A Philosopher's Blog

Is Photorealistic Drawing Art?

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2012
Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism

Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, drawing has been regarded as an imitative art. That is, artists create images based on real things. Naturally, this imitation can range from simply copying entire scenes to creating an original assembly from bits and pieces of real things. Descartes, in his clever painter analogy in his Meditations, makes note of this interesting nature of painting (which also applies to drawing). As he saw it, perhaps dreams are assembled like paintings from bits of real things. At the very least, he argues (before moving on to even greater skepticism), the colors used are real.

Moving away from metaphysics and epistemology back to aesthetics, it seems well established that imitating real things does not disqualify a drawing from being art. In fact, artists are often praised for their ability to accurately imitate reality. Interestingly, though this realism is often praised, there might be a point at which a drawing is too real to be considered art.

One argument for this is easy enough to make. When teaching my aesthetics class, I demonstrate my lack of drawing ability and ask them why my badly drawn capybara is not art. They point out the obvious—it does not look much a capybara because it is badly drawn. I then ask them if it would be art if I could draw better and they tend to agree. I then ask about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They point out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Obviously, part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction (although I am sure that someone clever could argue that it is art and someone even more clever would find a way to sell it as art to people with more money than sense).

Things become considerably more interesting when a photorealistic image is created not by a technological means of duplication, but by hand. For example, Samuel Silva recreated the image of a red haired girl from a photo by Kristina Taraina as well as other photorealistic images. While Silva works with color Bic pens (seriously), Paul Cadden creates his photorealistic works by drawing and also with paints. He, however, uses the term “hyperrealism” rather than “photorealism.”

Clearly, the creation of such realism in imitation requires great technical skill. For example, Silva can create photorealistic colors using Bic pens and this demonstrates an impressive mastery of color. There is also the obvious technical skill required to imitate a photograph with such incredible accuracy.

However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a decent color photocopier or a computer connected to a color scanner and printer.

It might be objected that the technical skill does make it art, despite the fact that a machine can do it better. To use an analogy, the fact that a scooter could beat a champion runner does not prove that the runner is not an athlete. Likewise, the fact that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden does not mean that they are not artists. This leads to a second point about art and imitation.

The problem, it can be argued, is not that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden. Rather, it is that there seems to be a point at which the exactitude of the imitation ceases to be a contribution to the artistry and rather begins to detract from it. While it seems unlikely that an exact tipping point can be specified, it does certainly seem that this is the case. Why this is so can be shown by returning to the reason why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. As such, to argue that Silva or Cadden is an artist requires showing that they do more than merely copy. That is, they must add something aesthetically significant to their work that is not in the original.

One obvious avenue of approach is to draw an analogy to photography. By its very nature, an unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there (photons bouncing of surfaces and all that).  What the photographer adds is her perspective—that is, she selects what she will capture and thus what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra (which, to steal from Locke’s Indian, I must say is “something I know not what”).

As such, someone who creates photorealistic images of photos could be adding that something extra in a way comparable to what photographers do when they create their art (assuming, safely enough, that a photograph can be art).

The rather obvious reply to this is that a person who is creating a photorealistic re-creation of a photograph does not seem to be adding that something extra. Cadden does, however, claim that he is not engaging in photorealism, but rather in what he calls hyperrealism. He says that

“Hyperreal paintings and sculptures are not strict interpretations of photographs, nor are they literal illustrations of a particular scene or subject. Instead, they utilise additional, often subtle, pictorial elements to create the illusion of a reality which in fact either does not exist or cannot be seen by the human eye” and he adds that “Furthermore, they may incorporate emotional, social, cultural and political thematic elements as an extension of the painted visual illusion; a distinct departure from the older and considerably more literal school of Photorealism.”

From a theoretical standpoint, Cadden is certainly on solid ground. After all, he makes an argument analogous to the one used above, namely that he adds that “aesthetic extra” that makes his work more than a technical achievement in manual duplication. There is, however, the question of whether that “aesthetic extra” is present in his works. Since he works from photographs, it seems easy enough to put the matter to an empirical test by comparing his works to the original and giving due consideration to the difference. As such, if his work differs in aesthetically significant ways from the original image, then it would be safe enough to consider it art and him an artist.

In any case, both Silva and Cadden are remarkably talented and do amazing work.

