SHARE
Assistant Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Ian Church co-edited “The Rout­ledge Handbook of the Phi­losophy and Psy­chology of Luck.” | Col­legian Archives

Luck is one of the words that people use without thinking. Whether in regard to grades, gam­bling, or even driving, many people ascribe the results to luck. But luck as a concept is dif­ficult to define, despite its impor­tance to our under­standing knowledge and morality.

Ian Church, assistant pro­fessor of phi­losophy at Hillsdale College, and Robert J. Hartman, post­doc­toral research fellow at Stockholm Uni­versity recently edited “The Rout­ledge Handbook of the Phi­losophy and Psy­chology of Luck.” The book con­tains a col­lection of essays from various philoso­phers, psy­chol­o­gists, and the­olo­gians and serves as a guide to those who wish to know the various ways luck has been under­stood and its con­nection to the human expe­rience.

“Ian and I edited the book because we noticed a growing interest in luck,” Hartman said in an email. “There are bodies of lit­er­ature in phi­losophy — epis­te­mology, ethics, political phi­losophy — and psy­chology that do not often interact. Our handbook will be a great aid for inter­action in these fields.”

Church uses various examples to why our concept of luck matters.

“Imagine two drunk drivers. One gets in a car and drives it home,” Church said. “The other, in a per­fectly iden­tical sit­u­ation, gets in a car and drives home, but they crash on the way and kill someone.”

Church says the sit­u­a­tions are iden­tical except the first driver was lucky and the second was not. Philoso­phers dis­agree on whether the drivers bear equal moral respon­si­bility or to what extent, and why, the driver who killed someone bears more blame.

In the intro­duction to the book, Hartman writes, “The killer driver deserves more blame than the merely reckless driver.”

As Carolyn McLeod and Jody Tom­chishen argue in a chapter of the book, luck shapes how we ascribe blame in society. But it also shapes our under­standing of knowledge.

Senior and phi­losophy major Kyle Huitt said the clas­sical def­i­n­ition of knowledge is jus­tified true belief. Church raised the role luck plays in the concept of knowledge by raising the Gettier Problem, named after 20th century philosopher Edmund Gettier.

“Say I’m staying at a bed-and-breakfast in Scotland, and I look out my window and I think, ‘Oh, look, there’s a sheep in that field.’ But what I was seeing was a sheep-shaped rock,” Church said. “But it just so happens that there is a sheep some­where else in that field. My belief that there is a sheep in that field turns out to be true, and seems like I’ve got some jus­ti­fi­cation for it. But nev­er­theless, I don’t know it. Despite my jus­ti­fi­cation, it is a matter of luck that my belief turns out to be true.”

Church said philoso­phers would not con­sider the afore­men­tioned belief to be knowledge that “there is a sheep in that field,” because the jus­ti­fi­cation for the belief is dis­con­nected from what makes it true.

In their intro­duction, Hartman and Church reit­erate the common claim that knowledge is incom­patible with luck. With luck, people are left with lucky guesses, not jus­tified true beliefs.

Some philoso­phers, like Wayne Riggs, tie the concept of luck to control. If an event occurs outside of an individual’s control, then the event is lucky. He also addresses coun­ter­points like the rising of the sun not being con­sidered a lucky occur­rence.

“Whether the sun rose this morning wasn’t in our control,” Church said. “But that doesn’t seem ter­ribly lucky.”

Some essays in the book, like Duncan Pritchard’s, turn to a modal con­ception of luck: how likely the event would have been to occur in similar worlds.

“Suppose I was walking through the forest and I bent down to tie my shoe laces and a branch swoops right over my head such that if I were standing, I would have been blinded,” Church said. “And then I come through a clearing, and I see a turtle. There’s an element of luck that I can see the turtle and form beliefs based on that per­ception.”

Church said that the world wouldn’t have to be very dif­ferent for the person to be blinded by the branch. Perhaps they bend down a second later, and because they nar­rowly avoided the neg­ative outcome, they were lucky.

Hartman and Church’s book aims to help a person under­stand the concept of luck in a broad variety of cir­cum­stances.

“The average person desires to under­stand the con­cepts that they use,” Hartman said. “Although reading our handbook won’t help them put dinner on the table, it will help them to under­stand their relation to the world anew and in a deeper way.”

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    Inter­esting subject, but I would think that some­thing like this should probably begin with a dis­cussion of prob­a­bil­ities. This is pri­marily a subject for sta­tistics.… then you can layer how we feel about it and what we should do on top of that.