Robert Goulet: Time After Time
So there’s this guy, “J”—and this is a true story, so pay attention. J’s doing well, a pillar of his community. Big family, house, land, lot of money. He had health and plenty of friends. Everybody says he was a great guy. Kind to strangers, free with his wealth, happy.
Then one dark and stormy night some not-too-pleasant things happened to old J while he and his wife were away. His kids who were watching the property were victims of a home invasion; a bloody one. Bad guys broke in, killed the family, and then torched the place, maybe to eliminate the evidence. After this, J got a horrible, painful rash—who wouldn’t? Sick for a long time. He became listless.
Is this bad luck?
It is? So, what’s luck?
You’re walking along the street—you chose the quickest route to your destination—and you’re bashed in the head by a suicide jumper; or maybe you find a floating fifty on the curb. If you had known about the jumper, you would have gone another way. Or if you had known about the fifty, you would have ensured you didn’t deviate from your planned route.
You’re told to show up at a set time and place where you’ll be offered a job. But the guy you’re to meet is held up by a stalled train (another suicide; this happened to me). He had to fill the position immediately; he didn’t get to meet you and so was forced to give it to somebody else. Even if you had known about the train, you still would be sending out resumes the next day.
There you are on the flight, sitting in steerage in the middle seat and in the dark because every damn window is closed so people can meld with their “devices”, when the announcement is given, “Is there a pilot on the plane?”
You’re a pilot! You rush into the cockpit—
Dr Rumack speaks.
You save the day! If you had known the regular pilots shouldn’t have eaten the fish, you would have still got on the plane because you wanted to get where you were going.
Luck is only simple if you don’t think about it (like many things!). Let’s make it difficult by putting our little gray cells to work. What are the main factors in perceiving luck? At least predictive ability and deserve, which is to say justice.
In a moment, predictions.
Judy Gardland: Lucky Day
It is not that the co-incidence of standing on X-marks-the-spot and having a body fall on your head is inherently unpredictable. Logically the event is contingent, and most contingent events are predictable in a certain sense. That sense is this: that if we knew all the determinants or causes—and the two aren’t the same—then we could say the event will or won’t happen. If we only know some of the determinants or causes, or any number of correlates, then we could only say the event will happen with some probability. (Quantum mechanical events fall into this last class.)
Which is to say, we could make these predictions only if we cared to think about them at all. The woman was was beaned by the jumper, even if she had access to NSA-Orwellian-level tracking gear and thus had plenty of premises upon which to make a prediction—I mean she could use these to form a probability that she’d be socked—wouldn’t have thought to do so. Why would she?
Things, strange things, happen all the time. The possible class of good or bad contingent things that could happen to you are endless, and there’s no way to know how to pick and choose among these events in advance. Here’s what I mean. Suppose an Evil Genius Scientist comes to you and says he’ll grant you one wish, which is to specify an event and he’ll tell you whether or not it will happen. This guy is so smart that he can even fix quantum mechanical determinants. But you only get one wish!
Everything in the universe, or under the sun, is available to you. You’re the woman about to go on her walk. What event do you ask about? You can ask, “Will I get beaned?” and the answer will be yes, though that’s obviously a useless question because it does’t specify when. You tighten it, “Will I get beaned while on this walk?” You’d be told yes, but not why or exactly when or how, and anyway you’re not guaranteed to not have (say) a body fall on you elsewhere or elsewhen. If you waited ten minutes and then walked, would that count as the same walk? And so on endlessly.
There are some situations which we peg as inherently dangerous or rewarding, mountain climbing blindfolded, say, or becoming a Democrat alderman in Chicago. But then predictions become easier because of the milieu, and if you were to fall or be offered a bribe nobody would say you had bad or good luck. The events are expected.
Sometimes luck has to do with what you know and sometimes it doesn’t. Predicting what will happen effects our perception of luck. Or rather, the absence of the ability to predict results in the feeling of luck. But there’s more to it.
Consider buying a lottery ticket with odds of winning, say, 1 in 300 million. Given the rules of the gamble (which some insist on calling a “game”), you can easily predict the outcome of you winning (which we’ve already done!). Suppose you win. Is that good luck? Maybe it’s easier to think of in reverse. Suppose you lose. Is that bad luck? It doesn’t seem so, to me, anyway. Given the rules, you were almost certainly going to lose; also, you knew this. But everybody would say you were lucky if you won. And the reason is the event was predictable but of low chance (given the specified premises of the gamble). That low chance (and knowledge of these premises) is what made it lucky.
Amplify this example. Suppose instead of buying the ticket, you were out walking and a stranger came up to you and said, “Here, take this. I’m trying to break myself of this damned lottery habit.” You win. Now that’s lucky. The event of the man giving you the winning ticket wasn’t predicted; it was predictable, upon assuming certain premises, but nobody, least of all you, would have thought of doing that.
That’s what makes the luck, then. It’s not the event’s rarity, or not just that. It’s that the event is unthought of and of seeming low chance even when considered after the fact because the premises which would have given rise to a tight prediction are themselves unknown or un-thought of.
Rarity and its cousin unpredictability are thus one factor in luck. What about deserve?
The radio announces, “Teams are going to be chosen for the rocket ship to the new planet, seeing this one is doomed. Only those men as tall as 6’2″ will go.” Bad luck to you, because you’re only 5’9″. And darned unfair, too, you think. You deserve as much chance to be preserved as the tall and mighty. There was nothing you could do about being short! You were born that way.