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Sci-Fi Speeches

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2012
Inglourious Basterds (soundtrack)

Inglourious Basterds (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fan of science fiction and I especially like alternative reality sci-fi. In this genre, the fictional world is like our own, only with important differences. Philosophically, these writers are engaged in counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact.  For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War.  One specific example of this is Inglourious Basterds, a nice piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the X-Men First Class movie (although they are presented as mutants, their powers are more akin to magic than anything that could be based in science) or the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.

I also, like many Americans, like politics. Interestingly enough, I can satisfy my cravings for science-fiction and politics at the same time by watching some of the political speeches being given these days. While political speeches often distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some speeches actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.

Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of science fiction. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The influences of another fiction writer, Ayn Rand, certainly seem to have helped shape his fictional world. While I specifically mention Ryan, I am confident that the Democrats will present some of their own alternative realities at the upcoming DNC.

While I do enjoy speculative fiction and alternative histories, I would prefer that they not be presented as the truth. Honest writers have the decency to label their fictions as fictions, something that politicians do not do. This is, of course, dishonest and also has a negative consequences. After all, people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices.

While creative counter factual fiction does have its place, politics is not that place.

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How Much is Other People?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2012
A text logo for Ohio State University

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his famous quote about standing on the shoulders of giants, Sir Isaac Newton credited at least some of his success to efforts of others. While most of us will not see as far as Newton, we also stand upon the shoulders of others. After all, we are born into societies and have access to centuries of human accomplishments such as language, technology and society itself. As such, the success of any individual is but an addition to an already vast structure of human achievement (and failure) and is built upon well-established foundations. For example, the language I am using to write this was developed long before my time. The computer I am using to write this was made possible by past achievements in theory and technology. As such, any success I glean from this work involves a debt to all those folks who made it possible for me to sit in front of a screen and type out words in English.

Of course, the contributors to our successes (and failures) do not just include people who are long dead. Obviously enough, a person’s very existence and survival depends on other people who are (or recently were) alive. Much of a person’s education also depends on others and there are many other debts (for good or for ill) owed to others. Naturally, I am making a distinction between the state (which is just people) and other people in this context. For this essay, the other people would be people who are not acting in their capacity as state officials or agents.

For example, I would not be able to write this if it were not for the education I received from my parents and the teachers at Lewis Stairs Elementary school. I would not be a philosopher without the education provided by the professors at Marietta College and The Ohio State University.

Naturally, some of the failures I have experienced can also be attributed in part to others who have impeded me (intentionally or not).

As such, it seems clear that some of a person’s success (and failures) is due to the contributions of other people. The interesting question is thus not “do people owe others for their success (or failure)”, but “to what extent do people owe others for their success (or failure)?”

It seems easy to show that at least some of a person’s success is due to her own efforts. After all, if a person’s success had to depend entirely on the contributions of others, then an infinite regress would seem to arise, thus making success impossible. As such, it seems reasonable to infer that people can contribute to their own success (unless, of course, all success and failure is ultimately attributed to God, the un-helped success).

As might be suspected, the degree to which other people contribute to an individual’s success (or failure) will vary a great deal. For example, a businessman who was born to wealthy family in the United States, was provided with the best education money can buy, and was then helped out throughout life by family connections must clearly share must of his success with other people. As another example, a great poet who was born into poverty, was abandoned as a young child, and taught herself poetry from scavenged books would owe far less of her success to others. Interestingly, the wealthy businessman might be more inclined than the poet to claim that his success was mostly of his own doing.

One area in which the division of success (and failure) is of special interest to me is in education. Obviously enough, teachers have a role to play in the success or failure of a student. It seems equally obvious that the student also has a rather important role to play in this regard. As I have mentioned before, students often tend to blame teachers for their failures (“she failed me”) and accept credit for their successes (“I earned an A”). While this is natural, sorting out the contributions of each is a matter of some importance, especially these days. After all, there is a growing tendency in the United States (and probably elsewhere) to place the majority of the accountability on the shoulders of educators. One practical reason for this is, of course, that teachers can be fired or replaced while public schools tend to be stuck with their students, thus making the changing of teachers an easier approach to the problem. This does not, however, show how the responsibility is truly divided between teacher and student.

My own experience at the college level has been that the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad students would tend to learn about the same regardless of the teachers. After all, the very good students take a very active role in their education (and thus will compensate for bad teachers) and the very bad students generally do not pay attention on the rare occasions they actually make it to class (and hence largely negate the impact of teaching). As such, an educator probably cannot take a great deal of credit (or blame) for the success (or failure) of these students. There can, of course, be exceptions.

