Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

Speaker

Alain de Botton is a Swiss-British writer, philosopher, and television presenter resident in the United Kingdom.

Summary

We live in an age where our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises – it is easier to make a living, but harder to avoid an anxiety about what we do. The reasons are

  • We are surrounded by snobbery – people who will imply everything about you based on your career. “What do you do?” is a common question to rank you when you first meet someone. This flows on to a need for material goods – to makes you feel more valued. This is true for a lot of conspicuous consumption – if you see someone with a Ferrari, assume they are vulnerable and in need of love & sympathy, rather than contempt or greed.
  • Expectations are high about what we can achieve – there is no class system, anyone can do anything with a spirit of equality. This clashes with envy – which is felt harder by people who are from similar backgrounds. We have a feeling that everyone comes from a similar background as everyone else, but the result is not equal. By telling people they can do anything, it is linked with low self-esteem.
  • Everyone encourages the idea of a meritocracy – it implies that the most skilled and driven will get to the top. However it also implies that anyone at the bottom deserves to be there – they are the worst. In the middle ages a poor person was called an ‘unfortunate’, whereas now they’d probably be called a ‘loser’.

These result in higher suicide rates in developed, individualistic countries than any other region. How can we change our mindsets to tackle these issues?

  • Meritocracy: We need to recognise it is impossible to create a perfect meritocracy – there are too many random factors in play.
  • Failure: when we fail, we don’t fear the loss of income or position so much as the ridicule. Newspapers are full of stories of people’s failures, and often presented salaciously without sympathy. At the other end of the spectrum is tragedy in art: Shakespeare makes us sympathetic to the flaws of his characters. Hamlet is not a loser, but he has lost.
  • We worship humanity: All our heroes are human, we are excited by human achievements and the concept of a spiritual has started to disappear. It could be why people are now so drawn to nature – one of the few non-human forces left.

We have a lot of ideas about success – that someone successful will be rich or renowned in their field. However, noone is successful in every aspect of their life – someone renowned in one field has sacrificed another. Most people’s ideas of success are not their own – taken from family, friends, marketing. Rather than giving up on success, we need to make sure that the ideas are our own. Because it feels bad to fail to achieve success, but much worse to achieve it and realise it wasn’t really what you wanted.

 

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Ruth Chang: How to make hard choices

Speaker

Ruth Chang is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. She is known for her research on the incommensurability of values and on practical reason and normativity.

Summary

Ruth discusses how to make hard choices – between 2 jobs or partners, or whether to have children. In an easy choice one is better than the other. In a hard choice each choice has better qualities, but neither is clearly better. We think of them as big choices, but the same dilemma can happen when choosing breakfast – do you want healthy food or tasty food? By realising that even these small choices are hard, we can make the big ones easier: if I managed to eat breakfast I should be able to choose a new job. We also shouldn’t think of ourselves as stupid for being unable to pick a best option – they may genuinely be equally good options.

When choosing between being a philosopher and a lawyer Ruth tried writing the pros and cons, agonised over her decision, wished she could see a DVD of her life after taking each option. She settled on lawyer out of fear – she didn’t think she could get a job as a philosopher, and lawyering seemed the safe route. Later she switched back, becoming a philosopher.

Looking at a hypothetical job choice between banking and artistry, you can list all the advantages of each but still be unable to choose one over the other. You can then start to imagine what it would take to make one better than the other – eg if you added an additional $500/month to the banker’s salary, is it suddenly clearly better than the artist? Not necessarily, and this may show that the 2 original options were not equal. If the original jobs were equal, then adding more salary to one should have made it clearly better.

Choices are difficult because they cannot be easily broken down into numbers. In comparing the weight of 2 suitcases, one could be heavier, lighter or equal in weight. All questions involving numbers can be broken down in this way. It is a mistake to think that these simple numerical comparisons have the same structure as the decisions between your future life. We need to make a 4th alternative – that things can be better, worse, equal, or ‘on a par’. When decisions are on a par, neither is better or worse than the other, and your lifestyle after the decision is not exactly the same, but you see both future lives as having a similar value.

We need to see hard choices as empowering. If life only consisted of easy choices, we would always pick the clearly better route. We would then be slaves to our own reason. It is the ‘on a par’ decisions where we get to create our own reasons for picking one over the other, and define who we are. We become the authors of our own lives. People who don’t exercise their own reasons on hard choices become drifters. They allow the world around them to dictate their lives – they follow the obvious rewards, punishments, and fears to define them. Ruth was drifting when she chose to be a lawyer and later regretted it.

When the ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ choices disappear, we have the power to create reasons for ourselves, and become the distinctive people we are. That is why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Alex Wissner-Gross: A new equation for intelligence

Speaker: Alex Wissner-Gross

Length: 11:48

Summary

“The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim” – Computer scientist Djikstra criticising early computer scientists obsessions with machines ‘thinking’.

Alex looked at developing a universal equation of intelligence. Many of the recent intelligent computer programs made actions to maximise future options – not to be ‘trapped’.

His equation is  F = T ∇ Sτ

  • F is Force of intelligence
  • T is strength to maintain future actions
  • With diversity of future options S over time horizon τ

Universes with more entropy are more conducive to intelligence. Alex discussed Entropica, a program that seems to make it’s own goals by maximising long term entropy. This naturally allows it to balance a pole upright, tool use, social networking, play the stock market – even without being instructed to do so. All these inherently human traits can be encouraged by this one equation.

From this experiment, the following conclusions can be drawn

  • The ability to take control of our universe is not a result of intelligence, but a requirement for intelligence.
  • Goal seeking is important to maximise future actions, even at the cost of today’s action
  • Intelligence is a physical process that maximises future freedom, and resists future confinement

A fascinating talk, with important implications in philosophy of intelligence and computer science in addition to the fields mentioned during the experiments. Strongly recommended.