One may think that pessimism is widespread today. Everyone, on all sides, is outraged at injustices and worried about the problems we face. But just beneath the surface, everyone, on all sides, shares an optimism that progress is not only possible but likely. Everyone believes that once problems are identified, they can be solved, and in time they will be. This myth of inevitable progress is our modern faith, and like many faiths before it, it is a false faith generated by deep-seated human desires. Only the pessimist can see clearly the problems we face, and at the same time understand that progress is unlikely, and that our future, in many ways, is likely to be bleak. It’s worse than you think – and here’s how:
Epistemological Pessimism: My eyes were opened when I realized that humans did not evolve to be knowers of truth. Humans, instead, evolved to be able to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes. Humans are equipped to be knowers of truth only insofar as that was conducive to evolutionary fitness in our ancient past. Let that sink in. Any cognitive biases, myths, falsehoods, and noble lies that helped us in our evolutionary past would come to permanently shape our bodies, brains, outlooks, and social practices. Have you ever wondered why people (even very educated people) almost never change their minds after hearing a good argument that challenges their beliefs? Indeed, arguments often just make us more intensively cling to our cherished beliefs. Why? Simple – because in our evolutionary past, being a loyal member of your tribe was much more important than being an impartial seeker of truth. So when “my side” is being attacked in an argument, my brain tells me to defend my side, not weigh all reasons impartially. This problem of tribalism overriding rationality cannot be easily cured. Fifteen years of education cannot undo millions of years of evolution. Our arguments and disagreements will continue to be unproductive and antagonistic indefinitely.
Moral Pessimism: Why can’t we all just get along? Everyone wants peace, cooperation, and social harmony, but this is unlikely to happen because of our insurmountable moral and religious pluralism. During the European Enlightenment, philosophers thought that religion would die out and a Religion of Reason would be universally embraced. This hypothesis has proven completely misguided. Organized religion retains a powerful hold on the human mind. However, secularism and non-belief is also a growing presence in the western world. Going forward, the clash between religious and secular citizens will grow more intense. The religious and secular worldviews are completely irreconcilable. For the religious citizen, the good life is organized around religious devotion to God, and the wider society and the government should reflect, however dimly, that worldview. For the secular citizen, the good life is one of self-exploration and personal fulfillment, and the wider society and the government should protect the rights, liberties, and social norms to allow this lifestyle. These aims could not be more different. On issues of sex, sexuality, abortion, drugs, popular culture, church/state separation, and more, our moral and political divides will not heal but remain open wounds. Furthermore, new moral divides are looming on the horizon. Very soon, we will have the technology to allow parents to design their own offspring, selecting levels of intelligence, creativity, athleticism, etc. How will religious citizens respond to this, when parents, not God, are literally creating and designing life? Furthermore, even among the secular, moral disagreement is deep and irresolvable. Two thousand years of rational philosophical reflection has not given us anything like a consensus about moral truth. Instead, the history of moral philosophy is one of interminable conflicts between moral theories (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, care ethics, social contract theory), and even disagreement about whether or not there is such a thing as moral truth. We have no reason to believe that human reason will push us toward consensus about moral issues – indeed, human reason seems to push against consensus. Our moral divides will not be overcome.
Political Pessimism: Why is our politics so terrible? Drawing from the above two points, our brains evolved to be tribal, and so we identify with a political tribe and fight for that tribe, not for truth. Red Team vs. Blue Team. Religious Team vs. Secular Team. These cognitive biases have always been with us, but they are being exacerbated by the new social media ecologies in which we spend our time, get our information, craft our identities, and wage our battles. The early days of the internet were full of optimism and even utopianism. Free information about everything, at our fingertips! A new digital public square where all ideas will get a hearing and truth will win out. Such hopes have been completely dashed in the last decade, and today’s media theorists are largely, and rightly, pessimistic. The internet has created the conditions for people to create, and live within, epistemically closed and ideologically extreme communities, in which one narrow ideological viewpoint is presented and all others are demonized. There is no public square in the twenty-first century. Instead, there are a thousand private groups huddled together in private rooms. There are no forces pushing against this trend, so it will continue indefinitely. This will push political polarization to new heights. We are only at the beginning of this destructive trend. Finally, with the collapse of communism, no one can take seriously utopian politics anymore. Lacking any inspiring utopian projects, our politics in the 21st century will likely be an ugly battle between the fascistic extremes of far Left and far Right, where hatred of the enemy will be central, not any unifying ideals.