Not surprisingly, it would seem that the most impact is upon the majority of the students—those who are not exceptionally good or bad as students. Of course, even then there is a question of how much the teacher is accountable for their success or failure. Also not surprisingly, education policy (especially such things as firing and merit) is being made without much understanding of how the responsibility for success and failure should be divided. This is, of course, but one example of why the division of responsibility between people matters.

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Isaac’s Political Impact

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2012

The impact of weather on politics generally does not get a great deal of attention, but the possible effects of Isaac on the upcoming presidential election are well worth considering.

Obviously, the Republican National Convention has been impacted by the storm. One impact is that Isaac has served to steal the spotlight from the RNC. As such, while the Republicans had hoped that the media would be focused on them, they have had to share news time with Isaac. This is especially evident when the news is presented in “split screen” with storm information appearing under whatever is occurring in the news. Of course, the storm seems to have had the positive impact of taking Donald Trump out of the convention, although he threw out a tweet urging the Republicans to take up the banner of bitherism.

A second impact is that Isaac’s course change towards New Orleans has brought Katrina back into the news. Justly or unjustly, the Katrina disaster is linked with George Bush and thus linked to the Republican party. No doubt the Republicans are not happy that America is being vividly reminded of that terrible event. While Obama would obviously take action despite the chance of political gain in this manner, this situation has provided Obama with a chance to score some political points by showing that his administration is preparing effectively for the storm.

What is far less clear is what impact the storm will have, both in terms of physical damage and political effects.

If the storm damages New Orleans, the Republicans will need to modify their speeches to take the situation into account. After all, the context of a national disaster would hardly be ideal setting in which to launch aggressive attacks
against Obama. While this civility would be morally commendable, given the current reliance on negative politics, this would rob the Republicans speeches of much of their rhetorical impact. It is, of course, possible that Romney or another Republican will deliver an amazing speech that respects the severity of the situation while still making the Republican case in an inspiring and effective way. I am, however, unsure if the usual crop of writers can throw their gears in reverse and craft such a masterpiece instead of the usual negative and often deceptive bashing.

Another point of concern is that the storm damage would provide Obama with an opportunity to score political points by handling the situation effectively. Naturally, poor handling of a disaster would be a political blow against Obama, but it is hard to imagine that he could do a worse than what happened with Katrina.

There is also the fact that the governor of Louisiana would need to rely on federal support when confronting a major disaster. If he engaged in attacks on Obama while federal support is pouring into his state, he could very well come across as petty and ungrateful (even if this is undeserved). It is, of course, always somewhat ironic when “small government” and “rugged individualism” Republicans eagerly accept federal aid. After all, one obvious contribution the state makes to the success of businesses and individuals is by contributing significantly to rebuilding after a disaster. Having the Obama administration effectively addressing storm damage would certainly do some real damage to some stock components of Republican rhetoric.

It is, of course, important to note that a significant storm will hurt and kill people while also doing considerable property damage. As such, exploiting it for political points would be reprehensible. This does, of course, provide an avenue for the use of stock negative politics: whatever Obama does could be cast as cynical attempts to score political points.

The full impact of the storm will, of course, not be known until it is over. Hopefully, the storm’s impact will be minimal and America will quickly rebuild.

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Bounty Hunting

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 27, 2012
A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three of my favorite westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) feature a bounty hunter as the main character. I also have been playing a bounty hunter in Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. In addition to these purely fictional bounty hunters, the American Wild West saw its share of real-life bounty hunters and even today some folks still follow that profession.

For those who are unfamiliar with bounty hunting, the basic idea is that the authorities offer a reward for the capture (or death) of someone that they regard as being in need of capture (or killing). The targets, who are often “wanted dead or alive” according to Hollywood lore, are typically criminals.

As might be imagined, the practice of bounty hunting is sometimes regarded as morally dubious. After all, the classic bounty hunter is not an official agent of the state and is essentially being unleashed on another citizen who very well merely be wanted. Of course, in areas in which law enforcement is somewhat lacking, posting bounties can make good sense. After all, in addition to encouraging the capture of alleged evil-doers it also focuses the attention of others who are inclined to live by the gun on these evil-doers. As such, there is a double-benefit: a bad guy probably gets captured (or killed) and other potentially bad folks are kept busy hunting them. In the actual American Wild West, many of the folks who engaged in bounty hunting (and law enforcement) were sometimes on the wrong side of the law themselves. As such, old style bounty hunting could be potentially justified on utilitarian grounds—having rough people busy hunting bad people could have good consequences for society.

