Chance, Success & Failure

“The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.”

-The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt

 

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In a previous essay, I discussed the role of chance in artistic success using Matthew Salganik’s virtual world experiment as a focus. In his discussion of this experiment, Salganik noted that it was likely to have implications for success (and failure) in a much broader context. Sorting out the role of chance in success and failure seems both interesting and rather important.

One obvious reason why it is important to sort out the role of chance is to provide a rational basis for assigning praise and blame (and the possible accompanying reward and punishment). After all, success or failure by pure chance would not (in general) seem to merit praise or blame. If I win a lottery by pure chance, I have done nothing that would warrant being praised—aside from acquiring a ticket, I had no substantial role in the process. Likewise, if I do not win the lottery, I do not warrant being accused of a failure.

This also, obviously enough, ties into morality: chance can mitigate moral responsibility. If the properly maintained brakes on my truck fail as I approach a stop sign at a reasonable speed and I thus crash into an innocent pedestrian, I am not to blame—this was a matter of chance. Likewise, if my truck were to crash into a person attempting murder in the street, I am also not responsible for this fortuitous outcome.

Somewhat less obvious is the tie this matter has to setting rational public policy and laws. After all, to set public policy on such matters as unemployment benefits and food stamps without properly assessing the role of chance in success and failure would be a grave moral error. Suppose that, as some claim, people end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of factors that are within their control—that is, they essentially decide their way into unemployment or need. If this is the case, then it would be reasonable to set public policy to reflect this alleged reality. The general idea would seem to be that there should not be such support. To use an analogy, if someone throws her money away foolishly, I have no obligation to give her more money. Her poor decision making does not constitute my obligation.

However, if chance (or other factors beyond the control of the individual) play a significant role in success and failure, then it would seem reasonable to shape policy to match this alleged reality. Suppose, as some claim, people do often end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of chance. In this case, public policy should reflect this alleged reality and such aid should be available to help offset chance.  To use an analogy, if someone stumbles across some muggers and is robbed of the money she needs to buy food for herself and her children, then her situation does obligate me—if can help her at reasonable cost to myself, I should certainly do so.

Thus, it would seem that sorting out the role of chance in success and failure is a rather important matter. Unfortunately, it is also a very complex matter. However, I think it would be helpful to use an example to show that chance does seem to be a major factor in success in factor. Since I am most familiar with my own life, I will do a short sketch of the role of chance in my success and failure.

As I mentioned in the previous essay on this matter, I have been accused of believing in choice because I want to get credit for my successes. As might be imagined, people who are successful tend to want to believe that their success is due largely to their own decisions and efforts—that they have earned success. Likewise, people who are failures often tend to blame chance (and other factors) as the cause of their failures. Both sets of people tend to also apply their view to the opposite of their situations: the successful also attribute the failure of the failures to the decisions of those who have failed while those who are failures attribute the success of others to chance. People do, quite clearly, embrace the narrative that pleases them most. However, what pleases need not be true. As such, while I like to believe that my success is earned, I am willing to carefully consider the role of chance.

One blindingly obvious factor that is entirely a matter of chance is the matter of birth: it is, if there is chance, a matter of chance that I was born in the United States to a middle-class family and that I was healthy and normal. It is also largely a matter of chance, from my standpoint, that I had a family that took care of me and that I was in a society that provided stability, healthcare and education. If I had been born in some war and poverty ravaged part of the world and had horrible health issues, things would obviously be much different.

The rest of my life was also heavy with chance. For example, I almost ended up a Marine, but budget cuts ended up preventing that and instead I ended up at Ohio State. I ended up meeting a woman there who went to Florida State University and thus I ended up in Tallahassee by chance. This allowed me to get the job I have—which was also largely chance (Florida A&M University needed a philosophy professor right away and I just happened to be there). I could, easily enough, go through all the matters of chance that resulted in success: meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time, avoiding the wrong people, and so on.

