A Philosopher's Blog

Why Runners are not Masochists (Usually)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2014

Palace 5KAs a runner, I am often accused of being a masochist or at least having masochistic tendencies. Given that I routinely subject myself to pain and recently wrote an essay about running and freedom that was rather pain focused, this is hardly surprising. Other runners, especially those masochistic ultra-marathon runners, are also commonly accused of masochism.

In some cases, the accusation is made in jest or at least not seriously. That is, the person making it is not actually claiming that runners derive pleasure (perhaps even sexual gratification) their pain. What seems to be going on is merely the observation that runners do things that clearly hurt and that make little sense to many folks. However, some folks do regard runners as masochists in the strict sense of the term. Being a runner and a philosopher, I find this a bit interesting—especially when I am the one being accused of being a masochist.

It is worth noting that I claim that people accuse runners of being masochists with some seriousness. While some people say runners are masochists in jest or with some respect for the toughness of runners, it is sometimes presented as an actual accusation: that there is something mentally wrong with runners and that when they run they are engaged in deviant behavior. While runners do like to joke about being odd and different, I think we generally prefer to not be seen as actually mentally ill or as engaging in deviant behavior. After all, that would indicate that we are doing something wrong—which I believe is (usually) not the case. Based on my experience over years of running and meeting thousands of runners, I think that runners are generally not masochists.

Given that runners engage in some rather painful activities (such as speed work and racing marathons) and that they often just run on despite injuries, it is tempting to believe that runners are really masochists and that I am in denial about the deviant nature of runners.

While this does have some appeal, it rests on a confusion about masochism in regards to matters of means and ends. For the masochist, pain is a means to the end of pleasure. That is, the masochist does not seek pain for the sake of pain, but seeks pain to achieve pleasure. However, there is a special connection between the means of pain and the end of pleasure: for the masochist, the pleasure generated specifically by pain is the pleasure that is desired. While a masochist can get pleasure by other means (such as drugs or cake), it is the desire for pleasure caused by pain that defines the masochist. As such, the pain is not an optional matter—mere pleasure is not the end, but pleasure caused by pain.

This is rather different from those who endure pain as part of achieving an end, be that end pleasure or some other end. For those who endure pain to achieve an end, the pain can be seen as part of the means or, perhaps more accurately, as an effect of the means. It is valuing the end that causes the person to endure the pain to achieve the end—the pain is not sought out as being the “proper cause” of the end. In the case of the masochist, the pain is not endured to achieve an end—it is the “proper cause” of the end, which is pleasure.

In the case of running, runners typically regard pain as something to be endured as part of the process of achieving the desired ends, such as fitness or victory. However, runners generally prefer to avoid pain when they can. For example, while I will endure pain to run a good race, I prefer running well with as little pain as possible. To use an analogy, a person will put up with the unpleasant aspects of a job in order to make money—but they would certainly prefer to have as little unpleasantness as possible. After all, she is in it for the money, not the unpleasant experiences of work. Likewise, a runner is typically running for some other end (or ends) than hurting herself.  It just so happens that achieving that end (or ends) requires doing things that cause pain.

In my essay on running and freedom, I described how I endured the pain in my leg while running the Tallahassee Half Marathon. If I were a masochist, experiencing pleasure by means of that pain would have been my primary end. However, my primary end was to run the half marathon well and the pain was actually an obstacle to that end. As such, I would have been glad to have had a painless start and I was pleased when the pain diminished. I enjoy the running and I do actually enjoy overcoming pain, but I do not enjoy the pain itself—hence the aspirin and Icy Hot in my medicine cabinet.

While I cannot speak for all runners, my experience has been that runners do not run for pain, they run despite the pain. Thus, we are not masochists. We might, however, show some poor judgment when it comes to pain and injury—but that is another matter.

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Running & Freedom

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2014
Photo by Paula O'Neil

Photo by Paula O’Neil

This past Saturday, I was doing my short pre-race day run and, for no apparent reason, my left leg began to hurt badly. I made my way home, estimating the odds of a recovery by Sunday morning. When I got up Sunday, my leg felt better and my short jog before the race went well. Just before the start, I was optimistic: it seemed my leg would be fine. Then the race started. Then the pain.

