Support Philosophy Bites

  • Donate in GB Pounds
  • Donate in Euros
  • Donate in US Dollars
  • Subscribe
    Payment Options

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

« Luciano Floridi on the Fourth Revolution | Main | Ben Rogers on Pascal's Pensées »

July 12, 2009



It seems obvious to me that to be optomistic is to be irational . Must we choose between a Pipe dream and a worst case senerio ? You are a Great Interviewer ! Your "Road to the right politicly" comment cracked me up ! How You keep your cool in front of people with glaring holes in there pajamas boggles my sad prefrontal ! Philosophy Bites has been on my favorite podcasts list forever ! I wouldn't say it makes me optimistic about an ultimate "Disney" conclusion , but I do lick my plate clean after many of them ! Much gratitude and best wishes

NH Baritone

I find Ms. Adams depiction of optimism to be either intellectually dishonest or, as I truly hope, simply naive.

She has set up a straw man by suggesting that "optimism" requires one to believe that all of life or existence has a purposeful goal, developmental path, or ultimate justice. Optimists see the glass as half (not totally) full. Therefore, optimism can indicate that, even if there is no ultimate end, we can move toward individually meaningful goals: setting out a garden, learning to speak Arabic, teaching our children manners.

Most humans look around and rationally conclude that we are likely to survive for some amount of time. How, then, do we want to spend those years? How can we serve our own best interest and that of our progeny & community to make that time more wondrous? How can we experience a sense of connection, accomplishment & pleasure in this life, or at least a greater sense of ease?

In contrast, Ms. Adams cleaves to a need for divine vengeance that I find a bit chilling. Such an outlook seems in many ways antithetical to optimism and more suggests the tendency to harbor resentment as she awaits her God's "long-absent justice."

In truth, theists alone (particularly those theists who insist on a "good" God) must confront the problem of evil. Atheists have released the concept and moved on.

Burk Braun

"Rational optimism" by drafting god into a vain and ever-delayed hope for solving horrendous evil? Sounds irrational, and admittedly so, not to say simple wishful thinking. Calling this rational is simple miscarriage of philosophy.

Jack Oatmon

Marilyn McCord misunderstands the meaning of optimism in secular thought. To desire and expect good for no religious reason is to believe that the average aggregate effect of all actions levels out to either a positive or negative general outcome. There's nothing irrational whatsoever about desiring and acting to incite a better world. In fact, it is perfectly rational, under the assumption that any rational actor prefers to live in a hospitable environment.

But then, the faithful have always naively ascribed good to their gods and bad to their demons rather than admit that the scientifically minded are capable of compassion for clear, secular reasons.

Not only that, but how is it that a non-faithful individual is immune to animal compassion? Dogs and raccoons whine when they see other injured animals. does that mean they are faith-driven beings? decidedly not.


How is it unreasonable to have an optimistic attitude with full knowledge of the terrible things, the horrendous acts, that humans are capable of? To say that's unreasonable (absent a god) is to say that a human attitude should somehow reflect the sum total of human misery and happiness to be a reasonable general attitude. What a load. If one has the ideal that we can decrease human suffering, and one holds that ideal in the face of mounds of evidence that show a history of suffering, then it is completely rational to keep a good attitude despite the evidence that would suggest the ideal is unobtainable. If it were otherwise, it wouldn't be an ideal.

When I hear arguments like this what I really hear is that atheists are incapable of forming legitimate ideals- or that they're really just motivated by god and the supposed concern for others that we feel is merely pretext for some god-implanted motivation. In the end it's just a holier-than-thou attitude to people who are admittedly unholy- but along the road they deny the legitimacy of the heartfelt motivations that I believe some atheists feel which compels them to reduce the suffering of others. That denial belies the sanctimonious view the religious have of the atheists- which may be obvious- but which I think will be an increasing point of division between the groups.

