Optimistic pessimism

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Especially not “Unapologetic” by Francis Spufford, which has a hideous cover

Ye Gods... remove dust jacket, that's better

Ye Gods… remove dust jacket, that’s better

If you are interested in religion, read this book.

If the mere word religion makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it instead as culture, and then read this book.

It’s a sweary book, and it makes you think.

Spufford writes about the “outrages inherent in the entire operation of the domain of life” – how natural selection works through variation, and most organisms die before they can reproduce.  “The moral scandal of evolution… [is] that it works by, works through, would not work without, continuous suffering.”

I found a strange comfort in the perspective that the world is an inherently violent place.  The default setting is not peace, but conflict (see Kwame Anthony Appiah on identities for more on how humans compete for scarce resources).  History is not a progressive journey to a perfect future, every gain is hard fought-for, and impermanent.  See Professor Hanson‘s post on The Myth of Progress, questioning among other things “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

Spufford writes about the universal human propensity to f*ck things up.  As we all do this repeatedly, we are all guilty.  But because we all do it, it is perhaps the most important thing we have in common.

Optimistic pessimism knows that people will falter and fail, but doesn’t hate them for it.  Hanlon’s razor states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity [or neglect and misunderstanding]” and this is a useful first step in not taking unfair or violent events personally, but to reset our expectations and consider the smallest act of kindness a rebellious act of peace-making.

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