Luck and the Meaning of Life

“People with a lot of talent and an inclination to work hard are extremely fortunate.” — Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

The Myth of Cosmic Justice

Life is challenging. Without exception, it involves hard work, difficult choices, and painful losses, spread against a backdrop of insecurity and uncertainty. We deal with life’s challenges as best we can, establishing islands of certainty and security to hold its turbulence at bay. Through work, friends, and family, we insure our basic material and social needs. Through art, entertainment, and personal pursuits, we search for spiritual satisfaction. But no matter how carefully we structure our lives, we live under the light of an unsettling fact, which is that life is fundamentally unfair.

We can see this unfairness whenever we choose to look: accidents and disease constantly claim young lives, war and poverty immiserate hundreds of millions worldwide, and billions of animals in modern agribusiness lead lives not worth living. Even when life goes well, it’s rife with unfairness. The course of any life involves the loss of friends, family, and personal health, often in unexpected and jarring ways. As we leave the safety of childhood, we must learn how to cope with a cosmos that cares little for equality or justice, and which consistently subjects its inhabitants to unmerited misery.

Coming to terms with the injustice of the world is difficult. As social primates, we’re hardwired to find unfairness upsetting. We evolved in contexts in which unfair social exchanges carried dire consequences, so our ancestors had to abhor inequity lest they perish.[1] We now carry an instinctive disdain for injustice of all stripes. When unjust circumstances arise, whether caused by humans or otherwise, we cannot help but feel uneasy, if not outright angry. And although we in the modern age continually curate affairs to make the world fairer, we can only do so much. However equitable our courts of law, comprehensive our knowledge, or constructive our social norms, injustices will still crop up. Some people will always be oppressed, some will always die too young, and some will always be more beautiful, happy, or talented than others. Because we cannot engineer a perfectly just world, we satisfy our desire for fairness in other ways.

We invent mythologies and ideologies that provide our world with a sense of cosmic justice. By believing in these myths and ideas, the world seems fairer than it really is. These myths take many forms: we believe in afterlives, in which an omnipotent judge assigns reward or punishment proportional to our lived deeds and misdeeds; we believe in original sin, which provides an explanation for so much human suffering; we believe in karma, through which altruism and malice are perfectly accounted for and later repaid in kind.

Even in secular circles, we hold beliefs that shelter us from the unfairness of the world. We believe that good, smart, hardworking people generally get the success they deserve, while bad people generally get whatever punishment or deprivations they deserve. However, even if all good people were rewarded and all bad people punished, our idea of deservedness ignores the fact that good and bad character are caused by factors outside of any individual’s control. That is to say, we cannot explain why someone deserves to be a good or bad person in the first place. For this reason, our notion of intrinsic deservedness is just another myth that allows us to sidestep the uncomfortable lack of fairness in our world.

As mentioned, we struggle to admit of widespread unfairness because of our inherited psychologies. The minds given to us by evolution do many things well but have many weak spots. One such weak spot, which hinders our ability to acknowledge unfairness, is our failure to intuitively grasp how chance events affect worldly affairs. We constantly weave stories about why things are the way they are, finding reasons and justifications to explain events. However, the presence of chance phenomena impairs our efforts to construct coherent, satisfying narratives. For instance, when a stray germ cell morphs into a deadly tumour, when a frontal lobe disorder hinders self-control and causes crippling addiction, or when a child is born into poverty under an oppressive regime, we can explain events by appealing to any number of causes, but in the end, people who suffer in such ways are simply the sad recipients of bad luck.

Although most of us reluctantly concede that luck — both good and bad — plays some role in our lives, we rarely appreciate its full import. But when we draw back and assess the full picture, we’re confronted with the fact that no event can be divorced from luck. At base, luck lords over all that we do. Everything that exists, everything that we care about, every iota of pain and pleasure, all are inseparable from luck.

Most people reject this luck-based interpretation of events because it seems so at odds with how we live our lives, apparently stripping us of control and suggesting that nothing matters. But, as I will argue, an understanding of the sweeping scope of luck is nothing to fear. Our habits, customs, and institutions hold value — and can still function — in a world understood to be ruled by luck. And life maintains meaning, because meaning has never been predicated on the absence of luck.

If anything, we benefit by better understanding luck’s starring role in life. An appreciation of the role of chance increases our gratitude when we’re successful, lessens the self-critical blow that comes with failure, makes us more compassionate for the less fortunate, and instils a curiosity to understand the world without recourse to simplistic explanations. Therefore, instead of ignoring the wide reach of luck, we should incorporate it into our worldviews.

