View Full Version : The Optimism Delusion

Jeff Coleman
05-17-2010, 02:14 PM
The Optimism Delusion by David Benatar:


05-17-2010, 03:02 PM
I do find secular optimism curious, and it's not an attitude I share, but I feel like some of that blog post - as often seems to be the case in the pessimism/optimism divide - is basically shoring up a viewpoint that the writer is in no way inclined to question.

Although most people share his view that they have been bestowed a great good by being brought into existence, it is a thoroughly confused idea. Coming into existence can only be a good fortune if the alternative would have been worse. Yet the alternative is not bad at all - indeed it is much better than existing.

"Indeed", followed by a completely unsubstantiated claim. Bad writing, and sloppy thinking, I'm afraid.

The deeply deluded will deny that life is even nearly as bad as I have suggested.

Deluded according to whom? This wouldn't be so bad, perhaps, if the article didn't affect a tone of scientific objectivity:

There are well-established features of human psychology that lead most people to underestimate how bad the quality of their lives is.

Meaningless sentence. It amounts to saying, "Someone in authority said something, and so it's true." What does underestimating the quality of your life mean? "I thought I was 78 per cent happy, but it turns out I'm only 45 per cent happy." As I say, this strikes me as meaningless waffle.

The delusions that help people cope with the human predicament are often theistic, but they are not always so. Professor Dawkins is quick to debunk the theistic consolations and to begrudge those who seek comfort in them. Yet he does not cast the same critical light on his own delusions and consolations.

Yes, I agree with this bit. In fact, I pretty much agree with the rest of the article there. Why isn't Dawkins more like Ligotti?

It seems to me that we all have different shaped minds. Dawkins's secular optimism is a mystery to me. That doesn't discredit it, but he is all too ready to discredit the experiences of minds that are a mystery to him. And it does seem inconsistent to question the 'delusions' of others, with regard to optimism, and not your own, especially if you have made it a mission in life to fight 'delusion'.

05-17-2010, 03:06 PM
Thanks for posting this, Jeff.

In many ways, I feel that the anti-natalist case is served better by foucsing on the quantitive amount of undeniable misery that exists in the world. Trying to tell someone who's glad to be alive that it would have been better had they never been is a waste of time, and if they reply that they are glad to have come into existence and are very happy, then who am I or anyone else to doubt them? I do feel that the Pollyannism chapter of the Benatar book is the weakest; it reeks of the Marxist notion of 'false consciousness'.

Far better, in my opinion, to focus on the misery apparent before our eyes. Billions on the equivalent of two dollars a day, millions starving, 20,000 people per day dying of starvation, a million suicides a year and so on and on ad nauseam et ad mortem. Surely even the most callous, selfish optimist could not say hand on heart that human life taken as a whole is a good thing. But of course they do, how stupid of me. And that is precisely why we have the kind of world we do.....

Jeff Coleman
05-17-2010, 09:39 PM
"Why isn't Dawkins more like Ligotti?"

He's a father?

Russell Nash
05-18-2010, 11:39 AM
My father used to say: "the world improves with time". By this statement, I always understood that he had an optimistic viewpoint of how the world was going. And, if one sees the advancement in medicine, for example, he was certainly right. My grandmother, on my mother's side died from a complication of appendicitis, but who dies from appendicitis nowadays? One could read Voltaire's Candide, and read that "all is for the best" or that "we live in the best of all possible worlds". According to my father he would be ironically right.

Later on, I thought that it would be better to separate two worlds: an objective world, and a subjective world (or mine). If one sees the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf, one would conclude that the world is not improving with time, but at the same time, I read that BP spent 450 million dollars already, and this money doesn't evaporate in thin air, it goes to someone else's hands, therefore even though we have a catastrophe in the objective world, some people can make a profit out of it. Saying this simpler: some people die, but some other people sell coffins.

I have no idea of how to measure empirically whether the world improves with time or not, it looks like it does, but I cannot say it with a hundred percent certainty. I have no idea whether we live in the best of all possible worlds, or in the only world we can have. And, here, we have to discuss whether there are other possible worlds, or whether Hugh Everett's theory is right or false.

In a subjective way, no one can answer for myself, and I already wrote a story (posted here, "Geometry of Life") where someone has as many bad as good things happening to him in one day. If I have to answer whether my life is improving with time or not, I wouldn't know whether to say yes or no. I would probably think that my life sometimes improves and other times doesn't or a few times it even worsens with time. This case, being subjective, is beyond any possible technical or scientific measurement.

But, I thought about this long time ago and came out with this example. Imagine two people that live in a shanty town. Imagine that one family (family A) lives close to a railroad crossing, but 50 meters apart, another family (family B) lives close to a lake, although they don't have a lake view yet. This example is taken from a real shanty town in Buenos Aires, Argentina, so it exists. Family A decides to spend all the money they have trying to make their poor house into the most comfortable house. Family B says, why don't we make a second floor for the house, and later on, a third floor, having then a lake view. But both families living in the same shanty town area. With time, family B rents the other two floors, having never lived very comfortable, and they are now thinking of a fourth floor. Family A is satisfied with what they have, but are always complaining that family A were born lucky, 50 meters away. One can be optimistic or pessimistic but the world, in general, is no other thing that what we do with our lives. The world (our subjective world) is going to improve if we do, or if we try, and the world is going to be the same or worsen with time, if you say, how cares!

05-19-2010, 01:09 PM

"In many ways, I feel that the anti-natalist case is served better by foucsing on the quantitive amount of undeniable misery that exists in the world. Trying to tell someone who's glad to be alive that it would have been better had they never been is a waste of time, and if they reply that they are glad to have come into existence and are very happy, then who am I or anyone else to doubt them?"

I mentioned the other day on my blog that I'm of two minds regarding this. Yes, I believe that affirmation bias is an undeniable fact, and that most people tend to weed out a lot of the bad stuff in order to maintain a personal life-lie. Be that as it may, your point is well taken- even IF a person supports his own sense of happiness with self-delusion, what's the difference as long as he believes it? And if things stopped here, I probably would leave things as they are.

The problem comes when ostensibly happy people objectify their subjective 'bliss', and start making Pollyannish statements about the world in general, thus perpetuating the myth that 'life is good'. Which, of course, necessitates a certain amount of rationalization, justification, and other brands of mitigation concerning the 'bad' (Yeesh, I'm starting to sound like Jesse Jackson!).

Naturally, this can be, and often is, turned around on the pessimist in an effort to frame the conversation as just one subjective (minority) viewpoint against another (majority). At this point one can only argue the particulars, and let the chips fall where they may. But so far (from my own subjective viewpoint, admittedly) the ripostes against antinatalism are woefully inadequate. Almost laughable, really.

05-19-2010, 03:31 PM
Jim,I agree with you on the whole. Thinking your own life is wonderful is fine (maybe it is wonderful!); it's only when this belief impacts on others in a way that is clearly negative that the trouble begins. The most obvious example is the decision to procreate: "I enjoy life, therefore it stands to reason that any child I have and will bring up will love it too" and so on. Anti-natalism will obviously never become a prevalent philosophy, but I am encouraged by the amount of people on the various websites where the topic is discussed who are "coming out" so to speak. The road to arriving at that position is a long one and involves a lot of deep soul-searching about the way reality is structured, hence the sometimes violent antipathy to it. The ideal, I think, would be to enjoy one's life as best one can, not have kids, and be able to present one's antinatalist convictions in as calm, succint and casual a manner as possible!

05-20-2010, 08:05 AM

Father Barron on The New Atheists - YouTube