Issue #13: luck

I should be so lucky

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by Will Self on October 21, 2016

Bailed after what he claimed was the accidental gunshot homicide of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer (“Come on, Bill, let’s do our William Tell act”), William Burroughs entered the byzantine byways of the Mexican justice system of the early 1950s. At one juncture, the Primordial Hipster finds himself in the office of some high-rolling shyster or other, and tartly remarks – ventriloquising through his scarcely fictive alter-ego, the eponymous ‘Junkie’ – “Criminal law is one of the few professions in which the client pays for someone else’s luck.” It’s one of those emphatic statements that seem to combine – blend, one might even say – the aphoristic with the apodictic: old-folky wisdom with analytic bite. On examination, though, the proposition falls apart – why criminal law in particular? Surely many professions call upon their practitioners to decide upon courses of action that, given the nature of contingency, will result in negative outcomes? Terms-and-conditions-apply, and all that jazz – the value of stocks can go up as well as down, and if the emptor ain’t prepared to exercise his caveat, what does he expect? You don’t have to be a homicidal heroin addict to understand that it’s impossible to anticipate every eventuality.

And yet, even as our world – so far as we can tell – exponentially increases its interconnected complexity (which would seem to entail greater and greater possibilities for fly-pasts by mighty hosts of black swans), so we long for the powerful assurance of an even playing field, together with a near-instantaneous grasp on the odds against us. Indeed, you can characterise the advance of the scientific method, the analytic habit, Reason – call it what you will – as an Eleatic attempt to carve out a deductive salient in the ever-retreating realm of the inductive.

It’s bedevilling for the man and woman in the street, who only wish to know whether it’s safe to cross the busy road. (Apropos: Richard Dawkins observed that were humans to live to be 250 years old, we’d never cross a road at all, on the sound statistical basis that sooner or later we’d be run over. And as people become increasingly sedentary, this looks like coming about not through foresight but fat-blindness: one statistical projection seemingly demonstrating that by 2050 no one in the developed world will walk at all – that’s right, not a single step.)

As you may have realised by now, I believe luck to be best understood as a creature of… habit. By this I don’t mean that Fortuna conforms to habitual patterns – the very idea is ridiculous, although it’s surely what informs the behaviour of incorrigible gamblers. Rather, our perception of events either being contingent or determined – and hence either fortuitous or fated – rests on the extent to which we ourselves observe regularities. Indeed, I’d go further, and suggest that much of the regulation of human lives – our work patterns, our circadian rhythms, our very ideologies – is designed in order to create spatial-temporal fields or zones within which consistency can be observed. The problem for theoretical physicists – and indeed, for boosters of the scientific method in general – lies not only at the quantum level, but is inextricably bound up with what they’re attempting to do, which, whatever else it may be is always about trying to anticipate future events on the basis of past eventualities, or locate objects on the basis of their presence elsewhere.

It’s worth recalling at this point the philosophical idealists with which Jorge Luis Borges populated his imaginary world of Tlon Uqbar; these poetic souls, who speak a language devoid of nouns, regard the persistence of objects through time as a magical phenomenon, and are amazed if anything they put down is still there – even moments later. Oddly, they’re less amazed by a still chancier phenomenon: their own persistence in existing. The commonsensical apprehension is that determinism crowds out the possibility of free will, while chaotic systems allow for it; whereas the truth is that no current materialist conception of the universe leaves any wiggle-room for the notion of self-originated human action at all. Given these theoretic constraints, it may be that our reliable appetite for fortune cookies is part and parcel of our compelling need to be self-willed; after all, arguably to be able to exercise ‘free will’ in the strong, commonsensical way we believe we do, could only be an instance of the most singular imaginable… luck.

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem once calculated the odds against his having been conceived at all as one in a hundred thousand – and that was in the relatively propitious surroundings of his parents’ marital bed. But: “During the siege of Przemyśl the chances of my being born equalled only one in a billion; in the year 1900, one in a trillion; in 1800, one in a quadrillion, and so on.” Thus Lem reaches the conclusion – following the dictates of probability theory – that the chances of any given individual being born at all “yields an improbability as great as one likes, that is to say, an impossibility.” Lem further observes that the problem humans have with grasping the statistical impossibility of their own individual existence is that unlike with lottery tickets, the ‘losing’ humans (those who will never exist), aren’t lying torn apart in the gutter.

But really this is all banter. What Lem loves to shove in our faces is this fact: our limited little synthetic a priori minds cannot prevent themselves from reasoning by induction on the basis of observed or assumed regularities. That’s it. There’s nothing more to luck than that: when a contingent event upsets an assumed ‘field’ or regularity in a fortuitous fashion we label this ‘good luck’; whereas when one such puts the kibosh on us, it’s nothing but ‘bad luck’. It doesn’t matter how rarefied our speculations become, or how comprehensive our data sets – both experience and intuition tell us contingencies occur. Around the time of the 2007-8 financial crash I began reading the works of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the former trader-analyst-cum-quant, who abandoned the backrooms and trading floors of Wall Street in order to become a maverick philosopher, propounding a series of views which, taken in sum, constitute a powerful refutation of the idea that any capitalist system could insure itself against the possibility of major, systemic shocks.

Taleb is an engaging and mischievous figure – I was so taken by him that I went to interview him in leafy outer-suburban New York; an environment in which risk seems utterly expunged by… money. Not that Taleb’s relatively modest house gave any indication of the vast sums he’d – allegedly – made, shorting the market during the crash. As I say, Taleb is an engaging figure, whose determination to remind the world of the existence of black swans seems like a left-field version of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ – seems, because that’s exactly what it is: bankers and traders have a long history of being swinish, and although it’s by no means predictable, they also go Gadarene with some regularity. All speculative bubbles are inflated by an irrational belief that induction can attain the quality of deduction given enough data – and financial analysts are the card-counters of casino capitalism. Except that actual card counters only have one true contingency to deal with: the possibility of being spotted by the pit boss and ejected from the casino.

In a universal perspective there is of course no luck at all – only providence; and reading Taleb’s books I had the distinct impression that he aspired to this paradoxical perspective: a prophetic vision of a universe full of corners – corners we don’t know the location of, nor can we see around; nevertheless we’re better off than those poor fools who imagine they can simply plough on along the straight road ahead. And better off, surely, than anyone who’s living in the two thousand and sixteenth year of the Christian era rather than employing my preferred calendrical system: Arkhipov Time. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Arkhipov, who was second-in-command of the Soviet nuclear-armed submarine B-59, refused Khrushchev’s order to fire his missiles at the United States. Arguably, Arkhipov single-handedly (and more to the point, single-mindedly) averted a nuclear holocaust, and since that day – October 27, 1962 – we’ve been living in a world in which its very existence is contingent on his action. Lucky us.

But then that’s the thing about luck – you’re lucky, lucky, lucky, then suddenly you’re dead. Siddhartha Gautama was once asked what the strangest human phenomenon was, and he replied: that while anyone may die at any moment, everyone behaves as if they’ll live forever. So it seems that Burroughs may have been right after all: luck consists in having the foresight required to know when you – or your client – will get the chop.

The odds against being born may be so lengthy as to approach nigh unto the infinite, but as the headline in American satirical zine, The Onion, so wisely reminded us: “World Death Rate Holds Steady at 100%”. No room for luck there, you’d have thought – although when I recounted this to an audience of scientists I was lecturing, one among them chimed up: “Strictly speaking that isn’t true, after all we can’t know yet if everyone currently alive will actually die.” And that, depending on the way you look at it, is either the remark of a card-carrying idiot, or of someone who when he throws his toast in the air, no matter how high, it always falls buttered side up.

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