29 January 2006

What do we get out of philosophy?

What do we get out of philosophy?

The utilitarian nature of this question excludes it from
being a philosophical question. But at least we get the
opportunity to subject philosophy to the test for
justification of existence. This test, as you know, simply
tries to find out if sometime has any benefit for us or
purpose in life. And if the answer is negative on both
counts then we can feel free to ditch whatever it is we are
testing. Should we ditch philosophy?

Unfortunately, philosophy, or rather the word philosophy,
suffers from a very serious application problem. The word
means different things to different people, which makes it
difficult for us to be precise about what it is we are
talking about. In fact, the word philosophy is used, misused
and completely abused by a lot of people. There are many
words like this; environment, love, and justice come
immediately to mind. So what philosophy are we talking about
in the first place?

We can start by having a look at the shelves of the average
bookshop under the heading Philosophy. We've all been there,
if it is a decent bookshop we might find books about
Aristotle, Russell, Marx then maybe something about
religion, self help psychology, mysticism and eastern
philosophy. And from some vendors on the internet we can
even find under philosophy, facial creams, shampoos and
laughing gas. This suggest that we have to start at the
beginning and establish the parameters of what philosophy we
are talking about.

This is not the place to do a leisurely tour of philosophy,
so we'll have to take some shortcuts, but before we do that,
who is the "we" in the question? This "We" could mean the
personal we, as individuals, and the plural we, as a society
or community. Does this mean, however, that philosophy gives
the same benefit to us as individuals and as a society?
Historically, philosophy, and I will use philosophy to mean
Western philosophy, tended to be an activity of a elite
group. What we take as Western philosophy has been developed
by people with military background, politicians, diplomats,
self employed, saints, lords and gentlemen, and more
recently academic philosophers.

This gives the impression that individuals who do not belong
to some inner circle have nothing to say about philosophy,
nor have any business in the activities of philosophy. The
fact that the average person in the past did not have access
to express their ideas to a mass audience did not help the
development of mass philosophy; sure sometimes they did take
to the streets as an alternative. Moreover, expressing ideas
in public was the least of the average person's problems in
the past. Throughout history the average person had problems
keeping body and soul together let alone keeping the mind
intellectually busy. Have things changed for the individual
today? Do we have more access to philosophy now as
individuals then the equivalent individual in the past?
Let's say yes for now and come back to this point later.

Philosophy's influence at the social or community level is
different. Philosophy at this level not only has changed the
path of history, but more importantly philosophy has
influenced the course of Western thinking, from science,
politics and art. As we know, philosophy actually gave birth
to many disciplines of what are vital sources of knowledge
for today's society. However, there seems to be a
discrepancy between the influence philosophy has on society
and the role it plays in society. Philosophy has been around
for quite a long time, certainly longer than certain
disciplines we can mention, so how come people in philosophy
are not rewarded with real authority in society? For
example, why aren't there international awards and prizes
for philosophy, like economics or peace? Why is it that
philosophers are not prominent members in parliaments, let
alone ministries or heads of state? Of course, in modern
times there were a number of philosophers in the House of
Lords, and probably quite a few others in other parliaments
in Europe. For our purposes, philosophers do not generally
hold positions of real authority in the state. Even if we
take into account the possibility that philosophers might
know better than to get involved in such activities.

We can now go back to the question, what philosophy are we
talking about? We can look at two main trends that have been
developed in western philosophy. We can look at philosophy
as a means to examine ideas in the context of our
experiences. For example, we can ask questions about life
and the meaning of life and then try to find answers for
these questions. We may take a position on a subject and
then find the ways to support that position. However, this
approach leaves a lot to the standing of the individual
writer in his or her community rather than to his or her
philosophical acumen. A good thinker can have convincing
arguments, but what matters is whether they also have a good
marketing manager.

