Luck matters

Is success up to you, or does it just happen to you? In “Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think,” Robert K. Frank says that luck plays a bigger part in success than most people think. And the more you appreciate the contribution of luck to your success, the happier and more generous you are likely to be.


Ought implies can … or not

In “The Data against Kant,” Vlad Chituc discusses psychological research challenging Kant’s principle that ought implies can. This is the principle that “it would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do.” The research shows that there are common situations in which nonphilosophers do think it makes sense to say someone ought to do something that it is impossible for them to do it. In these situations “ought” has more to do with “blame” than with “can.” This in turn raises questions about “experimental philosophy” and the role the intuitions of nonphilosophers ought to play in philosophical analysis. Can we draw conclusions about what we ought to think from data about what some people actually think?

Free will and neuroscience

Which happens first … a conscious decision to do something or the brain activity associated with doing it? Thanks to experiments Benjamin Libet conducted in the 1980s, it seemed that “the timing of … conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity.” It seemed, that is, that our brains had already acted to carry out what we only later consciously decided to do.  But in “Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce,” Christian Jarrett says that may be changing. As researcher Dr. John-Dylan Haynes puts it, neuroscience may actually show that “a person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves.”

App addiction

Is it your fault you’re addicted to Facebook, Candy Crush Saga, or whatever? Or are the web and all those apps scientifically designed to break your will? If so, shouldn’t they be regulated? These are questions Michael Schulson addresses in “User Behaviour”: “‘Much as a user might need to exercise willpower, responsibility and self-control, and that’s great, we also have to acknowledge the other side of the street,’ said Tristan Harris, an ethical design proponent who works at Google. (He spoke outside his role at the search giant.) Major tech companies, Harris told me, ‘have 100 of the smartest statisticians and computer scientists, who went to top schools, whose job it is to break your willpower.’”

Living a lie

In “How To Live a Lie,” William Irwin considers whether you can live as if there are moral truths, as if God exists, and as if you have free will even if you believe none of these things is true.  His conclusion? Morality and God, no … but free will, yes. “Well, I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it. In fact, if free will fictionalism is involuntary, I have no choice but to accept free will. That makes accepting free will easy and undeniably sincere. Accepting the reality of God or morality, on the other hand, are tougher tasks, and potentially disingenuous.”

Your freedom quotient

In “The Free-Will Scale,” Stephen Cave says that we have an IQ that measures intelligence and also an FQ … freedom quotient … to show how much free will we have.  “[T]he comparison with intelligence is revealing. For much of the past 2,000 years in the West, intelligence was conceived in terms of a God-given faculty of reason that set humans wholly apart from other creatures. ‘Intellect’ and ‘will’ were seen by the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, as the two pre‑eminent faculties of the soul, which did not depend at all on the body. Now we know differently: we know that we have evolved through a long process of natural selection and that we share our faculties to varying degrees with other animals. Upon realising this, we did not conclude that there wasn’t really any such thing as intelligence – rather, psychologists set about putting it on a scientific footing. Similarly, we should not say that there is no such thing as free will, just because it is not how the theologians imagined; rather, it is time we put it, too, on a scientific footing.”

Self, with or without selfies

Stan Persky’s book review of Barry Dainton’s Self: Philosophy in Transit is an extended, entertaining, and instructive grand tour of many ideas about the self, that remarkable ability humans have “to sleepily glance at the bathroom mirror in the morning, and not only recognize ourselves, but also reflectively note, ‘Hmm, I don’t like myself very much these days. I wonder what I can do to change who and/or what I am.’” Thought experiments like the “ultimate simulation simulation machine” and “teleportation” make an appearance along the way.