How to construct an optimistic existentialism
Emerging from vacation the past few weeks, it’s hard to feel any sort of respite. The layered bleakness — political, security, economic, social, technological, planetary — is profound and relentless. Pessimism, dark and brooding, abounds.
A supposed antidote to this is “optimism,” unearthing generic goodness from wherever it might be found. But I find seeking such sunny soothsaying to be a trying exercise, the adult version of the parental aphorism of “don’t worry, everything will soon be better.” Adults know what they never tell their children, that all will not necessarily be better, and everything we observe is in fact contingent on human agency.
I am not optimistic, but I can appreciate contingency and human agency, and that offers us the most hopeful path forward. At the heart of every negative event is the hand of human intellect and execution. Rebuffing that negativity requires the arduous optimism of work, the belief that we can engineer a better society, culture, and planet for human flourishing. We, collectively and individually, are the ultimate commanders of our own destiny.
A few weeks ago, I read Samuel C. Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, a work that has mostly disappeared from the public eye while nonetheless offering a timeless appeal. He interrogates one of the key humanistic questions: why do we build? What’s with all the effort to expand the population, to build new cities, to pursue new scientific inventions? The obvious answer is that we can so we do, but Florman pushes us much farther than that, arguing that “At the heart of engineering lies existential joy.”
Florman excoriates the pontificating at the heart of the Western tradition. “In the broad view, however, it can be seen that the effect of our Greek and Christian heritage has been to convince us that materialism is a defect in human nature.” He argues that materialism is in fact what motivates humans to begin with. “We recognize that we cannot survive on meditation, poems and sunsets. We are restless. We have an irresistible urge to dip our hands into the stuff of the earth and to do something with it.”
Our heritage is interpreted as anti-materialism, but in fact, the great works of Western civilization are suffused with materialist energy. The Bible is exhaustive at times on details of buildings and castles, food and goods, and for good reason, since the creation of beautiful works is not just a benefit to humanity, but an offering to God as well. Some of these grand creations might have been a shock of novelty for pre-modern societies, but Florman argues that we can still equally enjoy that shock today. “We are not as naïve as we were, but we have not been stripped of all enthusiasm and capacity for wonder.”
Florman name checks Albert Camus and his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, on the unrelenting struggle of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down again and start all over. Camus argues that this repetition isn’t nihilism, but rather a form of empowerment and identity formation, since the constant struggle of the boulder offers Sisyphus existential meaning. Florman sees much the same with the engineering profession:
But we are beginning to realize that for mankind there will never be a time to rest at the top of the mountain. There will be no new arcadian age. There will always be new burdens, new problems, new failures, new beginnings. And the glory of man is to respond to his harsh fate with zest and ever-renewed effort.
This observation reminded me of a section from Leon Wieseltier’s essay from 2021 on American interventionism overseas (or lack thereof) in “Where are the Americans?”:
Those who forget history are sometimes condemned to repeat it and sometimes not; and those who remember history will know that it never slows down or stops, it offers no ellipses or time-outs, there is no interregnum between crisis and crisis in which we may calmly reflect and attend conferences before we act again.
(I would love an historical ellipsis right about now).
One key modification to Camus’s thesis is in order. While it is true that Sisyphus is repeatedly pushing a boulder up a mountain, it’s not at all clear that the work is identical from climb to climb. Maybe it’s a different boulder, a different route, a different mountain entirely. Not unlike a hiker who takes different courses but still reaches the same summit, we can see how scientists and engineers repeat the same stages of work (observation, experimenting, theorizing) even as they transition from one project to the next. Even as the boulder comes back down to the ground, something has been gained in the process — we never end up precisely where we started. Sisyphus is the accumulation of all previous struggles, what one might dub wisdom.
Florman acknowledges this in engineering:
The engineer today, for all his knowledge and accomplishment, can still look out on seas scarce charted and on coasts still dark. Each new achievement discloses new problems and new possibilities. The allure of these endless vistas bewitches the engineer of every era.
Solutions are not endpoints, but rather waypoints on the constant journey of human discovery. We obviously see this braided weave in software and science, where code or an experiment may offer us a feature or insight only to lead us to the next challenges to be solved. Those challenges were always lying in wait, and we just never witnessed them because we lacked the means to. Once we open our eyes, we quickly discover the frontiers again, and like Sisyphus, start rolling the boulder of imagination to once again push that frontier further out.
Florman argues that the existential pleasure of engineering isn’t just the utility of the creations, but also the aesthetic value of the inventions themselves. Art and engineering are not enemies, but rather profoundly intertwined:
For the engineer there is ample evidence both from men of letters and men of the fine arts that the machine, rather than cutting him off from the wellsprings of beauty, opens before him new vistas of truth, splendor, and elegance. The beauty of the machine is pure, like mathematics. It is also, paradoxically, imbued with the vitality of humanity, since it is exclusively man-made.
In here, I am reminded of Matthew Crawford’s books like Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, which emphasize the spiritual power of physical creation. The satisfaction that comes from building — for finding the next stage of solutions in the course of the human struggle — is unlike anything offered elsewhere in the modern economy. In the latter book, Crawford discusses the repair of musical organs at extended length. Organs are repaired perhaps once a generation, which means that any maintenance conducted today won’t be evaluated or even witnessed by another person for decades. It’s a vocation answerable only to the quality of one’s personal skill.