Nathan rae

It seems strange that the fact that I am optimistic in general leads to some kind of proof of the existance of god (or the greater power). Surely it just means that as a human my brain works a lot better if it is not constantly paralised contemplating "The horror, the horror!"
And apart from the biological Darwinian angle, I think I have a logical basis for my optimism. My grand fathers gereation was (generaly) racist, homophobic and would agree with many viewpoints we would now see as evil. Not so many generations ago slavery was acceptable. I can see a trend here and it seems to be one for the better. My optomistic hope is that within my daughters generation advocating war will become as socially unacceptable as advocating slavery is now. I'm not sure that this will happen and there is not a great deal of evidence pointing towards it, but it's much better than betting that god will comedown and sort things out and infinitly better than leaving it for our religious friends to deal with.

Nathan, looking at a glass quarter full but filling up sowly...

August Berkshire

This has got to be one of the worst "proofs" of the existence of a god that I have ever heard. First of all, the problem of natural evil was never addressed.

Looking at the problem of human evil, let us suppose, as McCord does, that things have not improved in millennia. What's wrong with hoping things might improve in the future? One can be guardedly optimistic without believing in a god.

But let us suppose that for McCord that that is impossible. All this would prove would be that she would need *belief* in a god as a crutch, not that a god actually exists.


I've not commented on here before - but as many people have pointed out - her logic is substandard. Tons of straw men set up etc.
Atheists don't live by an illusion - she has no reason to assert this. Atheists simply don't believe in god - it has nothing to do with their outlook on life and spirituality, for lack of a better word.

I wont go on about it... but this is the most irritating podcast to come out so far. I love philosophy bites and i admire the way you dealt with this.
I however feel there wasn't really much philosophy here. She begs the question, sets up straw men and CLEARLY makes things up.

Oh well

Thanks for the podcast.

(I loved the counterpart to this: the stephen law interview!)

The Goldfish

I personally enjoy it when your interviewers boggle my mind a bit and Marilyn McCord Adams certainly did that. Even though I think she's wrong, I think it's an interesting mistake. I wrote a somewhat rambling response to this episode, about optimism, evil and the absence of God, here:

Matt M

Glad to see I wasn't the only one who felt Marilyn McCord's reasoning was a bit suspect: a weird variation on God Of The Gaps, with God introduced to balance out global misery rather than scientific ignorace.

At least she sounds like she has a well-developed sense of humour, something of a rarity among the religious.

David A.Scott

Sadly Ms McCord is the sort of "philosopher" that gets philosophy a bad name. To suggest that any form of optimism can only be consistent with her concept of God is simply nonsense. To be optimistic may simply mean to believe in an underlying ordering principle such as that which science strives for. The implication that to be optimistic compels a belief in a Christian god smacks of a certain desparation on behalf of the institutional religious apologists. I'm sure Ms. McCord feels very at home in South Carolina!

John Hummel

I don't mean to just join in the crowd, but I agree with many of the sentiments above.

I think the problem stems from Ms. Adams definition of "optimist" - it seems she asserts that an optimist expects that, in the end, things will turn out for the best. Therefore, in the face of human suffering, only believe in a Divine Being who will make everything better with an eternity of happiness will be able to make up for the huge amounts of human suffering in the world.

Personally, I reject this assertion only because while I consider myself an optimist, I don't expect that things will eventually get better *for myself*. I'm not nearly so egotistical to believe that *my* happiness is a requirement for my attempting to make the world a better place.

Is the world full of suffering? Yes. But, I would submit that the world is full of far *less* suffering than there was 2000 years ago, or evern 1000 years ago, or even 300 years ago. Is the world perfect? No - but one can see progress being made technologically and ethically. And, I am optimistic that, though my efforts are small, in the future - perhaps the near, perhaps the distant future - the world's suffering will be so far reduced as to be almost negligible. Human nature does slowly but surely become better over time.

Probably not in my lifetime. But just because *I* won't participate in the fruits of my labors, I'm hopeful that my children, or their children, or even the children of strangers yet unborn can inherit a better world than this one.

But I require no divine being to make me happy. As I said, my ego doesn't require it.


A lot of the comments here are missing out on larger parts of Adams' philosophy, and so misjudging her. For example,

"Ms. Adams cleaves to a need for divine vengeance that I find a bit chilling. Such an outlook seems in many ways antithetical to optimism and more suggests the tendency to harbor resentment as she awaits her God's 'long-absent justice.'"

