How Randomness and Luck (Good and Bad) Affect Our Lives

By | April 28, 2010

“What incredibly bad luck!” I thought a few years ago when reading a news story about a bizarre, fatal accident suffered by a commuter on a multiple-level freeway exchange (in a California city). He was driving home after work on a lower level of the freeway when a dog fell from a higher level through his windshield killing the driver. Apparently the dog, a large breed, had fallen out of the bed of pick-up on the higher level and then been hit by oncoming traffic and knocked over the barrier, falling onto the lower level and through the windshield of the unfortunate driver below. This unfortunate person was killed by a random event, ‘random’ in the sense that nobody could have predicted it.

I was reminded of this tragic meeting at an ‘intersection’ between driver and falling dog when I started reading a book, The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow which, among other topics, deals with those random events which have significant impact on our lives. It is an understatement to say that the bizarre freeway accident significantly altered the lives of the unfortunate commuter and his family. But not all such meetings at ‘intersections’ are bad ones; let’s look at one that directly affected Mlodinow himself.

In the opening chapter of his book, Mlodinow recounts another ‘intersection,’ with great potential for tragedy but which proved a fortunate one. This happened when his father was a young man and in a Nazi concentration camp in Europe. The young man, a Polish Jew, was the only survivor of his family (his wife and children had already been killed by the Nazi); he survived the concentration camp through a very unlikely event in which his theft of bread resulted in a good job with the German baker, instead of bringing him an immediate execution, as normally happened in such cases. The upshot was that the father survived the Nazi concentration camp and migrated to the United States after the war ended, where he met and married Leonard’s mother and raised a second family. That unlikely intersection between the father and the German baker, who just happened to be in the mood to spare the life of a prisoner and award him a good job, allowed the eventuality that our author, Leonard Mlodinow, was born and went on to become a physicist, who writes interesting books.

So we could say Leonard Mlodinow has a personal interest in one of the themes of his book; this is role that randomness, accident, and contingency play in nature and in our lives. But why select this title, The Drunkard’s Walk? As Mlodinow states it, the wildly meandering, unpredictable path of a drunken person can be seen as a metaphor for our lives. Very few things turn out as we had planned them. Random events which we can never foresee or predict often determine the course of our lives: where we get our education or training, what line of work we get into, the spouse we marry, and so. Unpredictable accidents can change the course of our lives.

This is contrary to how many of us tend to think about the ways of the world and our lives’ prospects, at least when we were starting out. Prior to suffering the accidents and contingencies that life brings, or on the fortunate side, prior to be enjoying the rewards that equally accidental and unpredictable events bring us, we might think that we mostly control how things turn out: that we can plan and predict with fair accuracy much that happens in our lives. Undeniably there are people who can honestly say that much of their life went according to plan. Yes, there were unpredictable events they could not have predicted, but the plans were flexible enough to allow for unforeseen contingencies. Here we might think of the U. S. Constitution and the way it was framed so that the laws and governmental structures based on it were flexible enough to deal with all those subsequent contingencies that nobody could have predicted back in the years immediately following 1776.

But for the greater majority of us, it is reasonable to say that many events came into play that we never expected or planned, or could have controlled; yet these events greatly altered the direction that our lives took. So many of us can agree with Mlodinow when he characterizes most people’s life as resembling a drunkard’s walk: willy-nilly, bouncing here and there and not following any predictable path. How many of us can claim that our lives turned out as we might have imagined and planned (or as our parents planned) when we were finishing high school? Did we really manage to marry that beautiful young girl who was our “true love” in high school or college, or did we end up marrying someone completely unforeseen, in many cases a fortunate intersection in our lives with someone from a different part of the world? Did we really think that we would end up as computer professionals when we didn’t even know what computers were when we planned our moves following high school? “We were headed to college to become engineers and teachers; but an accident occurred and we ended up in the military, where we were trained in electronics. Then there was a great need for computer programmers. And next thing we knew, there we were busy writing computer code.” For many of us, when we reflect on the path our lives have taken, we shall agree with Mlodinow: in many ways our life’s path has resembled the haphazard path of a drunken sailor.

But Mlodinow goes beyond affirming that much is chance occurrence and uncertainty in our lives; he also asserts that we often overstate the degree to which we control things; the degree to which our successes are due to talent and hard work and our failures due to incompetence. He claims that chance and randomness play as great a role in determining success and failure in much of what we do. His examples to support these claims cite cases in which too much credit is given to the CEO for a company’s success (or to a coach for the football team’s success) and too much blame on the same CEO when the company doesn’t do so well. As he states it, often the results are not due to our talent, intelligence, hard work and planning, as we would like to believe. Again, his over-riding point is that randomness, chance, accident and generally unpredictable conditions play a much greater role than most people admit. Anyone who follows sports, e.g., the fortunes of NBA teams, knows that Mlodinow’s view is mostly correct. A team’s success or failure hinges on many factors, some include the talent of the players, the cohesiveness of the team, and coaching tactics. But many of the factors are unpredictable: injuries or illness to key players, personal issues and psychological problems that reduce team “chemistry,” the effects of age, the rise of young talent on opposing teams, even the economy and political situation can affect a team’s fortunes. Just ask any sports gambler about the randomness and unpredictability of such things.

Whether Mlodinow is correct in his general theme of randomness and chance occurrences in nature is an interesting question that we could touch on. Scientists and philosophers debate whether the apparent randomness in nature is really an aspect of nature or is just a result of our limited knowledge of the workings of nature. Many quantum physicist see uncertainty as integral to physical nature; but others, notably Albert Einstein, see it as just an indication of our limited knowledge. (Einstein quoted as saying that he could not imagine that God would play dice with the universe.) Mlodinow himself seems to equate randomness with unpredictability, which suggests that randomness is an epistemological issue, i.e., a matter of the limits of our knowledge. This would imply that the apparent randomness might not really show as a real property of nature. But plenty of debate remains among scientists and philosophers of science on this point; and quantum physics, at least, seems to indicate that at the sub-atomic level physical nature is inherently random and indeterminate

I shall defer discussion of this important scientific and philosophical issue. Presently, I will elaborate some on Mlodinow’s view of the randomness and uncertainty with regard to historical and social reality. Setting aside the deeper scientific and metaphysical issues regarding the ontological status of randomness in nature, I believe that there is general agreement that ‘randomness’ as unpredictability is a fact. In other words, events which are humanly unpredictable are common both in nature and in history, and can have fateful consequences for people’s lives. Examples are fairly easy to cite. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, volcano eruptions can have disruptive effects on whole societies and alter significantly the lives of countless people. In this connection, think of recent events such as the hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans and other parts of the gulf area; and consider the mostly tragic consequences for so many people in that city and in that area. Then as the year 2004 came to a close the Indonesian people suffered a Tsunami that killed tens of thousands and greatly changed the lives of millions.

Earlier in our history of the twentieth century, we had the dust bowl and drought which uprooted the lives of many people in the southwest. More recently, think of the earthquake that devastated the capital of Haiti and devastated also the lives of millions of its inhabitants. From the perspective of most human society, including those humans most directly affected by these catastrophes, the events were examples of those aspects of nature that shatter the illusion that the world is regular and predictable, that humans can plan for all contingencies, and expect things to work according to plan. The fact is that sometimes we can; but sometimes we cannot. What we can manage is often analogous to a roll of the dice at a Las Vegas casino, and our best intentions and best efforts are often secondary factors in comparison to the uncertainty and randomness that nature has in store for us. We tend to get accustomed (and become somewhat complacent) to the regular seasons and patterns in our world; we expect them to continue their regular, predictable pattern indefinitely; and when this pattern is interrupted we are left shocked and devastated. We’re much like Bertrand Russell’s chicken, which was fed regularly (like clockwork) every morning and never expected that fateful change in pattern, when one day instead of being fed as usual, the farmer wrung its neck.

When we turn to human-made catastrophes it becomes even more apparent that our best thought-out plans are often rudely and tragically disrupted and canceled. History gives us many examples in which war, economic depression, conflict between groups, genocide, conquest, and defeat in the competition of economies and technologies result in tragic disruption of ordinary existence. Does anyone doubt or deny that much death, suffering, dislocation, enslavement and oppression result from each of the many wars that human society engages? The extent and character of the resulting tragedy are never fully predictable beforehand. If they were, people would never assent to their nation’s penchant for aggressive policies and military adventures. In each case we have situations in which both good and bad luck (the roll of the dice, the draw of the card) significantly affect the direction that people’s lives take.

