I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, definitely intensified by my recent brush (and then reprieve) from near-term death. I’m definitely gloomy about life (at least mine, but abstractly I think for most people) but my attitude is clearly not typical. As I thought about this post I intended to title it “Optimism is irrational and a delusion”, but since my original post on this subject has landed in my top 25 most read I’ll stick with the same title so this post ends up in the same search results and we’ll see how this post fares.
Even though I’m fully aware that my life is better (at least from meeting material needs) than most of humanity I continue to be amazed at how optimism is the dominant attitude of [most of] humanity and pessimism, especially in the extreme of considering suicide, continues to be a definite minority. Although I recently saw a statistic, IIRC, that suicide occurs at the rate of 1 in 119 vs another more common non-health death, auto accidents (1 in 78). I was surprised the incidence of suicide is actually that high despite that choice seeming to be more rational, again for the majority of humanity.
We see life as a ‘gift’ or ‘blessing’, but in reality, certainly in secular materialist view, life is just an inherent outcome of the laws of the universe. Most scientists believe (as we consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life) that if life is possible (i.e. on some goldilocks planet) it is also inevitable. The molecules of life will naturally form as a consequence of chemistry and once a first replicator accidentally forms (and, creationists, that is how it happened) it will perpetuate itself as long as environmental conditions permit. OTOH, intelligence is not inevitable and most life will not have the capacity to consider (or decide about) its existence. So life is not a ‘gift’ but in reality a condition that none of us actually wanted (our parents made that decision and evolution encourages it).
But I do believe optimism, at least as expressed as the desire to continue life, is irrational on some abstract basis. But as I covered in my earlier post obviously natural selection will favor optimism (or at least struggling to survive long enough to breed) over a voluntary choice to discontinue life (my extreme definition of pessimism). Life evolves because living creatures are driven to breed or really just a self-sustaining feedback loop – we live and breed because our ancestors did and if somewhere life had “decided” to cease we wouldn’t be here to think about it.
OK, fine, life is self-reinforcing, but we thinking beings do have a choice. If we decide it’s not worth it anymore we can end it. But few of us do, no matter how bad it gets. I recently got the chance to see this in very stark terms. Within a few weeks of each other, I and my sister-in-law, got a medical diagnosis that turned our death from an eventual possibility into an immediate certainty. Even though my disease clearly had a better prognosis (from a longevity POV) I was not only accepting of my fate, but actually welcomed the end of the uncertainty of how and (sorta) when my life would end. OTOH, my sister-in-law who died in about six weeks after her diagnosis “fought” to live, clearly the more common optimistic attitude.
Now there is one obvious difference between us (in attitude, not medical condition). My sister-in-law had both children and more recently grandchildren and through that continuity of her gene line very much wanted to continue living in the supportive status of a close family. I, OTOH, have (and will never have) no descendants and not much family so there wasn’t going to be much pain to anyone upon my passing. So I saw my death as basically a personal situation where I could elect any point of view I wanted, IOW, I could be completely selfish about it. And so, as I previously said, I saw my impending death as a relief, maybe a bit sad to be quite so soon, maybe a bit unhappy that the end would be fairly unpleasant, but nonetheless a relief that the worries of this world will soon be over.
But another strange difference that still makes no sense to me is that my sister-in-law is very religious (serious believer and serious practice) and therefore presumably views her religion’s teachings about an afterlife in a positive way. I, OTOH, believe dead is dead (at least 99.9999%, I’m still somewhat scared of the fear tactics of religion that there might be a hell and as a nonbeliever that would be my eternal destiny). So my sister-in-law should be happy (and for her sake I hope she’s actually right and got what she expected) about dying and entering afterlife and I should be unhappy, because it is the end-end for me, no more, nada, gone, done, dust. Yet she is the one who was ready to fight to her last breath (as she did) to continue living. (I’ve always wondered, if heaven is so great, why is it a mortal sin, in xtian belief, to commit suicide; my only conclusion is that xtianity, like all religions is just in service to the rich and they don’t want us peons taking the easy way out and so instead continued to be their servants.)
So obviously, both in my immediate case, and as a general observation about life (both unintelligent and thinking) is that accepting (at a minimum) or even being relieved (at the most) is a non-typical attitude. So why do I have that attitude when most of humanity doesn’t, esp. as most people have more rational reasons than I did to end it.
Not I don’t see much evidence to indicate, other than an evolutionary bias toward survival, why we “fight” so hard to stay alive. Being alive, in the material sense (since I reject the “spiritual” sense) is both the best and worst of all worlds. Sure, there is some pleasure, but frankly I believe, realistically crunching the data, that life has a surplus of pain and a shortage of pleasure, or, IOW, on the whole, it’s a negative experience. Obviously this conclusion is tied to one’s position on the spectrum of optimism and pessimism (or if clinically depressed or just dysthymic) and since pessimism will be reduced via natural selection most creatures will take the optimistic view.