While this sort of bounty hunting is certainly fascinating, there is also another type of bounty hunting that has arisen on the digital frontier of the wired west. To be specific, software companies have sometimes offered rewards to hackers who can find ways to hack their software. While such bounties are sometimes offered as public relations stunts (the idea being that if a company offers a big reward to hack their software, then the public is supposed to believe that it is secure) they are increasingly being used to actually test software.

For example, Google has started offering fairly lucrative bounties for hackers who can find and exploit weakness in Google Chrome. Google has done this before and has even posted what has been learned (after the problems have been fixed, of course).

From a practical standpoint, this practice makes excellent sense. After all, while a company would have to pay the bounty, having a person hack their software in a contest for the bounty is generally more desirable than having someone hack their software “in the wild.” Such a wild hack could cost the company and its customers and hence such bounties can actually be seen as a good investment. It also has the advantage of keeping hackers busy, at least for a while.

From a moral standpoint, this approach also has merit. While companies are doing this to protect their software, reputation, profits and customers, they are providing hackers with an incentive to use their talents for good (in general, unless the software is for evil purposes). While paying people to do good does raise some moral concerns, it does seem preferable to paying people to do evil and is perhaps preferable to not motivating people to do something good. From the standpoint of someone who uses the software in question, these bounties should seem like a very good idea—after all, they might save uses from having their personal information stolen or other problems.

Companies, such as Google, who share the problems and their fixes with others also seem to be doing something that is both practical and commendable. From a practical standpoint, having less vulnerability in software is a boon for all honest users and developers. From a moral standpoint, aiding the community seems laudable.

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Democrats & Sexual Harassment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2012
English: Official portrait of United States Se...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks got considerable media attention, Vito Lopez stepped in to remind us that Democrats are not always angels when it comes to women. Assemblyman Lopez, long a power broker, was recently censured for sexual harassment.

If these accusations are true, the Lopez was clearly behaving badly. In this case, there is really little in dispute-people who engage in sexual harassment should be punished. Of course, some might say that his actions border on an attempt at sexual assault, but that is something left to lawyers to hash out.

What I find most interesting about this situation is that (assuming the claims are true) Lopez engaged in behavior that seems rather irrational. After all, the consequences of sexual harassment are well known these days and presumably Lopez is reasonably intelligent and keeps up with the news. As such, I wonder why Lopez (allegedly) decided to engage in such career ending behavior.

There is also apparently a sexual harassment complaint against Janet Napolitano. In this case, the accusation is that men are being harassed and discriminated against in her department. Naturally, if these claims are true, it would make me wonder why this would take place.

One standard explanation is that people tend to think that they will be the exception. That is, that although other folks get caught and punished, they are too clever or powerful to face the consequences of their actions. While this might sometimes be the case, if Lopez was thinking this, then he miscalculated.  I suspect that people in positions in power sometimes think that they are entitled to break the normal rules (or that they do not apply to them). There is also the matter of the sort of personality that would be involved in power-that sort of person is probably accustomed to simply getting what s/he wants and hence extends this expectation beyond the limits of his/her legitimate authority.

Another explanation is that sometimes people do not realize that they are engaging in harassment. In some cases, this is understandable (there are, after all, some gray areas). However, when a person’s hand is on another person’s leg, the situation is rather clear. Of course, a person might think that his (or her) advances will be appreciated or welcomed and this could perhaps result in unintentional harassment. Except, obviously enough, in cases in which such advances would be automatically inappropriate (such as between a boss and her employee).

A third possibility is that some people simply cannot help themselves, for whatever reason. That is, they have some of defect in will or (in more modern terms) a mental condition that causes them to act in ways they should not.

In the case of females harassing men, there might be a “payback” factor at work. After all, men have been on the giving end of harassment for a long time and it might be rather tempting to certain women to switch roles. Of course, it also might be that there are women who are just as bad as men and it is just a matter of being given the opportunity to behave badly.