I hobbled forward and “accelerated” to an 8:30 per minute mile (the downside of a GPS watch is that I cannot lie to myself). The beast of pain grew strong and tore at my will. Behind that armor, my fear and doubt cowered—urging me to drop out with whispered pleas. At that moment of weakness, I considered doing the unthinkable: hobbling over to the curb and leaving the race.

From the inside, that is in my mind, this seemed to be a paradigm example of the freedom of the will: I could elect to push on through the pain or I could decide to take the curb. It was, as it might be said, all up to me. While I was once pulled from a race because of injuries, I had never left one by choice—and I decided that this would not be my first. I kept going and the pain got worse.

At this point, I considered that my pride was pushing me to my destruction—that is, I was not making a good choice but being coerced into making a poor decision. Fortunately, three decades of running had trained me well in pain assessment: like most veteran runners I am reasonably good at distinguishing between what merely hurts and what is actually causing significant damage. Carefully considering the nature of the pain and the condition of my leg, I judged that it was mere pain. While I could still decide to stop, I decided to keep going. I did, however, grab as many of the high caffeine GU packs as I could—I figured that being wired up as much as possible would help with pain management.

Aided by the psychological boost of my self-medication (and commentary from friends about my unusually slow pace), I chose to speed up. By the time I reached mile 5 my leg had gone comfortably numb and I increased my speed even more, steadily catching and passing people. Seven miles went by and then I caught up with a former student. He yelled “I can’t let you pass me Dr. L!” and went into a sprint. I decided to chase after him, believing that I could still hobble a mile even if I was left with only one working leg. Fortunately, the leg held up better than my student—I got past him, then several more people and crossed the finish line running a not too bad 1:36 half-marathon. My leg remained attached to me, thus vindicating my choice. I then chose to stuff pizza into my pizza port—pausing only to cheer on people and pick up my age group award.

As the above narrative indicates, my view is that I was considering my options, assessing information from my body and deciding what to do. That is, I had cast myself as having what philosophers like to label as free will. From the inside, that is what it certainly seems like.

Of course, it would presumably seem the same way from the inside if I lacked free will. Spinoza, for example, claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. As Spinoza saw it, people think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” As such, on Spinoza’s view my “decisions” were not actual decisions. That is, I could not have chosen otherwise—like the stone, I merely did what I did and, in my ignorance, believed that I had decided my course.

Hobbes also takes a somewhat similar view. As he sees it, what I would regard as the decision making process of assessing the pain and then picking my action he would regard as a competition between two pulling forces within the mechanisms of my brain. One force would be pulling towards stopping, the other towards going. Since the forces were closely matched for a moment, it felt as if I was deliberating. But, the matter was determined: the go force was stronger and the outcome was set.

While current science would not bring in Spinoza’s God and would be more complicated than Hobbe’s view of the body, the basic idea would remain the same: the apparent decision making would be best explained by the working of the “neuromachinery” that is me—no choice, merely the workings of a purely mechanical (in the broad sense) organic machine. Naturally, many would through in some quantum talk, but randomness does not provide any more freedom that strict determinism.

While I think that I am free and that I was making choices in the race, I obviously have no way to prove that. At best, all that could be shown was that my “neuromachinery” was working normally and without unusual influence—no tumors, drugs or damage impeding the way it “should” work. Of course, some might take my behavior as clear evidence that there was something wrong, but they would be engaged in poor decision making.

Kant seems to have gotten it quite right: science can never prove that we have free will, but we certainly do want it. And pizza.

 

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Running with the Pack Review

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on November 13, 2013

Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality

Mark Rowlands (Author) $25.95 November 2013

Like Mark Rowlands, I am a runner, a known associate of canines, and a philosopher in Florida. This probably makes me either well qualified as a reviewer or hopelessly biased.

While the book centers on the intrinsic value of running, it also addresses the broader topics of moral value and the meaning of life. While Rowlands references current theories of evolutionary biology, he is engaging in philosophy of the oldest school—the profound and difficult struggle to grasp the Good.

