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Coffee & Wisdom 02.78: Naive Optimism and Stone Walls Part 4

David Breeden is speaking all week about Naive Optimism


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is “Coffee and Wisdom” This week we have been looking at the concepts of Naïve Optimism and the idea that “truth shall set you free” And, kind of balancing off, maybe some mutually exclusive ideas that we need to, in our own lives, probably balance out because there is a difference between realism and optimism and that truth that sets you free and those beliefs that are perhaps not exactly true, but do get us through life. Naïve optimism just to define that is the belief that your chances are always better than 50/50. This has been shown over and over again that the average American believes that they are above the fiftieth percentile in just about everything. Well, a book published in 1882 called “The Gay Science”, that’s usually the translation that’s done, it’s become more or less traditional at this point, from Nietzsche. And this is the book in which he says “God is dead”. Now, he he numbers the paragraphs. And I want to look at paragraph 110. “The God is dead” paragraph is 125. So he’s building up toward this particular saying, do note the the year that this was published, 1882. The book I was talking about two days ago, it was done in the 1870s, an earlier book. I’ve mentioned before just contextualization that First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis was founded in 1881 and then this time period, 1881, 1883, that definitely comes at basically the time of this book and that that group who founded the congregation were part of a Darwin reading group looking at natural selection and what these new ideas meant.

Nietzsche was also juggling these ideas at the time, although he probably never actually read any of Darwin’s work. It was in the water of Europe in the day among at least the intellectuals of the time. He has this to say about the origin of knowledge. “Over immense periods of time, over immense periods of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and help to preserve the species; those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves and their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: That there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances; bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself.” These are assumptions that built up over time that Nietzsche thinks are merely assumptions and do not reflect the truths of our species. “It was only very late that such propositions were denied and doubted,” says Nietzsche. “It was only very late that truth emerged as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those fundamental errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial.

Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became the norms according to which “true” and “untrue” were determined down to the most remote regions of logic.” So, “truth emerged as the weakest form of knowledge,” claims Nietzsche in his book “The Gay Science” in which he will later claim God is dead and we have killed him. Now you see what he’s doing here. He’s dealing with the idea of natural selection, but he is taking a tack that really doesn’t become popular in the among intellectuals until just before the Second World War. And that is the idea that probably part of our natural selection process that human beings actually works against us, that our perceptions are not true. But those misperceptions become part of our way of being and thinking as the species evolves through time and one of those being the concept of God, of course. “Over immense periods of time,” just to repeat, “the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species.” So within our species, is claiming Nietzche. This is a new idea, is a propensity toward error that was actually good to keep us surviving on the planet. Now, let’s go from that to the work of Dr. Albert Bandura. He is a Canadian American psychologist, worked at Stanford University. He’s now retired. Born in 1925, and with us still. An absolute game changer in the field of psychology was his book “Self Efficacy: The Exercise of Control”.

This comes out of work that he was doing at Stanford University. Now here’s some trivia for you. The top four most cited psychologists in the literature of psychology, that would be those psychologists that are are considered to be important to work for or against or with in terms of later research. The number one nowadays is B.F. Skinner. Second is Sigmund Freud, still, and then Jean Piaget. And number four on that list is Albert Bandura, the only living person on the list of the most cited psychologists. And probably his most important idea, certainly in terms of later research, will be this idea of self-efficacy, the exercise of control. “Self-efficacy is a personal assessment of the chances of success in a given set of circumstances.” That’s why the term “self” is there. I am looking at my ability, I am assessing my chances of success, what tools I have for success, given the set of circumstances that are before me. “Can I solve this problem? Can I face this problem?”, I ask myself, as I go into various challenges and problems. Well, of course we know because we’ve all read the book. If you think you can, by golly, you probably can. It is a statement of optimism, perhaps even naïve optimism, although we know that “the little engine that could” does indeed succeed. One, is because he thinks he can, but also he does have the tools because he has a full head of steam as he takes the circus over the mountain.

And this is the combination that we’re talking about here. Self efficacy. Bandura says this: “A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. Such an efficacious outlook fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities. They set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. They, that is the self-efficacious, they heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control over them. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.” Sounds like some good things to do, doesn’t it, according to research? And indeed, that’s what the book is about, is how this is indeed true. Well, what about the half empty school? “In contrast, people who doubt their capabilities shy away from difficult tasks which they view as personal threats. They have low aspirations and weak commitments to the goals they choose to pursue. When faced with difficult tasks, they dwell on their personal deficiencies, on the obstacles they will encounter and all kinds of adverse outcomes, rather than concentrate on how to perform successfully. They slacken their efforts and give up quickly in the face of difficulties. They are slow to recover their sense of efficacy following failure or setbacks. Because they view insufficient performance as deficient aptitude it does not require much failure for them to lose faith in their capabilities. They fall easily victim to stress and depression.” So, yes, that half full people and the half empty people and Bandura is comparing these in terms of their self-efficacy. How likely are people to be the little engine that could and then actually get up that hill and get the circus to the next town? Now, remember what Nietzsche said back in 1883. “Over immense periods of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and help to preserve the species.” He seems to have been right on about that. About one hundred years before Bandura “proved”, quote unquote, that in his research at Stanford University that there are some things we develop that are good for us, even if they aren’t based exactly on real things. Bandura has this to say. “People’s level of motivation, affective states, and actions are based more on what they believe than on what is objectively the case.” And yes, this has been made into a meme that you can put on your wall as one of those good self-help sayings. But “people’s level of motivation, affective states and actions are based more on what they believe than on what is objectively the case.” Now, do notice that Nietzsche is building up with his idea to say that we are, we have a propensity toward fooling ourselves. Illusions, that Bandura says, guess what? Illusions are actually a pretty good idea. “To succeed, one cannot afford to be a realist”, says the Stanford professor on self-efficacy. “To succeed, one cannot afford to be a realist.” And that’s the the idea, at least from the psychological research. So we’ve got Nietzsche over here saying, you know, we did evolve to have these kind of misattributions of our own ability. And we need to look at those illusions and root them out, including the idea of God as he’s going to talk about in the book later. But maybe science is not saying exactly the same thing because naïve optimism appears, at least in the research, to be a very good thing for people and their ability to do what they need to do in life, just like the little engine that could. Thanks a lot for listening. I’m balancing those ideas off this week. We’ll wind them up tomorrow. We’re thinking about is it true that the truth will set you free or is it true that, by golly, a little bit of naïve optimism is probably what you need to live your life? Don’t miss tonight, the film streaming of “The Story of Plastic”. This is part of our Earth Day celebration. You can find out all about that and stream it from “” and join us tonight. And that is at six p.m. Central Time tonight, Earth Day. Thanks a lot for listening. And I’ll be back tomorrow to wrap up our ideas about nature, natural selection and the little engine that could. Thank you.

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