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? 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 fulfilment, 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 amongst 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 tribes 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.
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 culprits of this 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.
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 double in the next century. Imagine the level of industrial output needed to feed and supply a global population of around 15 billion and counting.
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 bring clear 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. Even medical advances can and will be used to create new and terrifying forms of biological weapons. 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.
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, while our cultural evolution has imposed on us the institution of egalitarian lifelong monogamy. There is no resolving this tension. 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. 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 showed (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 specially, 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 homogenous societies will always be preferable to diverse societies. Perhaps. The left-wing interpretation of this study is to hope 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.
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, most people working in jobs that they dislike or despise. 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 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.
To be a pessimist is not to be “sad” or “depressed,” although these outlooks can be correlated. One can actually take a certain amount of solace in pessimism. One can let go of the burdens of optimism, with all of its phoniness, superficiality, and vain hopes. One can be more accepting of the imperfection of all things, and more willing to embrace their impermanence. Nonetheless, the pessimist feels a certain melancholic sorrow at the state of the world and the human condition. This is nicely expressed in that most honest of the Bible’s books, Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” In the midst of this, however, in the unrecoverable moments that rush past, I can find small joys in my mundane little activities, hobbies, friendships, routines. It’s worse than you think, but that’s okay.