Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Unbelieving Optimist

Philosophy Bites was great this week, having boggled my mind – those are maybe best ones. Nigel Warburton interviewed Marilyn McCord-Adams about optimism and the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil is usually framed as a challenge to believers in benevolent gods; if God is all good and all powerful, how come such a lot of bad things happen in the world? Marilyn McCord-Adams is a funky theologian who has written a lot on the subject, but in this interview she handed the problem over to non-believers:
“...a condition of the possibility of an optimistic worldview being true is that exists a superhuman power that is good enough and resourceful enough to make good on the many and various horrors that riddle our world. So it's a pragmatic argument. It's a bit like Kant's moral argument. Kant says “Well the moral life is worth living. Moral endeavour is what makes human beings so special. But the moral life can be worth living only if God exists and there is immortality.” So I'm making an argument analogous to that.

“If you really open your eyes and see how riddled with horrors the world we live in is, and you still find yourself optimistic and idealistic, then a condition of the possibility of your posture in life being reasonable is a belief in a God that is good enough and resourceful enough to make good on it all.”
In other words, you can't be a true non-believer and be left with a shred of optimism. Without God, life is deeply unfair, extremely bad things happen and nobody's ever going to put it right. Which is a cause for pessimism.

She even concludes that maybe non-believers who find themselves to be deeply optimistic actually have a vague sense of a supernatural power that they're not owning up to. That is to say, or at least imply, that optimistic non-believers are in fact latent theists! This is a bit too much like the suggestion made by some atheists, that deep down, theists know there is no God and are willfully deluding themselves, so we'll forget about that bit.

So rationalism and optimism. As an attitude which informs behaviour, optimism makes sense in many scenarios which involve uncertain odds. If I try to write this post, then I might finish it – if I don't have a go, I won't. If I treat strangers as if we might become friends, then we are more likely to become friends. If I am stranded in the dessert with little water but I behave as if I am going to survive, then I greatly increase whatever chances I have.

There's an example of this on the biggest imaginable scale. Faced with climate change which could render the surface of the Earth inhospitable, we have to act as if we are capable of saving ourselves. And each individual entity – each country, each leader, each business, each household has to behave as if everyone else can be trusted to do their bit. Which given how we got into this mess to begin with – and how long we've known about the danger and failed to act – requires a tremendous leap of faith in humankind. Even so, it's a leap we absolutely have to make.

So optimism as a strategy is entirely rational. Wherever an outcome is uncertain, there is necessarily room for some hope. In such cases, it would be entirely irrational to chose to dwell on possible negative outcomes whilst working towards a positive one. That is a pragmatic argument.

Another problem we have here is the subjective nature of what the optimistic position looks like. My RE teacher informed our young minds that atheism was fundamentally pessimistic because it asserts that this is all there is - that there is no great reward in the afterlife and that when people die, they're gone forever. Yet various atheists – A C Grayling in particular springs to mind - have written eloquently about a single brief existence being in every way preferable to a trouble-free but purposeless eternity.

People are fairly invested in their own view of death, so a more subtle personal example. Some people consider me pessimistic because I accept that I am likely to be ill for the rest of my life. I hope I might get a bit better, but I am perhaps as likely to get worse. But I am optimistic about the future; I have a very good life now, there are a few little things I want to improve upon and I have every hope I shall.

I tend to regard "curebies" as pessimistic. First off, there's no pragmatic use for this optimism; unless you're involved in medical research, it is just waiting. And the waiting is a problem. You only maintain a strong emotional investment in an unlikely outcome if the alternative is intolerable. In other words, to me, such people seem pessimistic for my (sometimes their own) chances of a happy life despite illness.

In the same way, people disagree about what it would be to be optimistic about death. I would predict, although I've never seen any research on the matter, that thantophobes are evenly distributed between believers and non-believers. Few people want to die and all of us suffer when our loved ones die, regardless of whether we believe they are in heaven or nowhere at all (or indeed any of the other available possibilities).

So to the problem of evil and people. Perhaps Marilyn McCord Adams feels that optimistic non-believers are irrational because the human species isn't improving. We're not evolving into anything more virtuous. We will never get to a stage where everyone lives in peace and harmony with one another and there is no violence or want.

Personally, in the same way that I accept that my health is crap and likely to remain so, I am resigned to the fact that people are and always will be capable of great evil. Not just the tiny minority who perpetrate evil, but all of us! When things go really wrong in societies, lots of people end up doing very bad things and it may require saint-like qualities to resist.

And here, I think there is room for genuine optimism. Plenty of evil in the world, no doubt. But as societies progress, evil becomes significantly less viable. We better equip ourselves and each other to resist it. Nobody reading this owns a slave. Slavery exists in the world, but against global disapproval and thus there is much less of it. If anyone learns that you beat or otherwise abuse your spouse or children, you are likely to be stopped – this is not acceptable, it is no longer seen as your natural right. Despite having enough nuclear weapons to destroy our planet several times over, we've resisted the temptation to use them for over sixty years. Most countries in the world publicly condemn the torture of prisoners – many countries still use torture, but they usually pretend otherwise. It's not many hundred years ago that torture was seen a totally acceptable tool in promoting spiritual wellfare, let alone national security.

Of course, I live in a very privileged part of the world. But democracy and liberty are on the increase. And these things really do help protect us from evil. Okay, so we still have our murderers and rapists, but they are not state-sanctioned, nor are their actions accepted as a fact of life.

Marilyn McCord-Adams would most likely disagree with me. She asserts that there is no less evil in the world now that there was in Biblical times. However, given free will and all that, there is no reason why the levels of evil on Planet Earth should remain constant.

I would assert that there is very much less evil in the modern day UK than in Darfur just now; here, it is really very rare to die a violent death, or become disabled through violent injury, or be gang-raped. If this is the case, and if we accept that there's nothing magically virtuous about British people (a hard fact to take, but a fact nevertheless), then it follows that one kind of societal situation is better than another. So maybe in time, with human endeavour, life in Darfur and in other warzones and places where violence is endemic, can be greatly improved. And whilst world peace may well be a pipe-dream, there's no reason to imagine that we can't very greatly increase the proportion of the population who get to live their lives without the ongoing fear of violence and oppression.

Unlike those who believe in a Judgement Day, I cannot look upon a better future with certainty. People can be pretty thick when it comes down to it, and may yet destroy the planet, whether through excessive consumption, nuclear war or electing a reality-show contestant as World President. But it is this very uncertainty which should motivate us to fight against evil in all its forms. Should He exist, God's going to be pretty pissed off if we count on Him to sort out our mess.


TJS said...


The Philosophy Bites entry refused to accept my contribution, but I feel your blessay captures the mood of many Atheists (and probably even Theists who don't feel that God/Religion is the source of all their hope and optimism) in a more positive way than my assault on the lack of rigor in Marilyn McCord Adams arguments.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you very much TJS :-)

yanub said...

This atheist very much seconds your argument, Goldfish.

Jess said...

And this thirds. Well argued as always.

Sage said...

Exactly. After I read McCord-Adams' initial premise I was dying to comment on it. But then you said everything I would have anyway. It's exactly what this atheist thinks.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you! Great to see you all around. :-)