PHIL 1100 Lecture Notes - Lecture 19: Sociobiology, The Great Dictator, William Godwin

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25 Aug 2016
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Margaret A. Boden (1966), “Optimism”
Here she provides an analysis of the concept of optimism
I
Many negatives currently in the intellectual world re optimism (intellectuals
frown upon optimism):
o“Simple-minded blindness,” “not ... intellectually respectable,”
oPessimism is considered to be “more realistic,” you’d be considered
uneducated or unintelligent
Bodin then points out that this was not always so, that there are many cases in
intellectual history of expressions of optimism, but today they appear embarrassing
E.g. Condorcet (1795), Spencer (1864)
oThe case of Herbert Spencer is especially interesting, given that the
Victorian Era was one of unbridled optimism, a deep belief in progress (scientific,
technological, moral, etc.), which even infected the rise of the belief in evolution,
so that evolution = progress; he was a social theorist
“Most religions are optimistic—but we have been told that God is dead”
oFamous phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche (late 1800s), by which he meant
that the belief in God is no longer intellectually respectable, given the rise of
science (he anticipated world wars, thought we have to do something to improve
mankind)
Compare with, e.g., the National Academy of Sciences, America’s top scientists,
c. 7% believe in some sort of God (only 5% of biologists believe in a God)
oThat % is probably similar, a little more or less, for every university
department except for Religious Studies
oLeads us to the conclusion that science has, in a way, killed God
Keep in mind also, the Victorian belief in progress was seriously undermined by
two World Wars, followed by the Cold War with massive nuclear armaments, a global
population explosion, increased pollution and habitat damage, mass extinction #6,
climate change, rogue dictatorships, global terrorism, fast food, bad music, etc. etc. etc.
oAfter which a period of prosperity, then the stock market crashed
oDuring the bad times people who believed in progress were disheartened
Her question, Are we intellectually justified in rejecting optimism?
Her answer, “we are not justified”
II
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Here she distinguishes between an optimist and a supporter of optimism
A “supporter of optimism” is a person who doesn’t have much of a reason to support their
optimism
oThey just naturally tend to see the glass as half-full
oThey might make some vague reference to the need for confidence, but their
optimism is basically what she calls “a priori” [prior to experience]
oTheir belief isn’t thought out or based on research, it just flows out of their nature
Hence, she says,some of the most notorious ‘optimists’ may not qualify as optimists in
my sense”
Genuine optimism,” on the other hand, has basically three features:
1. “A statement of facts” (which, she says, is not just about the person, but “may well
include psychological and sociological theories as to the nature of man and society”)
oI would think it should include any relevant facts, where fact simply
means a feature of reality, so e.g. the probability of a massive meteor impact on
Earth
oBtw, it is interesting to note that in later years Boden got into cognitive
science
2. “a list of value-criteria
There are different kinds of values; morals are relative etc.
3. “a positive evaluation of the facts in the light of the suggested criteria”
Stamos thinks this definition is too narrow and it should extend to more kinds of facts
than what she refers to here
This is genuine optimism because an assessment can be made about the basic
feature
Hence if we reject a case of genuine optimism, we must demonstrate that the
person [or culture] has made an error in one of these basic features.
o(You haven’t applied your values correctly, you have facts wrong, etc.)
III
Here she focuses on the third element of her model, and with examples
It is a difficult section, given her examples, and I’ll ignore much of it
“How positive is positive enough?”
One can, she says, think things are going to get worse before they get better
E.g. a lot of down-to-earth Utopian thinkers, such as Karl Marx [the Proletariat revolution
before the Socialist Dictatorship before the Communist Utopia] he thought things were
going to get worse before they get better, but they would eventually get better
oE.g. religious ideologies based on Armageddon
“Genuine hope of improvement is positive enough”
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