Constitutional Pessimism: While many people on both sides of the political spectrum agree that politics in America is bad and getting worse, they tend to take solace in the safeguards of the constitution. However, to what extent can we trust the constitution to be a bulwark against tyranny? The case for constitutionalism is that constitutions lay out rules of the game that constrain political actors and limit state power. This is important because politicians in democracies have incentives to expand their power, since they can appease and expand their base through increased spending on those favored groups. While the party out of power always complains about the reckless spending of the party in power, they have no interest in permanent limits to government – since they know that they will get the reins of power before too long. Constitutional constraints only work, however, if political actors are truly subject to the rules of the game, and can’t themselves tinker with those rules. But this is not the case! Presidents appoint justices to the courts based on the political views of those justices. The judiciary has become politicized, and thus those that were supposed to simply be neutral umpires have become political players that support one or the other political party. Justices creatively reinterpret the constitution in order to get their desired political outcomes. And sure enough, a document that was meant to limit government has been continually reinterpreted to allow for more and more state power. Take, for example, the ridiculous abuses of the Commerce Clause, which was intended to allow the federal government to regulate interstate trade. In the 1942 case Wickard v. Fliburn, the Supreme Court sided with the federal government when it prohibited a farmer from growing more than eleven acres of wheat. The reasoning? Because, even though Fliburn didn’t sell any of his wheat to others (he simply grew it to feed to his own chickens), by growing his own wheat he didn’t have to buy as much wheat from others, and this in turn could affect the price of wheat. Since his private activity could in theory affect prices for other people, that private activity could now be regulated by the government. Such an interpretation of the Commerce Clause opens the door to basically unlimited federal power over private behavior. Did the justices come to this conclusion based on the text of the constitution? Of course not! They were trying to bend the constitution to accommodate FDR’s New Deal. (The history of the Supreme Court is littered with far worse decisions.) The constitution is a “living” and “evolving” document, after all. But a living constitution is no constitution at all. If a constitution can evolve and change as times change, then it loses its authority. It becomes not a stop sign, but only a speed bump, for the growth of federal power. And if the speed bump is slowing us down too much? Not a problem, just pack the courts! The strategy of court packing is being defended and considered today by serious people, and if it were to happen, it would represent the complete breakdown of constitutionalism, collapsing the distinction between “rules of the game” and “players of the game.” The very concept of constitutional constraint is anathema to the ideology of democracy. According to the democratic ideal, the government is us, an expression of our will – and why would we want to shackle our own actions? In the long-term, politics is downstream from culture, and the current cultural zeitgeist is in favor of populism, and against anything that stands in the way of the popular will, from the electoral college to the constitution itself. To anyone out there who hopes that the constitution will keep the government’s hands off things they care about – wake up.
Geopolitical Pessimism: In his account of the decline of war over time, Steven Pinker identifies the “Long Peace” from 1945 to the present as a sign that humanity has overcome its violent and barbaric past and has entered a new age without major warfare. However, the conditions of the world under the “Long Peace” were are historically unique – and quickly passing from the historical scene. 1945 to 1989 featured a bipolar world order between the US and the USSR, where the logic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) prevented a major war from breaking out. 1989 to the early 2000s featured a unipolar world order with US global hegemony, where US power deterred challengers from exerting military power. The 21st century will look very different. Instead of the stabilizing geopolitical configurations of bipolarity or unipolarity, the world is returning to a more chaotic multipolar world order. There are many reasons for pessimism here. The major liberal democratic hegemons (the US and Europe) are in decline, no longer able to nudge other countries in the direction of liberalism and democracy. Nationalism is spreading around the world, igniting ancient ethnic and religious conflicts. And while the world has seen multipolar great power conflicts before, it has never done so in a world of nuclear weapons, automated killer drones, new forms of biological weapons, and highly sophisticated international terrorist groups. A very volatile clash of civilizations is upon us.
Democratic Pessimism: The superiority of the democratic form of government has become dogma for most people in the western world. But there is reason to believe that democracy is not a stable form of government, and that it will eventually be undermined by its inherent weaknesses and contradictions. Voters, who are mostly ignorant (or, worse, actively misinformed by partisan media outlets and social media), generally want both lower taxes and more benefits. Politicians, who are most concerned with getting reelected, are generally willing to appease this unsustainable policy package. This is why the US (and other western democracies) are facing a bleak fiscal future of crushing debt and unfunded liabilities. The economic crises throughout the European Union are only the beginning. Here is the cruel cycle: capitalism leads to prosperity and inequality; inequality leads to demands for socialism; within a democracy, demands for socialism will eventually be granted; socialist economics leads to economic stagnation and decline; poverty under socialism oftentimes leads to dictatorship. This particular issue illustrates the deeper problem with democracies, which is that politicians cannot win elections by asking citizens to make serious short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. On climate change, to take another issue, the industrialized world needs to make dramatic cuts in carbon emissions for the sake of the long-term health of the planet. But these cuts, if they are to actually make a significant difference, are going to cause serious short-term pain for many people accustomed to their fossil fuel-enabled lifestyle. These people are unlikely to vote for politicians who are going inflict such pain. Governments today are facing new and serious challenges that require bold, decisive, momentous decisions, and democracies are not adaptable enough to meet these challenges. Bogged down by voters’ confused demands, interest groups, lobbyists, and donors, democratic politicians are structurally prevented from confronting our most pressing issues. As our problems build, and our politicians keep failing to deliver, people will be more tempted by fascist and anti-democratic rhetoric, movements, and leaders.
Civilizational Pessimism: Everyone has a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with our society, and both the political Right and Left both have insights into why. From the Right we learn that the underlying social fabric of America is collapsing. Divorce and out of wedlock births are now commonplace amongst America’s lower-class, decimating social capital formation, leaving children without proper socialization, and locking in multigenerational poverty. Amongst this same group, male workforce participation continues a decades-long decline, resulting in a whole population of unattached and atomized men who lack the stabilizing forces of family or work. When the underlying social fabric is so thoroughly frayed, there is very little that can be done through government policy to fix it. Related to this issue, from the Left we learn that economic inequality is higher than it has been in a century, and that because of structural features of the global economy this inequality is only going to worsen. As the rich get richer in an increasingly “winner take all” monopoly capitalism, wages for everyone else are stagnating. As economic growth and productivity continue to grow, but median wages do not, alienation and frustration set in. We are already seeing a large increase in substance abuse and suicides. This misery all feeds into angry and violent populist politics. Both lower-class family breakdown and spiraling economic inequality are creating a frighteningly divided country. Neither of these forces of deterioration shows any signs of reversing.
