Thursday, February 16, 2006


Attitudes, Good and Bad

I read in a signature of a listserver post :
"An optimist is someone who thinks
'It doesn't get any better than this.'
A pessimist is someone who's afraid that's true."

Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil's Dictionary, noted
A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.

The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof -- an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.

I think both these authors are mistaken; they consider only the current state, with statics, not with possible outcomes or dynamics. As wikitionary notes (in definition 1), optimism is "a tendency to expect the best, or at least, a favourable outcome". The classic "optimist sees the glass half full, pessimist sees the glass half empty" is misleading for the same reason. Optimism is not about what is, but about what can and shall be.

Another characterisation is perhaps more useful: an optimist can be disappointed by the outcome of events, but a pessimist can only be pleasantly surprised (unless, of course, her attitude is so poor as to consider a favorable outcome disappointing!).

I realised after writing about "Cat Trouble" that, by this last criterion, I was optimistic. There wasn't much news the vet could give me that wouldn't disappoint. I assumed that the prognosis would continue to improve. I'm disappointed, but still hopeful.

This reminds me of the difference between the engineer and the mathematician. Each is presented with a sexually desirable person in the opposite corner of a room, with the rule "each time the bell rings, you may advance only half the remaining distance toward the object of your desire."

The mathematician doesn't move from her corner. She knows that she will never arrive all the way.

The engineer does move. She, like the mathematician, knows she'll never arrive, but figures she'll come close enough for a good approximation.

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