What is the most pessimistic line in all of literature? I’m too lazy to look, so permit me to quote from my own insubstantial portfolio. In a discarded part of my novel Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, Ib – the titular protagonist – observes: “Everything that is alive is a reminder of everything that is dead.”
Ib is a world-class pessimist, and, although it is difficult to reduce a novel to one thing (if it isn’t, it’s not a very good novel), Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction is on the whole a pessimistic novel.
The title is almost self-explanatory: It is about a young man’s search for meaning. But he’s not actively searching, nor does he know that this search is the unconscious motivation for his wandering. He feels it only as a vague dissatisfaction, an absence of meaning, and a sense of purposelessness.
I’m not a great fan of my own work and it is not to boast or to market that I bring it up now. Rather, the theme of the book, a search for meaning, seems suddenly to have become more relevant in the last six months of this pandemic, and, to complement this, a feeling of pessimism has become the ruling sentiment.
But something strange happened to me: In the midst of the worst pandemic in a hundred years, a time that felt absurd and terrifying and a feeling of powerlessness pervaded human civilisation itself, I was slowly becoming more optimistic.
I was once like Ib, but slowly I had stopped being like him, and finally I was so unlike him that I could perceive that I wasn’t like him anymore – so unlike him in fact that I had become that one thing that he is the complete opposite of: an optimist.
What accounted for this change in what was nothing less than my worldview?
Let me explain.
But first, because I enjoy it, I must deal with that main reason people suddenly switch worldviews – religion.
I’m not religious and I never was (although as a child I was superstitious). Ib too, in fact, is not religious (this is probably his most optimistic characteristic). Like Ib I reject religion and its false, authoritative and infallible opinion of reality. And because I recognise that religion’s views on reality are wrong, and stubbornly so, I have a hard time looking to it for “hope” and happiness.
For example, I am on a bus. It is in flames. But the driver keeps driving and keeps insisting that in exactly 32 minutes and 12 seconds the fire will become cold and soothing. “Have faith!” he says. But everything you know about fire, every explanation of how fire works tells you that you are going to be tandoori meat in about five minutes.
Sure, you can still “have faith”, but then you are subject to not only the searing heat of reality but also the conflict within you between your understanding of the world and what the man at the wheel is telling you. You try to argue with him but he claims to be the receiver of revelation and that logic and reason and the human mind cannot comprehend the truth of his claims.
Other passengers discourage you from creating a scene and demanding the bus stop because they are worried you might offend someone. In fact, someone is offended and tries to murder you and everyone supports him because you just hurt the sentiments of 22 bus passengers who happen to subscribe to the lunatic driver’s “faith”. You get the point.
But being an atheist or an anti-theist doesn’t guarantee anything, least of all that you will have a more positive view of the world or that you will be happier than a religious person. You might be intellectually more resolved than when you were religious, having dealt with some conflicts and contradictions that faith by definition comes with, but that’s about it.
In fact, I have observed in myself a kind of pessimism stemming from the recognition that humans are not the centre of the universe. A person who believes in god is automatically subscribing to a worldview in which the supreme leader of the whole universe is paying close attention to their dreams and fears and whether they eat a certain kind of meat or drink a certain kind of liquid. Although astonishingly arrogant and deluded, this is an optimistic worldview, because having a direct line to the boss guarantees promotions and favours. Obviously, it never works out like that, and that is where “faith” comes in.
When you abandon this belief in an anthropomorphic universe there is a tendency to swing too much the other way. From believing we are the centre of the universe we go suddenly to “we are insignificant” and “we are alone in the universe”. And this can lead to a debilitating pessimism. (Of course, it can be the other way around too – you may feel empowered that you don’t have Big Brother watching over your every move – but I’ll ignore that particular case for now.)
In the words of Stephen Hawking: “The human race is just chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.”
But does physical insignificance mean true insignificance? Just because the universe is very, very, very large does it mean we are powerless? Is this cause enough for pessimism?
What makes us unique?
“Chemical Scum that Dream of Distant Quasars” is the title of a TED Talk by physicist and philosopher David Deutsch. He is referring to the quote by Stephen Hawking.
I had watched this video a while ago but it wasn’t until I read Deutsch’s book ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ that the full implications of some of his ideas hit me (despite having read it twice I still can’t wrap my head around some of it).
Are we just another animal? Are we chemical scum? Are we insignificant and alone, scuttling cluelessly around on the surface of this small blue rock, alone and at the mercy of this gigantic, cruel and uncaring universe?
The answer to the first of those two questions is technically “yes” but the question to the third is “no”. Why? Well, we may be chemical scum but we are the kind of chemical scum that can “dream of distant quasars”. Quasars are supermassive blackholes, billions of times larger than the Sun, surrounded by gasses, that radiate energy thousands of times greater than entire galaxies.
We are the kind of chemical scum who have the kind of brains, which are the kind of physical object – the only known physical object like this – that can understand and simulate a model of something as alien, as unlike anything we will ever sense or experience, as unlike the physical structure of itself, as a quasar. This makes us anything but insignificant. Far from insignificant, this makes us the centre of the universe in a way.
“The theory reaches out, as it were, from its finite origins inside one brain that has been affected only by scraps of patchy evidence from a small part of one hemisphere of one planet – to infinity.”— From the ‘The Beginning of Infinity’
The how and why of this is partly unknown, partly unknown to me, and partly too much for this essay, but just this fact, that this slimy, wormy lump inside our skulls can understand and explain something like a quasar should be enough to astonish you, and shock you out of any pessimistic reverie that you may be in currently. It never fails to work on me.