Cultural Pessimism: Write a list of the greatest twenty artists and twenty musicians in all of western history, the ones that had a lasting impact their craft and are likely to be appreciated for centuries after their deaths. Then, next to the names, identify the century in which the figure created his greatest works. Your list for artists may look something like this: Donatello (15th), Van Eyck (15th), Masaccio (15th), Michelangelo (16th), Raphael (16th), Da Vinvi (16th), Titian (16th), Dürer (16th), Caravaggio (17th), Rembrandt (17th), Bernini (17th), Rubens (17th), Velázquez (17th), Cézanne (19th), Goya (19th), Monet (19th), Van Gogh (19th), Gauguin (19th), Picasso (20th). Your list for musicians may look something like this: Monteverdi (17th), Mozart (18th), Bach (18th), Handel (18th), Gluck (18th), Beethoven (19th), Wagner (19th), Haydn (19th), Liszt (19th), Schubert 19th), Schumann (19th), Berlioz (19th), Brahms (19th), Chopin (19th), Verdi (19th), Mendelssohn (19th), Von Weber (19th), Stravinsky (20th), Debussy (20th), Schoenberg (20th). You’ll notice something disturbing from this – there are no artists on either list from after 1950. With a couple exceptions in the early 20th century, we see a major drop off in great cultural production from the 19th to the 20th century. When we move up into the 21st century, things get incredibly bleak. The American popular music which is now culturally dominating every country on the planet has gotten stupider (studies show that the lyrics have now declined to a second grade reading level) and simpler (studies demonstrate a steady decline in the complexity of the music itself, measuring things such as timbre and acoustical variation). Turning to visual art, no one can argue that modern art will be appreciated two hundred years from now in the same way that we still appreciate Caravaggio. The same obvious decline is evident in architecture. The only contender for great modern art is film and television. And it’s true that there was a Golden Age of both film and television – but in both cases, the Golden Age is behind us. In film, the culprit is global capitalism. Film studios now make the majority of their profits overseas, mostly in China. Because of this fact, there is a trend away from complex dramas (where the dialogue and cultural nuances don’t translate well across countries) and toward mindless action (since explosions and fight scenes can be visually appreciated by people from all cultures). This explains Hollywood’s mind numbing obsession with comic book action hero movies today. In television, the culprit is the streaming revolution. It is no accident that the greatest shows of all time (Sopranos, The Wire) were on premium cable networks that geared their output toward a small yet culturally elite viewer base. In short, the HBO and Showtime of the 1990s and 2000s did not try to appeal to the masses, and thus were able to produce brilliant dramas. The current Netflix model (which has taken over even HBO) values quantity over quality and directly aims for a mass audience. This explains why today’s television sucks – while it might be mildly entertaining, it is completely forgettable. Stepping back, we can identify some of the deeper historical roots of our cultural decline. I’ll name two. First, globalized capitalism encourages artwork and music to be a mass consumer product, elevating catchiness and profitability over profundity and timelessness. Second, our secular and relativistic culture lacks any higher aims, purposes, goals, which are the wellsprings of artistic inspiration. Since neither of these trends shows any signs of reversing, we can expect our cultural decline to continue indefinitely.
Educational Pessimism: Higher education (and much of high school education) is a waste of time and money. But wait – doesn’t a college degree lead to higher earnings? Yes! But what explains this college wage premium? There are two ways to explain the value of a college education: the Human Capital Model (HCM) and the Signaling Model (SM). The HCM is the intuitive explanation that education is valuable because it teaches students valuable knowledge and skills that help students on the job market. Amazingly, data does not bear this out. On reflection, neither does common sense. Sitting bored in class, how many times did you think to yourself “When will I ever actually use this?” And the answer “Never!” was usually right! Beyond teaching basic literacy and numeracy, the majority of information and skills that college teaches is useless and soon forgotten. The SM gives us a better story. According to the SM, if someone slogs their way through a college degree, that college degree “signals” to employers that this college graduate is conscientious, intelligent, and conformist – that is, likely to be a good worker. So instead of adding valuable knowledge to my brain, a college degree instead puts a stamp on my forehead reading “employable.” Now, this signal is valuable to employers because it helps them distinguish between good and bad potential employees. However, spending four (or five or six) years and fifty grand on a college education is a very expensive and wasteful way to generate these relevant signals. New easier and cheaper options should proliferate – shorter degree programs, vocational training, online education, private certification and credentialing programs and exams, etc. The medieval institution of the university needs to be radically reformed, but unfortunately it is unlikely to do so, for three reasons. (1) Rent seeking: high education employees always lobby and vote to further entrench the status quo that they benefit from. (2) Educational idealism: the intuitive but wrong belief that schooling teaches students valuable information and skills. (3) Educational egalitarianism: the elitist belief that all people are equally capable of and interested in getting a liberal arts education. Finally, given how poorly run most K-12 schools are, most of them are more accurately understood as daycares/prisons. Seen from this cynical point of view, forcing people to be in school for 20+ years of their life seems cruel and wasteful, but change seems unlikely.
