The Optimism Cafe: John Hands Optimistic for The Future of Humankind
"Globally, we must practice altruism, cooperation, and convergence. This is what will lead us to an optimistic future."
That's what John Hands told us when we welcomed him to the Zoom-powered Optimism Café at The Centre for Optimism with Robert Masters, Victor Perton, Garry Miller and Noirin Mosley.
John Hands is the author of "The Future of Humankind: Why We Should be Optimistic."
Reflecting Mandela's comment, "I'm an optimist. I don't know whether it's nature or nurture," Victor Perton asked John whether his optimism is nature or nurture or a combination.
John Hands: "My optimism is mainly nurture, and I think it's essential to practise this because there is so much pessimism in the world right now.
"For example, warfare: We've got a major war in Europe with Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Putin threatens to use a nuclear option if he considers Russia is being threatened. China is simulating precision strikes against e- key targets in Taiwan.
"Then there's climate change for widespread fears that we are not meeting our targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which will lead to an irreversible existential threat to humankind. Global pandemics: a new study has just been released, which suggests the risks of extreme pandemics like COVID-19 could increase threefold in the coming decades. And that climate change is increasing this risk and many, many, many more.
"That's why it's important to nurture optimism, as I hope my book makes clear."
Victor Perton: "What's at the core of your book that makes you optimistic for the future of humankind?"
John Hands: “Well, I think what's unique about the book is that I look at the big picture and identify the pattern of how we have evolved. Then I project that pattern into the future.
“Looking at the core of what makes me optimistic, part one of the book evaluates current predictions that we should become extinct.
“These range from extinction through warfare, including nuclear and biological; extinction through climate change and population explosion; extinction through natural disasters, including astronomical, geophysical and pandemics; and extinction through artificial intelligence, like Stephen Hawking’s saying: "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."
“I examine the scientific evidence behind all these predictions and show why they have a negligible probability of being realised.
“Indeed, in the cases where previous predictions can be tested against outcomes, all have been disproven.
“But my grounds for optimism are not just disapproving these pessimistic predictions.
“In part four, I forecast what our future will be.
“For example, we fully emerged from other hominids 25,000 years ago by uniquely developing reflective consciousness. That is, we were conscious of our consciousness.
“We are the only species that not only knows but knows that it knows.
“We think about things other than our survival and reproduction.
“What other species not only thinks about exploring space, but builds devices needed to do so?
“What other species not only thinks about eliminating warfare, but also sets up global organisations like the United Nations in an attempt to do so?
“However, this new and evolving reflective consciousness has to contend with powerful instincts inherited from several million years of pre-human ancestry.
“These instincts are characterised by aggression, hierarchism, and divergence into competing groups.
“We only make progress through the conscious use of altruism, cooperation, and convergence.
“Right now, our instincts are more powerful than our reflective consciousness. But one of the many reasons for optimism in the book is that these instincts are rapidly decreasing, while our reflective consciousness is very rapidly increasing and will take over in the not-too-distant future. This will signal a new fourth stage of human evolution.
“In part four of the book, I forecast humankind's unique and highly optimistic future.”
Victor Perton: "I love that you move from history to the future, and your book is a great delight. Last year Singapore's Senior Minister Tharman gave a powerful speech on the collapse of optimism in the developed world. Tharman said: "Creating basis for optimism has to be our central task everywhere in the world. Through global collaboration, (as you suggest in your book), we must create bases for optimism to see ourselves through this long storm and to emerge intact, emerge a better place and it can be done."
"Now as you said, your book is a contribution to that effort. But how do you think the rest of us have gone, and how will the world restore that sense of optimism, curiosity, and adventure in the developed world?"
John Hands: "It's not only the developed world. Globally, we must practice altruism, cooperation, and convergence. This is what will lead us to an optimistic future."
Leadership and History
The Chair of The Centre for Optimism, Robert Masters, referred to an article by Professor Peter Burke at Cambridge on societal ignorance of global history and a dim view of the consequences of that ignorance.
John Hands: "I agree. We must learn from history; what has caused our progress? Relatively recently, we were engaged in much greater levels of warfare.
“We have made progress in reducing warfare and must look at how we made progress. We're going to learn from history and then be inspired by what we learned and push this further and further."
Robert Masters: "Where is the hope that we can have a turnaround in the leadership of nations, to be much more optimistic? What key drivers would you like to see from our global leaders?"
John Hands: "Right now our inherited instincts are more powerful than our reflective consciousness. That is the case now, but we've got to change that. We only change that if both individually and collectively, we practice altruism, cooperation, and convergence."
