Are we lucky to be alive?

Most things of value in life depend on luck. But what is it, exactly, to be lucky?

I think an agent is lucky when he wants something (i.e. he has a goal) and then passes through a sort of “trial” in which getting what he wants is statistically unlikely, or at least not guaranteed. If he passes the trial and gets what he wants, he’s lucky.

For example, suppose six people play a game of pure chance (to keep this example simple). In the long run, over repeated plays, each player will win about one sixth of the time. Assuming a player’s goal is to win, winning is lucky. A single win is lucky, and repeated wins are lucky: in the long run, winning more than one sixth of the time is lucky. Because the relevant sense of probability here is statistical, we have to imagine repeated events of a similar sort, and what proportion of them would achieve the goal.

Three observations can be made here. First, luck depends on having a specific goal and a clear reference class. The reference class consists of repeated events of a similar sort, a relevant proportion of which achieve the goal. It is often implicit — in the present example, it consists of plays of the game. Suppose we keep that reference class, but change the goal. Suppose a player just wants to have fun rather than win. If he has fun in two thirds of the games he plays, he’s more often lucky than unlucky, because a higher proportion of the same class of events count as successful given the agent’s specific goal. Being lucky can become so routine that we’re less inclined to call it good luck, and focus instead on the less usual case of being unlucky. But the basic idea is the same.

Second, an agent can’t be lucky if there is no possibility of his being unlucky. If some members of a class of events are lucky, then some other members must count as “unlucky”, or at least as “less lucky”.

Third, luck applies to events that are more or less beyond our control. Lucky or unlucky events happen to agents, rather than being done by agents.

If we’re lucky, we’ll inherit good genes from long-lived parents. If we’re lucky, we’ll be engaged in projects in life which go well for us, so that we advance towards our goals. If we’re lucky, our lovers will be faithful and honest. These examples of good luck can only happen to genuine agents who have goals — real goals that are the objects of genuine desires. They only count as cases of good luck because things might have been different — there are other cases of the same sorts of events that count as bad luck. And alas, we don’t have much control over them.

For most of the course of a normal life, it would be remarkably bad luck to die while asleep. So we’re not much inclined to call it “good luck” when we simply wake up in the morning as usual. But I think it’s salutary to think that way. In all human life there is an attrition rate. Nowadays, most of us in the West live in unusually safe circumstances (low infant mortality, good health, peace, prosperity) in which we are liable to forget that “in the midst of life we are in death”. An awareness of our own mortality need not be morbid, nor even pessimistic. It can help us get our priorities right. And it serves to remind us that even routine things depend on luck, however secure they may seem.

One sort of event often assumed to be “lucky” is the emergence of my self, starting with conception in the womb. The thought goes something like this: “so many different combinations of sperm and egg might have met at the crucial moment, with different DNA, in which case someone else would exist rather than me — how very lucky I am to exist, when it might so easily have been different!”

But I think that is a mistaken thought. Furthermore, I think it contributes to bigger philosophical problems concerning personal identity, consciousness, and even bad science.

At the moment of conception, the future agent who is being conceived is not yet an agent. Even if we think of the zygote formed at conception as a “potential person”, no merely potential X is a real X, so again no agent actually exists. And where there is no agent, there is no goal of staying alive. Where there is no such goal, there is no proportion of “successful” events in which the goal is achieved. So luck as understood here isn’t involved. There were countless other possible outcomes, but the actual outcome was not “unlikely” in the sense that an amazing coincidence occurred. It’s a bit like being allocated a car registration number — it’s “one in a billion”, but it’s not anything to be surprised about unless you bet beforehand that you would be allocated that very number.

Yet a widespread sense of perplexity persists, and I think it reveals something significant. It shows how much difficulty we have identifying our selves with physical objects (i.e. functioning brains). Despite near-universal agreement that Descartes’ “immaterial substance” is a fantasy, we are fixed in our ways, and we retain a habit of supposing that my self (i.e. my mind) existed before the formation of the physical object (i.e. my brain), and was lucky not to have “missed the boat”. We think of ourselves as “atomic” — i.e. as incapable of being subdivided into smaller parts, and as having an all-or-nothing existence that can’t emerge gradually from something more inchoate. Such presuppositions are “buried”, and are brought to light by the current sense of having been lucky.

The same sense of perplexity surrounds the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”. We find it relatively easy to imagine how some other agent — even an intelligent robot — might do all of the things that conscious persons do, yet we find it hard to accept that “I happen to be one of those things, doing what those things do” (as we point to a functioning brain). This is not a problem for science — it’s a distinctly philosophical problem of personal identity. The deficit is not one of knowledge so much as of the imagination. We find it hard to imagine that we are one and the same thing as a physical brain, wondering how “it came to be itself rather than something else”. If that isn’t a downright mistaken activity, it’s at least playful, like a cat chasing its own tail, imagining a part of itself belongs to something else.

The vague idea that “atomic” human selves are “queued up waiting to be conceived” also contributes to bad science. For example, attitudes to the extinction of our own species reveal that we treat non-birth as something like being “deprived” of birth, which is comparable to death. But this is a mistake. All individuals inevitably die, and all species inevitably come to an end, but these are entirely different. The supposition that they are similar misinforms much current thinking on ecology and catastrophism about climate change.