Environmental Pessimism: We are at the beginning of an irreversible environmental collapse. Without dramatic action on this front, our future is going become increasingly grim, and the damage increasingly irreversible. Heavier precipitation and flooding here. More severe drought and desertification there. Disruptions in agriculture. Wars over resources. Social upheaval. Massive refugee flows across borders. Mass extinction of species. Tipping points, runaway warming, feedback effects, nonlinearity. Despite the obvious dangers, our governments are not remotely up to the task of dealing with it. The reasons for this are many. The worst victims of climate change will be future generations, who have no vote and no say in today’s politics. Very few politicians are willing to be honest with us – that for the sake of the health and wellbeing of future generations, people today need to experience a lowered standard of living. Voters don’t want to hear it. Voters prefer better jobs today over a livable planet tomorrow. Furthermore, developing countries are some of the heaviest polluters, but they rightly point out that the developed world got rich through pollution-heavy industrialization – isn’t it unfair for us to prevent developing economies from raising their standard of living, just like we did? The hard truth here is that the “American way of life” is not universalizable. If everyone in the world had the carbon footprint of the average American, the environment would quickly collapse. But Americans are not willing to give up our way of life. And other countries are not willing to give up the aspiration to achieve the American way of life. So we are locked into a path that will ultimately devastate the environment. Still not convinced? The current global population of 7.5 billion will continue rising throughout the next century. Imagine the level of industrial output needed to feed and supply a global population of 11-15 billion.
Space Pessimism: Environmental pessimism drives some people to embrace Space Optimism: “Yes, Earth is losing its ability to sustain human life, but humans will be able to leave Earth and begin colonizing other planets before true environmental collapse!” However, space optimists have no good answer to the Fermi Paradox. The paradox asks us to consider the following: It is estimated that there are 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way alone, so it is near certain that intelligent life is abundant in the galaxy. At some level of technological development, intelligent lifeforms should be able to leave their home planet and ultimately colonize the galaxy. And yet – where the hell are all the aliens? Assuming that our galaxy has hosted countless experiments in intelligent life, why have none of them have been able to establish an galactic empire? This suggests that there is some impenetrable limit that prevents intelligent life from achieving this goal. Perhaps all intelligent life destroys itself before it is capable of mastering space travel. Perhaps the very technology that is needed for successful space travel is also highly destructive and ends up wiping out the entire species because it is quickly weaponized and used in warfare (e.g. the power of nuclear fission or something similar). Perhaps technological development necessarily destabilizes the natural environment and undermines its capacity to sustain intelligent life. Perhaps civilizations, everywhere and always, are ultimately cyclical, and decline is always inevitable. Whatever the case may be, there seems to be something inherently self-destructive or otherwise self-limiting in the seeds of intelligence itself – otherwise the galaxy would be teeming with aliens. Given that all other experiments with intelligent life have evidently failed to achieve liftoff from their home planets, it is statistically unlikely that the human race is any different. Indeed, many scientists are now speaking out and pushing back against the Space Optimism that seems to be trending among the Silicon Valley crowd. Elon Musk, for example, is enthusiastic about the idea of colonizing Mars. However, new research suggests that Mars simply does not contain the amount of carbon dioxide that would be necessary to terraform the planet and make it habitable. Additionally, astronauts that have come back to Earth after long missions have exhibited strange and disturbing health problems. This is not terribly surprising – the human body was so finely-tuned by evolution to survive in the very specific conditions of Earth that it is highly unlikely that we could lead healthy and flourishing lives in an artificially created environment somewhere in space. Let’s face it: Humanity is stuck on Earth, and Earth cannot ultimately sustain humanity.
Technological Pessimism: The one area where even some pessimists are optimistic is technology. Humanity has, indeed, made incredible technological progress in the last century, and that progress will undoubtedly continue. Indeed, there are some areas of progress that will likely bring benefits to humanity, such as advances in medical technology. However, there is one thing to keep in mind to moderate this optimism: every single advance in technology will be weaponized and used for evil ends by terrorist groups and tyrannical governments. Communication technologies let us interact with friends and family across the world – but they also let terrorists recruit and plan attacks, and let governments gather unprecedented amounts of private data on its citizens (see China’s “Social Credit System” for the logical endpoint of this process). Social media is supposed to enable open communication, but if someone posts or tweets something slightly outside the narrow range of acceptable opinion, a social media mob will descend on them, ruining their lives, careers, and chances of future employment. Even medical advances can and will be used to create new and terrifying forms of biological weapons capable of wiping out millions of people. The day that some benevolent Silicon Valley liberal at Google creates true Artificial Intelligence, governments and terrorists all around the world will start building AI killing machines stronger than any human military in history. Do not be blinded by the marginal improvements in human well-being that technological progress brings. Take the larger view. As technology gets more powerful, all it takes is one low-probability yet catastrophic “Black Swan” event to inflict massive damage on humanity and thus wipe away previous benefits. So we invent nuclear weapons. Great, we ended WWII quicker, lives (arguably) saved. But if in 10 years, nukes are exchanged between a few countries and hundreds of millions die, and dozens of cities are uninhabitable, then retrospectively that invention was not “worth it” all things considered. And our future is full of such risky endeavors. Nanotechnology. Human-machine cyborgs. Artificial intelligence running the global economy. The entire global financial system existing in the virtual cloud. All of these systems are hackable. All of them are vulnerable. We are slowing getting into a situation where one Black Swan event could be truly catastrophic for all of humanity. My pessimism is vindicated if only one terrible Black Swan event happens. Optimism requires the belief that we keep rolling the dice and never get unlucky.
Health Pessimism: As of 2019, life expectancy in American declined for the third year in a row, which hasn’t happened in over a century. Declines in life expectancy have also been reported in other wealthy developed countries. What’s going on? Is this just a blip on an otherwise upward trend, or are we seeing the beginnings of a darker future ahead? Well, many of the deaths driving the recent drop in life expectancy have been identified as “deaths of despair” – that is, midlife deaths associated with drug overdose, alcoholism-related fatalities, and suicide. Other parts of this manifesto discuss the social conditions that are creating this despair (economic anxiety, automation, family breakdown, religious decline, loneliness, etc) and make the case that these conditions are unlikely to improve. There are other notable trend lines that are going in the wrong direction. The obesity epidemic in the US is getting worse. More than 70% of adults and 30% of children in the US are overweight or obese, and that number is still climbing. The causes are complicated, but mainly have to do with bad diet and a sedentary lifestyle. The US diet is terrible. With fast food and a federal farm policy that protects and subsidizes sugar and corn, eating poorly is easy while eating healthy is hard. In our evolutionary past, humans rarely came across food sources with high levels of sugar and calories, so when we did, we rightly splurged. Today, such foods are all around us, and cheap, so a sweet tooth that served us well in the ancient past now serves to fuel our deadly addiction to unhealthy food. Similarly, the human body did not evolve to sit at a desk for 40 hours a week (and in a car in traffic for 3 hours a week). The human body was designed to be active throughout the day, but our modern service economy has forced us into an unnatural and unhealthy sedentary lifestyle. Making it worse, most people are so tired from work that they go home and sit on a couch for a couple hours before bed. This lack of activity is literally killing us. Insofar as America’s diet and economic model is being exported to the rest of the world, these problems will become increasingly global. Finally, as capitalism and cultural liberalism have undermined community bonds, dissolved family structures, and made people lonely atomistic individuals, mental health problems have skyrocketed. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans now suffer from mental health issues in a given year. Anxiety, depression, and related ailments are plaguing American teenagers who feel alone and spiritually empty. What is our solution to this deep and profound spiritual crisis? We have nothing but a pharmacological answer to an ultimately spiritual problem. One final note. As America (and other advanced countries) ages and the worker-to-retiree ratio continues to slide in favor of the elderly, the costs of healthcare are going to eclipse our ability to pay for it. We live in a sick society, and it is unlikely to heal anytime soon.
Medical Pessimism: Looking back in our history it is easy to mock the backwardness and barbarity of our previous medical practices – bloodletting, leeches, ingesting mercury. Most of our previous medical interventions indeed did more harm than good. However, most people are under the illusion that the dark days are behind us, that we are now living in an enlightened age of truth and progress in medicine. There are two reasons for this illusion. First, the medical researcher and the medical doctor have become epistemic authority figures shrouded in Enlightenment mythology – while in the dark ages of our past, it was the priest who was assumed to have direct contact with Truth, we now make this (equally erroneous) assumption about our medical establishment. Second, we have become convinced of medical progress because of a few “silver bullet” medical breakthroughs that do in fact unambiguously work, such as penicillin (for bacterial infections) and insulin (for type 1 diabetes). These successful medical interventions have given the medical establishment an aura of prestige that is not warranted for most other forms of medical intervention. We are in the midst of the so-called “replication crisis” in the sciences, where we are discovering that many previous studies (that were assumed to be solidly proven) fail to be replicated. It turns out that medical science, like all other areas of human inquiry, is shot through with confirmation bias. There is also the predictable corruption of medical science by government and corporate funding. As medical trials of new drugs have become more well-structured in recent years, as a rule the observed benefits decrease and the observed side-effects increase. Simply put, most of our modern medical interventions do not work. This explains the counter-intuitive finding from the recent Oregon Medicaid experiment in which a random cohort of poor people were given free healthcare – and two years later there was no statistically significant observed benefit for physical health measures. The health problems that “silver bullets” set out to solve are relatively simple – the body isn’t producing enough insulin, so let’s help the body produce more; a foreign bacteria is in the body, so let’s target it and eliminate it. But many of our major current maladies are much more complicated than this – such as dementia, or depression. The growing skepticism about the efficacy of SSRIs is emblematic of this. Even insofar as SSRIs are minimally effective, researchers are realizing that they don’t actually know how or why SSRIs might work, since their simple serotonin-centric “chemical imbalance” model of depression is no longer accepted. Now, none of this is to say that medicine is not making some progress in certain areas. There have been some small steps made in cancer diagnosis and treatment, for example (although, let’s remember, the “war on cancer” was declared by Nixon in 1971, and yet the enemy is still battling strong). It is also possible that the CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing revolution will have big medical payoffs (but undoubtedly the side effects of messing with our genes will be serious). So while some cautious hope is in order, the exuberant optimism that most people have about medicine is definitely unwarranted. We need to be honest with ourselves: for many of our modern ailments, we are still living in the dark ages. If we want a healthier society, the solution is not necessarily “healthcare for all,” but rather the more prosaic solution of “better diet, better sleep, and more exercise for all.”
Labor Pessimism: Even the supposedly benevolent uses of technology will ultimately automate all human jobs, leaving all of humanity jobless. This full automation will happen within the next few decades. Both manual labor and intellectual labor will be replaced by much more capable robots. When this happens, there are two possible scenarios. First, if governments protect the property rights of the super-wealthy owners of the robots, then we will live in a dystopian world in which the masses of humanity will be impoverished. The capitalists will be trillionaires, and rest of humanity – who own nothing but their useless labor – will starve. Second, if governments instead decide to spread the wealth from automated production through a guaranteed basic income to all, then humanity will avoid mass impoverishment, but humanity will instead experience mass nihilism. Technology will let humans cease work altogether, and we will spend our days consuming passive entertainment. This is a recipe for a meaningless life. A depressing conclusion about human nature is that we hate work, but we need to work to have meaning and purpose in our lives. Struggle is necessary, and when it is gone, humanity will enter a hellish dystopia of passive and meaningless hedonism.
