Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dumb luck (pt. 1)

There are two main competing views on luck. The Lack of Control account and the Modal account. As this paper by Jennifer Lackey shows, they are both inadequate; neither are necessary nor sufficient for an analysis of our concept of luck. The concept of luck has recently been held to high import for discussions in epistemology and ethics. Thus a coherent and well-fitting definition is highly desirable.

The Lack of Control Account of Luck (henceforth LCAL) is defined as:

LCAL: An event is lucky for a given agent, S, if and only [if] the occurrence of such an event is beyond—or at least significantly beyond—S’s control.

However, it is susceptible to these kinds of counterexamples showing first that the sufficiency criteria is not met:

[s]uppose that I walk into my kitchen, toast a bagel, and eat it with cream cheese. When my husband comes home ten minutes later, my eating a toasted bagel with cream cheese ten minutes earlier is an event that he neither had control over (he wasn’t home) nor was sufficiently responsible for (he had nothing to do with my eating the bagel in question). But is it lucky for him that I ate a toasted bagel with cream cheese? If so, it is clearly not in any interesting sense of luck. Countless cases of this sort abound: my neighbor’s playing a computer game right now, my cat’s sleeping this afternoon, a chef’s making eggplant parmesan in Florence today, and numerous other ordinary or mundane events are out of my control at this moment. Yet to regard all of these events as lucky, as proponents of the LCAL must do, is surely to miss something important to the concept of luck.

As Lackey shows, by adding a 'significance' criteria stipulating that the events be not only out of one's control but somehow beneficial or significant will not rescue such a definition. Additionally, such scenarios as described above are general. They are not odd or "iffy" non decisive examples. They show quite clearly the deficiency of such a definition.

To show that LCAL is not necessary, consider:

DEMOLITION WORKER: Ramona is a demolition worker, about to press a button that will blow up an old abandoned warehouse, thereby completing a project that she and her coworkers have been working on for several weeks. Unbeknownst to her, however, a mouse had chewed through the relevant wires in the construction office an hour earlier, severing the connection between the button and the explosives. But as Ramona is about to press the button, her co-worker hangs his jacket on a nail in the precise location of the severed wires, which radically deviates from his usual routine of hanging his clothes in the office closet. As it happens, the hanger on which the jacket is hanging is made of metal, and it enables the electrical current to pass through the damaged wires just as Ramona presses the button and demolishes the warehouse.

The demolition worker had control in setting off the explosion and yet was very lucky that all the conditions resulting in the explosion were just right to produce the condition giving her the means to set off the explosion. Again, as Lackey points out, scenarios such as this can be generalized and seem quite decisive in refuting the necessity condition.

The other view of luck is the Modal Account of Luck (henceforth, MAL). Lackey uses Duncan Pritchard's version of the MAL:

(L1) If an event is lucky, then it is an event that occurs in the actual world but which
does not occur in a wide class of the nearest possible worlds where the relevant
initial conditions for that event are the same as in the actual world [Pritchard 2005:

(L2) If an event is lucky, then it is an event that is significant to the agent concerned
(or would be significant, were the agent to be availed of the relevant facts) [Pritchard
2005: 132].

But Lackey gives decisive counter examples to this view as well showing that it is both insufficient and unnecessary for luck. She argues convincingly that no such version of MAL can be sufficient and necessary for an analysis of luck. This example shows that it is not necessary for luck.

BURIED TREASURE: Sophie, knowing that she had very little time left to live, wanted to bury a chest filled with all of her earthly treasures on the island she inhabited. As she walked around trying to determine the best site for proper burial, her central criteria were, first, that a suitable location must be on the northwest corner of the island—where she had spent many of her fondest moments in life—and, second, that it had to be a spot where rose bushes could flourish—since these were her favorite flowers. As it happens, there was only one particular patch of land on the northwest corner of the island where the soil was rich enough for roses to thrive. Sophie, being excellent at detecting such soil, immediately located this patch of land and buried her treasure, along with seeds for future roses to bloom, in the one and only spot that fulfilled her two criteria.

One month later, Vincent, a distant neighbor of Sophie’s, was driving in the
northwest corner of the island—which was also his most beloved place to visit—and was looking for a place to plant a rose bush in memory of his mother who had died ten years earlier—since these were her favorite flowers. Being excellent at detecting the proper soil for rose bushes to thrive, he immediately located the same patch of land that Sophie had found one month earlier. As he began digging a hole for the bush, he was astonished to discover a buried treasure in the ground.

Certainly, Vincent was lucky and yet it is an instance of counter factually robust instance of luck for Vincent would have searched the same spot in a "wide class of the nearest possible worlds where the relevant initial conditions for such an event are the same as in the actual world." In fact, we can make the class of the counterfactual possible worlds as arbitrarily robust as we like by making it ever so delicate and complex the initial conditions are for both Vincent and Sophie to insure that they will choose the same spot.

Lackey also shows that MAL is not sufficient for luck by giving "whimsical" scenarios showing that spontaneous or whimsical actions which are significant for agents thus satisfying MAL yet are not instances of luck.

In my next blog, I hope to give a definition of luck not susceptible to any of the counter examples offered using developments from an account of contrastive causation.