The key point in Deutsch’s book, which are relevant to this essay, (I encourage you to read the book which I can’t even hope to do justice to) is that there is no limit to the knowledge that humans can create. And not just knowledge: humans can create a special kind of knowledge that Deutsch calls explanatory knowledge – knowledge that explains the way things are in reality. Because of this superpower (and the universality of computation, which I won’t go into here) there is no problem we cannot solve.
This is how Deutsch ends the video: “Take two stone tablets,” he says. “Carve on one, ‘Problems are soluble’. Carve on the other, ‘Problems are inevitable.’” The second message is as interesting: Why are problems inevitable? It is because all knowledge creation is riddled with errors and errors lead to problems. This theory, that all theories may be wrong, or contain mistakes, is called fallibility.
I understood this in theory but this pandemic was the last straw, the final nail in my coffin of pessimism and anti-humanism (more on this later). And ironically it was the pessimism itself that caused this change. I asked myself: what if this pandemic had occurred before the rise of modern science and modern political institutions? It might have wiped our species off the face of the Earth. And such is the self-hatred that some have for themselves (and by extension, the human race) that this would not be such a bad thing in their view.
“We are the virus,” I read on social media, in the early days of this pandemic, implying first that this pandemic isn’t so bad because we are a virus too, and, that it would be to the benefit of the Earth for us to be dead. I don’t know if they realised that this means that all their loved ones will be dead too (and I promise you, the person who shared this on Instagram has a child).
What we have done on this Earth, the sheer creativity and genius of almost everything we see around us is seldom brought up and seldom acknowledged. Instead people bring up “Spaceship Earth” and claim that our planet has taken care of us and that we have survived only because of its limited resources. But this is not so: we have survived because of our own creativity and ideas and knowledge. Without these we would have perished millennia ago, just like 99.9% of all other species.
In other words, the resources of this planet are not special, the ideas on it are. Given the right knowledge, any random piece of the universe can be converted into the energy and matter that we need – the only thing between us and creating anything we want are the laws of physics.
This means that the environmental problem we are facing here on Earth: global warming, the destruction of habitats, pollution and species extinction can be solved with ideas and creativity. The way to solve these problems is not through precautionary measures which never work in any context, let alone on a global scale – it is through aggressive idea-making.
Hoping to go back to the way things were, which most environmentalists seem to do, is not only naïve, it is dangerous. Population growth is not a problem because people are the solution, not the problem (Malthus unfortunately is still rearing his wrongheaded head). Every person has an almost infinite capacity to solve the problems that they face and the only way we can survive these civilisation-ending tragedies is by enabling and encouraging individual creativity. (How to do this is beyond the scope of my current knowledge, but the current education system in this country is certainly not the way to go about it, which partly explains the mess we are in.)
It is a fashion these days to despise the human race (and by reduction, oneself). We not only smirk at progress, we seldom even acknowledge it. We romanticise nature, and how things used to be. We deny that the world is better now than it has ever been. We ignore the miracles of modern medicine, the millions who have climbed out of poverty, the reduction in violence and war and inequality and suffering.
And all this, while helping us sound cool at parties and on Facebook, and, providing some much needed self-affirmation (“My instincts about capitalism and progress are correct since the world is in such a bad state”) has a pervasive effect on our thoughts. Pessimism itself is paralysing and begets inaction and more pessimism. “If everything has gone to hell / the world is f***d / there’s no good anymore / humanity is a virus what’s the point of doing anything? We are all doomed anyway.”
To be truly humanistic we must be optimistic. And being optimistic is not looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and pretending everything is ok. It is, rather, the philosophical position of believing that everything can be ok if we want it to be ok.
This is important: I am not claiming that everything will be fine or that there is some inevitability of the world becoming a better place. In fact, quite the opposite: if we (rational, fallible people) don’t want to do anything, civilisation will collapse. There are enough and more groups among us who really do want to destroy everything, or who take pleasure in the idea that everything will end, or who fantasise teary-eyed of a time when revolution will burn through civilisation and give rise to a new world order.
To balance out fanaticism and fatalism it would do us well to first acknowledge our special abilities to solve problems and create knowledge, and then, to accept that errors are inevitable in knowledge creation and that hoping for a system without errors is a dangerous and authoritarian pipe dream. (This is infallibility and forms the basis of dictatorships and theocracies.)
Rather, we must promote error-correcting in ourselves as individuals and also at the level of institutions through criticism. This obviously requires a certain kind of political system: a system that respects humans rights, free speech, democracy and dissent. We should not be afraid to call out systems that do no respect these crucial values, such as “the new India”. Because without these values we cannot correct our errors and without error correction there is no progress and without progress there is stasis and stagnation and suffering and death.
The search for meaning
I began with Ib’s search for meaning. I will bring up another idea – existential angst, which is connected closely to pessimism. What is “the search for meaning?” It is nothing but the search for explanations. Life is a constant endeavour of finding new explanations, about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us, each a little better (sometimes a lot better) or worse than the last.
Existential angst, if present, is the wrong way to go about this endeavour. Instead, if viewed with optimism, and keeping in mind the wonders of our own brains, and our infinite capabilities, the search for meaning can be the basis of a deep and satisfying existential pleasure and an almost endless satisfaction.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.