Sexual Pessimism: There is an eternal conflict between the sexes, and it is rooted, as all eternal things are, in our evolutionary past. In the crucible of human evolution, males and females had different evolutionary strategies. The men and women who most had their traits passed on were the ones who had the most offspring. But reproduction works differently for men and women because men can get a different woman pregnant every day, while a single woman can only give birth once every nine months. So the men who saw their genes passed on were the ones who had many children with many women. The promiscuous males outbred the monogamous males, and thus we are all the offspring of the promiscuous males. Women, however, preferred a reliable male partner to help raise her children and provide for her when she was vulnerable during pregnancy. So women developed a strategy favorable to monogamy and emotional attachment, while men developed a strategy for promiscuity and emotional detachment. This disharmony of desires between the sexes persists, manifesting itself in high rates of infidelity (throughout history) and divorce (now that it’s legal and socially acceptable). Our biological evolution designed us for polygamy and loose forms of patriarchal monogamy in relationships lasting maybe 10-15 years (since life expectancy was around 30 years), while in the modern world our cultural evolution has imposed on us the institution of egalitarian lifelong monogamy in marriages lasting potentially 60 years. There is no resolving this tension. The only way to make lifelong monogamy work is to wage a daily, frustrating, and often futile battle against our natural impulses. Furthermore, religion has always played a key role in encouraging family formation through social norms and religious rules, so as religious constraints are lifted in our secularizing society, these underlying biological tensions will become all the more apparent. As a result of these problems, we live in a culture in which marriage is broken and long-term relationships are harder to maintain than ever. Ask yourself this: why, a half century after the Sexual Revolution, has the share of Americans not having sex at all in a given year reached a record high? Something is seriously amiss. Adding fuel to the fire is the ubiquity of pornography in today’s culture, which will exacerbate the mismatch of expectations and desires between men and women. Want to add a little more fuel? The coming phenomenon of “designer babies” will finally sever, once and for all, the connection between sex and reproduction, which will eliminate the sexual interdependence of men and women that lies at the basis of civilization. You want even more fuel? Within ten years sex robots will be widely available and affordable, able to satisfy every possible sexual fantasy. This will be the beginning of the end of human sexual interaction, leaving every facet of our society changed, for the worse.
Racial Pessimism: In 2007, the celebrated Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” In it, Putnam shows (with extensive data from the US and around the world) that increases in racial and ethnic diversity cause a decline in social capital – which is to say: diversity undermines community. More specifically, increases in racial and ethnic diversity have some of the following effects on a community: lower confidence in local government, lower political participation, lower levels of volunteer work, fewer friends, less happiness, and more time watching television. This study is concerning in the US context because racial and ethnic diversity is inevitably going to increase in the coming years and decades. Is this heightened diversity setting us up for a future characterized by more social strife and personal loneliness? The right-wing interpretation of this study is to conclude that humans evolved to have strong in-group preferences and tribal loyalties, such that racial and ethnic diversity will always trigger hostility and conflict between groups, and therefore that homogeneous societies will always be preferable to diverse societies. Perhaps. Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minster of Singapore and one of the most successful statesmen of the twentieth century, said, “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.” If it is true that multiracial democracies inevitably devolve into racial head counts, then democracy ceases to be a method of collective deliberation and instead institutionalizes tribal conflict. The left-wing reader of this study hopes that we can find new ways to use diversity to our benefit, instead of just tolerating and managing it. Putnam himself hoped that “at the end we shall see that the challenge is best met not by making ‘them’ like ‘us,’ but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of ‘we.’” Perhaps. But how? If the right-wing view of human nature is correct, creating this “more capacious sense of ‘we’” is trying to do the impossible, to rewire our evolutionary hardwiring. Given the increasing levels of diversity in the US, one must hope that Putnam is right, otherwise our future together is going to be grim.
Identity Pessimism: One of the hardest philosophical truths for people to swallow is that free will is an illusion. I feel like I am free, but that’s only because I am ignorant of the many causes of my actions – these causes include my genetics, my environment, my upbringing, my unconscious mind, and my brain chemistry. When I confront a decision, I am uncertain what my decision will be in the moment, but my decision will be the inevitable product of a complex network of causes. Whichever choice I make, it could not have been any other way. Every choice that I have ever made had to be made that way. This is disturbing because it means that we are not as “in control” as we thought we were. This will be a traumatic experience for many people, since it strips us of our intuitive sense of freedom. Furthermore, as behavioral genetics and neuroscience continue to advance, we will learn more about these deep causes of our decisions. This knowledge will be utilized by governments and corporations to understand, predict, manipulate, and control human behavior in a whole host of ways, from benign to terrifying. Genetic, neurological, technological, and pharmacological interventions will be invented that are capable of fundamentally transforming human nature. Given the large and growing levels of economic inequality across the world, you can expect the rich to have access to expensive enhancements that increase their intelligence, creativity, memory, lifespan, etc., while the poor are given drugs and therapies to pacify them and let them live comfortably numb in their squalor. Finally, with the development of artificial intelligence, we will learn that the human body and brain are lousy instruments and easily improved upon. Soon we will live in a world in which average robots can do everything better than every human, further depriving us of a sense of dignity and specialness.