It is, of course, always depressing to hear about such incidents. After all, by now I would hope that people in such positions would know better and be deterred from acting in this manner. However, this is clearly not the case.

Any thoughts on why people engage in such career-ending (or damaging) behavior?

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The Abortion Issue

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2012

, member of the United States House of Represe...

Thanks to Todd Akin, the issue of abortion is once again in the political spotlight. While the Republican leadership uniformly chastised Akin for his remarks about “legitimate rape”, the social conservatives in the Republican party still support Akin’s (and Ryan’s) view of abortion.

This year the Republicans platform is supposed to (once again) include a person hood plank. While the final wording has yet to be set, CNN received a leaked version that states:“Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

Lest anyone think this is something entirely new, similar (though less extreme) planks have been included in 2000, 2004, and 2008. These did not get much attention, but Akin’s words have brought the spotlight to this plank.

While the social conservatives regard this as a very important matter, the Republican leadership clearly wants to push the spotlight off this issue and onto the economy. After all, the economy is seen as Obama’s weak point and the Republicans stand a better chance of winning on this issue. However, if abortion continues to be an issue, this could bode ill for the Republicans.

Naturally, people do point out that there are anti-abortion women. I am well aware of this and I even know women who oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds. However, most Americans believe that abortion should remain legal. This alone makes abortion something of a losing battle for the Republicans.

It might be replied that the Republicans can still win over women who are pro-life with their pro-life position and win over pro-choice women by their claims about the economy. This is, of course, a good strategy. In the past, the Republicans have been able to include a pro-life agenda while winning over women voters, in part because some women are pro-life and in part because pro-choice Republican women could rest assured that nothing would come of the pro-life agenda. The Republican party was also regarded as not being hostile to women, at least by most people in the mainstream. However, things have changed.

One substantive change has been the push to severely restrict abortion and even eliminate it. While a small number of pro-life woman might favor this, there are still plenty of  pro-life women (and men) who believe that abortion should still be allowed in cases of rape, incest and when it is necessary to save the life of the mother. As might be imagined, pushing such a restrictive view of abortion would not play well on the national stage. However, one thing that favors the Republicans here is the fact that people tend to believe, based on the past, that this position was just thrown in as a bone to the social conservatives and that Romney would not really make it so. As such, people who might be dismayed by this view can also feel they can safely ignore it.

On stylistic change has been the language and approach of certain Republicans, especially Ryan and Akin. In  the legislation penned by Ryan and Akin, the term “forcible rape” was introduced and this created the impression that Ryan and Akin think that only certain types of rape are “rapey” enough to allow for a woman or girl to have an abortion. Akin obviously tossed gasoline  on this fire when he used “legitimate rape” and made false claims about the female body’s ability to defend against being impregnated by rape. I would imagine this sort of language is unappealing to women and creates a rather negative impression of the Republican party. Interestingly, while the mainstream Republicans rushed to distance themselves from Akin and to condemn his words, the Republican party seems to be sticking with Akin’s principles regarding abortion. As such, they seem to be sending the message that women’s rights should be restricted but politicians should not talk about it that way.

Since the election is still a few months away, the Republicans have time to do damage control and to attempt to make this a non-issue for the election. Presumably they want it to be important and not important at the same time-important for the social conservatives, yet ignored by everyone else.

While some are casting Akin’s remarks as an error in which he misspoke, it is tempting to some to think that what was seen was a moment of honesty-that is, the true face of this sort of social conservatism was revealed in all its ignorance and misogyny.

In closing, the  abortion issue is such that Obama cannot win on it, yet Romney could lose on it. That is, Obama will not win the election by holding to his pro-choice view. However, the way the Republicans handle (or mishandle) the issue can antagonize enough voters (especially women) to cause Romney to lose. Obama is currently ahead with women voters and incidents like these can only help him.

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How Much is Genes?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Science by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2012
This image shows the coding region in a segmen...

The secret of success? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay, I addressed the matter of the state’s contribution to an individual’s success (and failure). Naturally, no discussion of success would be complete without a discussion of genetics.

While the role of genetics in human behavior is a rather complicated matter, it does seem eminently reasonable to accept that genetics play at least some role in success (and failure). Interestingly, these genes might not all be human—there are some interesting new findings regarding the role of the bacteria that live in us (which outnumber the cells in the human body 10 to 1).

