Reasoning Our Way to Optimism

28 03 2012

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).

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3 responses

30 03 2012
Jim Isaak

Ur… Last I looked, we are in a Universe with entropy, which is sort of like having energy constantly leaving the system. … but there is no question (physics aside) that the range of really good outcomes and really bad outcomes is expanding as we develop greater technology, connectivity, and ability to manipulate the fundamentals of the universe (think: atoms, genes, etc.)

30 03 2012
justinegraykin

Jim-
I didn’t specify which system I was talking about did I? Yes, you are correct, and ultimately, in the vastness of time, that entropy will catch up with us. But we presently live in a dynamic open system with abundant input of energy, and in our practical time frame, there is no immediate danger of this ending. We have every reason to believe that we can endure and overcome the bad stuff (not that there isn’t a lot of it – Leo allows for that) and keep gradually working towards making things better.

27 04 2012
Leo Korogodski

Jim,

Yes, the second law of thermodynamics holds for any closed system. But, ultimately, the only truly closed system is the entire universe. An open system can decrase its entropy by giving it back to its environment. And, on average, far-from-equilibrium systems tend to decrease their entropy (this is the main Prigogine’s result). So, if the universe is infinite, then the complex adaptive systems can potentially evolve in the direction of decreasing entropy and increasing complexity ad infinitum.

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