Decisively avoiding the punishing style that often infects contemporary philosophy, Rowlands’ well-crafted tale invites the reader into his thoughts and reflections. While Rowlands runs with canines rather than his fellow “big arsed apes” his writing has the pleasant feel of the well-told running story. While the tale covers a span of decades, it is nicely tied together by his account of his first marathon.

Since the book is about running and philosophy, there is the question of whether or not the book is too philosophical for runners and too “runsophical” for philosophers. Fortunately, Rowlands clearly presents the philosophical aspects of the work in a way that steers nicely between the rocks of being too technical for non-philosophers and being too simplistic for philosophers. As such, non-philosophers and philosophers should find the philosophical aspects both comprehensible and interesting.

In regards to the running part, Rowlands takes a similar approach: those who know little of running are provided with the needed context while Rowlands’s skill ensures that he still captures the attention of veteran runners. This approach ensures that those poor souls who are unfamiliar with both running and philosophy will still find the book approachable and comprehensible.

While the narrative centers on running, the book is a run across the fields of value and the hills of meaning. In addition to these broad themes, Rowlands presents what seems to be the inevitable non-American’s critique of American values. However, Rowlands’s critique of American values (especially our specific brand of instrumentalism) is a friend’s critique: someone who really likes us, but is worried about some of our values and choices. Lest anyone think that Rowlands is solely critiquing America, his general concern is with the contemporary view of value as being purely instrumental. Against this view he endeavors to argue for intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, he claims that running has intrinsic value in addition to its obvious instrumental value. While this claim generally seems self-evident to runners, in the context of philosophy it must be proven and Rowlands sets out to do just that.

Interestingly, he begins with a little known paper by Moritz Schlick in which he contends that play has intrinsic value. He then moves to Bernard Suits’s account of what it is to be game and notes that running is a form of play; that is, it involves picking an inefficient means of achieving a goal for the sake of engaging in the activity.  Running is not a efficient way of getting around in an age of cars, but runners often run for the sake of running-thus running can be a game.

As Rowlands tells the reader, his approach is not strictly linear and he takes interesting, but relevant, side trips into such matters as the nature of the self and of love. These side trips are rather like going off the main trail in a run—but, of course, one is really still on the run.

Near the end of this run, Rowlands goes back to the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. He notes that the gods, such as Zeus, showed us that play is an essential part of what is best. The philosophers showed us that the most important thing is to love the good. The athletes taught us that running is play and therefore has intrinsic value.

He ends his run with a discussion of joy, which is the recognition of things with intrinsic value. As he says, dogs and children understand joy but when we become adults we lose our understanding—but this need not be a permanent loss.

While Rowlands’s case is well reasoned, he does face the serious challenge of establishing intrinsic value within the context of what I call the MEM (mechanistic, evolutionary, and materialist) world. Many ancient (and later) philosophers unashamedly helped themselves to teleological and metaphysical foundations for the Good. While this generated problems, this approach could seemingly ground intrinsic value. While I agree with Rowlands’s conclusion, I am in less agreement with his attempt to establish intrinsic value in his chosen world view. But, it is a good run and I respect that.

Like a long run, Rowlands’ book covers a great deal of ground. Also like a long run, it is well worth finishing.  Plus there are dogs (the most philosophical of animals).

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Hunter

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2013
English: A white-tailed deer

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I return to visit my home town in Maine, I run my favorite route. This year was no exception and the early morning found me running through the forests and fields of the University of Maine. Emerging from a section of the cool and shaded pine forest, I spotted a large buck standing, with a clear sense of the aesthetic, in an open area. He saw me almost immediately and our eyes met across the distance.

The deer and I are both the product of untold generations of natural selection (or, perhaps, the result of design) and we are both well equipped to do what it is that we do. Or, in more teleological terms, we possess attributes that enable us to fulfill our functions with a degree of excellence.

Both the deer and I are equipped with a decent array of senses, although the deer has something of an edge here. We are, interestingly enough, both well optimized for running. However, we are somewhat different sorts of runners. The deer is much faster than I, but I have an advantage in endurance. While I am not a tireless runner, I can (and have) run for hours. The deer can outrun me, but I can outlast the deer. So, a contest between us could come down to his speed against my endurance. I also have a special advantage—my species excels at handling heat. On this warm day, this gives me an edge over the deer.

