Wednesday, February 17, 2016


I was reading an article a few days ago about a women lamenting her probably fatal cancer and wondering why God didn’t help her. I commented on the article online, because I spend too much time most days doing just that. A little bit of my comment was about cancer, but most of it was about luck. Regrettably, I noticed after publishing it that the word “not” appeared in my first sentence where it was not called for, completing negating the sentence and making most of the comment nonsensical. My making an error (either through incompletely cutting and pasting, my computers’ habits of having the cursor flow wherever it likes, or just bad editing) is so common, it is hard to call it bad luck, but that’s what I want to write about today – what is luck?

I haven’t looked it up in a dictionary, but I suppose it means something like a “fortuitous or unfortunate occurrence” or “a random event,” or the like. Whatever it is, I doubt I agree. My own definition is a little longer.

Most of the time we use the word to mean something good or bad happened that we didn’t expect or think should happen, that is, either “good luck” or “bad luck.”  It isn’t a leap of genius to say that one man’s bad luck is another man’s good luck – and vice versa. There’s a reason for that. As much as it seems like a force sometimes, there’s really no such thing as “luck” outside of our minds. It is really just -

what we call remote causes which are too complicated for us to understand or are otherwise hidden from us.

Maybe Heidegger or Plato or some other philosopher would call luck a “thing” or a “form,” that exists independent of being an idea our minds but I don’t think so. I’ll go further.  Everything has a cause. You can endlessly regress from an immediate cause back to what you might hope is a “first cause,” which some people use as a proof of God. But from there you can regress to ask why is there a God and where did he come from, etc. In the end, you wind up somewhere like the joke about turtle.*

* [A man asked a wise man “what does the universe rest upon?” The wise man answers “the back of a turtle.” “But what does that rest upon, oh wise man?” “The back of another turtle.” “And that one?” “The back of another tortoise.” “I don’t understand, of wise man, what is at the very bottom?” And the wise man replies, “I’m sorry, son, it’s turtles all the way down.”]

I’ll use winning the lottery as an example, because most people would say that is “lucky” (which always means “good” luck to us).  You might say “the reason I am rich is because I just won the lottery.” That’s easy enough to understand. But, why did you win? “Because the balls fell on the same numbers I picked.” Still easy. Why did the balls fall on those numbers? Perhaps someone knows the inner workings of the ball selection system, but, if the creators of the random number generator have done their job well, even they can’t tell. That’s the point where we usual say, that was lucky. There is, of cause, actually a cause for each of those balls landing on each of those numbers. But, it is too complicated for us to follow or understand. So, we call it luck or random or improbable or against the odds.

I believe this is true even at the quantum or sub-atomic level. Many scientists accept that all that can be discussed at this level is probability, and that seems to be true. But that doesn’t mean that each event in space time doesn’t have a cause which is too complicated for us (including physicists) to understand. Like Einstein, I believe that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, which of course is a metaphor meaning there are laws of physics even where we don’t know it.  But, it seems like it is probability because of the limits of our perception and mind.

Of course, it is entirely a matter of opinion whether the result of these complicated causes that we can’t follow are “good” or “bad” luck. For example, if I was late to a date with a girl I really like because of a traffic jam I just missed avoiding, I might have said, what “bad luck." But, suppose, having my date storm off, I head off to the bookstore and meet my future wife. I might say what “good” luck I got delayed (or a few years later, what “bad” luck again).

In the article I referred to above, the author mentioned Oprah, who says that nothing she did was as a result of “luck.” But, she acknowledges being “blessed.” Sorry to bash Oprah, for those who see something in her that I don’t, but this is a statement that results from a common insecurity, the desire to feel special. Some people who feel successful or that they have other people’s approval, like to think that it is because of their innate qualities, not factors out of their control. But, they are subject to what seems like random events like everyone else – that is, the cause of their perceived success or wealth ultimately comes from causes too complicated to understand. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have skill, or didn’t apply themselves, and those are extremely important too. My own view of financial or business success, is that comes from some combination of skill, effort and luck and sometimes a fourth, capital (or the means or opportunity – all forms of the same thing), all of which can have various expressions. But, even if you are super human in terms of skill, effort and capital, luck can undermine you, just as you can be lacking in all of those departments and causes too complex for us to understand, can make you wealthy.  

In fact, while none of the other factors can make someone successful by themselves, bad or good luck can make someone successful all by its lonesome, or with very little assistance from the others. Of course, just as wealthy or financially successful people are always (like Oprah) diminishing the effect of “luck” on their success, those who are poor or unhealthy or unsuccessful, are always sure that bad luck is predominant, and absent “it,” they too would be successful. Some might even give up on effort – the only factor completely in their control – because they feel it doesn’t matter. Obviously, this allows them to avoid thinking about factors that might have been in their control.

Oprah’s insistence that she is “blessed,” makes it worse. If she said luck played a role, then it would mean it wasn’t her specially-specialness that led to her success. But, to say she is blessed means that she is so extra specially-special, that God favors her and other people less. It’s an arrogant or insecure position. I’ve always dislike it when athletes claim God gave them a victory, because that means that God chose to punish their opponents.

Admittedly, I use the expression too sometimes. But, I know what I mean. The opposite of Oprah. I have been lucky.

The last thing I will say on the subject of luck, is that Luck be a Lady Tonight, is one of my favorite musical theatre songs (Guys and Dolls) and is a tune written by one of my favorite composers, Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, Hans Christian Anderson, Baby it’s cold outside).

Like most things I write about, I’m not sure there is any grave importance to it and it isn’t going to change anything for anyone, including myself. It’s just what I’m thinking about.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .