hope for hope

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 16, 2012

You want to be happy. Now this is not actually a very concrete goal. Before you even begin pursuing it you need to make sure you understand sufficiently just what you mean when you say you want to be happy. Let us, for the sake of irony, assume that you have decided that SUCCESS will make you happy. Well, should you hope for SUCCESS? Let us also assume, again ironically, that you are so rational you decided to buy a lottery ticket. Should you hope that you win the lottery?

Let’s start with the case where you bought a lottery ticket. You hope to win. This seems obvious. The purchase of the lottery ticket is done, you cannot undo it. Winning would have it bestowed upon you millions of dollars. Obviously a good thing, assuming you use the money sufficiently wisely (let us assume this). But your niece inquires into this very issue. She asks if you hope to win. Well, you could lie to her. You should tell her that playing the lottery was idiotic and that you bought the lottery ticket in a drunken frenzy or perhaps your mates were all buying lottery tickets and you did not want to disappoint them. But all else equal, playing the lottery is not a good idea, because the expected profit is negative. So you can still privately hope to win, provided you compartmentalize this dirty emotion sufficiently that it does not leak to cause outside harm.

Suppose you do not hope for SUCCESS. This can mean many things. Perhaps you are a “pessimist” and you believe you will not make it and so you do not strive very hard towards SUCCESS. Perhaps you call yourself a “realist”, and you understand that most people, even those with your enviable traits, don’t quite make it in the SUCCESS game, but you do not let this interfere with your striving towards SUCCESS. Or perhaps instead you do hope for SUCCESS and you are “optimist” and you really believe SUCCESS is all but guaranteed. But no matter your disposition, you would want to achieve SUCCESS. It’s your goal after all. And since you are pursuing it in some form, you have decided that the costs of pursuing it will be more than made up for by eventual SUCCESS, probabilistically speaking. Should hoping make any difference?

Going back to the first case of having purchased a lottery ticket, what you hope for is good news. Having bought the lottery ticket, your actions can no longer influence the outcome. Your hoping for good news is simply an expression of your desires. It does not materially affect any other outcome (as we have agreed to assume, for example, you agree not to buy any lottery tickets in the future, and not to set a bad example for your niece). Your hope is a private matter and if it gives you solace, why not? The case of SUCCESS is different. SUCCESS depends on the possible actions you have not yet taken. But is striving all there is to hope? Provided that you strive the hardest surely what you hope for can no longer matter?

But should you strive your hardest? Obviously not, SUCCESS is not guaranteed and it is not everything you could possibly want in life and certain not everything except for those you do not want. But not only is success uncertain, you also do not understand the probabilities involved. Success is an unknown unknown. How do we deal with such unknown unknowns? Here neither of pessimism, realism, nor optimism works. Because there are no probabilities to speak of. The pessimist, realist, optimist, decide to strive or not strive according to their assessment of their probabilities. But since the probabilities are just unknown, they are stuck. Here instead, the relevant distinction is between the fatalist and the optimist (no relation to our previous “optimist”). The fatalist believes they cannot influence the outcome much. If the fatalist is wrong, it is not because he has mistakenly judged the relevant probabilities. There are no probabilities. The fatalist can only be wrong in retrospect. Since the fatalist has no access to the future, they cannot be criticized if it turned out they were mistaken in deciding not to strive. The optimist believes neither that success or non-success is likely. Remember there are no probabilities to speak of. The optimist instead believes simply that they should strive. Again, the correctness of this decision will only be apparent in retrospect, and so the optimist cannot be criticized on the grounds that they got the probabilities all wrong.

Ultimately it comes down to the nature of knowledge. Knowledge is the most unpredictable force in the universe. It’s possible to reliably predict your own behavior provided your knowledge is fixed, all you have to do is to decide according to your fixed knowledge and observe the decision outcome. But once you begin increasing your own knowledge, regarding your own behavior, all your bets on yourself are off. So the question for hope comes down to: Should one strive to increase one’s knowledge? Setting aside for the moment human psychology and omnipotent supernatural agents playing contrived games, utility is monotonic in knowledge. You cannot make an agent worse off by providing them with extra knowledge.

Every fixed system eventually perishes. This is simply because environments eventually change, and then the system will no longer be adaptive within their new environment. Being fixed, they cannot employ new knowledge to deal with new contingencies. But knowledge also is no guarantee of success. To be precise, striving for knowledge does not ensure one’s survival. After all, knowledge is infinite (we might as well assume this since we are already assuming environments eventually change outside of a system’s expectations), and one might not possess the right knowledge at the right time to save oneself. So this is what it looks like: If you want to survive, not to mention prosper and flourish, you would want to pursue knowledge. You would want to strive. But also be open to new knowledge which would affect your judgement of the productivity of various actions, and the likelihood of eventual success. Adjusting your striving accordingly. If success is at all possible, you should want to hope.


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