A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 7 – Optimism and Hope

continued from a previous entry

     23. Attitudinal Optimism

One response to the failure of our intellectual analysis to demonstrate that life is or is becoming fully meaningful is to adopt certain attitudes to help us live in the face of the unknown. Let’s consider two potentially helpful attitudes—optimism and hope.  

Optimism is a tendency to expect the best possible outcome. Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will worsen. I wholeheartedly reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes or have faith that the future will be better.

Optimism can also refer, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This kind of optimist sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty or looks on the bright side of life. Such optimism is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing the glass half full. Thus I recommend this attitudinal optimism if it excludes expectations about the future which can easily lead to disappointment.

    24. Attitudinal Hope

Hope also need not refer to an expectation but to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with it’s opposite—despair. When we despair, we no longer care; we give up because our actions don’t seem to matter. After all, why play a game we can’t win or fight for a better world if it’s impossible to bring one about?

So attitudinal hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or help bring about a meaningful cosmos, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive toward those goals nonetheless. Again, this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude that informs my present while rejecting despair or resignation. Such hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.

Moreover, if I despair I won’t enjoy my life as much as if I adopt a hopeful attitude. Thus there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better. The only caveat is that the objects of our hopes must be realistic—having false hopes usually makes our lives go worse. In sum, attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair, leads to caring and acting and makes my life better.

A key difference between optimism and hope is that optimists usually believe that a desirable outcome is probable or likely whereas hope is independent of probability assessments. I may hope for unlikely outcomes but it’s hard to be optimistic about them. Another difference is that despair is more debilitating than pessimism. So while recommending both attitudinal optimism and attitudinal hope, I regard hope as more fundamental.

    25. Wishful Hope

Yet hope is more than simply an attitude about the present; it also entails having desires, dreams, wants or wishes for the future. Again I reject such hopes if they include the idea of expectations, but I can have desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without expecting that they will be fulfilled. (I can want to win the lottery without expecting to win.) Note this hopeful wishing is not faith since I don’t believe or have faith that my wishes will come true.

Like attitudinal hope, wishful hope rejects despair and spurs action. Hopes provide the impetus for acting, which in turn makes the fulfillment of what I hope for more likely. This connection between wishful hoping and action is straightforward. If I hope to become a physician and nothing prevents me from becoming one, then that desire may motivate me to act. In this sense, there is nothing intellectually objectionable or detrimental about wishful hoping—as long as there is a real possibility that such hopes can be fulfilled.

However, if the objects of our hopes are unachievable then hoping for them is futile—we set ourselves up for disappointment hoping for the unattainable. Conversely, realistic hopes generally make our lives go better because they give us reasons to live and to find meaning in the projects motivated by our hopes. I recommend wishful hope.

Part 8 – Hope and Meaning

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5 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 7 – Optimism and Hope

  1. “After all, why play a game we can’t win or fight for a better world if it’s impossible to bring one about?”

    I agree with the above quote.

    This is where I’m informed about life. I don’t think what I want is at all winnable or that a better world is at all possible. Humanity like the tiger cannot change it’s stripes.
    What I consider truthfulness is all I have to combat a world I don’t feel I at all belong in and would have me walk slavishly in lockstep with most of the rest with whom I have no respect or connection. Truthfulness may not feel good but it always feels better to me than a lie even if the lie is a beautiful fairy tale, told by idiots, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you say but I do believe things can get better and, in fact, a good case can be made that life has gotten much better in both quantity and quality as the centuries have passed. Of course, this is debatable.

  3. What I do is categorize optimism. (This comment is another rehash of my philosophy of applied science.)
    Five years ago a missing piece of the puzzle concerning the philosophy of science was put into place. The connection between science and science fiction. Had previously thought no connection existed; then was told that science substantially influences SF and vice versa. In fact one might say S and SF cannot be separated. Actually, learning of the connection only made things more confusing albeit SF is not supposed to make ‘sense’. SF is anti-sense… suspension of disbelief.
    At any rate, there is some hope and, if one’s definition of optimism is optimizing what little there is to be optimistic about, cause for optimism. Materially there is some hope (nano). Physically there is some hope (transhumanism).
    But now I can see why so many are pessimistic:
    to advance we have to eventually give up what it means to be ourselves; to give up family as well. Because with the massive dislocation to come, how could we remain ourselves as we define ourselves/families to be? Remaining ourselves while radically changing ourselves and our substrate is tantamount to having our cake and eating it too. Thus I divide optimism into two artificial categories: material and intangible. Materially there is hope; the intangibles I do not want to think about much. However to a very young person who is not saddled with the intangibles of the past, they– for better and worse– don’t know what they’re missing.

    So the conclusion is it is youth who will move things along. That’s that. Nothing new to write– only a rehash of a rehash which will be rehashed again.

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