Thanks to years spent in athletics, I have had access to an informal laboratory in which I could observe various factors at play when it comes to success. As might be imagined, genetics probably plays a rather significant role in athletic success (and failure). Being a runner, I will limit myself to running, but the same points can be applied to other aspects of life as well.

One rather obvious role of genetics is body type. As people who run or at least watch competitive running know, the top runners tend to have a rather specific body type. While much of this results from training, there are factors that are genetic. After all, no amount of running will give a person longer legs. There are also the factors that one cannot see, such as the efficiency of the cells when it comes to handling the energy requirements of competitive running. While these factors can be influenced by training, natural ability (which is probably largely based in genetics) does have a significant impact and this is supported by my own years of competitive running.

Having run in high school and college, I was able to observe runners who were in the same training programs, had similar backgrounds and lived in similar conditions. However, performance obviously varied quite a bit even among people who followed the exact same training. In my own case, I was fairly lucky—while I lacked the easy high school success of “natural athletes”, I found that training really paid off for me. In contrast, some other runners worked as hard (or harder) than me, yet did not meet with the same level of success. Of course, there were also runners who trained as hard as I did (or less) who did much better. After graduation, I was no longer on a team, but still trained with other runners. Obviously, some people I trained with and ran with step-for-step were better than me and some were worse. I also found out the obvious—no matter how hard or smart I trained, I would never be able to make the Olympics (although I did run against some of the best American marathoners in Ohio back in 1992).  It makes sense to attribute some of this failure to genetics—my body simply cannot match what the Olympic marathoners can do, despite all that training. Of course, it also makes sense to attribute some of my success to genetics—while I do not have Olympian genes, I have brought home plenty of trophies. Plus, as we old runners say, running is itself a victory.

Naturally, these results were impacted by many variables, but the fact that genes influence performance seems to be well-established. The more interesting question is, then, “how much do genes influence success (and failure)?”

Not surprisingly, people often turn to the study of twins to attempt to sort out what is genetic and what is not. After all, twins are supposed to be genetically identical and hence any differences between them would be non-genetic in nature. Interestingly, it has turned out that twins are not actually identical, thus entailing that some differences might be genetic. There has also been some recent interesting work regarding the bacteria that inhabit the human body and their influence on such factors as health. Oddly enough, it might be the case that some of a person’s success is due to his bacteria.

While the physiological aspects of running and other activities at which one might fail or succeed seem to be strongly influenced by genetics, there is obviously a rather open question as to how much genetics impacts what might be called the mental aspects of success and failure. Going back to running, training and competition have very significant mental elements. For example, there is the matter of having the will to train as needed. As any runner will tell you, real training hurts. Of course, racing hurts more—a big part of being a competitive runner is having what Hobbes called the will to hurt. Only in this case it is the will to hurt yourself rather than others.

As might be imagined, if the “mental” aspects are as influenced by genetics as the physical aspects, then much of a person’s success or failure rests in these genes. For example, if the ability to finish a race despite a broken leg is not a matter of the will of the athlete, but a matter of the structure of his brain that resulted from the genes that constructed it, then he did not succeed. Likewise, if a runner is “broken” in the final sprint by a tougher runner because of the genetics of their nervous systems, then he has not failed.

Shockingly enough, the essay ends as it began, with the question unanswered. After all, we do not know how much the genes influence our success (and failures). But, I got to write about running and that is a success.

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How Much is the State?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2012
The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

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In the previous essay I began a discussion about the question “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” As might be imagined, the category of others is rather broad, so as a practical matter it is necessary to limit the scope of the discussion. In this essay I will focus on how much a person’s success (or failure) is owed to the state. Obviously, the exact debt will vary from person to person and this examination will be, of necessity, somewhat abstract.

One rather promising way to begin the discussion is to make use of the state of nature. This classic philosophical device was used by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in their examination of such matters as rights and the justification of political power. I am, however, going to use the device to see what the state contributes to success (or failure).

While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, two of the classic approaches to the state of nature are the Hobbesian state and the Lockean state. In general terms, the state of nature is a state in which there is no governmental authority. It is often presented as a hypothetical predecessor to the rise of political states. In any case, the state of nature is marked by the lack of any artificial authority.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war “and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of the conditions of this state, none of the following are possible: “Industry, culture of the earth, navigation, use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, commodious building; instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force, knowledge of the face of the earth, account of time, arts, letters, society.” As Hobbes sees it, the establishment of the sovereign (the state) is necessary for the establishment of order and this allows the possibility of industry and the other things that are required for “commodious living.” Given Hobbes assumptions about the state of nature being a state of war of all against all, the idea that these things would not be possible makes sense. One has but to look at what happens in cases where civil authority collapses to see the plausibility of Hobbes’ view.

