’ve discovered new particles; seen habitable planets orbiting distant stars; detected gravitational waves; mapped the complete neuronal network of a C Elegans worm; and built new forms of carbon called graphene. In 2014 the science journal Nature reported that the number of scientific papers published has been doubling every 9 years since the end of World War Two. So is there anything science cannot answer? Or could we possibly know it all?”

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Don’t ask me… mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. (Photograph: Mike Cunliffe/BBC/Big Wave Productions)

According to Du Sautoy, the idea of being stuck inside the system is relevant to many of the potential unknowables. “Take the challenge of understanding consciousness. This has been regarded by many as a question that science will never be able to answer because consciousness is a subjective experience. I can never know what it feels like to be you. I am limited and stuck inside my own consciousness, never able to experience yours. I can scan you and probe you and analyse a lot about what makes the brain appear conscious. And yet how can I ever know you aren’t a zombie without any internal world, just doing a very good impression of consciousness? The problem is that we are stuck in our own system unable to get out.


In fact the idea of repeating an experiment, something so dear to the way we do science, seems actually impossible. We might think we have isolated an experiment so that we can repeat it. And yet the experiment is not isolated. It sits as an experiment inside the universe and the universe has moved on. We know from the revelations of chaos theory that small changes on the other side of the universe can have dramatic effects on the outcome of the universe. The butterfly effect. So we can’t really consider an experiment truly repeatable under the same conditions each time. It will always be an approximation. And understanding the universe itself isn’t really open to experiment and repeatability. The universe is a one time only experiment.

So the challenge that mathematics faced — that truth cannot always be proved when you are stuck inside a system — seems to apply to the limits of what we can reason about the universe. At least in mathematics there is a way to pull yourself outside the system and look in. That new larger system will have limitations but at least we can keep stepping outside. The trouble with our universe and our heads is that we are stuck. It may be possible that there is no way for us to truly step outside to look in and to know.”

And this …

“Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More importantly, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know,” Philip Yancey writes in The death of reading is threatening the soul.

But Yancey is going through a personal crisis. “I used to read three books a week,” he says, “[b]ut I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.”

“The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, ‘If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…’ Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up.”

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Levels of Reading by Norbet Fritz, winner of the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest.

But according to Charles Chu, willpower alone isn’t enough. In an article on Quartz, Chu advises to “build a fortress of habits — these are what will keep you resilient in tough times.” The most impactful changes are environmental, Chu writes. If you want to read, make sure you remove all distractions from your environment and also, make books as easy to access as possible. “I try to keep books everywhere so I can just pick one up and start reading,” Chu says.

“I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle,” Yancey writes. “We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish.” If I would yield to the tyranny of the urgent, “my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places. When I retire to the mountains and unplug for a few days, something magical takes place. I’ll go to bed puzzling over a roadblock in my writing, and the next morning wake up with the solution crystal-clear — something that never happens when I spend my spare time cruising social media and the Internet.”

Seneca on a beneficial reading program (fragment from his Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 2, translation by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long):

“1. From your letter and from what I hear, I am becoming quite hopeful of you; you are not disquieting yourself by running about from place to place. Thrashing around in that way indicates a mind of poor health. In my view, the first sign of a settled mind is that it can stay in one place and spend time with itself.

2. Be careful, though, about your reading in many authors and different types of books. It may be that there is something wayward and unstable in it. You must stay with a limited number of writers and be fed by them if you mean to derive anything that will dwell reliably with you. One who is everywhere is nowhere. Those who travel all the time find that they have many places to stay, but no friendships. The same thing necessarily happens to those who do not become intimate with any one author, but let everything rush right through them. 3. Food does not benefit or become part of the body when it is eaten and immediately expelled. Nothing impedes healing as much as frequent change of medications. A wound does not close up when one is always trying out different dressings on it; a seedling that is transplanted repeatedly will never grow strong. Nothing, in fact, is of such utility that it benefits us merely in passing. A large number of books puts a strain on a person. So, since you cannot read everything you have, it is sufficient to have only the amount you can read.