Non-thinking creatures have little choice. I’m tending a feral cat who is going to be stuck with trying to survive -14F tonight and that can’t be fun as well as a serious threat to her life. But that cat can’t think about her condition and certainly can’t do much to change it. So is it really “optimism” on her part or just a non-thinking what-will-be-will-be attitude. But what about thinking creatures, why do we keep “fighting” death?
And I wonder is it actually being dead or dying that scares us? Clearly dying is often associated with pain and pain is a simple feedback system favored by natural selection to keep us going, so we’ll avoid pain, esp. the pain associated with dying as much as we can. But if pain is fairly minimal (or perhaps for those of us getting other pains associated with aging, is the pain of dying less than the pain of living) again why then do we resist it.
Obviously no single gene (or any identified set of genes) triggers the survival instinct. And is it even a heritable trait? Or is it coincidence (in non-thinking creatures) or cultural (in us)? But whether it is gene or meme, it seems definite that desiring life and avoiding death is a common element of living things. Given non-thinking creatures just do it as response to the property of chemistry to produce life then maybe it is neither heritable or culture – it just is what it is. This seems to be a more consistent conclusion than any other cause.
But we thinking creatures do have a choice. We can not only think about whether we want to live or die, we also have the means to do something about it. Yet few of us take that outcome.
My diagnosis of a fatal disease offered another comfort. Now my default condition, requiring no decision or action on my part, was going to be death in fairly short term. Now, with a more vague diagnosis ending my life is now, again, a decision and an action I must take, which is much harder than just accepting “fate”. And the pressures from my limited circle support life. When everyone thought I was dying that was just sad, but as there is no cure for MDS, also inevitable, so just accept it. But now, when there is no proximate inevitable threat my contemplation of self-caused death is definitely not supported (and actively discouraged) by others. So that just makes it even harder and harder to “splurge” during my remaining days as I was considering with MDS. Most of contemporary society considers suicide to be a selfish act and it certainly is. I won’t be missed much, in a material sense (in fact, one other in my life would view my death as an upgrade to their material existence) but it still would be a sadness for them, especially when, unlike my sister-in-law, it was a choice, not a fate.
But, in nature, it’s not just social creatures, submitting to social pressure, who have the will to continue living. So group pressure can’t explain it either. So again it seems most likely that continuing life is just the default state of chemistry, not necessarily a “selected” trait.
So again, why are we (or more relevant to me, ‘I’) want to avoid death, at least as a deliberate act?
I believe, rather than being abnormal, pessimism (broadly defined to include suicide) is the rational belief system. Evolution rarely favors altruism (broadly defined as merely the opposite of selfishness) and usually living creatures are rather greedy about obtaining, even at the cost to others, what they want. Life is inherently selfish and no matter what we “give back”, most of us consume more than we provide to others (except perhaps our offspring, and even then I think supporting offspring is also a selfish motivation, e.g. seeking our immortality via Dawkins’ selfish genes). Optimism sets expectations which will almost always not be met; pessimism leads to little disappointment, even though things can actually be worse than we anticipate.
Most of my life I didn’t think much about all this. I had a fairly charmed life, not luxurious like the lucky sperm club crowd, but good enough. I lived in a country and in a time where I could flourish with the skill set I had. I was definitely supported by many others (Obama is totally right when he said “you didn’t build that”, it’s extreme arrogance by any of us to think we are completely self-reliant). For decades I could just bumble through life, doing what I actually enjoyed to make enough living to then support my limited desires. But that changed. As most people discover some rain will eventually come to spoil your sunny days and so eventually the bottom-line of my life went from positive to negative, although again I am fully aware (and grateful) of how much worse it could be and is for many people (one reason I can be a liberal because I know how lucky I’ve been and have no delusions that my life is what I deserve (as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, “deserve has got nothing to do with it”). In fact, much of my hostility to the Repugs (and even more so toward baggers and libertarians) is their arrogance that other people who don’t have what they do are just lazy, or worse, undeserving, an attitude that is growing and utterly wrong). I have “earned” much of what I have, but I also believe it is sheer luck that I even have the chance to “earn” rather than most of humanity who is really stuck with a sucky life.
So optimism, I think, is just a delusion – a delusion that is somehow part of our inherent character. It’s a classic joke that most of us believe we’re above average, an obvious silly contradiction. When I was trying to think about what “median survival” meant for cancer why should I believe (as most people do) that I’d somehow beat the median (someone, like my sister-in-law, or as in 50% of the people, fail to achieve median survival). Yet I suspect most of us, especially if you’re actually confronted with a diagnosis of fatal disease, believe we’ll beat the odds. It’s hard to believe that attitude is just purely an inherent fact of chemistry instead of either genes or memes selected by natural selection or cultural evolution.
So where does all this wandering in a mindscape get me? I have to accept that I’m the exception, even if I’m the one who is actually rational. And I have to accept, at least until I can get the courage to do something about it, that I have to continue. No wonder selling the false promises of religion is so easy since obviously “suffering” is default condition of life.