Why pessimism sounds smart

Pessimists sound sensible. Optimists earn a living.
–Nat Friedman (quoted by Patrick)

I’ve realized a brand new purpose why pessimism sounds sensible: optimism usually requires believing in unknown, unspecified future breakthroughs—which appears fanciful and naive. If you very soberly, correctly, prudently persist with the identified and the confirmed, you’ll essentially be pessimistic.

No confirmed assets or applied sciences can maintain financial development. The established order will plateau. To count on development is to consider in future applied sciences. To count on very long-term development is to consider in science fiction.

No identified options can resolve our hardest issues—that’s why they’re the toughest ones. And by the character of problem-solving, we’re conscious of many issues earlier than we’re conscious of their options. So there’ll at all times be a frontier of issues we don’t but know how you can resolve.

Fears of Peak Oil and different useful resource shortages observe this sample. Predictions of shortages are usually primarily based on “proven reserves.” We are saved from scarcity by the unproven and even the unknown reserves, and the brand new applied sciences that make them worthwhile to extract. Or, when sure assets actually do run out, we’re saved economically by new applied sciences that use completely different assets: Haber-Bosch saved us from the guano scarcity; kerosene saved the sperm whales from extinction; plastic saved the elephants by changing ivory.

In simply the identical manner, it could appear that we’re operating out of concepts—that every one our applied sciences and industries are plateauing. Technologies do run a pure S-curve, identical to oil fields. But when some breakthrough perception creates a wholly new subject, it opens a whole new orchard of low-hanging fruit to select. Focusing solely on established sectors and confirmed fields thus naturally results in pessimism. To be an optimist, it’s important to consider that not less than some present wild-eyed hypothesis will come true.

Why is that this type of pessimism repeatedly unsuitable? How can this optimism be justified? Not on the idea of particular future applied sciences—which, once more, are unproven—however on the idea of philosophical premises concerning the nature of people and of progress. The chance of sustained progress is a consequence of the view of people as “universal explainers” (cf. David Deutsch), and of progress as pushed basically by human selection and energy—that’s, by human company.

The reverse view is that progress is a matter of luck. If the progress of the previous couple of centuries was a random windfall, then pessimism is logical: our luck is certain to expire. How may we get that fortunate once more? If the following century is a median one, it’s going to see little progress.

But if progress is a primarily matter of company, then whether or not it continues is as much as us.

Originally a Twitter thread.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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