Thursday, March 31, 2011

More Aristotle on Luck: Fortune, Fools and Flow

Aristotle wants to distinguish between fortune and luck.  Events with small benefits can be lucky, but only events with a lot of benefit or a lot of detriment can be counted as fortunate.  Aristotle thought that some people are just fortunate by nature.  These people succeed in life for apparently no reason.  Many times these people are foolish.  In spite of their lack of care or lack of wisdom, these people succeed. For example, foolish people can succeed in the stock market or at navigating even they they are not well-educated in these fields.  While some people succeed because of knowledge or know-how, fortunate people succeed based on consistent great luck.  Aristotle also being a fortunate person is an inexplicably lucky feature or characteristic. Aristotle appealed to a supernatural element to explain how some people are fortunate for life.  Fortunate people are just in touch with some sort of divine or supernatural force.  

Aristotle argues for why fortune is associated with the supernatural.  The kind of argument he uses is an argument by elimination, meaning that he begins with a set of possible explanations and eliminates all alternatives until only one option is left.  First, he considers whether wisdom can explain good fortune.  He rejects wisdom as a cause of fortune.  Wisdom does not cause fortune because fortunate people often have no idea and no explanation of why he or she is fortunate.  Second, Aristotle considers whether fortune is the result of gods favoring fortunate people.  Divine favor is also rejected as a cause of fortune, since divine favor would be shown to the wisest and best men, not the fools who actually are fortunate.  Now, Aristotle does think that luck is somehow the result of god, since lucky people have "inspiration" from the gods.  However, gods do not directly cause fortune.  The last possibility Aristotle considers is whether some people are fortunate by nature.  This creates a puzzle, since if something were caused by nature, then it would happen out of necessity rather than occurring as an accidental cause.  Aristotle solves this problem by saying that some people have natural endowments which are non-rational or a-rational desires that bring about success.  For example, say that Musical Mary is born with an irrational passion to perform and write music.  This passion leads her to pursue music consistently and to have success. Nature has given Mary certain talents and endowments but her fortune is not just the result of being born this way. 

Naturally being born a certain way cannot explain all of Mary's fortune.  For example, how is it that Musical Mary has had favorable desires at times that allowed her to succeed?  Well, it can't be by reason or chance.  Aristotle then says that fortunate people have favorable desires and passions at appropriate times because they are in touch with a divine element in themselves.  Fortunate Musical Mary does not act based on reason but she acts based on divine inspiration.  Dr. James compares this to "being in the flow" when playing sports or games.  Many people who are talented at sports and games succeed in these activities without rational deliberation and choices about their actions.  Musical Mary, for example, can play a complex piano concerto without even thinking carefully about what she is doing.  When I rock climb, I often climb best when I can immerse myself in the activity rather than when I think too much about my actions.  Psychologists call these "flow states".  In flow states one is able to perform better when one does not try hard to reason and think about his or her actions.  One may object and say that flow states are the result of unconscious thought or deliberation, so being in the flow does reflect reason.  A similar objection is that we can train ourselves to have flow states through rational thought  

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