Luck - When Science, Religion and Common Sense Fail

Luck is a judgment many people produce after an unanticipated or uncontrollable outcome. It is a mental posture individuals learn and associate with their hopes for their future. If we decide an occurrence benefits us, another or anything’s wellbeing we conclude the occurrence was good luck; if not, it was bad luck. Luck’s most appropriate corollary is serendipity but even that is a human judgment. In raw, pre-human physics, yes, stuff happened. But, there was no luck, happenstance, serendipity. For example, when atoms combined to form a molecule with properties that the single atoms did not have, and no human was there at the time making a judgment about the event, there was no good or bad luck. There was simply, as far as we know, a non-judgmental occurrence. It happened and was neither an inherently good or bad event.

But, how far can such thinking be pushed - just how useful is it? Darwinian evolution would not have come to dominate the life sciences had Darwin not seen, judged and communicated that natural selection led to improved wellbeing and group continuance for some animals in certain contexts. That in the process, I dare say, some organisms were lucky. To say that such and such just happened would not help in understanding how it happened. That is, unless there was demonstrable, factual evidence supporting a judgment that the change was somehow beneficial. This was the genius of Darwin - to see that stuff happens but the consequences, though not predetermined, yet under certain circumstances, can be said to have been favorable from some critters and not for others, the unlucky ones if you must.

In the end, both views are correct and worthwhile. Things just happen and it is sometimes normal to see and communicate about the advantages of what has happened. Judgments declaring an outcome to be lucky, good or bad, account only for causes that are absolutely unknown, unknowable or possibly discoverable. “Don’t know why it happened. Must have been luck.”

I wrote the above before I read the following essay: The Unreality of Luck by Steven Hales, philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, USA.

Regrettably, the author made little to no effort to discuss the notion of luck itself. His interests focused on differences between test subjects who had been ranked using an optimist-pessimist psychological test. Hopefully this broader and necessary discussion of luck will be found in Hales and his collaborator, experimental psychologist Jennifer Johnson’s, forthcoming article in Philosophical Psychology.

Toward the end of Hales’ article I found this:

“Brains really dislike bad news. Anything presented negatively in terms of mortality, loss or death is automatically seen as a risk that must be avoided. Conversely, good news is always welcomed.”

And at the very end, this:

“What all this shows is that our judgments about luck are inconsistent and changeable, the predictable result of framing effects and idiosyncratic personality traits. They raise the serious possibility that ‘luck’ is no more than a subjective point of view taken on certain events, not a genuine property in the world that we discover. It might well be that attributing luck is a mere façon de parler, or turn of phrase, and not something we should take seriously – an outcome that would come as a real surprise to gamblers, athletes, job seekers and stockbrokers, all of whom see their histories as saturated with luck. Their luck might well be, in a very strict psychological sense, entirely of their own making.”

The first excerpt puts it all on the brain to the neglect of the embodied, enculturated self. Brains alone know nothing of news, much less whether it is good or bad. This is the unfailingly still popular hyper-neuroscience trope that keeps on giving. This is like saying a computer, unplugged and without operating or application software, just the computer, doesn’t like information you try to upload into it. It ignores the fact that without its ops system and apps it is nothing but inert metal, glass and plastic. Similarly, the human brain without its environment-buffering body and it’s circuitry networks built upon teachings and experience is nothing more than inert water and meat. Our brains alone are incapable of liking or disliking anything. If the author means the embodied, enculturated brain, he should say so.

The last excerpt, the concluding paragraph in Hales’ article, is notable for its utter uselessness as a statement of the obvious and it misstatement about how most people think about luck: “...our judgments about luck are inconsistent and changeable, the predictable result of framing effects and idiosyncratic personality traits.”

Therefore, luck is what we judge it to be? Our judgments of luck being good or bad are influenced by the language we use and our worldview? You think!?

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

- Seneca

As for Hale’s misstatement, I assure you all gamblers, sports players, job-seekers and stockbrokers do not see the events in their respective lives saturated by mystical luck. They, among all in society, are, I fact, most knowledgeable of Stoicism’s dichotomy of control even if they do not see or admit that their view as a paramount teaching of the Stoics. That being, things happen in one’s life - some are within one’s control, most are not. Some people leave the uncontrollable events unaccounted for as simply the way life is – que será será. Others account for their luck as something controlled by God or other supernatural forces.

The last sentence is the most disturbing and misleading: “Their luck might well be, in a very strict psychological sense, entirely of their own making.”

The concept of “luck” is indeed of their own making, but “their luck,” that being the outcomes in their life they attribute to luck, is not of their own making. Many, but far from all, have become convinced that their performance of superstitious rituals, including prayer, can influence their luck (more good and less bad outcomes for themselves; more bad and less good outcomes for others). But all, even the ritualists, learn sooner or later they cannot achieve absolute control over all outcomes in their life and among those they live with.

The only good luck many great men [and women] ever had was being born with the ability and determination to overcome bad luck.
- Channing Pollock (writer)

Luck is what you make of it. Good luck and back luck are outcome judgments. It has not been conclusively, irrefutably proven that outcomes can be supernaturally influenced to be good or bad. But the belief that they can be so influenced remains central in the thinking of the majority of Humankind. Good luck with that.


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