Luck All the Way Down

Although we tend to ignore the ubiquity of luck, with a slight shift in perspective we can appreciate how it saturates everything.[2] To get a handle on this way of thinking, let’s consider the evolutionary forces — which influence our every action — that brought us into existence. As we’ll see, these cannot be untangled from blind chance.

The process of evolution by natural selection essentially involves two stages. In the first, the genetic codes of organisms undergo random mutations which give rise to biological features. At this stage, the role of chance is obvious: whether caused by cosmic ray bombardment, simple errors in DNA transcription, or otherwise, no overarching design brings about these mutations. They are simply the products of dumb luck. However, at the second stage of evolution the role of luck becomes less obvious, but no less important.

Here, biological features produced by chance mutations are non-randomly selected based on whether they enable survival and reproduction. Simply put, if a novel feature allows an organism to make more babies, that feature — and the mutation that caused it — will spread. Because the value of a feature depends on the surrounding environment, we say that biological features are non-randomly selected. And because this selection is non-random, luck appears to play no part. But by broadening our lens, we can see that luck actually encompasses the whole frame.

While certain contexts do indeed non-randomly select for certain biological features, if we ask why such contexts exist to start with, we once again run into blind chance. After all, environmental contexts are produced by vast numbers of purposeless factors, including tectonic shifts, weather patterns, nutrient availability, and, of course, chance mutations amongst the resident organisms. In short, environmental contexts are themselves produced by luck! Therefore, the selection pressures exerted within such contexts, and the biological features that happen to be selected, are also the products of luck. In this way, luck beats at the heart of life.

By applying the above perspective to the universe at large, we find that luck rears its head no matter where we turn. From the mindless clumping of interstellar gas into stars, to the random accretion and destruction of planetary bodies around our early Sun, up through the formation of every species on Earth, to each chance encounter between two future lovers, and onwards through the successful union of every sperm and egg, there’s no escaping luck. It casts its light on all that happens.

Human Minds

Many people accept that purely natural phenomena are deeply informed by luck, but assert that when it comes to human beings, luck holds less sway. They claim that our ability to plan and carry out purposeful action allows us to skirt luck’s grasp. But this way of thinking is mistaken, for two related reasons.

First, this assertion ignores the fact that human minds (and associated behaviour) exist as they do because of chance events stretching back to the beginning of time. As explained above, biology evolved as it did because of chance, and minds are based in biology. Therefore, our minds too are the products of chance occurrences. And although we are indeed capable of planning out goal-oriented action, unless we enlist luck we cannot explain why our goals exist as they do.

Human goals are the products of human desires, but nobody gets to choose their desires. Rather, our desires are foisted upon us by human nature, and human nature exists as it does because of happenstance occurrences in the deep past. We are attracted to beauty, intrigued by enigmas, fond of friends, and fearful of death not because of any conscious goal-oriented planning, but simply because that’s the way our corner of the universe fell into place.

The second reason that human minds are based in luck has to do with context. Most of the time, we ignore the extent to which context informs human behaviour. By overlooking the influence of our environment, we generally see no issue ascribing responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions to our conscious selves. That is to say, we feel that the proverbial “I” is the source of all that we do. But this misses the fact that human behaviour is inseparable from the environment. Whatever we happen to think, feel, or desire depends on our context. And when we ignore context, we all too easily forget that we did not pick our country of birth, family, brain structure, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, political order, economic structure, job opportunities, ad infinitum. All of these factors — which, taken together, determine the course of our lives — were given to us by the disinterested hand of fate.

We usually see life as composed of two distinct parts. On the one hand, there is what we consciously do, while on the other, there is what happens to us. However, as the philosopher Alan Watts was fond of saying, a more accurate way of thinking about life is to see it all as a happening. Under this view, everything happens to us, because everything — including our thoughts, emotions, and actions — was set in motion by processes extending beyond the confines of our conscious minds.

This way of thinking makes sense when we truly pay attention to experience: by noticing the formation of thoughts, emotions, and impulses, we can see that they simply appear within consciousness, without first needing to be brought about by consciousness. Just as hunger happens to us, so do anger, love, moments of insight, and grammatically correct sentences. By viewing the human world as just another happening in the grand scheme of the cosmos, we can appreciate how the luck that suffuses the natural world also suffuses our lives.

Fearful of Luck

Most people find this way of thinking deeply unsettling, if not outright dangerous. If everything is, at base, caused by luck, how can we justify our notions of credit, blame, and responsibility, which prop up any functioning society? Can we still take pleasure in our lives, knowing that our successes are ultimately due to luck? And if luck determines our fate, why strive to prosper when no amount of striving can break the bonds of chance?