All of which brings us back to our world, and the amplifying pessimism that radiates in all directions. When we carefully consider the crises and the maledictions, all of them are derivative of human designs and decisions, problems that originate in the solutions of yesteryear. Each problem is a palimpsest of the human impulse to fix, layers upon layers of solutions that couldn’t quite reach the finish line.
Take climate change. One engineering solution after another, from the use of oil to power our homes to the incredible engineering of our natural world to serve human interests through the likes of dams, has culminated in our present crisis. Some would propose degrowth, a return to that rustic arcadia of pre-modern civilization outside of the petro-capitalism that runs our world. Yet, no one of any analytical depth believes that 8 billion people approaching 10 billion by century end can survive on humanity’s prior primitive technology. So it’s not even a solution — it’s a death sentence. The only path forward isn’t to retrograde our world — it is to progressively engineer forward, undoing what doesn’t work but absolutely doubling down on what does.
Or take inequality. The “machine” at the heart of our economy — capitalism — is under increasing strain from yawning inequality gaps driven by market consolidation and technological network effects. Some critics would burn down the machine, hammering away with the hope of implementing a new engine capable of delivering a more equal and just world. Yet the solution is far simpler and closer, which is tuning the machine we have right before us. We haven’t even tried to ameliorate capitalism’s most ravaging aspects, even as we enjoy the bounties it offers.
These are two gargantuan challenges among dozens that beset us today. Florman and Camus both take an individualistic view to existentialism, of building machines or pushing boulders that in the course of the work, allow us to discover ourselves and the meanings of our existences. It’s an exhausting path, but that exhaustion doesn’t have to be solitary. Sisyphus may indeed be pushing a boulder up a mountain, but he is just one of millions pushing the same boulders up the same mountains. Florman acknowledges the engineer as a member of a profession, but under analyzes the work in the context of teams, a very typically Western intellectual blindness.
We face the greatest challenges humanity has faced in a generation. But we have a new generation of humans brimming with ideas and expertise ready to usher in the next set of solutions. Like a magnet, the positive ambitions of builders are attracted to the most negative of events — and want to bind with them to the very fiber of their existences. That’s not optimism, but merely the fundamental physics of human experience.
- Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman recommends Gemma Conroy’s look at how generative AI technologies like ChatGPT could transform scientific publishing in the decade ahead. “‘It’s never really the goal of anybody to write papers — it’s to do science,’ says Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is also editor-in-chief of the journal eLife. He predicts that generative AI tools could even fundamentally transform the nature of the scientific paper.”
- Shaq Vayda recommends two movies for your weekend watching pleasure. The first is Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, a mid-century, colorful set piece of children and adults in the context of a school stargazing trip. He also recommends Matt Johnson’s movie BlackBerry, about the eponymous mobile device that changed the world but didn’t live to see its everlasting effects.
- Tess Van Stekelenburg and Sam both recommend The MANIAC by Benjamin Labatut, the latest novel by the author of the critically-acclaimed When We Cease to Understand the World. In this story, Labatut follows famed polymath John von Neumann and explores his complex relationships with humans and the development of computing. And speaking of books, Sam also recommends Jeff Jarvis’s The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet
- Yes, yes, I am late, but if you haven’t caught up with Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s look at the academic fraud and replication crisis surrounding Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino, now’s the time. “Simmons told me, ‘We were, like, Holy shit, there are two different people independently faking data on the same paper. And it’s a paper about dishonesty.’”
- Sam has a bundle of AI articles to recommend. Over at The New Yorker, James Somers has a great piece on "How Will A.I. Learn Next?.” Over at Ars Technica, Benj Edwards writes on “Telling AI model to ‘take a deep breath’ causes math scores to soar in study,” while a new Arxiv preprint from Ronen Eldan and Mark Russinovich explores techniques for helping large-language models to unlearn information (say from copyrighted sources) without having to expensively retrain them from scratch. Finally, Sam recommends Étienne Fortier-Dubois’s essay on “AI as Sparkly Magic.” “If AI becomes better at us at programming, at writing, at science, and especially at making new AIs, then it and its descendants will constantly create new technology that is incomprehensible to humans. Magic will flood the world, and for the first time it’ll be sufficiently advanced to be deserving the name. We’ll have cures for cancer that are, effectively, magic potions; we’ll have sources of energy that are the equivalent of shooting electric arcs with our hands.”
- I’m excited to read Samuel W. Franklin’s The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History. From the review in The Wall Street Journal, “Despite its outsize importance in the workplace, creativity as a job qualification is a relatively new concept. The first-known written instance of the word didn’t appear in print until 1875, and before roughly 1950 there was nary an article, book or lecture on the topic.”
- Finally, Sam recommends “How would we know whether there is life on Earth? This bold experiment found out” in Nature and Adam Frank’s “Humans Are Ready to Find Alien Life.” “The search for aliens is a project whose progress is probably going to be measured in decades. But that’s okay. A few decades of being careful and clever is nothing compared with the thousands of years it took to get us where we are today, standing on the threshold of discovery, about to step across.”
That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.