An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.
— David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity (2011)
Forward, into the edges of the known — this is where the true optimists of our day live. The lines of thought they draw and connect within their minds are structures formerly unearthed, untold, and unexplained. They are built with the tools of knowledge: conjecture and criticism, logic, experiment, the critical rationalist attitude towards solving problems, and the scientific methodology of trial and error-correction.
Essentially, they have rejected blind pessimism, as David Deutsch explains: "Blind pessimism (precautionary principle) Avoiding everything not known to be safe." A stance that leaves a void of innovation and in its place lies stagnation like the dark ages and death in the face of an unforeseeable society level problem. There are fascinating new strands being sewn inside the minds of a growing set of individuals. They are starting to pick up the pace against the tides of stasis. These are the true optimists: thinkers and builders who have taken the stance that huge problems can be solved, and not just with depressing toil, but with joyful Imagination towards an ever more peaceful world.
Peace is possible because reason is written into the laws of nature.*
*(but not inevitable, it takes effort by us humans)
The relative peace we experience now is due to the optimists of our past: the thinkers, scientists, and philosophers who solved fundamental problems. They gave the engineers and artists the ability to play with new tools of thought. The industrialists then brought scale of production to those inventions, by fine-tuning their manufacturing process and business philosophy, learning how to trade more effectively. But why did these optimists make progress? And who are some great examples of these new optimists?
THE PHILOSOPHY OF OPTIMISM
Firstly we must look at what optimism is. Is it merely a psychological feeling? It used to be. Deutsch did his thing of making a commonplace concept more elegant and exact in The Beginning of Infinity, Affiliate link: (#ad), when he defined the philosophical principle of optimism as, "All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge." The inverse that follows is that all good comes from having the correct knowledge. This stance shapes the world into a playground of transforming some raw material into another material which has more value and more capacity for creating progress. Cotton into clothes, metal into gears, water into energy, chemicals into computers. We can change the world to any state we wish, within the laws of nature, to an ever more peaceful and interesting place.
Want to solve the medical problem of aging? Then bioengineer cures and therapies for the human body. Want to solve climate change? Build millions of micro fusion reactors for every neighborhood. Want to feed the world? Harness the energy from those reactors to power UV lights for vertical indoor farms for billions of people. Want to make the world multi-planetary? Build a production facility in Texas that can build thousands of Starships that can carry over 100 tonnes to space at a time. Want to simulate and model any physical system to an arbitrary level of accuracy? Create a universal virtual-reality generator using a universal quantum computer; that would make possible the simulation of the complex folding of proteins for the development of cures for a multitude of medical problems. Want to extend virtual-reality even further? Figure out brain interface technology so we can plug into the world of The Matrix (1999), without the AI overlords. These are the playgrounds of the new optimists.
OPTIMISTS OF YORE
The path to the optimists of our age is laid down by an unbroken chain of people standing on each other's shoulders. This colossal circus act of global civilization creators can be seen in the history of optimists such as: Karl Popper (1902-1994), Richard Feynman (1918-1988), Albert Einstein (1878-1955), Alan Turing (1912-1954), Marie Curie (1867-1934), Charles Darwin (1802-1882), Michael Faraday (1791-1867), William Godwin (1756-1836), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), and all the way back to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). To name just a few of my favorites.
THE CONSTRUCTORS OF THEORY
The optimists of our day create structures. Some are abstract like the powerful theoretical frameworks of David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto. They are currently challenging the ideas of the naysayers who argue that stagnation is the rule within modern physics. Their work on Constructor Theory makes amazing connections between theories of information, evolution, thermodynamics, and even knowledge itself. The theory is based on a fundamental frame, of what is possible and what is impossible, along with an explanation of why or why not, in terms of specific laws of physics. This is a huge shift from the current view of fundamental physics which is mostly concerned with the mechanics of particles and their movements, not abstract things like evolution and information, let alone something like knowledge itself and how that could be seen within the laws of physics.