This can lead to some incongruous situations. For example,
the fallacy from verecundian (argument from reverence or
respect) comes to mind. We accept an argument because it was
made by someone who is held in high esteem in our society.
Sometimes this person has no background or knowledge in the
matters they champion. For example, a film star can feel
obliged to tell us how to defend our country, although they
have no idea about international diplomacy. The problem is
not that he or she does not have the right to do express
their opinions, but that their opinion is not accepted on
the strength of sound argument, but by virtue of being a
famous film star. Another form of fallacy would be that from
authority. We accept an argument about a given subject just
because it is put forward by someone who was trained in that
subject. For example, we accept statements on bioethics just
because they are made by biologists or medical

We can adopt a different approach to philosophy. We can
focus on the meaning and methods of arguments rather than
who puts them forward or the emotional factor of the
subject. It is not so much that we are not interested in
questions about the meaning of life, but that we should busy
ourselves considering the meaning of questions and concepts.
For example, how does language convey meaning? And what
methods do we employ when analysing questions? We can
examine the scientific method or the different logics which
we employ to further our knowledge. The idea here is indeed
to provide some objectivity and impersonal influence on the
way we philosophise.

Of course, this rigorous examination of methods and meanings
of concepts or words might stop us from answering day to day
questions which concern most people. We might also be
restricting ourselves to what philosophy is supposed to be
all about. Furthermore, restricting ourselves by conforming
to some form of strict logic or scientific method might lead
to equally important anomalies. For example, not everything
needs to conform to the high standards of formal logic. A
lot of every day thinking and argumentation is based on
insight, foresight, intuition and experience which do not
always survive the rigours of logic or science. A doctor
might know from experience that patients with certain
problems ought to be prescribed a certain treatment.
However, his or her methods were never subjected to peer
reviews and empirical investigation, so his or her
procedures are not accepted as professional behaviour. There
is an element of Catch 22 here.

This sort of philosophical approach suggests that the way we
do things will not be changed unless we can show that an
alternative is better. But no alternative will be adopted
because no one dares to test alternatives; maybe because no
one will fund such experiments or no one want to risk their
reputation by putting forward alternatives. One of the many
results of this fallacy was the disaster of the frontal
assaults order by allied generals during the first world
war. Whilst the German defenders adopted effective
strategies for their machine gun units, the allied generals
still ordered ineffective and deadly assaults against those
positions. Although the numbers are debatable, one figure
has it 15 million dead during World War l; nine million
military and 7m civilians.

There is always an attraction in trying to answer questions
about the meaning of life. Look at it this way, we are a few
billion people living on this planet, each experiencing
various degrees of frustration and suffering. Sometimes we
have good moments, but after all is said and done, we end up
dead. Under these circumstances it is quite fair to ask,
what are we doing here, what is going on here? And given
that we are here, which is the best way to proceed? Some
seriously think that this is how we can use philosophy;
answering these questions is what we can get out of

I suspect, however, that this position is the result of a
misunderstanding. Using the methods of philosophy can give
us a sound argument. Sound arguments also have the
attraction of looking good. They also make us feel good, a
well argued position is itself a satisfaction; a good story
is always a good story. So feeling good about an argument
might be mistaken for an argument being good.

There is nothing more satisfying or a source of good feeling
than fighting evil. However, as we know, people have used
questionable justifications in the pursuit of this goal. For
example, the concept of justice constantly manipulated,
appeal to authorities whose existence has never proved and
of course there were no rules of evidence when accusing
innocent people as witches or infidels. Equally disturbing
is the use of philosophical arguments to solve the problem
of wealth distribution. Some have argued that it is
justifiable to appropriate existing wealth and then employ
some simple mathematical formula, such as x divided by y, to
make their argument look scientific. The attraction of using
a simple division for solving big problems is very
persuasive, but not necessarily effective, even with all the
best intentions in the world. On the other hand, a free for
all wealth grab, with a land grab as bonus, is not exactly a
neat solution either.

This suggests that what we get out of philosophy depends a
lot on what we try to get out of it. And more importantly,
how we try to get it. I would argue that the modus operandi
of philosophy should focus on asking questions. Questions
about meaning and reasoning are as important as practical
questions. Questioning arguments and assumptions is as
important as questioning the motives of people's actions. A
practical consequence of this approach is that we not only
examine alternatives to our arguments, but also considering
the consequences of our position.

Let us take an example in political philosophy. One of the
accepted duties of the state is the defence of the realm.
Maybe the terminology is a bit pass�, but we can live with
that. A modern argument on defence spending is that the
money we spend on arms should be spent on such laudable
activities as building hospitals or helping the poor. It is
very easy to find arguments to support this position, but
are we obliged to consider alternatives or maintaining the
status quo?