Of course, my desire to take credit for success drives me to add that I surely had a role to play in my success. While chance put me in the United States with a healthy body and mind, it was my decisions and actions that got me through school and into college. While chance had a major role to play in my getting a job as a professor, surely it was my actions and decisions that allowed me to keep the job. While chance has surely played a role in my book sales, surely the quality of my work is what wins people over. Roughly put, chance put me into various situations, but it was still up to me to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid dangers.

While my pride drives me to seize a large share of the credit for my success, honesty compels me to admit that I owe a great deal to pure chance—starting with day zero. Presumably the same is true of everyone else as well. As such, I think it wise to always temper praise and condemnation with the knowledge that chance played a major role in success and failure.

 

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15 Comments.

  1. I’m wondering if the opportunity to make a decision is important in this matter. For instance you have no opportunity to decide what sex you will be or what kind of parents you had or where you were sent to school. Additionally no opportunity to decide is whether you would be a Human or a Cat. With a bit to thought I am sure it is possible to extend this list very much further. I think it is possible to maintain that generally one cannot decide what religion one will follow it is most often foisted on a young person at a very early age and often remains until death. Very often there is a choice but we do not realise it, which in some sense is the same as having no choice at all. For instance a religious person does have the opportunity to change or modify their religious beliefs, but it seems to them there is no choice. At an early age I was conscripted into the army, I did not want to go but there was really no reasonable choice to act otherwise. Once in the army I was able to make a decisive choice as to whether I would malinger or try to get promoted, I chose the latter, which I think turned out for the best.
    It does appear that we are in life confronted by what appear to be chance events where we make a choice which must essentially embrace the belief that our future, will be in some sense better. Such choices or decisions are influenced by all that we have experienced of life up to that time from the date of our birth. This seems to evoke the age-old problem of free will and as my sympathies lay more with a deterministic viewpoint, I cannot help but wonder if I have really had any control over my life at all.

  2. “I’m wondering if the opportunity to make a decision is important in this matter. For instance you have no opportunity to decide what sex you will be or …whether you would be a Human or a Cat.”

    Hi Don,

    I was thinking about things related to this in response to Mike’s earlier post and some things Ron Murphy said there about “luck” with regard to gene combination and (gene expression) and Bach.

    Whether it’s ‘luck’ or ‘chance’ or we’re talking about it seems to me it can only be apt to talk in such terms when the properties in question are in the Aristotelian sense ‘accidental’.

    Assuming, plausibly enough, that Bach was human (and not some alien imposter), it seems that being human was an essential property of Bach (just as it is for you and I). So, to my mind it would be inapt, to say Bach was lucky – or by chance – born a human being as opposed to, say, a cat because he couldn’t have been Bach and anything but human. Similarly it seems to me that one can’t say Bach was lucky to have originated from the meeting of egg x and sperm y (or that it was only by chance that he so originated) as this seems an essential property (any other sperm and it could only have been somebody else). Bach may have chanced to be but Bach can’t be Bach by chance.

    Here I feel less sure, but as far as Bach’s genetic combination goes my intuition is that the same holds true – had it been a different combination it would have been a different person from Bach who was formed. So it can’t be said to be a matter of luck or chance that Bach had the genes he had. Such at least seems the conclusion I’m pushed towards. Still it doesn’t seem obviously silly to say otherwise and as far as gene expression goes I’m not sure. At some point – even if you’re a diehard determinist – you’ll probably want to say that you could have been you even if things had gone differently.

    As far as being born a woman or a man goes, I can certainly understand what somebody would be getting at if they said Bach was lucky to be born a man (had somebody with the same genius but different genitalia been born to the same parents they would have been deprived of Bach’s opportunities). But I honestly don’t know if I could say that it was ‘by chance’ that you and I (and Bach) are men –could we have been born women and been the same person? I’m not sure but I’m inclined to think not. I’m not some immaterial soul that could, in principle, have ended up attached to a differently sexed body or the body of another animal. And it only seems to make sense to say it is by chance or luck that I’m a male human if one thinks in the dualist terms that make reincarnation seem to make some kind of sense.

    This isn’t to say the opportunity to make a decision isn’t important of course – I’m pretty sure it is -but it seems to me that only some of the things you didn’t get to decide can be chalked up to ‘luck’ or ‘chance’, if any of them can be.

  3. There are certainly many things we do not have any control over. However we view life, as linear, or as cyclical: from the perspective of cause and effect on matter; or from the perspective of electromagnetic forces from another dimension operating within the limited confines of a three-dimensional sphere, (a view some in physics are leaning towards), the truth is that our choices are limited. Still there is choice, if not always free will. Not even nightly dreams are under our control, although our thoughts provide the energy that enables the forms and dramas that are experienced. Even to say ‘our thoughts’ may be going too far. Supposedly in waking life we are not responsible for the first thought that comes to mind, although we are responsible for where we go with it. From the Material Age, to the Atomic Age, to next, the Electromagnetic Age(?); if chance, or luck, plays a role, it is a small one. However, synchronicity does happen and it is often fortuitous. For all we know we could be timed to all spatial vibrations.

    There are so many points of view; we are usually indoctrinated with one and it is true that most people stick with it without question. Unlike the animals operating on instinct only, with
    reason and choice in humans it would appear that personal responsibility would play a role. The good choices made may merit good outcomes, or not, if it is true that environment is stronger than will power. We may merit ideal environments but that is not a guarantee that we are going to get them. Whether or not a person escapes a less than ideal environment unharmed, or whether it would be necessary to know more than is currently known before assigning personal merit, it does appear that personal merit plays a role to some extent.

  4. s. wallerstein

    Jim:

    I guess that you’re saying that “I” cannot be separated from my circumstances, that it makes no sense to speculate on what “I” might be like if “I” had been born a woman or a mathematical genius born in a village in Somalia without a school. That’s true.

  5. Hi Amos,

    I agree with your conclusions about the examples you give but I didn’t mean to go as far as to say that “I” cannot be separated from my circumstances as such.

    Essential vs accidental properties is something I found myself thinking about a few days ago then found myself thinking of again. But it is a technical area I’m really not versed in and is pretty tangential to the subject matter of either of Mike’s posts or the comments they attracted.

    I know what is meant when someone says I’m lucky to possess a property even if (technical philosophy suggests) I couldn’t fail to possess that property and still be me. That’s the important part I should think. As far as ‘chance’ goes – like ‘luck’ – it’s probably a concept worthy of some ‘philosophical’ investigation. But think I also know what is meant when someone says ‘that chance plays a major role in success and failure’ – factors outside one’s control decide outcomes and opportunities aren’t shared out with much reference to equity.

  6. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    Hello Jim:

    I guess for me one confusion, among many (your comments not being the source of confusion, by the way) is around the phrase “I couldn’t fail to possess the property and still be me”.

    What do we mean by “me”?

    There’s the passport or police file “me”: finger print, date of birth, eye color, biological sex, etc.,
    and yes, if you change my date and place of birth, I’m not still me. The same with the biological sex until fairly recently.

    By the way, what does “I’m not still me” mean? How can “I” not be “me”?

    Then there’s the “I” or “me” of sense of identity. For example, part of my identity is questioning things. Could I stop questioning things and still be me (the same I)? Obviously, I could restrain from voicing my questions to others (and that might be more prudent), but could I stop formulating those questions silently and still be I? Even certain political opinions and musical tastes seem so much part of “me” that I could not fail to possess them and still be I, although once again, if my goal were to win friends and influence people, it might be wiser to keep them to myself.

    There are many more versions of “I”. The two mentioned above are just two simple examples.

    I guess the relation between my confusion and Mike’s post is that unless we know what we mean by “I”, it’s difficult to
    speculate on how much of “me” is due to luck or chance.

    Actually, I’m very confused today. Although I understand what most people mean by “success” and “failure”, when I think about my life and who I am, the terms mean nothing to me.

  7. Luck, chance, accident, are all features of the human imagination. They are used to describe states of affairs or situations, which please us, displease us, disgust us, or enrapture us and so on. We might say for instance that wasp was lucky it was heading straight for the spider’s web when it was attracted to some flowers nearby. We can additionally liken this to a time in our memory when had our attention not been distracted we would certainly have stepped off the curb into the path of an oncoming vehicle, that was lucky, a another form of accident, which had for us, a pleasing outcome. If you look at the meteorological system which embraces this planet it becomes rapidly obvious that this is a dynamic system in which there are no breaks or pauses the whole system continuously functions. To understand this system science has had to apply its own system of cause and effect in order to make forecasts as to what the future might be. This is not an exact science as it is not possible to consider the whole system at any one time in order as it is constantly changing. This dynamic state of affairs I believe embraces the whole of existence; but that is not to say Nature has no rules and it is the task of science to discover such rules and elaborate them in the light of further knowledge.
    So where is all this leading? I am trying to place humanity solidly within a dynamic system in which it finds itself. In such a system a multiplicity of things merge and dissolve sometimes leaving traces and sometimes not. For instance we cannot remember every single instant of our lives in fact it may be difficult to remember what we did last week, other than somewhat vaguely. So what triggers or deters us is often overlooked. I believe in football, they have a saying that you make your own luck, and this is to some extent probably true. What we consider to be a lucky break just comes from a multiplicity of dynamic states of affairs many of which we have forgotten but leads to a situation which we find pleasing. In the whole dynamic system, this is just another event or happening, no different from any other event, other than pleasure is evoked in the human who may well as a result unknowingly cause rains fall in Oxford or another human to become unhappy.

  8. what does “I’m not still me” mean? How can “I” not be “me”?

    Hello Amos,

    My answer to the second question would be ‘you can’t’, to the first ‘nothing obviously intelligible’. It might have been better if I’d said: “I couldn’t fail to possess that property and still be”.

    An essential property is one that if it is lost so is the ‘thing’ that possessed it. What properties are essential depends on how one conceives of the ‘thing’ in question. If I conceive of you as a human being clearly you can’t continue to exist but fail to be human. If I conceive of you as a person – and I do think that your “I” refers to a person not a human being as such – things may be rather different.

    Certainly it seems ‘you’ as a human being could survive the death of you as a person (it might hobble along in a vegetative state and managed fine without you the person in the uterus) and it may be that you as a person could, in principle, survive the death of your human body through some kind of ‘upload’ of your personality and memories into an Amos-looking android. If this is so, it suggests you are not essentially human after all (though I don’t think there’s any room to say it’s only by chance or luck that you currently are).

    Whatever “I” am, I am very confused too.

  9. @Mike Laboissiere
    You seem to indicate that when you make a choice you are taking chance out of the picture. Don’t you think that it is just an illusion given the billions of possible actions (or no actions) you could have taken? You do not know what the future outcome WILL be as you will find out only AFTER it happens leaving you just with qualifying it as pleasant or unpleasant ? (And then call it lucky or unlucky ). So at the end of the day is not it ALWAYS “chance” even if you feel you have made the “right” choice among the millions of possible ones?

  10. The words Me, Myself, and I are such that they enable us broadly to speak about ourselves and this purpose is served very well by them. How ever to define these words is a different matter altogether. The world is in a constant state of flux which of course includes ourselves, so that there is apparently no lasting definition of say, the word me, such that it will evade this changing state.
    If we were wearing our ‘social hat’ we would think it ridiculous, if for instance, we saw our bank manager and he demanded absolute proof each time we saw him, that we were the same person. If we were wearing our ‘philosophical hat’ we would have to advise him of our inability to confirm we are the same person as before, in all respects. This phrase ‘in all respects’ is what makes the difference when it comes to comparing the social environment with the philosophical. It does occur to me that any system which is in a constant state of flux does have one persisting and unchanging quality through space and time and that is it is always the same system. As a result of this consideration then I am the same me as I was, when I was born, because the same system has been in operation since that date and has presumably persisted to this time.

  11. @Don Bird
    The “same System”. Is it really the same system? Maybe you are saying it is the same because you have no way to prove that it is not?
    Maybe the only thing you can say is that you are in “a system” without being sure if it keeps changing or not. Just like your philosophical ME which is not definable because it keeps changing, so your ME is in a succession of systems each one different from the previous one. :)

  12. Re Hisham 18th March
    I note the points you make here. I did not mean to claim I was ‘in’ a system but that I was a system, which was perpetually changing. There is not a succession of systems but just the one system, which is in a state of flux. If we plant an acorn in the ground it will germinate and grow into a tree. After say fifty years the tree will have no resemblance to the original acorn and will look profoundly different from what it was say after five years of being planted. So changes occur through time. However it remains the same system as was embodied in the original acorn. You can say the tree is different in shape, size, colour, and spatial relationship to other objects in the world as time passes, but it still remains the same dynamic system. So far as I can see the same argument can be used to support the continuity of system in humans and other living organisms.
    I don’t think this throws much light on the philosophical problem of identity, but for me it demonstrates continuity through time of living organisms if not, non living objects.

  13. There is a system that keeps everything recognizable even though there is constant flux; it is called the L-field and was discovered by Neuroanatomist Harold S. Burr. It was found that the electrical field surrounding a seedling resembled not the seedling but the adult plant. An electrical field also applied to the animal studied and it was already present in the unfertilized egg. No matter how often the material is changed the matrix or mold preserves the original pattern making us recognizable to ourselves and to others. This applies to biology; to form, what applies to identity could be quite different. If relativity is required for individuality something else must be necessary for identity. Some would say it is an immutable something called the soul which identifying with a body becomes an ego. It appears that saints can lose that identification without harm but for the average person a weak ego, or absence of an identity, puts a person in danger of a psychosis. If there is an organizing template for identity it has not yet been discovered by science.

  14. Re: Don Bird
    I understand your approach and your model. It is true then that indeed you are a system. You also said that “there is just one system”. So if you are not that system, then you are a system in that system. So will be the trees you allude to. This leads then to systems being into a system. But then that system itself is in a system, since you cannot define its boundaries.
    Therefore it looks like the only logical thought would be systems inside systems, insides systems, etc. One would thing that eventually there is THE SYSTEM. And that ultimate system is truly the one that never changes, although its inner parts (like you, and the trees) are always changing, while remaining themselves, their ME (despite the perpetual inner changes).
    If you agree, then the question comes up: what is THE SYSTEM. Does it look like something that is always there, has always been there, and will always be there?
    Lastly, if you die, is your ME still in existence? I think it would because we will still remember you, talk about you, which we cannot do for something that does not exist. Therefore ME exists even after we die?

  15. Re Hisham 20/03/14
    Maybe some clarification in this matter will ensue if we consider a system such as a motor car. The car is composed of several systems call them subsystems if you like, such as the exhaust system, the ignition system, the braking system, the steering system and so on. The inter relationship of all these systems when they function correctly is that the car has the capacity to move from one location to another. It does seem then that a system can be broken down as you suggest into subsystems but each of these is a system in its own right. Were we to replace for instance the exhaust system of a car it would still remain a car and its primary function which is movement would not threatened so I would say that it was the same car from a systematic viewpoint. However it is not the same car in all respects i.e. it has a different exhaust system how ever its system as a car and the same car is not thereby threatened. A human being for instance is a dynamic system in so far as nutriments are taken in, and eventually excreted such that a perpetual change in the composition of the system is in operation but it is in my opinion still the same system.
    I agree that it seems to follow from what I say, that there must be one overarching system which embraces everything. I guess this is the point at which we delve into the mysteries of ontology that is to say what there is and what is it like, which I shall not develop here.
    In the event of my death I would say that the system known as Me no longer exists but the memories of Me can still form a component in a another system or human being if you like.

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