4. ‘‘But I want to read different books at different times,’ you say. The person of delicate digestion nibbles at this and that; when the diet is too varied, though, food does not nourish but only upsets the stomach. So read always from authors of proven worth; and if ever you are inclined to turn side to others, return afterward to the previous ones. Obtain each day some aid against poverty, something against death, and likewise against other calamities. And when you have moved rapidly through many topics, select one to ponder that day and digest.

5. This is what I do as well, seizing on some item from among several things I have read. Today it is this, which I found in Epicurus — for it is my custom to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy:

Cheerful poverty is an honorable thing.


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The death of Seneca (1871), by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez. (Photograph: Museo del Prado, Madrid)

In Talk with me, philosopher Nigel Warburton writes, “Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. It began with a sense of mystery, wonder, and confusion, and the powerful desire to get beyond mere appearances to find truth or, if not that, at least some kind of wisdom or balance.”

It was Socrates who, in 5th-century Athens, set the pattern for philosophical discussion and teaching. “His pupil Plato crafted eloquent Socratic dialogues that, we assume, capture something of what it was like to be harangued and goaded by his mentor, though perhaps they’re more of a ventriloquist act,” Warburton writes. “Socrates himself, if we believe Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, had no great respect for the written word. He argued that it was inferior to the spoken. A page of writing might seem intelligent, but whatever question you ask of it, it responds in precisely the same way each time you read it — as this sentence will, no matter how many times you return to it.”

“Even now, philosophy is best taught using the Socratic method of question and answer. True, the demands of large lectures make interaction difficult but, as the Harvard professor Michael Sandel has shown with his Justice lectures and in his discussions about the public good, even here conversation and dialogue are possible. This is in many ways an improvement on Wittgenstein’s teaching style, which, according to contemporary accounts, involved students watching this tormented genius as he wrestled with his own developing ideas in front of them, occasionally pausing for minutes to stare at his upturned hand, at other times cursing his own stupidity: ‘What a damn fool I am!’ Arresting as that must have been, and superior in many ways to a rehearsed monologue that has been inflicted ad nauseam on undergraduates, it lacks the cut and thrust of Socratic questioning.”

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Bernard Henri Levy (left) and Jean Paul Sartre refuse to discuss matters at the Musée Grévin waxwork museum in Paris, France. (Photograph: Sylvain Sonnet/Hemis/Corbis)

“Whenever philosophical education lapses into learning facts about history and texts, regurgitating an instructor’s views, or learning from a textbook, it moves away from its Socratic roots in conversation. Then it becomes so much the worse for philosophy and for the students on the receiving end of what the radical educationalist Paolo Freire referred to pejoratively in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) as the ‘banking’ of knowledge. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’”

Philosophy as therapy is an ancient idea — endorsed by Ludwig Wittgenstein and, more recently, popularized by self-help books. But shouldn’t philosophy be about understanding even if the insights are uncomfortable? Can it be a dynamic force changing how we think and what we can do. Or does it serve only as a guide to everyday life?

These are the questions philosopher Adrian Moore, psychotherapist Mark Vernon and Plato scholar Angie Hobbs explore during a debate hosted by Shahidha Bari for The Insitute of Art and Ideas (iai).

At the end of the debate, when asked about the future of philosophy, Moore says, “One of the things that makes me optimistic […] is the fact that philosophy is more and more being practised at a very young age, not just in school but in primary schools. And I think that is very important. I mean, Angie [Hobbs] talked about the way in which philosophy can be imaginative and creative. And another word that you might also want to use in this context is playful. And another word that you might want to use in this context, if this is not gonna sound too corny, is childlike. My own definition of a philosopher is ‘somebody who has never grown up.’ And I think there is something that is absolutely basic and absolutely natural about philosophy, that in a lot of cases is just eventually teased out of people. And a large part of what we need to be doing is recapturing that sense of wonder, that sense of playfulness, including playing with ideas, playing with language, which can itself help to push philosophy itself along in interesting and exciting new directions, but indirectly can help to contribute beyond the discipline as well.”

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Jhumpa Lahiri.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” — Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Interpreter of Maladies.

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