2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Professor & Director, Institute of Philosophy School of Advanced Study University of London
Philosopher, School of Advanced Study, University of London; Coeditor, Knowing Our Own Minds

Attempts to Dictate Our Tastes, Our Preferences, Our Culture, Our Media, Our Political Policies, Or Moral Choices Are Bound In the End to Fail

At first, my suggestion may sound rather pessimistic, but what I am optimistic about is that ultimately monopolies fail. By which I mean, attempts to dominate our tastes, our preferences, our culture, our media, our political policies, or moral choices. Restless creatures that we are, we seek out variety and difference, opportunities to extend the scope of our thinking and to exercise discrimination and taste. This may make us hard to satisfy, but, ultimately, it is this lack of satisfaction that leads to progress and spells the end of hegemonies in ideology, religion, or science.

John Stuart Mill wondered whether each of us would rather be the pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied, and at times it may seem as though a lot of people have chosen the former. But that is only in the short term. Long term, we have no choice but to be dissatisfied when things are constant and unchanging. The satiety of our appetites, the endless repetition of the same thoughts and feelings, will, eventually, in all but pathological cases, lead us to move on in mind and seek fresh inputs. To begin with, people may readily sacrifice their freedom for comfort, but increasingly the absence of change, the monotony of surroundings and routines will lead to acute discomfort and the search for something new. That is why I am optimistic that people who are fed a constant diet of the same ideas, the same foods, the same TV programmes, the same religious or political dogmas will eventually come to consider other possibilities, will switch off, change allegiance, and think differently for themselves. It may take time; after all, some people’s threshold for boredom is higher than others. But change and a moving on will be inevitable. The lesson is already being learned in the corporate world where monopolies try to cope with this by diversifying their range of services. Their chance of survival will depend on how cynically or sincerely they respond to this restless aspect of the human mind. We are used to hearing how bad the diet of television or Hollywood movies is, and how people have come to expect less and less. But I think the opposite is true. People are increasingly switching off and staying away from the familiar and undemanding shows and films that lazy television executives and film producers offer. Instead, space has opened up for intelligent and entertaining programmes and for independent film-making. It is here, at the creative end of the culture, that big popular success is to be found. In similar vein, the increasingly global market has led to a firmer appreciation of the interestingly local ones. And I am optimistic that people, through boredom and the need for something new, will seek out better, not worse experiences.

Human cognition depends on change and movement in order to function. Evolution has built us this way. Try staring at a blank wall for several seconds without blinking and you will find the image eventually bleaching until you can see nothing. The eye’s visual workings respond to movement and change. So too do the other parts of our cognitive systems. Feed them the same inputs successively and they cease to produce very much worth having as output. Like the shark in water, we need to keep moving or, cognitively, we die.

Science, too, represents the greatest advert for our unquiet natures. For as soon as a theory or school becomes the established orthodoxy, creative minds begin to explore the possibility that we must begin from completely different starting assumptions, and seek novel interpretations of the data. Without this constant movement to resist acceptance and stasis we would not have the advances or excitements that fundamental science can provide. That said, we must not overlook the role that luck plays in great discoveries either. But even with a lucky finding we must be capable or recognising and seizing on it if we are to develop insight for large-scale revisions to our thinking. The possibility to revise, rework, and reconsider depends on this sometimes uncomfortable fact about our natures and our need to search for something fresh.

So far, I have been stressing the positive aspect of the restless mind but there is a paradox in our nature and our restless search for change. For unless we countenance change for change’s sake, or the relativist doctrine that anything goes (—and I don’t) how do we preserve the very best of our thinking, select better quality experiences, and maintain our purposes, directions and values?  How do we avoid losing sight of older wisdom while rushing towards something new? It is here, perhaps, that our need for variation and discrimination serves us best. For the quick and gimmicky, the superficially appealing but weakest objects of our thinking or targets of desire will also be the least substantial and have an essential blandness that can tire us quickly. Besides, the more experience we have, the larger the background against which to compare and judge the worth or quality of what is newly encountered, and to decide if it will be ultimately rewarding. Certainly, people can be fickle or stubborn, but they are seldom fickle or stubborn for long. They will seek out better, according to what they are presently capable of responding to, and they will be dissatisfied by something not worthy of the attention they are capable of. For this reason attempts to dictate their tastes, cultural goods, ideologies or ideas are bound in the end to fail, and about that, and despite of many dark forces around us, I am optimistic.