**For Clarification**
By saying that pessimism and optimism are analogous to bad and good, what do you mean? Do you mean morality? Pleasure and pain? Usefulness? Maybe I’m trying to be too precise…do you just mean “nice things” when you say good and “not nice things” when you say bad (regardless of what that might mean to different people)?

Part I
1. It is people who are optimistic or pessimistic… It does not seem possible for trees or other inanimate objects to be one or the other… Nor, I think, arguments. (There may be arguments for good outcomes, but the argument itself is not, strictly speaking, optimistic).

Agreed. Pessimism and optimism are views about things. Being about things, they must be had by some thing; and being views, they must be had by rational things. An optimistic or pessimistic person is a person that holds one of these views. This, incidentally, is why I think they are not analogous to “good” and “bad” since those terms are much broader and need not only apply to people. (Explain to me why this matters to our discussion, though, as I am at a loss to see what this helps establish).

2. The real question about the relative maturity or immaturity of a sad, sober, nigh-despairing state of mind is this: Is reality really sad, sober, and desperate? or is it happy, vibrant, and hopeful?… It is on this that the real issue hangs (whether this person holds a rational belief in the benevolence of the universe, or a rational belief in the nasty, brutish, and unforgiving nature of the universe).

Agreed. A view that equates a movement towards cynicism and despair as a (positive) movement towards maturity is a view of reality as the sort of thing that justifies cynicism and despair.

Part II
1. Will anyone disagree with this statement? People who think that the world is good overall agree that there is some bad, some pain, some darkness in it; and people who believe the world is dreary over all agree that there are some islands of fleeting joy and mirth in it.

I disagree. The pessimist and the optimist think either that the world is all bad or all good, respectively. Thus, any isolated instances of joy or pain are engulfed by the overall status and movement of the cosmos, and those instances ultimately lose any meaning that could differentiate them from the badness or goodness of the cosmos. The pessimist takes seemingly good things and points out that they really aren’t good, which is why you should never invite one to your child’s birthday party. The optimist does the opposite, which is why he is usually not welcome at funerals. In other words, the pessimist and optimist might agree that there seem to exist things that do not quite fit with their overall view of the cosmos; however the trademark of the pessimist or optimist is to go on and explain that these things aren’t what they seem. This is the crucial point; both the pessimist and the optimist deny the existence of good or bad, respectively, and so (if both good and bad things really do exist) create an illusion of reality.

This is why, in a pessimist’s world, a movement towards darkness, futility, and despair is a movement towards maturity; it is a movement towards understanding, towards accepting the pessimist’s version of reality as true.

2. You said, “we have not learned to be happy.” I ask, “Is it possible to learn to be happy, or not?”

Yes, it is possible. To put it simply, we learn to be happy when we learn that we have reason to be happy. If we discover that the cosmos are a mix of good and bad but that the good will triumph over the bad, and we are on the side of the good, then we have reason to be happy. Conversely, we can learn to not be happy when we learn that there is no reason to be happy.

It is the work of discovering the true nature of the cosmos that remains to be explored.

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Posted by Tex

7 Comments

  1. Tex asked: “By saying that pessimism and optimism are analogous to bad and good, what do you mean? Do you mean morality? Pleasure and pain? Usefulness? (regardless of what that might mean to different people)?”

    I realized, after I posted, that I was imprecise: I do not mean to equate “optimism” as in “an optimistic viewpoint” with “goodness,” but rather to link the pair (optimism and pessimism) to another pair (good and bad)… “Optimum” and “pessimus” are Latin for “good” and “worst.” Specifically, I want to call optimism something like “The belief in goodness,” or “attention to goodness,” or, perhaps, as you detailed, “the belief that, despite appearances of evil, all is well.” And the opposite for pessimism.

    Now, what do I mean by “goodness”?

    I am counting on goodness being something we have both experienced and are able to talk about. That’s the short answer… :-) let me know if you would prefer something more.

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  2. I asked: “1. Will anyone disagree with this statement? People who think that the world is good overall agree that there is some bad, some pain, some darkness in it; and people who believe the world is dreary over all agree that there are some islands of fleeting joy and mirth in it.”