The current theory is stuck in an inadequate mode of explaining a thing. Modern physics starts with initial conditions such as where a star or particle is and where it is going to move to, which works for those systems but falls short for understanding information, life, and knowledge in terms of laws of physics. Constructor Theory gives physicists a new mode of explanation. From the movement of stars and quarks, to the workings of evolution at the level of information in genes and memes. It does so by explaining things in terms of possible and impossible tasks, and why those tasks can happen or not due to certain laws of physics. This is a growing beacon of hope for digging down deeper into Feynman's infinite onion of nature:
“Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" No, I'm not. I'm just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it; that would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers and we're just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that's the way it is. ... My interest in science is to simply find out more about the world.”
OPTIMISTS OF DEATH
As we go further down the rabbit hole you will find that as you read these words there are thousands of people fighting to save your life. Well, it's you and every other human who has the tragic fate of being born into a body that decays and then dies. The medical problem of aging is being spearheaded by Aubrey de Grey and his SENS Research Foundation, along with many other biotech companies and research universities around our planet. They view the body as a machine with parts that can be fixed, and fixed without any upper bound. The Book Ending Aging (2007), Affiliate link: (Support us by buying here), explains the finite set of the types of damage that happens in a human body and the paths to outright solving each one of the medical problems until we create evermore healthy bodies. This scientific and humanitarian cause is one of the most undervalued human endeavors at the moment. And as we live longer and longer we are starting to realize more and more how much more there is to explore; from the human body to beyond the atmosphere and into space.
Voyaging to the stars will give society opportunities to get closer and closer to the stories of science fiction. The saying 'the sky's the limit' will soon be a saying that will show your age. Creativity and the laws of physics are the only limits. Elon Musk has said as much in his Caltech commencement address, "Don't let anything hold you back. Imagination is the limit." His first-principles approach to making progress shines in his engineering work at SpaceX and Tesla. In those companies, he and his team outcompete their rivals by asking what laws of physics say is possible and then building from those fundamentals.
While these brilliant optimists have incredible power to shape our civilization, there remain unchecked systems of power that are slowing us down. We are preventing billions of optimists from being created. The education of our children slowly removes the capacity for creative thought. We waste and destroy much of our children's incredible potential. Musk has noticed this and has made changes for his children and the kids of the employees at his companies. Speaking about his school Ad Astra (Latin for "to the stars") that he created, he said, "There aren't any grades, making all of the children go in the same grade at the same time [is] like an assembly line." These are changes in the right direction. Mastery learning, project-based learning, and learning without coercion are what is going to help create future optimists. We need more optimists—people who follow the fun, who have fun figuring out how the world works, who follow it so far they end up creating new parts of the world that have been left unimagined by a pessimistic world. The optimism of the sort here is the only sustainable way to advance the speed and growth of knowledge.
The fun and the joy of discovery and creation can be seen in all the people mentioned above. Musk started out programming computer games because he really enjoyed them. David Deutsch told a story on the Making Sense Podcast, when he met Richard Feynman for the first time and began telling him about the first algorithm for a quantum computer, but Feynman stopped him so he could run to a blackboard to have the joy of finding it out for himself. He reproduced the algorithm to Deutsch's amazement. Marletto can be heard here joyfully musing about evolution, "Living things have puzzled and challenged us since the dawn of our species. Even in the light of our modern scientific understanding, they seem remarkable. A merlin falcon hunting its prey, a hummingbird suspended in the air beside a flower...." This deep playful connection runs throughout the best thinkers of our day.
The lines that we as a society choose to draw coalesces into an ever-work-in-progress portrait we call civilization. We can either slow down and break the unbroken chain of progress that humanity has achieved since the enlightenment or we can keep making connections. Connections to each other through our ideas, our kindness, our technologies, our thinking, for the sake of living so well we stretch out into the cosmos, and dive gleefully into the rich contents of our minds. The project of Infinite Days is going to highlight and connect the rational ideas of the like that the optimists here have put forward. Yes, we too can see so many broken parts of the world. We understand that solutions equal progress, we start with a problem and create solutions and move forward to better problems. It is our mission at Infinite Days to help bring about this brilliance so that we may shower in the abundance all around us.
If you want to keep following these lines of thinking, I'm on twitter @JesseNichols.