Robert Masters asked whether there were national global leaders with the qualities and thinking in line with John's view of what's needed to accelerate the transition in the book.
John Hands: "Sadly, no. There is no one on the stage now with the vision of people like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. At the moment, I can't see any. So this is why we've got to work hard to get those leaders, to identify people with this vision, and try to get them elected.'
The Habits of Optimism
Garry Miller: "I am an Englishman too and moved to Australia to get away from many of the things you've talked about in your book, the doom that you could almost see unfolding.
“At the Centre for Optimism, We often talk about and share the habits of an optimist, and we here do our very best to try and instil those habits in ourselves and others.
“And the question is, in the future, you see, what types of habits do you see people having to adopt, or needing to adopt to ensure that we don't head to Armageddon, to ensure that we are heading to a more utopian existence?”
John Hands: "We've always got to improve our habits. It's useful to take time out for reflection, not just continue the pattern of what we're doing. Take some time out. Ask: ‘Where am I?’; ‘What am I doing?’; ‘Why am I doing it?’; ‘What can I do to make things better?"
Garry Miller: "Do you see the future as a democratic existence? Or do you see it as something significantly different that perhaps doesn't involve politicians? I'm talking about the innovation of the system here. The hypothesis is that we're all in it together. We're all on this fragile planet, and today we're all pulling with opposing forces. The default seems to be two young men on a battlefield with no weapons because they've exhausted their ammunition. That's where we always seem to end up through history. So, how do you see the future world organised to exist more meaningfully and sustainably?”
John Hands: "Looking to the long-term future, when I think the book is ultimately optimistic, it is that We as a species have gone through three stages of evolution: The first was the evolution of matter, and then the second stage was the evolution of life, and the third stage was the evolution of humans, who uniquely reflected on life.
“I think the fourth stage will be the evolution of humans as a whole through the cooperation of minds to create a collective consciousness that will escape its biological roots and spread throughout the universe.
When you ask me what that is, the book is almost entirely science-based. But in the last chapter, I say, "Science can take us so far - no further. We've got to go into metaphysics here."
"This projection of the future is ultimately optimistic because we are spreading throughout the universe.
"When people ask, ‘Where did we evolve from?’, I said the first stage of our evolution was the evolution of matter. Now the scientific answer is that matter came from a Big Bang with certain physical and chemical laws plus two dimensionless constants that need to be fine-tuned to permit the evolution of any atoms or molecules. Moreover, the values of six cosmological parameters need to be fine-tuned to enable the production of sufficient carbon for the evolution of humans and all known life forms.
But science cannot tell us what caused this conjectured Big Bang to erupt into existence from nothing, and what caused all the physical and chemical laws plus the values of all these essential fine-tuned parameters to exist.
I think there is a higher reality that humans now, in their third stage of evolution, are incapable of understanding, just as rocks cannot understand that the Sun provides light and warmth. Chimpanzees cannot understand the existence of black holes.
I speculate that in our fourth stage of evolution, the human cosmic consciousness will be able to comprehend such a higher reality and, in fact, be that higher reality. It is the cause of all the physical and chemical laws and parameters that enable it to evolve in an eternal, continuous cycle of self-creation. This seems to me to be a more reasonable – and more optimistic – explanation than the proposition that the universe exploded into existence from nothing together with uncaused laws and parameters. Some may even call it God.
Norin Mosley: “I'm glad to hear that history doesn't quite repeat itself, and that gives us some hope and optimism, so that's a good thing. I'm reflecting on how rhetoric dramatically influences how the future can progress. If we look at some of the great leaders of our time, let's go back to Martin Luther King, let's go back to, I don't know, we all have a favourite, John F. Kennedy - "Not what your country can do for you, what you can do for your country." Martin Luther King is, "I have a dream." Even looking at Mr Trump, how he can drum-up huge support for his vision, his dream, and his life's aim. I think having strong rhetoric and a strong leader forming and creating your future is essential. I wonder how influential that is in creating more optimism and choosing your leaders based on how they can speak and evoke passion and optimism in groups they talk to and thus influence the future?"
John Hands distinguished Trump from the earlier leaders and said: "Rhetoric is a two-edged sword. Rhetoric can be used to appeal to our best instincts, but it can be used to appeal to our inherited instincts of competition and division."
Victor Perton thanked John for sharing his wisdom and insight.
John Hands concluded: "I'm honored to join you. I think the outgoing message is that we must always remember what our long-term aims are and keep this in mind always."