    Tex responded: “I disagree. The pessimist and the optimist think either that the world is all bad or all good, respectively.”

    I say: OK, Tex, I am OK with this. We were headed there eventually, but I am satisfied that we are agreed on the first step, namely, that something that appears to be good exists in the pessimist’s (or Buddhist’s, or Nietzchean) entirely malevolent universe*, and that something that appears to be bad exists in the optimists (or Socrates’ or Jesus’ or Leibnez’s) entirely benevolent universe.

    *I am writing with broad strokes, this is not quite right. My best understanding of Buddhism, rather, is that the universe is neither good nor bad, but that it either does not exist, or, it does not exist as it appears to… it is an illusion, and all reality is one. This One Thing is, to borrow the phrase, “beyond good and evil.” My best understanding of Nietzche, as well, is that there is neither good nor bad, there is only the choice of great men, which is outside the artifical bounds of “morality,” or, insofar as it is in those bounds, then it is self-justifying.

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  3. To summarize where we have come…

    Step 1: “People who think that the world is good overall agree that there is some bad, some pain, some darkness in it; and people who believe the world is dreary over all agree that there are some islands of fleeting joy and mirth in it.”

    Step 2: Optimism and pessimism are, in reality, (almost) entirely opposite to one another. “If we discover that the cosmos are a mix of good and bad but that the good will triumph over the bad, and we are on the side of the good, then we have reason to be happy. Conversely, we can learn to not be happy when we learn that there is no reason to be happy.”

    Step 3: “It is the work of discovering the true nature of the cosmos that remains to be explored.”

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  4. Now let’s discuss the question of “step 3…”

    Tex, you said that you think we have reason to be happy… For you, whence comes this wellspring of trust?

    J.A. Stewart wrote about the foundational, almost pre-conscious belief that “Life is worth living.” Ayn Rand was in love with her idea of a “sense of life,” an emotional equivolant of a worldview that could be either good or bad… I forget where Stewart looks for the cause of his belief… Rand gives, in passing, a simple “trash in, trash out” account, saying that people who have bad childhoods, abusive families, and poor neighborhoods develop a negative sense of life…

    What say you?

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  5. I ranted about the Scientific American article (and the various versions of the article that have appeared in other publications) on my blog. I won’t reiterate the whole thing here. But read that second paragraph again. It is saying that since early 1990s studies are showing inconsistant results as to whether screen reading or paper is better. That is 20 years ago. Computer screens are significantly better. 20 years ago I was reading on a palm IIIx. My kindle paperwhite blows a palm out of the water in reading quality.

    In fact if you click through all of the studies that the Scientific American article cites, not a single one of them actually investigate reading on an ereader. Every single one of them investigates reading on a computer screen.

    But if you read the whole article it keep referencing ereaders as being questionable according to studies (of which it never cites any.)

    By the way, BookStats is out today and it is showing that trade publishing (the consumer side) is up to $15 billion from $14 billion and that ebooks now account for a full 20% of publishing revenue. It is only educational and professional/academic publishers that are keeping total publishing revenue down. Total revenue is down 0.9% from 2011 inspite of very healthy increases in the consumer side.

    Possibly that could be because educational and professional/academic sites are much further behind in adopting ebook (and audiobook) formats. (Audiobook was up 22% this past year as well.)

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  6. I certainly have noticed a change in my reading habits over the past several years. After spending large amounts of time in front of the computer, I tend to scan often without really slowing down and thinking through the text. Also, my attention span seems much shorter.

    Having an e-reader like my Kindle definitely has benefits (it’s mobile, economical, green, and convenient). However, I still much prefer physical books and even when reading blogs and articles on the computer, I often print the page.

    I came across a short video segment in which Lutheran minister John Bombaro addresses some of the benefits we lose when we embrace digital reading to the exclusion of the printed page. I thought it was helpful: http://youtu.be/qV3YW1OHXbk

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  7. Thanks for pointing these out.

    I wrote briefly on this topic for Princeton Theological Review a few years ago: “The Canon After Google: Implications of a Digitized and Destabilized Codex” (pdf).

    Reply

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