Once we start introducing alternatives or considering the
status quo then things become complex. But then again just
because things are complex it does not mean we should
abandon them. And this is one very serious thing we can get
out of philosophy, the ability to stay the course when
things become complex is something philosophy is good at.
With philosophy we train our minds (brain) to deal with
complex arguments and reality; the quick fix or the quick
gratification is not a strategy for philosophy.

Furthermore, philosophy helps stretch the boundaries of our
existing knowledge by the very process of questioning and
association of ideas. What once passed as philosophy became
physics, psychology, linguistics and so on. The field of
ethics has developed and evolved theories of justice,
government and, very slowly, religious thinking. Philosophy
is not only a source for new ideas, but also serendipity
sometimes. We can think of philosophy of set the theoretical
standards by which we conduct our affairs. We can either
take the world as it comes and then try to make the best of
things. Or we can take the world as it ought to be and
compare our performance to this standard. So, we may either
chose to buy the cheapest frying pan in the shops or to buy
the pan that is the product of ethical commerce.

Some people criticise philosophy because it is a discipline
that does not solve any problems. Civil engineering helps us
build roads and bridges, medicine cures our illnesses, even
advertising helps keep production lines in business. As I
tried to argue above, philosophy is a very ambiguous term
that can lead to many misunderstandings. Of course, applying
this sort utilitarian criteria to philosophy, is as
ridiculous as complaining that my laptop cannot cook my
Sunday joint. This criticism also relies on the confusion
between the word and the activity. Of course philosophy is
not a word, but an activity. And today there is a lot of
philosophy being done even if it is not called as such. Some
of the most exciting philosophy today is done in quantum
mechanics, consciousness, machine thinking, bioethics,
psychology and neurology, economic and political theories
and information theory, just to mention a few cases. We even
find philosophy as the motivation for some of the best
cinema block busters in recent times.

Going back to the personal level, one of the most valuable
things philosophy can give us is the ability to survive
criticism and failure. In the quest of clarifying arguments,
meanings and methods we come across arguments that are
sometimes better than ours and may even show how wrong we
can be. This tends to happen practically every time we do
philosophy; there is always someone else who has a better
argument than. This has the ability to make us
intellectually tough. Philosophy might not give us data and
information about the world, but it gives us the ability to
find out what we need to know for our projects. My personal
position on this is that if one is worried about one's self
esteem, then philosophy is clearly not the thing to do.

One of the major obstacles I identified earlier for doing
private philosophy in the past was the lack of opportunity
to make our ideas public. Fortunately, today, we do not need
to spend so much time trying to keep body and soul together.
Thanks to the microwave oven or for having ditched the soul
altogether, we have more time on our hands and more time to
think. Of course, today it is easier to join a university
course in philosophy or read about the things we are
interested in. And then they invented the internet. The
internet has changed what we think about, how we think about
things, what information we have available and most
important of all, how we communicate with each other. Today,
we have few excuses for not communicating with other people.
And if that is not enough, there are Sunday evenings to get
together to discuss philosophy with friends. It is a pity
that there are still people these days, in far away
countries, who believe that discussing philosophy is
subversive or the work of the devil. But then again,
philosophy does give us the luxury to be free; enjoy.

Take care


15 January 2006



There is this object in the sky that we see and feel every
day, that travels above us. It creates a lot of light which
changes colour from deep red to practically white, but if we
look directly at this object, it can blind us or at least
can cause us serious damage. During certain periods of the
year it creates a great deal of heat which can be fatal at
certain times when experienced in certain places. However,
this heat can be very pleasant when we feel it....and so on
and so forth. Of course, we all know that I am describing a
star..........You thought I was describing the Sun; how

The advantage of naming things and experiences is that we
replace a long and ambiguous description with a word or, in
some cases, with a group of words. Not only is this more
efficient use of language, but is less likely to lead to
ambiguities. Thus, if I said, ''The sun is shining bright
today,'' you would know what I mean. The unfortunate thing
about this naming game is that it can easily lead to
restrictions on how we think about things. Of course, stars
and the sun are fairly predictable so our thinking is not
really that limited. However, take the following examples,
"The London fog" or "The rain in Spain," the one that falls
mainly on the plain. In the first case it was smog and not
fog and in the second example we wish that the rain did
fall. The names we give these phenomena can also influence
the way we think about them. Fog is romantic, smog kills
people. Guilt is one of those words with its meaning so
engrained in our culture and language that it is very
difficult for us to change our views on it. This is

