What is luck?

Derren Brown’s latest and final episode of his new TV show concerned luck. I thought it was a brilliant piece of television and illustrated, artistically, some truths about luck. There was also a nice message that a positive outlook in life greatly influences how we react and respond to events.

So what is luck? This is my opinion: luck is a valid concept, metaphorically. It is valid in that it expresses the notion that seemingly random events have worked in our favour or against us. It is a way of saying, for example “such-and-such an event could easily have gone either way, but by the narrowest margins it went for (or against) me.” It could be a way of saying “the probability of such-and-such an event was overwhelmingly unlikely, yet it happened anyway.” When the incredibly unlikely happens, we call it fortunate or unfortunate depending on the result.

But we need to briefly consider the nature of existence. Existence exists; it is what it is – and everything in existence behaves according to its nature. Clouds form as gas then fall as water, because that’s what clouds do. Planets orbit stars and birds fly, because that’s what they do. Ayn Rand called the non-human aspect of existence the metaphysically given. It simply is. It is deterministic in the sense that everything in existence is the way it is, and according to the law of identity it couldn’t be anything else, and therefore couldn’t behave any differently. Human behaviour is of another sort, a unique nature: our actions, unlike the metaphysically given, are volitional.

So, if an asteroid was flung towards earth by gravitational forces 1 billion years ago, and only today hits the planet and destroys your house, it was always going to. This isn’t fate or destiny, at least not in the true meaning of those words, although you could use them metaphorically in the weak sense. Consider: if you drop a ball from your hand it will fall to the ground. It can’t NOT fall to the ground, because on a planet with a positive gravity objects of positive mass will be drawn towards it. The law of identity demands it to happen. If it didn’t, the universe would be a very different universe. That is, a universe where the law of identity did not hold. That is, a universe where existence did not exist. In other words, no existence at all. But there is no alternative to existence itself. Asking for the asteroid not to hit your house is like asking the ball not to fall to the ground. The variables are incalculably greater with the asteroid scenario, but the principle is the same. Of course, the odds of an asteroid hitting your house are astronomical – and in this sense you’d be right (metaphorically) to call it unlucky, but given the events that preceded it, it was inevitable. If you knew 50 years in advance that the asteroid was coming, when it finally happened would you say “that was unlucky!”? Not likely. It wasn’t “unlucky” because you knew it was coming; there was no surprise, no shock, no sense of regret or wishing to turn back time.

This is where an appreciation of probability comes into the discussion. Given a large enough sample, extraordinary events won’t just happen, they are bound to happen. An oft-used example is when you think about someone, and then the phone rings and it’s them. Or having a dream about something, and the next day it comes true. Or being 14-million-to-1 to win the lottery, but you do. But of course, someone had to win the lottery, and whoever won it would think “I can’t believe it was me!” The same is true for victims of road-traffic or airplane incidents; the latter being statistically unlikely, but they do happen, and whomever experienced it says “I never thought it would be me.” Most people never do.

To continue with the airplane example: if the aircraft has a technical fault that is critical, to knowingly board the aircraft would be suicidal; foolish. You wouldn’t declare yourself unlucky when it crashed. So being ignorant of knowledge one couldn’t possibly have has nothing to do with fortune, fate, destiny, or anything superstitious. So you’d be unlucky, metaphorically, because the odds were against you – but only in a very weak sense. To illustrate this, consider a sealed box in which I tell you is either a black ball or a white ball. If you guess correctly you win a fortune, if you don’t then you won’t. Without foreknowledge, your odds of being right are 50%, but of course the actuality isn’t 50/50. Let’s say the ball is white. There is a 100% chance it is white. It won’t change colour depending on your guess. The ball is white and always will be. Without knowledge your best odds are half that. Are you unlucky if you guess wrong?

The asteroid was always going to hit your house. The plane was always going down. That lottery win was bound to happen. The ball was always white. Your lack of knowledge had no effect on the actuality, and omniscience is not a valid epistemological precondition for choice.

So if luck is an acceptable metaphor, let’s say colloquially at best – when is it not valid? The realm of human decisions. As we saw above, the metaphysically given is what it is. And as with the secret ball, our choices aren’t always correct – but human actions are not the same as the rest of the universe, because nothing of human causing had to be. The ball had to be white, but you didn’t have to choose white. Trees grow, conditions permitting. Planets spins on their axes. Masses will attract each other with a gravitational force. But a sky scraper didn’t have to exist. A building have to be built. A car didn’t have to be invented. You don’t have to fall in love. Human actions are chosen, not determined. (To deny this is to contradict yourself.)  They could have been something else, if we’d have wanted it that way. But since omniscience is impossible (and invalid), humans make choices based on the sum of their knowledge. That we don’t have every single possible fact (although surprisingly, most of the time in the right context, we know all the need to know), is irrelevant.