From recent history, consider the fate of the young men and women unlucky enough to have be born at a time that threw them into any of the following situations: pre-Columbian Americans (in a Caribbean Island, in Central and South America, Mexico and North America) who happened to be in the path of invading Europeans who eventually (with the help of diseases to which the Americans had no immunity) destroyed the cultures and lives of entire generations. If you were a healthy, young West African living at the time of ‘Slave Economies,’ there was a fairly good chance that you would be captured by slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic where the rest of your life would be one of enslavement; and your children and theirs would likewise spend their lives as the slave property of some slave owner. Later, in the 1860s in the U.S., a tragic and deadly civil war would be fought before slavery could be officially abolished in the United States. Many young Americans, both in the North and in the South, unlucky enough to come of age at the wrong time, lost their lives or had their lives brutally disrupted by this event, one which could not be predicted in terms of its deadliness, destructiveness, and consequences. Here you have a number of major historical events and trends, none of whose exact nature and effects could have been predicted beforehand; and all of which proved fateful for millions of lives.

Entire generations of young men in England, France, and Germany who happened to come of military age as World War I was starting and who ended up as the millions of casualties in futile battlefields in Europe. None of these young people planned early, brutal deaths; but the tragic contingencies of history brought them that fate. In the twentieth century history of the United States, the financial collapse of the late 1920s followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s had great and lasting consequences for millions of lives.

Consider the later periods of the twentieth century when World War II brought untold tragedy and devastation. Admittedly, World War II gave us great technological progress in many areas which eventually were beneficial to societies; but it also wrought great advances in the technology of war, death and destruction, along with the general acceptance by ‘civilized’ nations of battle tactics that no longer distinguished between combatants and civilians. Consider the emergence of totalitarian nations that adopted policies of genocide. We cannot ignore the millions of victims (mostly Jews) of the Nazi Holocaust and the genocide carried out by Stalinist Soviet Union. Let us not forget the millions of people in Europe, in North American, in Japan and China who were victims of war, whose lives were destroyed and uprooted by events not of their own choosing or for which they could have planned. A young Jewish couple planning marriage and children, but trapped in Europe in the early 1940s; a young Russian peasant farmer just working to support his family, but who fell into disfavor with the ruling group at the Kremlin; a young Japanese girls who just happened to live in Hiroshima at the time of the Atomic bombing of that city. Chance and bad luck put these individuals in the path of event which they could not predict and which disrupted (to state it mildly) their lives in tragic ways. Again, chance and the roll of the dice determined what awaited these unfortunate human individuals.

The events of September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center in New York city and the Pentagon were attacked offers another example of a happening that affected the lives of many of us. Our paths intersect with the paths of others in a variety of ways. Some are good intersections, as when we meet by accident that person who comes to be our inspiration or who becomes our life’s partner. But some are unfortunate accidents (an automobile collides with us) and tragic, as those ‘intersections’ in people’s lives as a result of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. We have not forgotten the tragedies of all those unfortunate victims (those occupying the Twin Towers at the time the airliners impacted the buildings; those who happened to board the same flights (American Airlines, United Airlines) as the terrorists) whose paths intersected. Little can be said to lessen the pain and loss of the survivors and the families of the direct victims. In addition, millions of people’s lives were greatly affected by the aftermath of the attacks; much of this in unpredictable ways. Here think of the consequential wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the increased security and restrictions of the Patriot Act, and the resulting economic conditions. Many of us employed by United Airlines at the time of the attacks saw our company’s condition deteriorate, until it had to declare bankruptcy. Many of us lost our positions with United or had to retire early. The affects of an unforeseen attack on the US on Americans and many people in other nations are still with us; and cannot be completely accounted. But who, if anyone, foresaw in 1999 or 2000 the likelihood of such an event? Very few to be sure. Most of us were caught once again by that “roll of the dice” which Mlodinow talks about.

Mlodinow calls such events as war, genocide, and economic depression extreme events which can greatly affect the lives of millions of people. But, as he notes, it does not require extreme events to bring out the role that randomness, unpredictability, and chance occurrences play in our lives. Within the context of larger events, extreme or otherwise, there are countless accidents, contingencies, and unforeseen “meetings at intersections” that greatly influence the paths our lives take. Many of us can recount events and choices in our own lives which bear out what Mlodinow says concerning the general nature of human lives: that they are generally marked by chance occurrences, fateful accidents, and contingencies we never could have foreseen or predicted. This does not imply that we don’t have any control over the direction our lives take; but it does suggest that we can do a better job moving in the direction we choose if we recognize the role that luck, chance occurrences and randomness play in our lives.

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