At the last Boskone convention, I attended a panel on a subject near and dear to me, “Optimism vs. Darkness in SF”. One of the panelists, Leonid Korogodski, opened his remarks with comments which I found both fascinating and heartening. It’s best expressed in his own words, but I’ll do my best to summarize his thesis: In an open system, where energy continuously enters, the tendency is towards ever increasing complexity. As complexity increases, the potential for negative consequences increases, but so does the potential for positive consequences and in fact, the positive edges out the negative over time.
Leo takes this observation about pure physics and generalizes it quite beautifully to more human concerns. As a society becomes more complex, the potential for catastrophe increases, but so does the potential for improvement, and the greater tendency is towards improvement. As a child grows, her ability to commit acts of evil, as well as the possibility for evil acts to be visited upon her, grows as well. But so does the possibility of goodness. And in the long run, for the majority of people, it is the good that wins.
An immediate objection to this reasoned argument might come as criticism of his extending the model from complexity vs. entropy, positive vs. negative, to good vs. evil. “Good” and “Evil” are culturally relative terms, and have no place in rational assertions. But I think an excellent argument can be made that moral values such as good and evil can be identified and quantified.
I would point to two excellent arguments for this. One can be found in work such as that of neuroscientist Sam Harris, in his book, “The Moral Landscape”, in which he makes a very convincing case for the empirical study of what is good, that is, what is conducive to health and thriving. The other lies in the basic tenets of Buddhism, that compassion and loving-kindness comprise what is good, based not on religious philosophy but on simple, testable, observable experimentation of what works, what actually brings the most happiness to the greatest number of people. [Ethics for a New Millennium PDF]
Whole symposia could be organized around these ideas; I cannot hope to adequately represent and defend them here. But I see this as an exciting, vital and rich source of inspiration for discussion and debate, and an important antidote to depression and despair, which are epidemic in our darkness-obsessed culture.
Optimism triumphs over darkness; good over evil. (I am tempted to add, matter over antimatter, and thus the reason for Something and not Nothing, but that’s a digression for another time).