On the Hobbesian model, an individual who succeeded in industry or other endeavors would owe a great deal to the state (that is, the collective of everyone forming the great leviathan that is the state). After all, without the order provided by the state, success in these areas would not be possible. Naturally, this does not include any other contributions made by the state, such as providing infrastructure or support for research. These contributions would, obviously enough, add to the debt owed by the individual to the collective society.

The Lockean model is rather nicer than the Hobbesian, most likely because Locke includes divinely based rights to life, liberty and property even in the state of nature. On Locke’s model, life in the state if nature is not a state of war (although war can occur) and there is clearly the possibility of success within this state. For example, the right to property allows for the accumulation of goods and this could be seen as success.

While the Lockean state of nature is more appealing than Hobbes’ state of war, Locke does argue that it is not preferable to the state of civil society. While there are, according to Locke, rights in the state of nature, these rights are enforced only by vigilante justice in which individuals act (or not) to prevent and take revenge for misdeeds. As such, wrongs are not reliably prevented or corrected. If, for example, someone stole the goods a person had accumulated, it would be up to her (and any allies) to recover her goods and punish the malefactors.

To solve this and other problems, civil society is created and vigilante justice is replaced with a legal system. Once the state is established, then the state has the responsibility of protecting the citizens and dealing with criminals. Assuming the state is doing its job, the state of civil society provides a stable system in which success is both more possible and more secure.

If Locke’s view is correct, a successful individual owes less to the state (that is, the collective agreements and actions of the people) than she would if Hobbes were right. After all, the difference between Locke’s state of nature and civil society is not as extreme as the difference in Hobbes. However, the successful individual would still owe much to the collective efforts of civil society, not the least of which would be a debt for the existence of laws enabling and protecting the fruits of her success. If additional contributions of civil society, such as infrastructure, public education and so on are included, then the successful individual would owe a great deal to the state.

Of course, not everyone sees the state in such a positive way. For example, the communists contend that while the state is necessary for capitalism and socialism, it will wither away as true communism is achieved. Before then it will be an instrument of oppression, either serving the capitalists or the socialists. Obviously, once communism is achieved, then people will not owe any of their success (or failure) to the state on the obvious basis that there will be no state. Or so the communists claim. However, a debt will be still owed to the states—without them, humanity would not have been able to achieve communism.

As another example, the anarchists have a uniformly negative view of the state—although the degree of their negativity varies. Some, like Thoreau, are willing to co-exist with benign states. Others, like Goldman, advocate the destruction of the state because of its role in oppression and how it prevents true human flourishing.

Thoreau presents a rather interesting view of the state and one that many current conservatives would heartily endorse, noting “that government is best which governs least” and even going so far as to say “that government is best which governs not at all.” As Thoreau sees it, government seems to interfere with success in two main ways. The first is that people use it to impose on each other for their advantage. While this aids the success of those who control the state, it impedes the success of those who are imposed upon. Second, he claims that the state gets in the way of success, noting that “trade and commerce continuously face obstacles placed by legislators.” As he sees it government has only one role in success, namely doing nothing. As he sees it, “government never furthered any enterprise except by getting out of its way.”

On Thoreau’s system of government non-involvement, it would seem that an individual’s success (and failures) would depend more on the individual than it does in the current system in the United States and similar countries. After all, the state is routinely used by some to their considerable advantage over others (subsidies, favorable laws and so on) and it also imposes restrictions on what people can do. As such, the state does make contributions to the success (and failure) via these guided impositions and restrictions.

Thoreau advocates an evolution rather than a destruction of the state, however there are those (such as Goldman) who do advocate the complete elimination of the state. This would, of course, take the discussion full circle by returning to the state of nature—a situation without political authority. Naturally, if there was no state, then there would be no state to contribute to or prevent an individual’s success. There is, however, the question of whether or not such a state would be desirable. There is also the question of whether or not success would even be possible without a state, unless success is merely a matter of staying alive.

Obviously, there are other alleged contributors to individual success than the state and some of these will be addressed in the essays that follow.

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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

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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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