If we had to prepare a specifications sheet for guilt it
would look something like this: an unpleasant emotional
feeling that affects our thinking and our behaviour. This
feeling is usually the result of an act, and its
consequences. Sometimes, the feeling is also the result of
inaction rather than action. Guilt can be felt by a person
without any prompting from others, but in many cases it is
ascribed by others. Sometimes, it is also ascribed to whole
groups of people rather than individuals. Usually, our acts
transgress some given law or rules. The most influential
feature of guilt is that it is usually associated with
punishment or, at the very least, condemnation. The
underlying rationale for guilt is to change the behaviour of
people. People have to stop behaving in such a way that
hurts or injures others. For example, we do not want people
to be selfish.

An anomaly about guilt is that people sometimes have a
feeling of guilt when they have no cause to be so, whereas
in other cases people don't feel any guilt when they have a
really good cause to be. A case of feeling guilty when none
seems to exist is concentration camp survivor guilt. People
who survived the Nazi concentration camps, and more recently
the camps during the war in the ex-Yugoslavia, feel a sense
of guilt for having survived whilst their family and friends
died in the camps. Similar feelings are felt by soldiers
after combat or survivors of disasters or accidents. This
form of guilt challenges our intellect because we all
recognise that these people have no cause to feel guilty
especially after what happened to them; yet they do.

An equally challenging form of guilt is collective guilt.
How can a group feel guilty? Guilt is a personal feeling.
Moreover, how can a group be guilty of things which they
were not responsible for in the context of history. Post war
Germany is a modern example of collective guilt which today
does not make sense given that those responsible for the war
have mostly passed away now. In the case of collective guilt
of a nation, an element of political manipulation is
sometimes involved. The humbling of Germany, can be quite
useful for some countries in the context of international
politics. Japan's history in China or the slave trade
conducted by some European countries in Africa are other
cases where collective guilt applies.

Some try to understand guilt from an evolutionary position.
The evolutionary model of guilt suggests that we feel guilt
as a means to make amends with the group for any discretions
we might have committed. This means giving a signal to the
group that we are prepared to amend our behaviour and that
we allow the group some say in changing our future
behaviour. We are signalling to the group that we are not
selfish after all. Failure to give this message to the group
might result in being ostracised from the group and could
well mean death after finding ourselves alone to deal with
the world at large. So, although there is nothing
immediately in it for us if we feel guilt, it is worth our
while to do so. On the evolutionary model, we stand to gain
more than if we feel guilty for any indiscretions. It is
quite telling that the evolutionary model of guilt has a lot
in common with altruism. With altruism, we are faced with
acts or behaviour, if you like, where there is nothing
directly in it for us, but, nevertheless, it is still worth
our while to be altruistic.

Accepting that the above outline description of the
evolutionary model is very rough and ready, we can still
identify some of its drawbacks. For example, it does not
explain why we should bother with protecting guilty
behaviour when we can just reproduce to select honesty and
altruistic behaviour. Why give the guilty a second chance,
when we can selectively choose the honest? Furthermore,
those who transgress the laws can still be grouped together,
away from the honest ones, and hence they can reproduce and
evolve as a separate group. In fact, this was tried in the
past and the result is Australia, which is not bad going.
Thirdly, the fact that guilt is wide spread within society,
as much as altruism, suggests that guilt has a more
important function than just amending or manipulating

Guilt, as we know it, is very much linked to religious
beliefs, legal justice and some moral systems. You would
have noticed that in the specifications I did not include
the idea of restitution from guilt. The idea that there is a
way of getting back to the status quo before we were guilty
of something. If I feel guilty for having joined the
resistance instead of staying with my mother (Sartre's
example), the fact still remains that I have this guilt
feeling in me irrespective of whether I am justified or not
for what I chose to do (my observation). The idea of
restitution to the status quo before the guilt event, is
only found in these human made systems. If I feel guilty for
not having stayed with my mother nothing can change this
fact, nothing can change my feelings and nothing can restore
the status quo. This natural feeling of guilt is
mono-directional. We can learn to live with it, but we
cannot go back to a situation before guilt manifested itself
in us.

Nevertheless, the idea of restitution is a very powerful
tool in the hands of those who lead these human
institutions. The power of restitution is that we can really
manipulate the behaviour of people by offering them the
opportunity to go back to the status quo. The power of
forgiveness and the feeling of being accepted back into the
community is very important for us given that we are by
nature social creatures. The ritual of confession and the
sacrament of penance in the Catholic church are very good
examples of the power of restitution, and management of
guilt for that matter. Furthermore, this restitution does
not cost those in authority anything because they appeal to
some higher authority for their power. Thus, the inquisition
did not punish people in their own name (although in reality
they did), but in the name of God. A judge does not send
someone to the electric chair because they feel like it, but
because the law demands such a sentence. All things being
equal, the judge or the inquisitor need not feel guilty for
their sentencing; they might not like it, but not feel
guilty. Hence, the administrators of institutions that
manage guilt for us have a form of immunity against guilt
itself. Let's face it, if judges were to feel guilty for
sentencing someone to jail, justice would come to a halt.

This immunity, therefore, is quite legitimate in the normal
course of events, but what about situations when the
institutions abuse their power. For example, we all know the
inquisition did abuse its powers and many innocent people
have been punished for crimes they did not commit. The
misuse of the power of guilt need not even be the result of
wicked intent or incompetence. However, the side effect of
this immunity from guilt means that the administrators of
guilt do not necessarily feel obliged to changed their
profession behaviour. Of course, in a society that is
governed by the principles of law and order, one hopes that
mistakes are very few and rectifiable, besides having
effective checks and balances.

Contrary to natural guilt, where restitution does not seem
to apply because facts are facts, and it is a matter of
personal conscience, institutional guilt, for a better term,
has a monopoly on the whole infrastructure of guilt. These
institutions have mechanisms to establish the law, complex
systems to find the facts, a system to identify agents who
are responsible for transgressions, methods to punish people
and finally the authority if restitution. Is it possible,
however, that these institutions have a very short horizon
perspective that is detrimental to the very idea that guilt
is a means of changing behaviour?

Take for example the criminal courts, they are there to
judge (by whatever justification) whether someone is guilty
of a criminal act and to punish them. But a criminal court
does not judge whether the police commissioner should have
had more police officers on the beat thus making it
difficult for burglars to operate. Criminal courts do not
judge whether the minister of finance is spending enough
money on social investments. Basically, these institutions
do not go behind the transgression or the source of guilt to
discover what made someone behave the way they did. They are
more backward looking than forward looking institutions.

In a way this is an unfair criticism of these institutions.
In the case of the courts their function is clearly set out
by parliaments or a constitution. This is their function,
this is their job, so its unfair to criticise these
institutions for things they are not responsible for.
Moreover, these institutions are not only concerned with
responsibility and punishment. Religion, for example, guides
us on how to be good to ourselves, how to perform acts of
charity and altruism. The courts are responsible for
safeguarding our property rights and human rights.

However, this incapacity to look forward and change things
determines not only how the institutions themselves behave,
but how they really affect society in general. Finding,
people to blame becomes the modus operandi of these
institutions. This blame culture detracts us away from what
guilt ought to be: a means to change behaviours and, I
suggest, the causes of these unacceptable behaviours.

The ultimate failure of the blame culture is in the use of
capital punishment. Capital punishment does not work, we all
know that, the supporters of capital punishment know that,
and nature knows that as well. If capital punishment worked
incidents of murder would be unheard of today. The first
problem with those who advocate capital punishment is that
they assume people go around rationalising the consequences
of their actions before murdering someone. It's as if the
bank robber takes a few minutes to think about the
consequences of shooting the cashier before pulling the
trigger. Finding what causes people to murder in the first
place, and try and do something about it, is, in my opinion,
more important than simply putting people behind bars.