While the deer is equipped with hooves and horns for offense, I would seem to be poorly equipped. As a human, I lack a proper set of killing teeth and my nails are stubs—shameful nubs when compared to the magnificent claws of a proper mammalian predator like a lion or beer.

However, I have hands and a pretty good brain. As such, I can make and use weapons. For example, the tree limbs I ran past could be easily converted into a club. I also have the ability to throw quite well, thanks to my eyes and arms—unlike any other animal I can hurl an object with force and accuracy over a fairly long distance. Even without weapons, my training allows me to use my hands, feet and grip lethally. In this regard, I am more than a match for the deer in unarmed combat. However, the deer is not helpless. Far from it—nature has blessed him with the tools he needs to survive against hunters like me and my four-legged brethren.

As I look at the deer, the remembered flavor of venison fills my mouth. Venison is my second favorite meat. My favorite is veal, which I gave up almost thirty years ago thanks to Singer’s book Animal Liberation. I also feel the runner’s desire to see if I can outrun someone else. I also have the mental traits that make me a suitable hunter: the aggression, courage and toughness needed to engage another living creature and inflict (and sustain) the damage needed to secure a meal. The deer also has his traits: caution, cunning and courage—I know that while he would endeavor to run, he would also fight for his survival.

The deer shifts slightly and seems to gaze more intently at me—as if he somehow knows that I am hearing the ancient call of the hunter. I can certainly feel the desire to pursue the deer, to face the challenge of the chase. I can see that the deer is getting ready to run. As I have been shaped by my hunter ancestors, he has been shaped by his ancestors—the hunted. We are, as I have said, both very good at what it is we do. We are, after all, what we are.

While I am well equipped for the hunt, I am also endowed with something else—the ability to engage in moral reasoning. While I am hungry (I am seven miles into a 14 mile run), I know that I have breakfast waiting for me. I have no need to kill the deer for food. I will not waste a life simply to gain a trophy, so I would certainly not rob the deer of his life merely in order to rob him of his antlers. While I would love to chase him for sport, I am sure he would not enjoy the game—he would not know it was a game and it would terrify him and waste his energy. As Kant said, cruelty for the sake of mere sport is not something that I, as a rational being, should be involved with. I will not play a game unless everyone involved knows it is just a game. At least, when I am at my moral best, that is what I will do—I do admit to the desire to yield to the call of the chase.

I turn away from the deer, running through the tall grass. The deer turns away as well, heading back into the woods. It is a beautiful day and we both have many miles to run.

 

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Best of Times…

Posted in Humor, Miscellaneous, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on January 2, 2013

Back in the day...The arrive of a new year typically causes me to think about past years-this usually involves remembering how good I used to be. Since some might suspect that the older I get, the better I used to be, I thought I’d post my best running times. Or at least the best times that I actually have supporting documentation for-I did not actually start recording my runs until the fall of 1987 and the tracking of Maine races back in the 1980s was limited, at best. There are probably some dusty records back at Marietta College as well-I should probably look for those one of these days.

As might be imagined, my current times are somewhat slower than these.  But time can be cruel.

WTP will note that I have used an old newspaper clipping rather than a shirtless image of myself. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to post somewhat fewer such photos than in 2012. It will be tough, but Dr. Phil is coaching me and Sixpack Chopra (Deepak Chopra’s cooler and less annoying younger brother) is also on board as my spiritual guide.

Distance Time Date/Race
1 Mile 4:54 8/18/1998
5K 16:30 3/13/1988
10K 33:45 Peter Ott’s 10K
8K 28:10 9/21/1996
5 Miles 26:32 10/31/1987
12K 44:06 2/7/1998
15K 55:24 3/8/1997
10 Miles 58:04 9/22/1991
20K 1:19:39 10/10/1998
13.1 (Half Marathon) 1:24 1/17/1999
15 Miles 1:32 2/16/1992
30K 1:58:20 2/6/1999
26.2 (Marathon) 2:45:03:12 11/10/1991
50K 3:47:58 12/9/1995

Training the Will

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2012

In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.

Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.

While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).

As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.

One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity.  For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.

Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.

For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.

One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.

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An Important Philosophical Question

Posted in Aesthetics, Humor, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2012

WTP raised perhaps the most important philosophical question of the 21st century:

How many pictures of a shirtless Mike does the internet actually need?

This question has a clear normative aspect in that it addresses the matter of what the internet needs. This could be taken as a moral question or, more plausibly, an aesthetic question. Taken as an aesthetic question it raises the issue of the aesthetic needs of the internet.

Fortunately, this is one philosophical question that admits of a definitive answer. This answer is, of course, “all of them.”

This answer can be based on numerous theories, since all plausible theories will yield the same answer. For example, the shirtless imperative states that “act in a way such that if a picture of Mike shows him shirtless, then it is posted on the internet.” As another example, the shirtutilitarian theory states  “actions are good as they tend to promote the posting of pictures of a shirtless Mike; wrong as they tend to retard the posting of pictures of a shirtless Mike.” Even the shirtless command theory makes the matter clear: “thou shalt post shirtless pictures of Mike on the internet.”

The Noble Philosophy Prize for this year will be going to WTP for his work on this matter.

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Will

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on December 12, 2012

As a runner, martial artist and philosopher I have considerable interest in the matter of the will. As might be imagined, my view of the will is shaped mostly by my training and competitions. Naturally enough, I see the will from my own perspective and in my own mind. As such, much as Hume noted in his discussion of personal identity, I am obligated to note that other people might find that their experiences vary considerably. That is, other people might see their will as very different or they might even not believe that they have a will at all.

As a gamer, I also have the odd habit of modeling reality in terms of game rules and statistics—I am approaching the will in the same manner. This is, of course, similar to modeling reality in other ways, such as using mathematical models.

In my experience, my will functions as a mental resource that allows me to remain in control of my actions. To be a bit more specific, the use of the will allows me to prevent other factors from forcing me to act or not act in certain ways. In game terms, I see the will as being like “hit points” that get used up in the battle against these other factors. As with hit points, running out of “will points” results in defeat. Since this is rather abstract, I will illustrate this with two examples.

This morning (as I write this) I did my usual Tuesday work out: two hours of martial arts followed by about two hours of running. Part of my running workout  was doing hill repeats in the park—this involves running up and down the hill over and over (rather like marching up and down the square). Not surprisingly, this becomes increasingly painful and fatiguing. As such, the pain and fatigue were “trying” to stop me. I wanted to keep running up and down the hill and doing this required expending those will points. This is because without my will the pain and fatigue would stop me well before I am actually physically incapable of running anymore. Roughly put, as long as I have will points to expend I could keep running until I collapse from exhaustion. At that point no amount of will can move the muscles and my capacity to exercise my will in this matter would also be exhausted. Naturally, I know that training to the point of exhaustion would do more harm than good, so I will myself to stop running even though I desire to keep going. I also know from experience that my will can run out while racing or training—that is, I give in to fatigue or pain before my body is actually at the point of physically failing.  These occurrences are failures of will and nicely illustrate that the will can run out or be overcome.

After my run, I had my breakfast and faced the temptation of two boxes of assorted chocolates. Like all humans, I really like sugar and hence there was a conflict between my hunger for chocolate and my choice to not shove lots of extra calories and junk into my pie port. My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control—the desire is directing me against my will. Of course, the hunger is not going to simply “give up” and it must be controlled by expending will and doing this keeps me in control of my actions by making them my choice.

Naturally, many alternatives to the will can be presented. For example, Hobbes’ account of deliberation is that competing desires (or aversions) “battle it out”, but the stronger always wins and thus there is no matter of will or choice. However, I rather like my view more and it seems to match my intuitions and experiences.

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Knowing I am Not the Best (Extended Remix)

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2012

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.

I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.

In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.

One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.

One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.

A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.

While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.

It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.

It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.

