Phases of Tragedy


Naive optimism.

  • Hasn’t encountered the depth and complexity of the problem space (or isn’t even aware of the larger problem space with which this optimism is embedded).
  • “There have always been problems and humanity has, and will continue to, rise to the challenge.” (Life will find a way)
  • “Things are, on the whole, getting better.” (PinkerRoslingGates, etc.)


Cynicism and nihilism.

  • Once you begin to explore the depth and complexity of the problem space, the solutions appear to be impossible—any one solution seems to make other problems worse (or just shifts the problem elsewhere).
  • Can lead to an even deeper realization that many of the complicated systems we rely on for managing the complex systems we care about most are self-terminating (metacrisis generator functions).
  • Leads to doubt in humanity’s capacity to make effective, moral, and ethical decisions (cynicism) and the feeling that there’s nothing humanity can do and there is no inherent goodness, badness, or meaning in anything anyway (nihilism).
  • Although this cynicism and nihilism is a wiser stance than naive optimism, it’s like moving from slavery to the “freedom” of wandering in the desert.


Mature optimism.

  • Realization that there is a false certainty in both the pre-tragic view (naive optimism) and the tragic view (cynicism/nihilism).
  • An appreciation of, and faith in, the unknown-unknowns (where possible solutions reside).