Coming closer to situations we are more familiar with, using
guilt to fuel the blame culture leads to what is sometimes
referred to as defensive management and defensive medicine.
In the field of employment some managers instead of giving
feedback and encouraging good professional practices they
busy themselves with finding mistakes of their subordinates.
They spend more time trying to find fault with their
subordinates than in fixing their management style. We are
all familiar with the result of such management practices.
The first people to suffer the consequences of defensive
management are the employees themselves who can go through
some really stressful time The next victim of this bad
management style are the shareholders, if the company is a
private concern, or the tax payer if it's a public sector
department. Employees, who are more concerned with avoiding
blame and punishment, cannot be focused on the client or the
integrity of the organisation. So, instead of providing a
service to customers or citizens, these employees try to
protect themselves against an unprofessional management

Equally unacceptable is defensive medicine. Luckily, this is
not as wide spread as defensive management, but there are
enough people working hard at it. Basically, defensive
medicine leads medical professionals to concentrate more in
not being sued than caring for the patient. The results are
usually patients having either to undergo unnecessary
treatment or, worse still, get no treatment at all.
Moreover, medical services become very costly and/or
inefficient because institutions become more bureaucratic,
unnecessary treatment adds to costs and delays and, on a
personal level, insurance cover cost carers even more. This
means that medical services are either priced out of the
reach of most people or add a serious burden to the public
finances. Which ever is the case, the patient suffers.

To balance the scenario about defensive management and
defensive medicine one must take into consideration the
issue of accountability. Just because defensive practices
lead to some very serious anomalies and injustices, this
does not mean that people should not be accountable for
their actions. The problem with defensive practices is that
they put blame and punishment as the objective of
accountability instead of fixing problems and improving
services. Of course, it is one thing to hold people
accountable for their carelessness or unprofessional
behaviour and another to identify the limits of what is
acceptable risk taking. The issues involved are not easy to
solve and some might even be beyond an acceptable solution.

Accountability, brings us back to the theme of the
institutions going behind the facts to find our what
happened and what caused the situation in the first place.
This means that accountability is different from
responsibility, because, in my opinion accountability means
giving reasons for one actions, whereas responsibility means
that one accepts that one behaved in a certain way. Everyone
involved in professional practices, for example, should be
accountable and not just those who transgress. It is not
enough that the burglar is caught, but that the authorities
are really providing law and order. It is not enough that a
manager identifies mistakes made by his staff, but also
whether management is providing the right policies and
support. I don't think that the blame culture is compatible
with accountability.

This is why, in my opinion, guilt is one of those words that
has become a victim of the sometime blinkered naming game.
Its meaning is too much linked to the blame culture as
opposed to let's-learn-from-our-mistakes culture.

Take care


08 January 2006



There are some things that when we study them or investigate
them we stand to be negatively affected by these very same
things. I have in mind, for example, infectious viruses or
radioactive materials. For philosophers, optimism must
surely fall in this category of subjects. How we proceed can
determine our views on optimism; we can either end up being
all pro optimism (Leibniz) or all anti optimism
(Schopenhauer). Trying to be neutral about the subject is no
mean feat.

Many commentators have pointed out that our state of
physical or psychological well being directly affects our
level of optimism. The other thing commentators have
rightfully pointed out is that being optimistic does not
mean that we are less likely to be pessimistic. These two
insights might help us understand why someone might behave
as an optimist one minute or pessimist the next. However, we
can understand optimism by going behind what we think is
going on.

Why do we need to be optimistic or pessimistic in the first
place? I don't mean, because the world is full of evil or
that we should always look at the bright side of life. But
rather, what function does optimism play in our actions and
what is the nature of optimism? In fact, how can we explain
the causal relationship between our actions and optimism?

Optimism is clearly linked to our state of beliefs rather
than our state of knowledge. This is quite reasonable since
the only purpose we have for optimism is that it helps us
see the future in a certain light and as a consequence helps
decide what to do. If we believe that our job prospects are
good, we keep on trying to get the job we feel we deserve.
And we keep on trying irrespective of the state of the
economy, or our background or the fact that what we are
applying for might have gone the way of the dodo. On the
other hand, we might just get that job after all. The point
is that when it comes to the future we just don't know.

However, our knowledge that things are bad and the belief
that there are things we can do to improve our situation,
might seem to be contradictory. We cannot rationally know
that things are bad and at the same time feel good. We might
be tempted to say that knowledge pertains to our rational
being while optimism to our emotional self. Hence optimism
is just irrational. There certainly is enough evidence to
suggest that optimism does appeal to our emotions. In fact,
it is only when things are going wrong, and therefore when
we are emotionally vulnerable, that we need all the optimism
we can muster. When things are going well we try not to slip
up, and certainly try to enjoy our good fortune.

