POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

No Such Luck

Though there be no such thing as Chance in the world; our ignorance of the real cause of any event has the same influence on the understanding, and begets a like species of belief or opinion.
David Hume (1711–76).  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.

There a strange idea associated with modern life that I want to explore a bit. My oldest daughter, Kayla, and I have discussed it as a word began to creep into her mind and vocabulary.  The word and idea is that of "luck" or "good fortune" and the way this is looked upon in culture. We are a people who love to talk about being lucky - whether it is when we get a new job, win a few bucks on a scratch off lottery ticket, or meet that special someone to walk down the aisle with.  When good times roll, American people feel and they usually talk about it. 

My noodling on this one goes back to the very early days of of being a Christian guy.  In college there was a zealous Jesus guy who just would not use the word "luck" or the well wishing phrase "good luck."  Now remember, I was sports guy so avoiding the phrase "good luck" is quite an accomplishment.  Saying "good providence" never seemed to work for me and avoiding use of the word "luck" is tough to do in today's vernacular.  It can be done - I hardly ever use the word, but to be honest I don't want to sound like a weirdo just to avoid the term.  But this is a reason I avoid using the concept of luck - not just because I believe in God's providential leading of the affairs of humanity - but because I find the term to be a philosophically vacuous term.  For me, there is simply no such thing as luck, and I find the term to be technically meaningless.  Lets look first at how it is used, then what it reveals truthfully about the human heart, and then try to redeem the feelings we have when we talk about being lucky.

First, we use the term good luck to describe outcomes that we interpret to be pleasant, advantageous to our current life goals/aspirations, or when something "good" comes our way that did not necessarily have to be.  We use the term as we look out of the mass of humanity that is not always experiencing such wonderful coincidences, so we feel a thankfulness and gratitude that we are lucky today even though we see so many who are "less fortunate."  But if we begin to ask questions we quickly see that the concept is meaningless.  The Scottish skeptic David Hume, whom I quoted at the beginning, was right about one thing, to ascribe causal powers to "chance" or "luck" betrays our ignorance of true causes.  Frankly, when something good happens today, many people simply do not have a clue why it is so...so we chalk it up to karma, rabbits feet, or literally our lucky stars.  What does this reaveal about us, this love affair with the empty idea of luck? I find it tells us quite a bit.  Lets turn to the human heart and find what we see in ourselves.s

In ascribing things to luck we are betraying some things which are fundamental to us being human.  First, we believe in objective, real goodness that comes to us at times.  We certainly know that there is a difference between good and bad, pleasant things and evil things, and this knowledge is a huge indicator as to the nature of the universe.  This is the first indicator that luck is a sham.  We know something good has come our way.  Second, we do not have any idea why this has happened to me and not someone else.  We know it does not have to be this way.  Instead of winning the lottery, you could just as easily get hit by a bus today.  Not knowing the source of something happening, we feel thankful, we feel blessed.  Yet not knowing who to thank - we just say we are "lucky," feel good about that and move on in our bliss.  But if we stopped and asked the "why questions," at least every now and then, we would have to face a different reality.  Either the world is under a control that is not our own - for instance, God is providentially guiding all things towards his desired ends.  Or the world is completely out of control and the winds of cursing can as easily befall us as the lucky winds of the day. 

Additionally, we also feel a sense of duty to others in the midst of our good fortune.  We see this in western culture - a duty is felt to others, but many times it is not out of charity or love, but out of guilt that "we have it so good" and "others have it so bad."  With a belief that the world is run be chance, human accomplishment is diminished and human misery is emptied of any meaning.  So we feel good about our luck, but we feel bad about feeling too good when others are getting screwed.  Most of the time we just raise taxes to feel like we have done something.  But what this feeling of duty reveals is an innate sense of justice.   So luck betrays our deepest desires to be thankuful and the universe to be just.  But these two feelings accord with belief in God, but have no grounding in the secular worldview.  For that matter, thankfulness is a strange idea in the pantheist worldview where all is one and all is divine.  You thank everything and in doing so, thank no-one.

So what is luck? Luck is nothing at all - an empty word to wrap around human experience which is related to us being created by God.  I believe people in more secularized Western Culture have a love affair with "fortune" and "luck" because it is a way to avoid reality and continue in what Socrates called an unexamined life.  Such life is empty and trite - and will be tossed onto the rocks when the winds of the world change one's fortune.  For the secular mind, when you have "good luck" there is nobody to thank, but feeling lucky and sharing this with friends may do the trick to keep you moving.  We feel deeply a sense of gratitude but thanksgiving is personal and the secular view is that the universe and its events are impersonal.  The other side of the coin is equally void. When you have "bad luck" there is nobody there to blame, and you are left empty.  Here we see the strange occurrence of people getting angry at the God in whom they do not believe.  Steve Turner wrote a satirical poem called Creed whose postscript exposes the emptiness of chance in the face of tragedy.

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
and when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

So I don't believe in Luck - it is an empty concept, for both the theist and the atheist.  For the theist, we know there is a personal aspect to the universe charged with the purposes of God.  A belief in luck or chance is out of place in the mouth of the believer.  I believe God is active in the affairs of men and any bit of goodness and any bit of pleasant circumstance, I properly call it a blessing and not "good luck."  Any bit of pain, suffering, or evil that befalls my path I believe first came to me through the hands of a good God - I can endure because the end of the story is not the pain, but the things which will be accomplished in and through it. For the atheist, every event may be explained through a series of causal relationships that did not favor anyone, but just took place.  You win some, you loose some - but there is nobody running the games.  So when you feel a deep gratitude, just drop back into the lucky chair - it is an easier place to be and not have to think about the deep mysterious of human life and reality. 

As Hume exhorted us - we can do better than saying all things happen "by chance" as if chance has the causal power to do anything at all.  Yet to take away luck is to either fill the universe with purpose or to empty it of all universal meaning.  Most don't want to make that choice today - after all, American Idol is on again this week and Sanjaya's luck just ran out!