Adams is a universalist. She thinks Hitler is heaven now, or will be sooner or later. So her idea of justice is not the punishment of Hitler, but the comforting of his victims and indeed, Hitler as well. (How terrible would the afterlife be if you knew you were considered one of history's greatest monsters?)

"First of all, the problem of natural evil was never addressed."

In Adams other works, she makes her response to natural evil more clear but the gist of it is that she feels natural evils aren't as bad for God as radical horrors. Look, if there's an afterlife and you get killed by a tsunami, what's the big deal? You had a finite number of years on earth and then you start your infinite term in heaven. Maybe you want to quibble with God about when and where your time starts, but it's not really enough to cause us to doubt God's existence per se.

On the other hand, lets say as a young child your mother is killed in a tsunami then in the aftermath, the town descends into looting and chaos, raping and pillaging. You might look back on your life and say, "It would have been better for me never to have existed."

For Adams, that's the real problem for God! How can God claim to be good if there are substantial number of people for whom non-existence would have been preferable?

Adams doesn't get into her answer to the question much in the interview, but essentially her solution is to bring out not just a limited response that any theism could mount but a specifically Christian response: the work of Christ somehow changes the situation. First, because God isn't subjecting us to anything that He didn't experience himself in terms of having a crappy existence on earth. And more importantly, second, because Christ suffered, those individuals whose lives have been ruined by radical horror are nevertheless able to give those lives a retrospective meaning through identification with Christ.

Obviously, the second bit is a very tricky argument to make and impossible to "prove" in a certain sense on this side of the great by and by, but that's where her argument from optimism comes in. If you think it is or will be somehow possible for everyone to find a positive meaning in their lives in spite of the intrusion of life shattering radical horror, then you ought also to believe that there is a God or some other sort of power strong enough to help people to recreate meaning in life.

I will say the interview doesn't present the argument in the best light because it is missing some of the broader background that makes her thought more systematic. She's not just peddling a single, somewhat implausible argument for God. She has a whole system in which it makes sense to believe in God given that one is also committed to hoping for the resolution of radical horrors.

"I'm sure Ms. McCord feels very at home in South Carolina!"

Fuck you, too. It's incredible how people who wouldn't dare to make fun of someone because of their gender or race or sexual orientation or even national origin has no qualms about making fun of the South because, quelle horreur, people there are overly interested in the question of whether God exists or not.


Listened to all P.B. Podcasts. So far this one was the worst. This woman had the weakest arguments for god possible (yes this was an argument for god). She starts by taking for granted that their is a god then makes her thoughts fit this assumption that lacks proof (and says that others thoughts should fit into her starting point and thought pattern).

If a person does not believe in god they may think that the future and the past state of humanity in this world, is and was up to us, so god has nothing to do with our level of optimism, or the justification for it. We choose to be optimistic, do good, or do evil, because of our level of intelligence and capacity for reason, or our desires. PERIOD.

Also... many comments on here actually buy into the whole argument of good VS evil. There is no such thing outside of the thinking of humanity. Good and evil are not things that are just floating out in the ether, waiting to interact with us. Good and evil are labels for feelings humans have to certain stimuli. If the Sun went super nova tomorrow and destroyed the whole solar system, where would good and evil be??? The universe does not care one bit about our worthless existence. Religious minded people like Marilyn say this HAS to make people think life is pointless.


It does not. It can actually make a person value life more and want to make it better because life's rareness is brought more into focus. (Yes even a life without a wonderful buddy god, or a hope for future parity and justice. Which there is no proof that there is or will be)

The opposite can happen when a person is banking on an after life, or a savior to come and wipe our stinky little juvenile bottoms for us.

Since now and throughout history the vast majority of human thought structure has contained these ideas of god, afterlife, and meaning received from a 3rd party, and since Marilyn believes that the "major evils" haven't been cleaned up over those same several thousands of years, ***PERHAPS*** she may want to ponder and think for awhile why that is.


