Monday, January 15, 2007

Where are all the optimists?

Each year,, John Brockman’s well-known “Third Culture” website devoted to discussions of scientific and philosophical ideas, poses a question to a chosen number of big thinkers in science, technology, journalism and philosophy. This year, Edge asked its 160 respondents, “What are you optimistic about, and why?” Edge explains,
As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.
Here's what's interesting. Having read all 160 answers, I noticed that a shocking 21 of the respondents, in describing what they are optimistic about, delineate some very strong caveats. Some go as far as to say that they believe we’re all doomed but that they are "optimistic that they will be wrong" (given that these are some of the world's best thinkers, I don't feel especially comforted). Perhaps considering one side of the coin makes one automatically think about the other; I don’t know. But one thing's for sure: these 21 didn’t seem optimistic about much.

Here is an excerpt from the most decidedly negative of the answers, provided by Nobel Laureate cosmologist George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He opens with this:
A careful assessment and years of experience that show that the long-term future is most bleak: Entropy will continue to increase, and a heat death (actually a misnomer as it means the degredation of usable energy in a dull cooling worthless background of chaos) is the very likely fate of the world. This is the fate that awaits us, if we manage to work our way past the energy crisis that looms as the Sun runs out of fuel and in its death throws expands as red giant star likely to engulf us after boiling away the seas before it collapses back to a slowly cooling cinder eventually to leave the solar system in cold darkness.
A few paragraphs later, it only gets better (worse?):
One cannot live by the Hippocratic dictum "Do no harm". But the best one can hope for is the weak mantra "Do minimal damage". I was often bothered by this inevitable conclusion and tried to see that if one could write a great work of literature, make art, or most optimally a great science discovery could one objectively leave the world better than one found it? Each time I worked out an example, the impact was negligible however great it was found by human culture compared to the damage done by mere existence. The only discovery that would make a difference called for repealing or avoiding the laws of probability or making a whole new universe. Both of these are quite extreme. Perhaps the discovery of extra dimensions would allow some leeway in what otherwise seems an inescapable doom after a long period of unrighteous degradation of the universe. We face a continuous downward spiral of no return. This is not a moral or ethical statement only an engineering evaluation though it is some indication of original sin. So even living one's life as a vegetarian that only eats fruit dropped into one's hand by a willing plant is only going so far as to be very kind and considerate to other beings that are also worsening the universe for the sake of a little more order in their own self.
There’s plenty more where that came from. So: is it unrealistic to be optimistic these days? Are we really heading towards an imminent apocalypse (with two books, here and here, supporting this idea)? Or are brilliant intellectuals just more likely to be pessimists? I certainly don't have the answers, but if you're looking for some interesting ones, you can find them on Edge...

You might, however, want a stiff drink first.


Anonymous WWB said...

Aiiiieee! No wonder I feel optimistically suicidal. Reminds me of what Arthur C. Clarke said: "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value." What intelligence? Apparently, the more we have of it, the closer we move the clock to midnight. Perhaps it's better to ask an ant, "What's the point?"

11:44 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home