I am not convinced that there is such a contradiction
between knowledge and optimism. Apart from the fact that
there is no law which says that we have to be rational, our
state of knowledge and our beliefs (optimism) are not the
same thing. Sure we know that our present employment
situation is bad or that we are very familiar with the state
of the economy, but that is different from our beliefs about
future events and our employment prospects. To start with,
we can never tell what a manager might think about our
employability in their company, and by the same token it
also seems that not enough people can tell how the economy
will turn out to be in a few months time. In fact, we know
that our knowledge about the future is very limited indeed.
It is therefore not surprising that we make heavy use of our
beliefs when contemplating the future to compensate for the
lack of knowledge we have about the future. Hence, optimism
is forward looking , whereas knowledge is about facts,
truths, certainties and probabilities.

Furthermore, we can always argue the sceptic's position and
say that what we think is knowledge about a situation is not
necessarily solid knowledge. What we thought was a bad
situation turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Hence, our
claims about certainty are not as solid as we wish them to
be. The contradiction must therefore be based on the false
assumption that what we think is knowledge might not be so.
Strictly speaking, our knowledge might not always be that
solid and our beliefs about the future are not always worth
much any way. So, even if there is a contradiction it is of
no consequence anyway.

Optimism involves those sets of beliefs where our evidence
for any desired outcome is very slim or none at all. In
other words, we perceive that the probability of an event is
so low that we cannot use normal language to describe the
probabilistic outcome of an event. For example, we cannot
use such words as, maybe, possibly, a good chance to refer
to any future events when we have no evidence for such
events happening. However, we do understand the higher order
principle that if something is physically possible, then it
might possibly happen. There is nothing unreasonable in
believing that we can get a job. I suggest that optimism
taps into this sort of higher order beliefs that are
certainly based on our past experiences or even the
experiences of those we know. I would go further and suggest
that the more we know what is possible and what is probable
about the world, the more we are likely to be optimists when
the need arises. This is because the more real facts and
knowledge we have the better our judgements might turn out
to be. So, besides making us feel good, optimism also gives
us the impulse to act on things which we wouldn't have done
had we used traditional means of reasoning or motivation. It
is as if optimism appeals to a set of probabilities that are
more generic, more metaphysical, than our normal set of
daily probabilities.

Feeling good, which is an other characteristic of optimism,
should tell us more about the nature of optimism. For me,
feeling good is all part of the pain management strategy in
our life. If our level of optimism is directly linked to our
physical or psychological state of being then surely this
means that pain or the absence of pain is directly involved.
As I said above, optimism is usually required when things
are not going well for us. The issue is not about the type
of pain we feel, but the intensity and nature of pain.
Although society does not seem to give psychological pain
the importance it deserves, this is nevertheless a powerful
influence on our actions. An unfriendly boss might not be
inflicting any physical pain, but the psychological pain is
nevertheless taking its toll on our well being. The
question, in my opinion, is not whether pain is involved,
but how it is involved. Does optimism suppress pain or does
it compete with pain to attract the attention of our
conscious self? In other words, is optimism an emotional
force more powerful than pain or is a better competitor than

Furthermore, is optimism something we initiate consciously,
so that we can only be optimistic when we are conscious, or
does it stem from the unconscious self in us? I am not
convinced that we initiate optimism from the unconscious
self. To suggest that optimism is triggered by the
unconscious self implies some form of mechanism that gets
activated every time we are in a bad situation. If it is a
physiological process than we have to show why sometimes it
triggers optimism and sometimes not, and then why it does
not seem to function in some people. If the mechanism is
psychological, we would still have to show how the
unconscious self rationalises the activation (or not) of
optimism. However, we know that not everyone is an optimist
when experiencing bad situations, hence either the trigger
mechanism is broken in some of us or there is no such
mechanism that triggers optimism automatically. In any case,
we also believe that we are in control of ourselves whether
we are optimists or not.

An other way of showing that optimism is a conscious action
in us is by pointing out the very fact that optimism comes
in various forms and degrees. Some are always optimistic,
some are not, some can be optimistic and some are just
unable to be optimistic whatever the situation. This pick
and mix state of affairs suggests that at the very least an
element of training and learning is involved in being
optimists. Which explains why there are quite a large number
of pessimists as well. If optimism was an inherited trait,
we'll need something like this if it is to function
automatically, then surely pessimists would never get to
survive the evolution chain. Especially given how hard it is
to find a mate, let alone mate with someone to pass on the
pessimism genes.

