De omnibus dubitandum
1 Oct 2013
Successful people often, if not always, assume that their success is the result of hard work or talent, or a combination of the two.
And they’re wrong.
Success has very little to do with hard work, nor with talent. Yes, hard work certainly helps to achieve your goals, and having a healthy dose of talent doesn’t go amiss either.
But there are literally millions of hard-working people out there, struggling every day with the challenges life throws at them and barely managing to keep their head above water.
And there are also countless people who have an amazing talent or prodigious gift for one thing or another, but who never get even a glimpse of a chance to exploit that talent to achieve what we call success.
So neither hard work nor talent can deliver success. What can?
When we look at people we judge to be successful by our modern standards – people who have accumulated wealth and power and influence, who live in luxury and want for nothing – what lessons can we learn from them?
What do all these successful people have in common? Are they all hard-working? Do they all possess a certain measure of that ephemeral quality we call ‘talent’?
No. There’s just one thing all successful people – all of them, every single one – have in common: They got lucky.
Luck comes in many forms. The most basic luck anyone can have is the luck of birth. Your birth, a purely accidental event that you have absolutely zero control over, is the single biggest factor when it comes to determining your success in life.
If you happen to be born in to a wealthy family, chances are you will inherit that wealth, and as a result society deems you to be successful. You had nothing to do with that yourself at all. It was just pure luck.
Less obvious luck of birth is being born white. Or male. Or heterosexual. (If you are all three, consider yourself an early victor in the lottery of life – you basically started life with all the cheat codes on.)
Should you have had the misfortune of having been born in a destitute African family in Somalia, or a ghetto in Los Angeles, or in the slums of Manila, your chances of achieving success are significantly diminished. You just weren’t lucky enough.
Luck doesn’t stop at birth. At many different points in your life your future is determined by random acts of chance. Everything from who you meet and befriend to where you choose to have dinner can and does impact your life in meaningful ways, and almost always those are in turn determined by a purely random sequence of events.
Whenever you hear rags-to-riches stories, so often thrown up as evidence that hard work always delivers its just rewards, keep an ear out for that one moment of luck, that one event of pure chance, that helped the protagonist escape the clutches of poverty and achieve success. It’s always there. Without that fortuitous turn of events, the protagonist would not have succeeded at all, and would still be poor and unnoticed.
Who you are and where you are in life – holding up an empty cardboard cup on the corner of the street, or chairing meetings in 30th floor board rooms – is entirely the result of luck. Hard work and talent played only a peripheral role.
And that’s without going in to the neuroscientific minefield of subconsciousness, which basically states that you – the conscious, decision-making part of you – is not really in control at all, but that you are governed by inscrutable subconscious processes of the mind that are in turn more or less deterministic and dependent on a great many internal and external factors – most of which are, too, the result of pure random chance.
So whenever you see someone successful boasting about their accomplishments, or look down on those less fortunate than them, or when you feel the urge to congratulate yourself on your own achievements, keep in mind that it is all built on a very flimsy foundation of luck.
Always remember, you cannot truly take credit for your successes nor blame others entirely for their failures. It is a probabilistic universe, devoid of meaning, where success or failure is determined by a roll of the dice.
13 Mar 2013
So the human race has invented 3D printing.
This is possibly the greatest scientific advancement of the last few centuries, as it’ll allow us to create a genuine egalitarian post-scarcity society where the means of production are in the hands of us, the people, and we can quite literally build almost anything we’ll ever need.
And what do some people want to do with this astonishing, liberating, levelling-the-capitalist-playing-field invention?
They want to use it to make guns.
Seriously, I often wonder if the human species deserves to exist.
3 Aug 2012
Today two people were sentenced to life in prison for murdering a young woman. And I believe this is a very worrying conviction.
Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed are believed to have killed their daughter Shafilea in 2003 as an ‘honour killing’. The problem is that, from what the media has reported, this conviction is based entirely on a single eyewitness testimony.