As I hope to make clear, luck nullifies nothing worth caring about nor any norms worth promoting. Human beings have always hoped to be more than mere happenstance, and whenever we’ve learned that we’re not the main event in the universe, we’ve drawn erroneous conclusions. In times past, we worried that a Godless, soulless view of human affairs would rip society apart. In modern times, we hold similar fears about the prevalence of luck and the non-existence of free will. But such worries are misinformed. As we now know, societies can prosper in the absence of religion. Likewise, a widespread acceptance of the role of chance need not threaten anything worth caring about.

Everything worth cherishing retains its value regardless of whether the universe is founded on luck or not. This is because the only good reason for valuing some things and devaluing others is how they affect experience (of humans or otherwise). The only thing that has ever mattered is the quality of sentient experience; absent experience, good and bad hold no meaning. The fact that chance runs to the core of our being does not imply that we should give up our quest for good experience — why would it? So long as experience can be better or worse, we have ample justification for behaving in some ways while avoiding others.

Our standard practices of assigning credit, blame, and responsibility can and should be maintained in a world run by luck, because they encourage beneficial behaviour, discourage harmful acts, and allow us to maintain social, romantic, and professional relationships. In other words, credit, blame, and responsibility all contribute to the flourishing of our species, so are well worth perpetuating.

People may worry that if an appreciation of luck becomes widespread, these practices will lose their power to influence behaviour. After all, if we’re not self-created, why care what others think? But credit, blame, and responsibility are so deeply rooted in human nature that no simple logical realization can displace them. Just as an appreciation of human beauty can withstand the recognition that our faces reflect the symmetry of our ugly fish ancestors, so too can human social emotions withstand any number of logical realizations. The depths of human nature cannot be altered simply through thought (and if you doubt this, I invite you to cheat on your partner without feeling guilt, voice a stupid opinion without getting embarrassed, or receive praise without feeling good about it — indeed, social emotions are tenacious).

Unfair Responsibility

But, you might argue, forget about such practical concerns — it’s not fair to hold people responsible if they aren’t the ultimate authors behind their actions! If everything is subject to luck, isn’t it unjust to lock up even the guiltiest of criminals? And unfortunately, in a sense, you’re right. It is unfair to punish people for their wrongdoings, because in a world run on chance, they don’t get much of a say. But sometimes, punish them we must.

As explained above, the world is unfair, but as mature adults we must deal with it as best we can. And while it may be unfair to lock a criminal in prison, it would be even more unfair to subject the general public to the dangers of a world in which pathological criminals were neither locked away, nor deterred by threats of punishment. Sadly, until we come up with better alternatives, unfair punishment will remain necessary.

We generally pretend that bad people deserve punishment, which insulates us from the uncomfortable fact of its base unfairness. But instead of hiding from this fact, we should acknowledge it, so as temper the righteous glee we tend to feel when others get their just deserts. Punishing people (even bad people) should not make us feel righteous — it should make us feel sad, impelling us to seek solutions to human problems that avoid the recourse of punishment.

In a world run on luck, holding others responsible may sometimes be unfair, but it still makes logical sense to do so. Even though behaviour is the result of immense numbers of chance occurrences, our minds remain the closest causes. We may not be the ultimate causes of our actions, but we are the proximate causes, and holding people to account often influences us for the better. If someone misbehaves, we could tweak their work schedule, exercise routine, medication or diet, or we could simply hold them responsible so that next time, they’ll think twice before behaving badly.

No Reason to Slack

Many people worry that luck diminishes the importance of human virtues, such as a strong work ethic. If a person’s success is founded on luck, they figure, then an ability to work hard must count for less. But this way of thinking completely misses the mark. Luck and hard work are not opposing, cancelling forces — rather, they’re wholly complementary. The ability to work hard is a valuable trait, and some people are just lucky to have it.

A strong work ethic is the most reliable way to find happiness, but hard work is, well, hard. We’re programmed to conserve energy and seek out quick sources of pleasure, which made sense in ancestral environments where food, friends, and mates could be hard to come by. But in modern life, sources of pleasure are everywhere. As such, many people now waste their lives flitting through petty pleasures, whether on television, fast food, or by staring at naked apes online. To delve into deeper sources of satisfaction, we must commit the unnatural act of foregoing immediate pleasure for future reward. In other words, to find genuine wellbeing, we must be able to work hard.

But why is it that some people can work hard while others can’t? We’re generally taught that hardworking people are simply more virtuous, but this doesn’t cut it, because it ignores the issue of why they’re more virtuous to begin with. The real answer, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that people who can work hard are simply lucky (assuming, of course, that their ability to work hard doesn’t turn them into miserable workaholics). Human dispositions depend on a near-infinite number of factors, and if somebody has achieved success and happiness through hard work, while another is miserable and can barely leave the couch, then, ultimately, one person is lucky while the other is not.