Demographic Pessimism: Is it possible that the movie Idiocracy is a prescient vision of our future? The argument behind dysgenic fertility theory is pretty straightforward: Premise 1: Intelligence is highly heritable. Premise 2: The more intelligent have fewer children than the less intelligent. Conclusion: Average IQ is going to decline over time. The first premise is true, although there is some debate about exactly how much IQ is determined by genetics vs. environment. Estimates of IQ heritability vary between about 60% and 80%, which is, whatever the exact number turns out to be, quite significant. The second premise is also true. More intelligent people tend to delay having children until after they finish their education and get started in their career, and consequently they tend to have few children. In the US, women with an average IQ of 111 have 1.6 children, while women with an average IQ of 81 have an average of 2.6 children. When we get to the conclusion, things get a bit complicated. Over much of the twentieth century, IQ scores have been increasing (this phenomenon is called the Flynn Effect). This seems attributable to an improvement in the environmental factors that positively correlate with IQ (better nutrition, more education, a more stimulating environment). However, it seems plausible that these environmental improvements have masked underlying genetic decline. In other words, while more people have been reaching their full potential, that potential itself has been declining. It is as if we have been planting worse quality seeds in better quality soil. The big problem here is that these environmental gains have diminishing returns, and we may have already hit the ceiling on what can be done here. Perhaps our soil is already about as good as it gets, but the quality of our seeds will continue to get worse. If this is the case, we will stop having IQ gains through environmental improvements, but will instead start seeing declining IQ due to genetic decline, because of dysgenic fertility. Indeed, there is evidence that IQ has been in decline in most developed countries since about 1990, and that dysgenic fertility is taking place in virtually every country and racial group in the world. If this trend line continues, Idiocracy will indeed be our future. A low-IQ population cannot sustain the civilization that a high-IQ population created. Our only plausible solution to this problem is the brave new world of human bioengineering (e.g. embryo selection), which is just as likely to lead us to a dystopian nightmare of genetically upgraded super soldiers as it is to lead to a utopian world of human flourishing.
Anti-Humanist Pessimism (part 1): Both Athens and Jerusalem, Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism, are in agreement that humans are somehow exceptional. Humans are said to stand above the rest of nature due to our impressive capacities for rationality and moral conscience. But how impressive is humanity, really? Let’s start with the claim that humans are exceptionally rational when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Proponents of human exceptionalism will say, “Look, humans have traveled to the moon and back! No other animals has accomplished anything even close to this feat.” First of all, do yourself a favor and read up on the amazing cognitive abilities of dolphins to realize that we’re not the only intelligent life on the planet. Second of all, it is true that when you look at the peaks of human technological accomplishment, you see heights unreachable by the rest of the animal kingdom. However, our estimation of humanity will be diminished by a full understanding of how these heights are scaled. First, the division of labor, specialization, and market prices are emergent processes that allow for millions of strangers to each contribute small inputs of simple labor and knowledge into ultimately creating a complex product that, likely, no individual laborer actually understands. As Leonard Read famously pointed out, no individual human being can actually make a pencil – instead, the market allows for (literally) millions of people to coordinate to produce it. Now take an even more complex output, like a computer chip. To 99.99% of humanity, even those laborers who contribute to it somewhere in the supply chain, the actual workings of a computer chip are a complete mystery, a kind of magic. If 100 randomly selected people were to be dropped onto a deserted island (even one full of natural resources), they would not be able to recreate any of our modern technology (e.g. electricity), because almost assuredly they wouldn’t have the slightest clue how such technology works. Instead, they would live basically like most animals live: hunting, gathering, mating, and dying young due to nature’s brutality. Second, the division of labor itself is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of our complex modern technology – you need the extra ingredient of human genius, which is only possessed by an infinitesimally small elite of humans. The division of labor organizes humanity into a springboard for the genius, the exceptional mind that discovers new truths, creates new visions, and remakes the world. These geniuses – Einstein, Newton, Currie, Tesla, Galileo, Edison, Bell, da Vinci – tower above us like gods. Make no mistake, these geniuses are not our equals, they are our superiors. The distance between the average human and these geniuses is greater than the distance between the average human and the dolphin. Humans are just animals – these geniuses are superhumans. Such superhuman geniuses are the product of an astronomically lucky roll of the genetic dice. It is not the case that just anyone could become such a genius if they wanted, no matter how much education was given to them. Let’s face it – most of us are happy to take our assigned place in the division of labor, putting in 40 hours a week, taking orders all day, getting a stable paycheck, and retiring. We are natural subordinates. The cognitive elite are our natural superiors. This hierarchy is inscribed in nature. When I read the biographies of these geniuses, it is like reading about another species. Their drive, their vision, their will, it is completely alien to me. For the vast majority of us, our rationality is pretty unimpressive. The intelligence of the average human is only a step, but not a leap, above other animals.
Anti-Humanist Pessimism (part 2): If our rationality does not dramatically set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, what about our moral conscience? Aren’t humans uniquely able to self-regulate our actions based on moral principles? Aren’t we able to overcome our selfish impulses and act solely on behalf of moral goodness? Don’t we see such actions everyday? Well, not so fast. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is asked to consider two thought experiments. In essence, Socrates is asked to image how a person would behave if he were given a ring that would make him invisible, such that his morally bad actions would never lead to negative legal repercussions or even reputational harm. Furthermore, he was asked to image another person who was cursed such that his morally good actions would never lead to reputational benefit – people would despise him regardless of whether he acted morally or immorally. These thought experiments help us to think about the core of human motivation. If we were never rewarded for good behavior, would we still behave well, simply out of devotion to the moral law? The entire book of the Republic is Socrates’ failed attempt to affirm that humans can act for moral reasons alone. The attempt was a failure because there is no good reason to think that humans are capable of such moral purity. This is especially clear in light of evolutionary psychology. Natural selection designed humans to be conditional cooperators. I will cooperate with others only insofar as such cooperation is likely to be in my long-term self interest. I act well, follow the law, treat others as ends in themselves, etc, because doing so confers benefits on my reputation. If I am seen as a good guy, I will make friends and allies, which in turn make my life better. At the root of all human action – both good and bad – is the selfish gene. The genius of religion is that it attempts to harness this farsighted self interest in the service of social cooperation. Christianity and Islam say, “Be a good person and you will receive the ultimate reward of eternal happiness.” It replaces worldly rewards with otherworldly rewards, which has a lot of social advantages. If I think that my behavior is being monitored by an all-seeing invisible God, then it reduces the amount of time and resources that my peers (and government) need to expend to monitor my behavior. Now, most people (including non-religious people) have internalized pro-social norms, such that they would probably act pretty decently with the magical ring from the thought experiment – at least for a while. But given enough time with the ring (and thus no negative consequences to bad behavior), the lure of self interest (and the power of the human mind to rationalize our bad behavior) would lead even the best of us to complete moral corruption. Comparing humans to animals, we do not come out well – humans are exceptional only insofar as we are the only animals that regularly practice planned mass cruelty toward our fellow humans (and other animals). While the selfish gene is at the heart of all animal life, only humans go beyond mere selfishness and exhibit true sadism, as evidenced by the regularity of torture and genocide in human history. As a general rule, we’re good when it’ll get us ahead, and we’re bad when we can get away with it.
