My Nutshell Version of David Deutsch’s Optimism

“But Aaron, we do live in uniquely dangerous times, with nuclear weapons and climate change and all the rest.”

My nutshell version of David Deutsch’s optimism:

As I sit in my house, fed and warm, I am not worried about securing future meals and future warmth because I have the knowledge to do so at my disposal (including the knowledge instantiated in physical forms such as the car I use to get food from the store and the thermostat on my wall that I turn to the desired temperature). I am always on the verge of starvation and hypothermia unless I can access the necessary knowledge. Fortunately, it is all around me.

It’s not the conditions of the external world that are paramount to survival — the CO2 in the atmosphere, the nukes in their silos, the bioweapons in their flasks. Those are constantly changing. Instead, it is whether I have sufficient knowledge to counter those threats. Can the CO2 be removed? Can the nukes be secured? Can the bioweapons be matched with antidotes?

The answer to all these questions is yes. How do I know this? Because anything that is possible according to the laws of physics is doable by people, so long as we create the necessary knowledge. For a detailed explanation of this last sentence, see David Deutsch’s TEDTalk from 2006 here.

The number of threats will increase with our knowledge. We will discover new ways to harness the forces of nature in ways that are as inconceivable to us today as nuclear weapons were to our forebears 100 years ago.

The story of human progress is out of the frying pan, into the fire, with successive leaps occurring ever faster as our capabilities grown. Our only hope has been our only hope all along — to create the necessary knowledge to circumvent, avoid, or adapt to each new threat. Fortunately, this race pays dividends, because with increased knowledge comes increased wellbeing through the elimination of older worries like plague and famine.

Father, physician, organizer. Optimist. Twitter: @astupple

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