That’s an appealing argument to us these days, but however alluring, you’re still left behind. Unlucky to be born short in times like these! There’s an element of unpredictability lurking here, too. If your parents had known the earth was to be doomed, they would have chosen a genetically engineered tall son instead of a pipsqueak like you. On the other hand, if they had done that, you would never have existed. You lose either way.
Let’s clarify this example. Suppose instead of being short, it’s your neighbor who’s diminutive. And he’s a jerk. Why, he was overheard saying “Don’t Call Me Bruce” Jenner was a man! Rumor has it he’s even a climate denier and a closet monarchist. The new world is better off without him, anyway, though we can admit it’s not good for him that’s he short. That he’s short means he’s getting what is coming to him.
As you watch the earth crumble from the viewport of the ship, you wonder to yourself, did your neighbor really have bad luck? The bad part is well enough, but the luck of the situation diminishes. This man was served cosmic justice! There’s no luck about it. His antics were bound to catch up to him, and they have. Don’t tell me about luck!
Okay, cosmic justice it is. What caused that justice? Something had to align your boorish neighbor’s shortness with his demise. The universe had to have been put into a just-so position to ensure his comeuppance. That would have required immense foresight on this causal power. After all, much of what determines height is decided at conception. This power also had to ensure your neighbor fell short of the occasional second helpings of ribs to deprive him of height-producing proteins. That’s a lot of work!
Before figuring that out, suppose as you muse staring out the viewport, you’re shocked to see your despised neighbor walking up the aisle of the ship! He explains the ship builder was a friend of his from way back and that he snuck him into a hidey-hole. “Lucky SOB,” you think. Luck he doesn’t deserve. And which you didn’t think of predicting, though your neighbor did.
You think your neighbor lucky and undeserving; he thinks himself shrewd and suitably rewarded.
Let’s get back to J, a most moral man, a God-fearing man. His woes were in no way deserved, we think. Therefore what happened to him was certainly bad luck, unpredictability aside. Yet Emerson said, “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” Let’s be strong.
One day in his misery “J” finally had had enough. He cried out to God, “Why are these awful things happening to me! I don’t deserve this!” What shocked the bejeebers out of “J” was that God replied.
God said, “Man up and stop bitching. It’s not for you to understand everything that happens. I’m God. You’re not.” (The latter four words are often fondly quoted by Peter Kreeft as an apt summary of the Bible.)
Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves stop?
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place for taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from it?
The earth is changed as clay by the seal, and dyed like a garment; but from the wicked their light is withheld, and the arm of pride is shattered. Have you entered into the sources of the sea, or walked about on the bottom of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you, or have you seen the gates of darkness?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell me, if you know it all…
Will one who argues with the Almighty be corrected? Let him who would instruct God give answer!
Turns out God allowed the bad things to happen to Job (for this is who “J” was), and that, of course, the bad things were caused to happen. So this wasn’t luck, but design. Job didn’t know it wasn’t luck until he thought about the design, though. Before he considered the why, he thought he had hard luck.
“Deserve” helps define luck. Your sainted mother who wins the lottery deserves her luck; and it is lucky for her to have won. The Planned Parenthood butcher who falls down a flight of stairs and aborts himself got what was coming to him; if anything this is good luck, but not for the killer.
When people get what everybody expects luck vanishes. Consider that you walk to work and nothing happens except you get there unharmed. You expect this. It’s not lucky, it’s predictable and it’s not rare, but still something caused you to get there (the final cause was your decision of destination). If you’re beaned on the head by something, it’s bad luck, not predictable, and rare, and still there is a cause for which there must be a reason, which we usually won’t understand.
Memphis Minnie: Bad-Luck Woman
We’re not done with deserve. A weight-lifting contest is to be held between Ivan “Mad Dog” Ivanov, a 6’6″, 312-pound ex-Marine muscle mass, versus “Diversity” Drew Cohen, a 5’8″, 158-pound Harvard Women’s Studies graduate. Mad Dog wins. Is that luck? Why not?
Mad Dog was born big and manly, Diversity Drew was born soft and effeminate. Neither chose their physique, but both chose to train to life weights. It wasn’t Diversity Drew’s fault that he hadn’t a chance. Mad Dog might come to the view not that he was lucky, but that he deserved his laurels because he worked hard at being the best weight lifter he could be.
This bothers Robert Frank, the H.J Louis Professor of Management at Cornell. He says Mad Dog is lucky, pure and simple, and therefore Mad Dog would be “less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made [his…] success possible.”
Napoleon said, “Ability is of little account without opportunity.” This is a trivial truth, yet so is its opposite: opportunity is of no account without ability. And this is what Frank misses. Frank would invert our scheme and put nearly everything down to “luck” and nothing to cause, and certainly very little to choice. Why? He does so in part because he thinks people who believe they’re lucky are nicer.
But to believe in luck is to believe that “randomness” and “chance” are ontic, which is absurd, and leads to the false belief that you can boost chance (by government intervention) in your favor. Even those who carry “lucky charms” believe in cause, and though they might not have identified the right cause, they’re at least pointing in the right direction.
Understand that everything we discovered follows for absolutely every moment of your life, every “event”. That includes waking up in the morning, walking to the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee, listening to this marvelous broadcast. Every moment would be “lucky” under Frank’s scheme, but under our understanding, every moment has purpose and reason. It’s therefore rational to seek out and understand these purposes and reasons.
Solon said, “Let no man be called happy before his death. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky.” Merle Haggard would say you can be both happy and lucky. Right, Merle?
Merle Haggard: Always Lucky With You.