One of the couple’s other children told authorities, seven years after Shafilea’s death, that she witnessed her parents kill her sibling. Whether or not that is true, we will never know.
Memories are fickle and unreliable things. They are created in an instant, and they are nearly always inaccurate. People believe that what they remember is what actually happened, while in fact what we remember is often a different version of the events as they transpired.
Memories are malleable, ephemeral, and eternally revised. Every time you remember something, you are actually re-creating the memory – and often change it in the process.
Memories not only change over time, they’re also inaccurate the moment they’re created. We don’t remember actual events – we remember our own biased, coloured versions of events. And our perceptions, much like our memories, are incredibly unreliable.
Memories don’t even need to be based on actual events. They can be created without the person ever experiencing anything even remotely close to it. A story you heard, a dream you had, a TV show you watched – all of these things can lead to memories that you will swear are true, while in fact they’re nothing but pure fabrications of your mind.
So I’m pretty sure that whatever Shafilea’s sister told in court what happened, and what actually happened on the night Shafilea disappeared, are two entirely and vastly different things.
No doubt there was a jury that was entirely unaware of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and I suspect there was not a small degree of bias present in many jurors – a result of the ceaseless barrage from the tabloid media distrusting anything that even remotely reeks of immigrants and Islam.
I don’t know if Shafilea’s parents killed her or not. That’s not the issue I’m addressing. The issue is that the jury should have recognised they don’t know either.
We have a justice system that allows evidence of incredibly flimsy substance to serve as the pivotal aspect of a prosecution’s case, and ignorant juries to uncritically accept it, with life-altering repercussions for all involved.
And that, I believe, can only be a bad thing.
14 Jun 2012
Last night I came across a great article explaining how smart people are just as susceptible to bias and false beliefs as anyone – and, in fact, how smart people are more adept at justifying these false beliefs:
“Smart people will usually be able to brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right and, due to their thinking abilities, can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right.”
- The Dangers of Being Smart
This fits perfectly with my own thoughts on members of Mensa, where I found many people with astounding IQs clinging to horrendously stupid beliefs:
I was appalled at how many Mensans are in to what we collectively term ‘New Age’ spirituality. From astrologers to energy healers, from psychics to homeopaths, Mensa boasts a frightening abundance of people who have thrown every last remnant of rationality and common sense overboard and have committed themselves entirely to plainly ridiculous ideas.
Not only that, I got the distinct impression that these people felt that their membership of Mensa – their high IQ – was a vindication of their beliefs. “I’m smart,” they seem to argue, “so what I believe is right.”
Now I am of course keenly aware that I’m not immune to this conceit either, and that there’s a strong possibility my own beliefs are equally flawed and that I use my own intellect to justify them, even when faced with valid criticism.
Unfortunately, being aware of bias and prejudice does not make you immune to it. That’s something we’d all do well to keep in mind, I reckon.
27 Apr 2012
If you don’t know who Marie Curie was, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place. I’ll assume you’re all at least passingly familiar with this historic figure.
What you may not be aware of is exactly how epically awesome Marie Curie really was. This is a woman who, at the turn of the 19th century, when feminism was pretty much non-existent and most women around the world did not even have the right to vote, managed to become a widely renowned and respected scientist.
Science, in those days, was considered a strictly male endeavour, and I can only imagine the depths of bigotry and sexism Marie Curie had to overcome in her voyage to become a scientist that was taken seriously.
Then, in 1903, she wins a Nobel prize, the first woman to do so. Her role in the discovery of radioactivity earns her the Nobel Prize for Physics. Remember, this is at the start of the 20th century, when women were on the whole not taken particularly serious as scientists.
But it gets better. In 1911, she wins a second Nobel Prize. This time it’s the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which she received for her discovery of the radium element. That made her the first person – not just the first woman, but the first person in the history of mankind – to have won two Nobel prizes in different disciplines. Only one other person has since matched that feat.
Marie Curie died in 1934 from the effects of radioactive poisoning. She literally gave her life in service of her craft. When her remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris in 1995, she became the first – and so far only – woman to be entombed in the Panthéon on her own merits.