Religious Pessimism: All the supernatural truth claims of all major religions are likely to be false, but at the same time religion is probably necessary for social cohesion and personal meaning. Religion’s primary social function is to encourage a level of self-denial and self-sacrifice that is necessary for human civilization. With religion, tight knit communities and families gave individuals social roles and individual meaning. Without religion, we are seeing growing atomization, loneliness, lower birthrates, higher divorce rates, more mental illness, as these sources of meaning deteriorate. There is no good secular alternative to religion in its ability to form communities and give meaning. So while human societies do best with shared religious bonds, the development of the sciences ultimately undercuts the plausibility of religious claims about the universe. The depressing conclusion about human nature is that we cannot live with truth. We need myth to survive as a species, and yet our capacity for reason ultimately erodes our ability to believe in those necessary myths.
Hedonic Pessimism: If we add up all the pleasure and pain experienced by all sentient creatures on the planet, would the net pleasure outweigh the pain, or not? My sense is that it would not, and this is highly distressing. We can look at three categories of sentient beings: non-human animals in the wild, non-human animals in human captivity, and humans. And we need to look at each of these with open eyes and without any romanticism. Non-human animals in the wild live, for the most part, lives marked by continual fear of predators, and usually ended by violent and painful death in the jaws of one of those predators. Life in the wild for non-human animals is overwhelmingly painful, cruel, and awful. Pain overwhelms pleasure. While the former can be fleetingly enjoyed in moments of rest, fear and pain are the general rule. When it comes to non-human animals in human captivity, we cannot avoid looking at the millions of animals born and raised in factory farms for human consumption. These millions of animals live the worst lives that could possibly be lived. Every natural impulse is stifled, every pleasure denied, every relationship severed, all for the sake of maximizing meat output. Pain overwhelms pleasure, the latter of which is basically non-existent. When it comes to humans, we have a more mixed bag. Without natural predators, humans are for the most part not subject to continual fear of violent death as wild non-human animals are. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans are slowly escaping the misery of poverty and scarcity, although of course a large plurality of the human race still lives in crushing poverty. Furthermore, all humans are subject to the usual miseries of loved ones dying, personal hopes frustrated, chronic pain setting in with age, and facing up to one’s inevitable demise. And until automation takes over, even the most privileged humans spend the majority of their waking lives renting their bodies and energies and time to a business, with most people working in jobs that they dislike or despise. Finally, it makes sense from the point of view of natural selection that pleasure is one of our greatest wants, but also that it is fleeting and impermanent. Pleasure is the reward our brain gives us for doing things that helped spread our genes in our ancient past. But in order to constantly incentivize us to do more things to advantage our genetic interests, the pleasure we get must be taken away from us and held out again as a promised future reward. In other words, evolution designed us to be driven to pursue that which we can never truly acquire. Constant frustration is a feature, not a bug, of evolution. At any given moment in life, each individual can reliably count on the truth of the following statements: This promising new relationship will eventually fail. This exciting new career will soon become tedious. This interesting new hobby will soon become either boring or frustrating. This overwhelming feeling of being connected to God will soon fade. This strong sense that the universe is fundamentally good and meaningful will soon wane. This sense of contentment and happiness will soon be interrupted by anxiety, pain, some unpleasant obligation or task, etc. Good health will soon fade. Not all human lives are worth living out to their natural end. Taking into account all of these factors, one has to conclude that sentient life on Earth experiences far greater net suffering than pleasure, leading one to wonder: has it all been worth it?
Cosmic Pessimism: Everything is devoured by the passage of time. For the average person, time consumes us quickly. I will take myself as an example. Most of how I spend my day is forgotten by everyone (including myself) the moment it is done (brushing my teeth, putting on clothes, eating, driving to work, consuming mindless information online or on TV, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, etc). 98% of the things that I do in life will be forgotten by everyone (including myself) within a year from doing them. And a full 100% of everything that I say, do, and think will be forgotten forever within a generation or two after my death. The harsh truth is that most of our lives are forgotten – and forgettable – not just after our death, but during our lives. Only a tiny handful of people and accomplishments persist beyond their time. But even these great things are destined for the void. Everything ultimately ends in the heat death of the universe. Nothing of value persists. Every laugh, every memory, every touch, every accomplishment, every poem, every friendship, will be swallowed up. Everything, no matter how glorious, is finite, transient, and ultimately forgotten.