So what’s the point? That what happens outside our control is impervious to retrospection and analysis (morally here, in the field of decision making), and is in this sense irrelevant. That is, the fact that an asteroid destroyed your house is, as far as your decisions leading up to that point are concerned, irrelevant. The only thing that is now of concern, the only area within your field of control, the aspect of reality that didn’t have to be (like the asteroid) but what could be, is what you do from now on. If you stand there, the universe will go on; asteroids will fly through space, vegetation will overtake the rubble of your house, and you will pass. The universe makes no concessions to our whims, but it can be controlled by our actions. And it is this difference between mystical wishing and positive action that separates people into negative and positive types.

The point of Derren Brown’s show was that people who think they are lucky seem to be get more lucky than those who think they’re unlucky.  Of course, to events outside human control, like asteroids and gravity – your outlook really has no effect at all. A universe that responds to lucky charms, prayers, crossed-fingers and positive attitudes is the same as one where balls don’t drop to earth and 2+2 equals 5; in other words, a universe without identity, without existence. And it is this view of luck that is unhealthy and destructive: if you believe that actions outside your control or understanding shape your future, you will not act to effect change in your life. But your actions are the only thing that can effect change! “Luck” is fine as a concept expressing probabilistic ignorance, but not as a way of saying the universe or the Fates are against you.

What is true, though, is that a positive view of your life (even a mystical one) can have positive effects in the realm of actions within your control. It’s a cliché, but it’s true (for instance in sport), that you must believe first. If you think you’re going to miss this penalty, you probably will. If you think you’re a loser who can’t find love, you probably won’t. If you’re looking for things to go wrong, you’ll definitely notice them when they do and ignore the times things went for you. The latter is called confirmation bias. If you believe there is no invisible force holding you back or conspiring against you, you are more likely to take chances or sensible risks. Not every chance taken will succeed; not every risk pays off – but if you never taking any chance or risk you’re pretty much guaranteeing that nothing will pay off.

Of course, being naively optimistic is dangerous too. So what’s the balance? Simple: accept that the universe is what it is, but your actions need not be. The universe isn’t for or against us, but it won’t stand in our way. It doesn’t like or dislike you, but it’s not out to get you. The beauty of existence is that if you work with it, the results are quite incredible. As proof of this, look at any field of modern science. Long ago, some clever people realised that wishes were not horses. It’s a shame that in the 21st century this magical thinking is still around.

Ultimately, bad “luck” befalls us all. But this is just another way of saying that there are setbacks in life, minor and major. Since the past cannot be changed, and since being caught unawares by facts we couldn’t possibly have known is no cause for regret, the only challenge facing humans is: ‘what do we do about things now? What will I do with the time ahead?’ To return to the asteroid scenario one last time: one could move away and get a new home. One could end up living next door to the woman (or man) or one’s dreams. One might be “forced” into getting a new job and discover a fantastic new career. One might take the opportunity to have a fresh start in more ways than one. Who now thinks the asteroid event was lucky or unlucky? Isn’t life full of stories that started out with misfortunate only to be the best thing that could’ve happened? I know I can think of many examples personally. And of course, the universe doesn’t try for this, just as nobody thought a billion years ago: “if I send this asteroid to John Smith’s house, he might be forced to up and move and meet his true love and raise kids in this house instead of that.” John could have gotten depressed and drunk himself to death, but he didn’t. Something bad happened, and he acted positively. At the end of the day, what else should one possibly do? As I once said to a friend, a real hero isn’t a superman who is impervious to damage or despair. A real hero is a person who acts positively every day to pursue their values in the face of possible failure. Or in the words of one of Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes: “We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.

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3 Responses to “What is luck?”

  1. Edward Fraser Says:

    An interesting post. Are you not at all persuaded by the claims of the behavioural determinist?

  2. evanescent Says:

    Hi Edward, no, not in the slightest. Human behaviour is determined, in a weak sense, in that our actions are *caused*: we aren’t robots mindlessly executing functions nor are we capricious balloons being blown about in the wind, clueless as to what our next action will be. Everything in existence has a nature and specific indentity, including the human mind. It’s just that the nature of our mind is one of free choices. “Free” in this sense means uncoerced and comprehended. Some deterministics might use another definition of free, but I can’t see how any other definition is meaningful.

  3. Sergio Says:

    Excellent and insightful post.


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