Regardless of her gender, Marie Curie was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. And when you do take her gender in to account, the fact that she was such a great scientist in a day and age when sexism was the norm, we can only conclude that she was without doubt one of the greatest human beings to have ever lived.
Marie Curie was truly, epically, awesome.
9 Feb 2012
Peter Watts – the brilliant science fiction author and all around awesome human being – posted on his blog about a lawsuit filed by PETA to classify killer whales on display at Seaworld as ‘slaves’ and have them released.
There’s an increasing body of evidence suggesting that killer whales have intellectual and emotional intelligence levels comparable to our own. In fact there are a multitude of animal species that are, for all intents and purposes, sentient and intelligent. The BBC has even created an entire TV series exploring that premise.
The point PETA is making is that due to the level of intelligence possessed by killer whales, keeping them locked up for human entertainment is equal to slavery. The lawsuit was apparently entertained by the courts for a while before being thrown out on the grounds that slavery laws apply only to human beings, not animals.
Now that raises an interesting question, one that Watts also addresses on his blog. That question is about where we, as the dominant life form on the planet, draw the line when it comes to awarding rights? Does a sentient being have to be human for it to have appropriate rights? Is sentience – and thus the ability to suffer – in itself not enough?
It seems that our legal system requires more than mere sentience. The ability to suffer is not sufficient to award a creature any rights to protect it from harm. But here, too, humans have double standards. When common pets are abused by their owners, many countries do have laws in place that can protect the animal and punish the human.
However this all seems predicated on physical abuse only. Mental abuse – such as invonluntary incarceration and being forced to put on shows for the entertainment of your captors – does not apply to animals, or so the law is interpreted. Yet is that kind of suffering any less?
Also, it raises all kinds of questions about how humanity will deal, at some stage, with artificial intelligence. This will be yet another form of non-human sentience, so what rights will apply to AI? If we’re being consistent, slavery and mental abuse will, too, be perfectly allowable then.
And, to take the thought experiment even further, what about intelligent alien lifeforms? Do they have any protections under human law? Again, if we’re being consistent, our laws should only apply to aliens inasmuch as they apply to cats and dogs.
What this all boils down to is that our current perceptions of what is right and wrong are, understandably, entirely human-centric (and even that is a recent development – it used to be entirely rich-white-male-centric). It might be time that we continue our progression as a species, and start to expand our legal and societal frameworks to include all sentient life.
But I suppose that as long as we still treat entire swaths of our own species as lesser beings, any form of cross-species legal inclusion is just an ephemeral dream.
Addendum: as the ever keenly perceptive Andrew Nattan observed on twitter, some would draw the line at responsibility. I.e. if one sentient being such as an orca would kill another – a dolphin for example – if we’re to be truly consistent and inclusive we’d have to convict the orca for murder.
This however leads to a different but related discussion: one about free will and responsibility. Andrew’s argument presumes that all sentient beings have free will, and that they make deliberate decisions whilst fully aware of the consequences.
However this has been proven to be a fallacy. Recent research in neuroscience goes as far as to suggest even human beings don’t have free will – or if we do, it’s of limited scope and influence on our daily actions – which casts the whole debate about sentience, responsibility, and punishment in an entirely different light.
16 Dec 2011
I suppose almost everyone has one or more heroes, people they look up to and want to emulate. I have two such people. One is my father, whose strength, generosity, and gentle wisdom I sincerely hope are hereditary traits that will one day begin to manifest in me. The other is Christopher Hitchens.
The Hitch, as he is colloquially known, is my superhero. Some people dream about having superpowers – superstrength, the ability to fly, immortality, that sort of thing. I dreamt about having Hitchens’ power: a vast intellect combined with ferociously eloquent wit.
The Hitch died yesterday after a brief but fierce battle with cancer. As he passed away in a hospital in Texas, I was in a pub in Belfast drinking scotch whiskey, surrounded by a group of highly interesting and intelligent people. I can think of no more fitting tribute.