Friday, December 12, 2008

Philosophy: Are you an optimist of pessimist? There is no middle ground.

I am an unashamed optimist. I generally see the possibility of a positive outcome, in fact I tend to think of it as the most likely outcome. I am sometimes proven wrong! I find pessimism difficult to understand, however I think it plays an important part in a successful society. Just don’t try to mask it by calling it realism. Realism suggests an ability to predict the future, an almost god-like quality.

It is my belief that there is no such things as a realist, because the reality of a future event is unknown, and only becomes apparent after the event has occurred, no matter how easy or difficult it is to predict the result . Prior to this there is only conjecture about what will occur, and all conjecture has a bias towards pessimism or optimism depending on the outlook of the individual concerned.

Pessimists are generally acknowledged to have a bias towards less than satisfactory outcomes, a negative view of the future. Optimists have the opposite outlook. Pessimists might not necessarily believe a bad outcome will result, but given a choice of potential outcomes they are likely to choose the one that is less positive. Optimists will choose to believe that the better outcome will occur. Pessimists may see the downside of a current situation, while optimists choose to focus on the positive aspects. The classic example being the glass half-full or half-empty conundrum.

Optimists are dreamers. They see positive outcomes in the most dire of situations. They will confidently march into the dark with a sunny outlook to cast some light, taking setbacks as mere speedbumps on the way to the good outcome that lies somewhere ahead. Of course I’m sure the officer overseeing the charge of the Light Brigade was also an optimist, probably verging on the insane type, as were the generals who decided that trench warfare would get them significant gains in the First World War. Or perhaps they were simply not in possessions of all the facts. This, however, does not necessarily (and sometimes unfortunately) prevent an optimist from making a decision.

Many pessimists steadfastly maintain that they are realists, however in my view, this merely shows them to be in denial about their own pessimism. The half-empty glass is a classic example of this, there is only a choice between the positive or the negative. Many will argue strenuously, in the case of future events, that they are looking at empirical evidence (the interpretation of which can be subjective and therefore pessimistic or optimistic) from similar past events where outcomes may not have been good, and that they are merely projecting a likely outcome. However, such a view does not allow for a different, more positive outcome than what has happened in the past, and is therefore pessimistic. I would go as far to say that the vast majority, if not all, of people who say they are realists, are pessimists.

The crucial point about optimists and pessimists is that we need both of them to make sure that important decisions are made properly, with the appropriate amount of consideration of outcomes. In world where there was only pessimists, very little would change and it is likely our psyche would most likely be permanently damaged. In a world full of optimists, it is likely that it wouldn’t be long before we ran head-on into a brick wall that didn’t move. It could be disastrous. But we do need decisions to be made.

And it is also true that most people alternate between optimism and pessimism depending on the situation they find themselves in. This is only natural as we are emotional creatures. Only very few of us are consistently of one frame of mind or the other. And we all know how annoying the constant optimist or pessimist can be.

So don’t say you are being a realist when you are being a pessimist. If you can’t see the positive outcomes in a situation, admit it and get on with explaining why the optimist might be on the wrong track. If you are an optimist, acknowledge that the pessimist has a role to play in tempering your enthusiasm and natural wish to keep the sun-shining, in order that you don’t find yourself on a path to destruction.

Please, just don’t call yourself a realist. ‘Realism’ simply doesn’t exist before an event has taken place.

No comments: