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On Luck Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 22 July 2014

In his 1906 book on Algeria, Esto Perpetua, Hilaire Belloc meets a Frenchman there. He asked him if he thought himself “prosperous.” “He said, as do all sad people, that luck was the difference.” Why were the luckless called “sad”? It is, I suppose, because, when the dice do not roll our way, no one can be blamed for our plight. A statistical order exists in the rolling the dice. The flip of a coin – if the coin does not fall our way, if we did not “luck” out – is just the way it is: sad.

The words, luck, chance, accident, and fortune, all have the same meaning. At first sight, no specific “cause” of luck or chance can be identified. No one is to blame. That is why it can be used “reasonably.” To choose who is to kick and who is to receive in a football game, the only “fair” way is to employ chance. Once the first step is decided, the second step, in fair play, gives the next priority to the loser. Without the agreement to abide by chance, we could not begin “fairly.” Yet to be the “lucky” winner of a lottery, say, has its rewards – the proverbial “luck of the Irish.”

Luck appears in Scripture. In Acts, Matthias was chosen by lot over Joseph Barsabbas to replace Judas among the Twelve (1:23). The United States and other countries today have hundreds of casinos whose basic business, when honest, is luck and its fascination. We work hard to “beat the odds.”

We sometimes underestimate the influence of chance in our lives. Indeed, we wonder if many things that seem to be results of accident or chance are not somehow “intended.” As far as I can see, every existing human being is, at first sight, the result of chance. The first meeting of one’s father and mother was to all appearances, a chance, a blind date, an unexpected trip, a girl next door. Yes, we also say that each of us is “intended” by God from the beginning. If this intention is so, something more than chance is at work. Chance itself needs to be reduced to order. More or less, this is what Providence is about.

In discussing chance in A General Theory of Authority, Yves Simon explained the “rationality” of irrational accidents. Millions of road “accidents” happen every year. Purpose exists in accidents. Each driver is going to a certain place for a reason. Neither driver intended to run into the other. So chance occurs when two reasonable actions cross outside the purpose of either.

But accidents have consequences, often dire ones. Most people know someone in the family or neighborhood who was killed in an accident. We try to fix the blame on someone or something. It “should” not have happened, yet it did. We have to live with accidents. Our insurance economy is based on dealing with the “sad” things that bad luck brought about. Insurance is a way to spread out the cost of accidents.

And the rise and fall of nations? Is that due to luck? Fortune? Belloc was in the ruins of the ancient Roman-African city of Timgrad. There he chanced to meet a man “of a kind I had not encountered before. . . .We discussed together in these brief moments the chief business of mankind.” The man knew something of Sussex, Belloc’s native county in England. He told Belloc that, in the desert, the stars were “terrible to man” and “the distances endless.”

This remark caused Belloc to remember “the old knowledge” – namely, “How great nations as they advance with unbroken records and heap up experience, and test life by their own past, and grow to judge exactly the enlarging actions of men, see at last that there is no Person in destiny, and that purpose is only in themselves. Their faiths turn to legend, and at last they enter into that shrine whose God has departed and whose Idol is quite blind.”

Destiny is chance, not purpose. Purpose is in ourselves. What we sometimes call “fate” is really the plan of God, a plan that free men can reject. We are tempted to look back at our lives to think that they “must” have happened the way that they did. We thus think that the world is made only of chance with no purpose. If so, we have no responsibility for it.

And what is the “chief business of mankind?” It is to see that “purpose is only in ourselves.” Even if we meet by chance, we choose by judgment. No reason can be given why a world of pure chance would exist. It would be a shrine of a departed God, a blind Idol. But a world in which both chance and purpose exist together is quite likely. Such is a world in which the results of both luck and choice exist, with real effects on our lives and world.
 

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
 
 
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Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by Schm0e, July 22, 2014
To deal purposefully with luck, that is the thing.
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written by Stanley Anderson, July 22, 2014
I once saw, many years ago, a side-by-side image that had a picture on the left of a beautiful woman’s face, and a similarly oriented picture of a skull on the right. It was demonstrating how the face forms around the structure of the skull, but it was a fairly disturbing contrast as you might guess.

Later on, when I first read C.S. Lewis’ allegory “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” I was reminded of that image when I came across Reason’s first question to John that asked (in part) “What is the color…of the entrails in the body of man?” She describes to John in her own answer, “He [the Giant] showed you by a trick what our inwards ‘would’ look like if they were visible. That is, he showed you something that is not, but something that would be if the world were made all other than it is.”

This, I think is something of the way we need to view “chance.” We live, not in the fullness of the world as it should be, but in a fallen “world made all other than it is.” However I would modify it to say that is not so much that that the world is made “all other than it is”, but is rather made “incomplete” or has been “flattened” from what it is, the way a picture hides certain aspects of the thing it is representing. What the picture shows is not "wrong" but only incomplete.

Lewis also writes, in Perelandra, during the description of The Great Dance at the end, “All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for.” Quantum physics (for those who can absorb some of the subtle details, but it does take quite an effort) provides one of the best analogies in its “picture” of the wave function with its “superposition of states” that we can only see single “collapsed” states of in isolation.

I am reminded of how Jesus, primarily after his Resurrection, could apparently “appear” in different aspects so as to be unrecognizable to Mary Magdelene or on the road to Emmaus, or indeed to show, in effect, those “entrails in the body of a man” to Thomas. To see those aspects in isolation (as we, in our fallen state, apparently must do in our limited physical sight) leads to distaste or unrecognition or abhorrence of suffering, when, for example, we are told in Scripture that we might otherwise see glory in suffering – if we could only see the fullness of things.

It’s not that we need to trade those uncomfortable isolated views for more pleasant isolated views, but that they need to be part of the wholeness that we cannot at present “see” together in fullness. If we were to take that skull out of the woman’s head because it in itself was “ugly” and throw it away, she would no longer be beautiful but even more horridly ugly in her “incompleteness”. So I would likewise suggest that we cannot take “chance” out of the picture to leave only (as it would seem to us, again, in our fallen state) a mechanistic or reductionist view.

But we must equally not trust our view of how “chance” appears to us in this fallen state and in its isolation. There is a passage in “House at Pooh Corner” that, as a mathematician, I think is one of the most profound questions to be found just about anywhere:
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“I think it [the way home] is more to your right,” said Piglet nervously. “What do you think, Pooh?”

Pooh looked at his two paws. He knew that one of them was the right, and he knew that when you had decided which one of them was the right, then the other one was left, but he could never remember how to begin.
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There is a profound conundrum here that I think most people (including many scientifically/mathematically inclined) don’t recognize the significance of. And I firmly believe that, like self-awareness, of which we think we “know” and yet have no clue what it “really is” scientifically, “chance” is also something we think we “know” and yet really have no clue about what it “is” or even means. Yes we can work with statistical formulae and predict likelihoods and all, but if we are honest like Pooh and his problem, we will know that when we have decided that something is “random” then the statistics are left, but how does it begin and how are we to “see” what randomness is in the first place?

To see or not to see -- that is the question, I suppose one might paraphrase (while running and hiding from the stones of readers who got this far into my reply)
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written by Athanasius, July 22, 2014
Briefly, when "chance" things happen to us, we must learn to trust completely in God. He is still in charge, so we only need worry about today, and not fret about tomorrow. His grace will see us through.
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written by Billy Bean, July 22, 2014
I have often heard Christians say things like "There is no such thing as luck." I suppose that in so doing, they are trying to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. But I have never understood why luck couldn't be a real phenomenon, so long as God were sovereign over it. Luck is real as we are real, but it is not the ultimate reality. God's providence overrules all things, even ventures of chance (Proverbs 16:33). I don't have to believe that God interferes with the ongoing processes of the cosmos that he himself put in place and initiated. The dice need not be loaded in order for God's will to be done. The cosmic Story will be resolved in accordance with his sovereign will; the Lion of Judah who was worthy to open the scroll has already seen to that.
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written by Julie, July 22, 2014
As I read Fr, Schall's column, I am reminded of another Jesuit, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and his great work, "Abandonment to Divine Providence." Every serious Catholic should read it. I also learned from another great Jesuit, the late Fr. John Hardon, that there is no "chance" with God. Without interfering with our freedom, everything is guided by Divine Providence. Ah, therein lies the mystery! Nothing that happens in our own lives or in the world is greater than God and His plans. In Him and in His love we place our trust. Every moment, whether filled with joy or suffering, is to be ultimately understood with God as its ruler and its guide.
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written by MJ Anderson, July 23, 2014
Fr. Schàll, as usual, clarifies even simple assumptions for us--even luck is subject to order, ultimate order.

@Stanley Anderson, far from running FROM your comment, I am running TO explanations of wave function and collapsed states. I appreciate your use of Milne and Pooh as a fitting addition to Fr. Schall's frequent reference ( in his many writings) to Charlie Brown for moments of profound insight.

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