It also helps to know that Adams is a medievalist, so what she considers a "good proof" is probably different than what the average modern person considers a good proof. Her system is self-contained, is consistent, and doesn't clash irreconcilably with any outside evidence. What more is there to want?…

Well, for a post-Cartesian, there is more to want, because the Foundations of the system are still in a perilous state of Uncertainty. But on the other hand, Cartesianism makes basically an unfulfillable demands, so it's probably better to take an Aristotelean style proof and be happy with that.

Nate M

This episode got several listens out of me. Great interview! I appreciate the multitude of perspectives brought in, and was frankly a little surprised at the somewhat reactionary feedback here. The Nieztschean question was a good addition, and makes me wonder in response to "rational optimism" the old "Why be rational?" routine.


I must admit that when I heard the Podcast I was interested and somewhat confused. Was not sure that she was framing optimism to the existence of god. Not that I've read some of the post, I am sure of what I heard. In a nutshell, not a very good argument. Tries to make something analytic where there is much disagreement.

Eivind Birkedal

I must say that I found my self quite puzzled listening to this. Might have been because of being tired and completely unfamiliar with Marilyn's philosophy, because the arguments she put forth for God and so on appeared to me as complete nonsense given my understanding of the words she was using. Perhaps she puts other meanings to the words in the sentence that she kept on repeating, as if they would be understood if heard just one more time.

Does this lady have a written text of this argument, perhaps with some footnotes explaining her meaning of different words used so that I can find out if argument is at all logical?


Oh good, not just me that found this one frustrating then.

I was hoping for something more from this podcast, the problem of evil being such a big one for believers in an all good and loving god but all we seemed to get was an attempt at bashing those nasty atheists. They can still be atheists but must either be pessimistic types becuase it's irrational to be an optomistic atheist or they must be irrational or in denial if they are optomistic.

The trouble is McCord never actually elucidated on why it's irrational to be an optomistic atheist, she never adequately explained herself on this one but just kept asserting it as if saying it lots makes it true.

As for "Human capacities for self government haven't improved very dramatically ... it's not clear to me that we've improved at all since the days of Joshua and Judges" I'm glad I don;t live in the awful place she must live if she really believes those statements to be at all true.


Why can't anyone who comments here spell?

it is spelt: "optimistic" not "optomistic"


lame. you are all missing the author's point. god allows the contradiction to be solved when being rationally optimistic. there is plenty of evidence showing that that is true. jews still being positive about evils of the world, etc., when there is no rationale reason for being so. the argument is only valid if you take it black and white or believe in evil or that humans are not responsible for the wickedness. also, you have to have a naive belief in tomorrow being better and believing a god you cannot experience, see, hear, etc. really the whole argument is predicated on faith. faith in tomorrow being better and god showing that you are not being irrational in having a better future. all assumptions without any proof. the most compelling evidence is that of people who feel like things will be better after a tragic event and find solace in tomorrow due to a higher power. this could be due to chemical changes in the brain due to the trama so there goes your evidence.

NH Baritone

ALAN: I count 3 posters spelling it "optomistic" and 14 spelling it (correctly) "optimistic." One (the top one) spelled it both ways.

Considering the actual numbers, your suggestion that no one who posted could spell the word seems irrationally pessimistic.



Beware the perils of surface grammar, penetrate the surface or remain in ignorance and irrelevance.

Alan x


when people are speaking do they punctuate the capital letters in their voice? or spell a word out so that it can be listened to with clearer understanding? Rhetorical i know but please remember Netiquette. this site is to express either observation or comment on different topics so to be fully emersed in how someone is spelling a word seems insignificant really. When some of the best minds on this planet still spell incorrectly... it's the thoughts we're sharing here not our English skills.


As a philosopher, Marilyn McCord seemed to me to be poor and illogical. As with so many of believers in the supernatural, she tries to define things like 'optimism' in terms of a 'necessary condition' such as a supreme being (however capricious and/or malicious that supreme being would have to be based on its 'creation').

However, I thought that this was actually a great podcast, because it made me think carefully as to why Ms McCord's assertions were fallacious and ill-founded. Her poorly constructed arguments for why as an atheist I should despair have actually helped me frame my thoughts better as to why secular humanism and rationalism is a better option than any form of belief in the supernatural.

The comments to this entry are closed.