Why Do We Believe in Luck? A Philosophical Analysis

A number of years ago – back when I had a literary agent – I pitched her a book on luck. Luck is a curious thing, I said. You might think it’s just random chance. The coin toss comes up heads or tails, and there’s no saying which will come next. But that in itself is weird. If Newton was right, then every effect has its cause, and so really there should be no such thing as random. If we could build a computer powerful enough – like Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought, perhaps – and feed it with enough information, then couldn’t we do away with chance, with randomness? And besides, if we could define “random”, then wouldn’t that make it something predictable, something not random? Is “luck” therefore just shorthand for “there is a reason why all things happen, but our brains are just too small to work it out”?

Two things put paid to Newton’s dream: quantum physics and chaos theory.

Chaos theory merely states that (a) we can never have enough information, and (b) tiny events can have large and unpredictable consequences. The weather at times seems unpredictable because some minute, immeasurable influence – the flap of a butterfly’s wings – can set in motion a chain of events that eventually result in an unforeseen storm.

Quantum randomness merely compounds this problem of unpredictability. In Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, there’s a cat in a box, with a canister of poisonous gas that’s triggered when a particular substance releases a particle. However, we don’t know (quantum physicists argue) when it will do that. So at any point, we don’t know if the cat is alive or dead – until we open the box. Could it be that we, as observers, play a role, fixing the outcome? Is there one universe where the cat remains alive and one where it dies? But among all the weirdness, the thing that troubled Einstein most was that there would seem to be no fixed reason behind any outcome. “God,” he famously said, “does not play dice,” so there must be a reason, a hidden factor that fixes the outcome. Yet no one has ever found it. For all the benefits we get from quantum physics – computers, lasers, the discovery of DNA – it still only allows us to predict events at a certain scale in terms of probability (that, e.g., after an hour, most cats will be dead – well, certainly after a month…).

But even probability is a weird thing. Take the so-called birthday paradox: in a group of any 23 people, there is over a 50% chance that two will share a birthday; with 70 people, this likelihood rises to over 99%. How can that be? (Note here that it does not say that it’s probable that you will share someone else’s birthday, merely that any two people will.) There are good mathematical reasons for this, I’m assured, but it still boggles the mind. It almost seems supernatural.

Of course, luck and the supernatural have always gone hand in hand. Lucky events can seem so strange and unusual that they almost seem fated, as if some otherworldly force had put its thumb on the scales, no matter what physics and maths have to say on the matter. To win the lottery seems almost to be “chosen” against all odds; it could have been anyone, but it just turned out to be you. (Of course, this isn’t always a nice thing: among its early uses, lotteries were used to choose who would be put forward for human sacrifice.) And weird things do happen: twins separated at birth go on to have almost identical lives, even marrying women with the same first name; someone publishes a novel about the sinking of the Titanic (well, almost…) – years before it was even built. Scientists and rationalists tell us not to read anything into such coincidences – for every time something like this happens, think of the millions of times where it doesn’t – but presented with such examples, it’s still hard to resist the sense that something spooky is going on.

Some uses of luck therefore imply that the action in question was “out of our hands”, or fated. In an old Sufi story, a man sees the angel of death on the street, who gives him a strange look. Terrified, and not wanting to die just yet, the man asks King Solomon to transport him far away to another country using his renowned magical abilities, and the king obliges. Later on, the king himself sees the angel, and asks him why he would scare the man in this way. “That was not my intention,” the angel said. “I was merely astonished: I have an appointment to meet him in India tomorrow, and here he is thousands of miles away! How is he going to make our appointment in the space of one day!” Fate – good luck and bad – will happen, however you try to avoid it.

But fate also causes a problem for free will. If everything is fated, then what can we do? All knowledge and prediction, all attempts to manipulate or avoid events, are pointless, for what will happen will happen, regardless of our actions. But there is a looser sense of fatedness that we may call “destiny” (the two words are often used interchangeably, but I’m using them here to make this distinction). The boy who pulled the sword from the stone was destined to be king, but perhaps that might not have happened (the sword remained there, or some other boy became king). To be “lucky” in this sense is therefore to be called by the gods to fulfil their will – a call that can be ignored: Shakespeare stays in Stratford and takes over his father’s glove making business; J. K. Rowling gives up after her thirteenth rejection (or however many it was). Fate cannot be avoided, but destiny can be fulfilled or not.

Luck can also play a part in morality. Two assassins train their sights on their target; one’s bullet hits home, while the other’s – which would also have struck true – is intercepted by a passing bird. Legally, the successful assassin can be prosecuted for murder, while the second can only be charged with the lesser crime of attempted murder. But morally, this doesn’t seem fair. Both assassins had the same intentions, and were it not for the hapless bird, both would have succeeded. However, if we were to prosecute everyone merely based on their intentions, then who would remain guiltless? None of us, as King Lear said, would ‘scape whipping.

Intention and luck also play a role in matters of skill. I once saw a sports compilation of “misses of the century”, where various footballers had failed to convert opportunities where it seemed harder to miss than to score. Among these was a young chap who picked up the ball in his own penalty area, then ran the length of the pitch, beating almost every other player in the opposing team, before slipping the ball past the goalie – only to see it bounce first off one post, roll along the goal line, and bounce off the other, and away. Bit harsh, I thought, to call this a “miss”! But it was extraordinary: he had the skill (and luck) to pull off what could have been the goal of the century, but was also unluckily denied. Skill is nothing without luck. Even the best sports people can lose form – and for this reason many rely on lucky pendants, wearing the same “lucky” shirt or sweatband, etc, that has “helped” them to previous victories. Can we therefore court luck? Is it something we can influence, by positive thinking, attitude, or appeal to supernatural forces? Many have thought so – and still do.

Anyway, back to my agent. “That’s a great idea!” she said. “Let’s pitch it!” And we did. Unfortunately, however, In Search of Luck wasn’t taken on by anyone. Despite some interest, and some complimentary noises, it lucked out. The one publisher that might have been interested, was – as luck would have it – just then in the process of publishing another book on luck, written by a well-known cricketer.

Ah well, perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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Image credit: The King of the Golden River, by Arthur Rackham