An ontology of hope

This is an adaptation of a talk I gave at HiP Berlin, in December 2022.

Ontology is the study of being. On (“ον”) is the Greek word for being. In this instance, we will talk about how hope is. A synonym in our use case would be categorisation. As in: what kinds of hope are there?

This text is about one of these categorisations. There are many others, with which we will not concern ourselves.

The world is perceived to be problematic in a number of ways. Interestingly, the world has always been perceived to be problematic in numerous ways. For this reason, we are called—maybe implicitly—to have or to not have hope.

Blind hope is the first kind of hope we define. Maybe there is someone who says they are hopeful. We ask them, “why are you hopeful?”. They say, “I don't know. I just am.”

Blind hope gets sometimes correlated to blind faith and blind faith many times means blind religious faith. This kind of faith gets heavily criticised because it was used as justification for many of the problems in the history of the world.

In contrast to blind hope we define cognitive hope. Maybe there is someone and they say they are hopeful about the climate. We ask them, “why are you hopeful?”. They say, “I'm hopeful because the CO2 market has expanded a lot the last few years and the price of solar panels has fallen around 90% the last decade; and I think these improvements are really critical, more than people assume.”

We could also call this kind of hope bayesian hope—from Bayes’ theorem in statistics. The idea is that we have a model of the world on our minds and as new data come in we update that model and assign new probabilities for what we think may happen.

Here’s another story: someone says they are hopeful and we ask them, “why are you hopeful?”. They say, “Well, to understand why I’m hopeful you have to see the big picture. Human civilisation exists for the last 10-12 thousand years and the average person then had a life expectancy of less than 30 years, had no house to protect them from the weather, had to fight for their food everyday. Today we have solved all these very crucial problems. That I consider huge progress”, they say, “and since we achieved that, I think we can achieve even more”.

I think cognitive hope is not worthy of being a kind of hope. It feels like if we have data, we don’t need hope. Hope is trust and trust implies a certain blindness.

Etymologically, hope comes from Middle English (“hopen”), which comes from Old English (“hopian”), which means “to hope”.

In Modern Greek, hope is “ελπίζω”, which comes from the Ancient Greek word ἔλπω. This word does not mean “I hope” but “I cause to hope”; as in: I cause someone else to be hopeful. Interestingly, the most basic word for this concept is causing it to someone else. This is not true for other words in Ancient Greek. For example, the most basic word for the concept of love is “ἀγαπῶ”, which means “I feel love”, not “I cause love”.

Maybe we can learn something from this. Maybe there is a philosophy behind it, in which what one can do with hope is cause it to someone else, rather than expect to feel it for themselves.

How can we cause hope? I would follow the afforementioned story of seeing the big picture. Continuing on the fact that we have much higher life expectancy and much more comfort, we also have the internet, an actual, omnipresent exobrain with humanity’s sum of knowledge. How cool is that? We have instant communication in text/voice/video formats all over the world. Isn't that pure magic? We don’t have to go that far back, if we could ask someone from 200 years ago what they think about instant communication everywhere in the world they would respond by classifying it in the realm of utopia.

The above are from the technological world but we don’t have to focus there. The worldwide abolition of slavery is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Since the beginning of human civilisation slavery was always there. Some claim the fundamentals of the world never change. People will always be greedy; people will always fuck over others. Maybe this list would include “people will always take other people as slaves”. Slavery can be very rational. Someone owes somebody else a lot of money. They cannot afford to pay back so they work for them but the debt’s size is such that they have to work for them for the rest of their life. Or, another example: there is a war and some people’s lives are spared. They are now slaves of the ones who did not kill them. Just because the winners spared their lives, they now get the right to control them forever. This makes sense, right? It did in the past, at least. It’s certifiably nuts today. That was our achievement. The fundamentals of the world can change. Humans decided to collectively change what is considered fair. To redefine—even—what is rational.

I do consider these feats monumental and extremely inspiring of what we can achieve in the future. Yet I feel it’s immensely important to note that humanity did all the above without having the same amount of achievements to get inspired from. In other words, they didn't have any proof that they can indeed accomplish such massive feats—and they did it anyway. They had blind hope.

Returning to slavery, some people might disagree. Modern slaves do exist, today, in the range of tens of millions. Indeed, they do, yet I draw a line between the past situation and today.

An opposite of hope is depression. Depression is not about how things are but how things seem. This characteristic is one that both concepts, hope and depression, share. Here’s how I perceive depression: today I wake up and think about certain problems I face. I feel challenged yet capable of tackling them. Tomorrow, I wake up and I think about the same exact problems, yet this time, I despair. They now seem infeasibly hard and I don’t even want to start tackling them. This is depression.

When I pick up a lemon, that lemon is not really yellow; ie. the yellow colour is not a native, inherent, property of the lemon. There is light around which the lemon absorbs except for one small part of it, the part that has the wavelength that human eyes perceive as yellow.

If the sun was ultraviolet that lemon, along with everything else, would look black instead of colourful. Depression is that ultraviolet sun. Just as we were tricked to believe everything is black, it’s possible to get tricked again and see everything colourful.

Reflecting on the technological and societal achievements of humanity as a way to cause hope, I find appreciation as the common denominator. It feels like, thinking of what we already have and what we have already achieved makes us hopeful that we can achieve more things.

Maybe, in combination with the concept of causing hope, this is a valuable way of thinking. We cannot control how we feel but we can control how we act. Maybe these actions can be ones that cause hope—we can use appreciation as a tool for this—and with this trick we become hopeful through the actions of others.