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How Much is Me?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2012
Usain Bolt winning the 100 m final 2008 Olympics

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in my undergraduate days I was a participant in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. While almost all of the details of the debate have long since faded from my non-artificial mind, I still recall one exchange very vividly. The professor on the opposing side said that I believed in free will because I wanted to take credit for my successes. Being filled with the pride of youth, I replied with something to the effect of “of course, they are my successes.” I also recall showing some small wisdom by adding something like “my failures are also mine.” This was probably my first real attempt at reflecting on the extent to which I was responsible for my successes and failures. Naturally, this also got me thinking about success and failure in general and not just the specifics of my own victories and defeats.

Not surprisingly, I have thought about this matter over the years, often in the context of teaching. To use a small example, I have noticed that students who do well say things like “I earned an A” while students who do poorly typically say things like “the professor failed me.” At the start of each semester, at least one student will ask me if I fail students. My reply, which I make with a smile, is always “No. People fail themselves. I merely record the failure.” I follow that by saying that students have every chance to succeed and that I will do my best to ensure that they get the grade they earn. As might be imagined, being a teacher does tend to get a person thinking about who is responsible for the success and failures of students.

The matter of responsibility in regards to success (and failure) obviously extends far beyond the classroom. Thanks to a July, 2012 speech by President Obama, this matter became the focus in the political battle between Democrats and Republicans. The key part of Obama’s speech  is as follows:  “…Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

While some Republicans decided to interpret Obama as claiming that business owners owe all their success to others (especially the state), the most plausible interpretation is that Obama is claiming that people who are successful in business owe some of their success to others, including the state.

Mitt Romney, who was very critical of what he claims Obama meant, actually presented a very similar view about success back in 2002: “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers encouraged your hopes. Coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches and communities.”

As with Obama, the most plausible interpretation of Romney’s remarks is that he is claiming that the athletes who made it to the Olympics owe some of their success to others.

These claims about success in business and sports seem to be intuitively plausible. Obviously, people do not appear as grown, educated adults ex nihilo via the power of their own will. Less obviously, but still rather obviously, business owners do not create their business out of nothing. To use a silly example, a business owner obviously does not invent the currency used to conduct business. In the case of Olympic athletes, they obviously do not just appear on the starting line with no support or assistance from others.

Outside of the reasoning damaging sphere of political rhetoric, the idea that people owe some or even much of their success to others (and perhaps even to the state) certainly seems intuitively plausible—at least enough so that anyone who claims to be entirely self-created would shoulder the burden of proof.  In any case, I would infer that anyone who can engage in such an act of self-creation would easily handle something as trivial as providing evidence of his/her amazing origin.

Assuming that I am right about this matter, the interesting question is not “do people owe some of their success (and failures) to others?” but “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” Making this discussion manageable does require certain assumptions that can, of course, be challenged. I will be assuming that people have meaningful agency and that the universe is not strictly deterministic or entirely random. To illustrate this, I will use the example of a prize drawing after a 5K race. For those not familiar with such events, some races feature the usual earned awards (what the runners get for running well) as well as a prize drawing. One common way to do this is for the race director to pull out a runner’s race number from a bag. Interestingly, people often applaud as loudly when people win the (hopefully) random prize as they do for people who earn (hopefully) a trophy.

In a deterministic universe it makes little sense to speak of meaningful success or failure. To use my analogy, if I “win” the prize because it is determined that I will win (that is, it is rigged) then I have hardly succeeded and the others have hardly failed—there is no victory, there is no defeat.

The same holds true for a completely random universe. To use an analogy, if I “win” the prize because my number is pulled by pure chance, I have not succeeded and the others have not failed. Things have just happened by chance.

Success and failure, then, would thus seem to assume that the agent has a meaningful role in the outcome. Going back to the analogy, while I would not have succeeded by “winning” either a fixed or random drawing, I could succeed by winning a trophy in the 5K via my efforts. Naturally, the nature of this agency in even something as apparently straightforward as a 5K race is something of a mystery. However, for the sake of the discussion that will follow in additional essays, I must make this assumption of mysterious agency. After all, I want to think I earned all those trophies and I am obligated to accept the disgrace of my failures.

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