People might worry that if work ethics are doled out by chance, they somehow lose value. But such a worry is a nonstarter, because the value of hard work has nothing to do with luck. Rather, hard work is valuable because of its tendency to promote better experience. The fact that luck lords over all we do should not deter us from working hard, because without a work ethic, our chances of finding genuine success and happiness approach zero.

So What?

As I hope is now clear, chance’s formative influence does not degrade the good in life. We can still give people credit for their success, providing social validation while encouraging further success. We can still blame people for their blunders, discouraging such mistakes in the future. We can still work hard, knowing that it provides the most reliable route to happiness. And we can still enjoy good experience, even though such experience is ultimately the outcome of luck.

So, where does this leave us? If our conventional social institutions and personal relationships can still function, then what’s the difference between a world of luck and the more familiar world in which we are all self-created and possess free will? Before closing, I’ll briefly outline the ways in which an appreciation of the universality of luck can inform life for the better.

The Gifts of Luck

If we embrace the knowledge that there’s no escaping luck, our thinking changes in a few ways. By keeping in mind that success and luck are inseparable, we blunt the tendency of success to breed pride-filled egos. People who understand that life’s triumphs depend on factors beyond their control are less prone to vanity — and more to gratitude — when successful. This attitude makes future success more likely (by highlighting the many causes behind achievements), while encouraging successful people to pay it forward. Just imagine if the world’s millionaires and billionaires adopted such an outlook; we’d have far fewer rich people resist taxation on the grounds that their success was entirely self-made.[3]

Understanding luck also helps us deal with failure. When we don’t succeed, we often take it personally. But by broadening our perspectives to account for chance, we can soften the blow of defeat. When, with hindsight, we reflect on our failures, we often beat ourselves up by thinking that we should have done better. And while self-criticism can be useful, it all too often turns to self-flagellation. By reminding ourselves of the fact that an incredible number of things must go right for success to emerge, we can rest a little easier when it doesn’t.

Lastly, when we comprehend that luck is the basic reason behind human flourishing and suffering, we liberate ourselves from the cruel conviction that some people simply deserve to suffer. Existentially speaking, nobody — no matter how evil — deserves to suffer. Because virtues and vices are ultimately assigned by chance, it makes no sense to say that wicked people are undeserving of happiness (because ultimately, their wickedness is not their fault). Of course, life isn’t perfect, and even though suffering is never deserved, we must sometimes use it to direct human behaviour for the better. But by reflecting on luck, we can breed compassion for even the worst among us, thus keeping our primal urge for vengeance in check.

Luck and Life’s Meaning

Chance events wreak havoc on our intuitions. We’re used to believing in stories — about Creation, history, and modern day affairs — in which luck plays no important part. The suggestion that life’s big questions cannot be answered without recourse to luck strikes most people as a kind of banal blasphemy. But despite our strong feelings, luck shows up wherever we look. If we ask why aspects of our universe exist as they do, we find, at bottom, the same answer: because of dumb luck. From success in the stock exchange, to the spread of Earth’s continents, to our very own personalities, luck permeates everything.

To many people, this fact seems dangerous, striking at the heart of what matters most. If our fates are determined by chance, they wonder, why not just give up and let luck handle the rest? But this is an odd fear, since human behaviour is rarely determined by beliefs about luck. We act as we do because human nature guides us towards sources of wellbeing, not because we think we’re exempt from the laws of chance. A fuller understanding of luck damages neither human nature nor reliable sources of happiness. Whether we believe that we’re ruled by God, chance, free will, or algorithms in a computer simulation, human action will always be driven by the possibility of better — and worse — experience.

The fact that luck governs our fate does not imply that our choices are unimportant, that hard work doesn’t matter, or that we should cease striving to maximize happiness. It simply means that these pursuits are possible because of luck. We would do well to remember this and, in the future, strive to make others as lucky as ourselves.[4]

[1]As a fun example of how deeply the primate hatred of unfairness runs, watch the viral video of a capuchin monkey outraged over “unfair pay”.

[2]If you believe in free will and haven’t read my latest essay on the non-existence of free will, I encourage you to do so before moving on. By allowing us to pretend that we are the ultimate causes behind our actions — and thus the ultimate loci of responsibility — belief in free will blinkers our ability to appreciate luck’s role in life.

[3]For a book-length treatment of this topic, see Robert H. Frank’s Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

[4]If you made it to the end of this long essay, I’m assuming that you are lucky because: i. you can read; and ii. you have the time and patience to read 4000 words on a random blog. If you are not in fact lucky, I apologize for being presumptuous.