Mar 13, 2011

The Paradox of Optimism

This blog post was inspired by an email exchange I had with a friend of mine about an article that appeared in the New York Times, titled When Optimism is Unrealistic. The article is about false optimisms that some cancer patients have even in the face of the most devastating diagnosis when participating in clinical trials that they know and have been told will not benefit them and is merely for experimental reasons for the advancement of that particular drug being tested. 

This started a back-and-forth conversation with my friend about false optimism and the search for absolute truth. My initial argument was that though I agreed with the article, I wondered what the alternative was for these cancer patients facing death and in the absence of this optimism they would just drown deep in depression and anxiety. We all need a dose of optimism at times whether artificial or real to tame our fears from all that's going on around us from disease, to economic hardship to natural disasters and relationship problems. My friend responded by saying that "couldn't passion if pursued falsely lead to more depression upon realizing the truth? some people say art is a lie-- and it excites the passions. what if the truth does the opposite. incomplete representations get you to pursue goals, and as you learn the truth you calm down and learn something. one cannot exist without the other. You know how they say people are better at details when depressed?". Again I would agree, if "truth" was so easy to find. The bigger question hence is, is there such thing as absolute truth? Everything seems to be relative and based on probability and statistics with million of variables. Therefore, there are not crystal clear answers or truths to most of our questions and this is why humans will continue to have false optimisms and hopes. The level of uncertainty that exists in our lives and society, at times can cause anxiety but can also sometimes lead to optimism and hope. My friend responded again but using the Bible as an example: "Is the bible absolute truth? Yes. To a lot of people it is. To me and I think many others- it is only a piece of the truth. So are there multiple levels of truth? Yes. I'm not sure the human brain is capable of understanding a complete truth, but through discoveries we get closer- and the balance between passion and analysis allows us greater understanding. Maybe it is like our discussion of art working on multiple levels. The truth can exist, but it can be understood by all people at the same time." The truth then I guess is that humanity has many ideas about the absolute truth but these mostly are ideas and theories and leave room for different interpretations and understandings.

A cancer patient, however, does not have the time to wait for these truths to become evident, and hence the mind's defense mechanism activates itself and imagines a better outcome/future against all odds. In fact, imagination, one of the most powerful characteristics of the modern human brain would not be so useful if all truths and facts were known and evident. This is good, I mean who would want to live in a world/universe where everything is known and explained and there is no ambiguity and a place for imagination. The point is that without ambiguity and uncertainty: hope, faith and optimism would have no room in our vocabulary. We would be living in a black and white world. However, this level of ambiguity/uncertainty that has existed throughout our history can also have dangerous side effects: false prophets, leaders, dictators (Hitler) that use this uncertainty to offer false answers/hope to comfort people in exchange for people's rights, freedom and individual beliefs.

In conclusion, I do often get frustrated with the ambiguity that surrounds me and wish I had all the answers to all that troubles society, but at the same time, every time I catch the night sky on a country road full of starts, I get excited about how much there is we do not yet know and is waiting to be discovered, and that makes me happy. Happy about all the possibilities, all the new experiences, all the new information.

Check out Dr. David Eagleman's theory and video about Possibilianism, his newly founded religion/way of thinking about our most existential questions:
In my opinion, our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. So I call myself a possibilian. Possibilianism emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.

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