In fact, pessimism can also help us understand optimism. So
far I have said nothing about pessimism, and like some
commentators I don't want to say that pessimism is the
opposite of optimism, but that pessimism performs a function
different from optimism. Opposites tend be "either or", they
tend to violate the law of non contradiction if found
together, but optimism and pessimism can go together without
contradicting this law.

If we accept that optimism is a state of mind to counter act
a disagreeable situation then what is pessimism? One of the
ways we use optimism is to motivate us into some action that
might bring about a desired effect. So optimism helps us do
things, against the odds, which we would not have done
otherwise. But we mustn't forget the importance of pain in
this; optimism is also there to limit or even stop pain.
Some might well jump to the conclusion that pessimism must
be some form of perversion or psychological malfunction by
maintaining pain or, as some would say, by wallowing in
pain; maybe pessimists are masochist. One thing is clear
about pessimism and that it does not try to do something to
get rid of pain.

To think that pessimists are masochists is of course
ridiculous. I would argue that pessimism is no less a
strategy to manage pain than optimism. If you like,
pessimism is a strategy to limit pain, a sort of damage
limitation exercise. Pessimism might stop us from doing
something that might hurt us even more. Pessimism is the
motivating force that will stop us digging if we find
ourselves in a hole. On the other hand, optimism is a
strategy to alleviate pain and even get rid of it
altogether. Something that will motivate us to get out of
the hole. So trying not to make things worse is no less a
valid strategy than trying to make things better. This
argument then explains how the same person can be both
optimistic and pessimistic. It is therefore not an "either
or" situation, but an if and when case.

The different functions of optimism and pessimism also
explain why optimism and pessimism cannot be totally the
result of some unconscious mental event. If we use optimism
and pessimism as a strategy in life and for pain management
in particular, then surely we need to be in some conscious
state of mind. For example, we need to be aware of what is
going on around us especially when we are assessing threats
and opportunities. In any case, we still think that we are
responsible for our action, and others hold us to be
responsible, irrespective of whether we were optimists or

So what is the problem with optimism if it is just a
straight forward survival strategy? The first serious
problem is that we might mistake feeling good, to our
problems or woes having been solved and so do nothing about
the causes of those problems. We might be tempted to think
that just because we feel good from being positive things
will turn out to be alright just by themselves. This might
be true of course, but I suggest we'd better feel lucky as
well if we adopt this approach to things.

An other serious problem with optimism is the fact that it
seems to come is degrees and levels of intensity. We can
find the evidence for this in our language. We can consider
some of the synonyms for optimism to see how this works.
Positive thinking is a very strong form of optimism. Not
only does it mean an ability to think how things can be
good, but also to act as if things are going to be better.
Positive thinking also seems to imply a meaning of being
permanently in optimistic mode irrespective of the
circumstances. Hope is another form of optimism, but maybe
without the aggression of self help gurus usually associated
with the term positive thinking. In fact, hope has been the
currency of most religions for hundreds of years. However,
hope, in the context of religion is a spring board to trust
and belief in a god, whilst positive thinking clearly pins
trust and belief on the individual. Of course, positive
thinking is not the same as being positive. When we are
being positive we are just looking at all options that might
work in our favour or maybe simply not giving up in our
quest for a better life. A lesser degree of optimism than
positive thinking or hope.

Wishful thinking and over confidence have a degree of
negative meaning in them. This is because we use them to
refer to situations when we're over optimistic and things
turn out badly. This links back to the condition that we are
still responsible for our actions and still have to evaluate
our actions. In my opinion its also links back to the degree
of certainty and knowledge we have about things. The wrong
facts can easily lead to disasters. However, the
consequences of being over optimistic might not only affect
us, hence the importance of responsibility. History is
littered with casualties of wishful thinking and over
confidence; just pick an example for yourselves.

Given that optimism comes in degrees it can easily backfire
because we might misjudge our actions or misread situations.
This is because optimism, like most of our conscious life,
requires that we not only make value judgements, but
strategy judgements as well. Which might explain why
sometimes we need a dose of pessimism, just to keep things
balanced or simply to mark time for a while.

Take care