Everyday Life in a Philosophy Department?

Luck: The Brilliant Randomness Of Everyday Life by Nicholas Rescher

This book, by a former President of the American Philosophical Association, could be viewed as an unusually erudite blog or as an unusually reader-friendly monograph. Here I simply wanted to list all the examples he chose. I say "wanted to" because there turned out to be so many that I have used only the parts (Introduction; Chapters 1 and 3) that seemed closest to the "everyday life" theme. Aside from this (and some "details" specified below) I have recorded all of his examples, as quotes (italitics) or paraphrases. I have placed the examples into 4 categories; the categorization and ordering is mine, not the author's. Aside from the first category, the author presents them as hypothetical examples, although of course one could find real-world instances of most of them.

Finally, recall the book title is Luck, not Chance.

Specific historical events

Iconic headlines

Notes for a historical novel?

Conventional examples of luck

Details of example listing

1. Most of his examples are very non-specific, in the style
the passengers of a plane that crashes, or a ship that founders in a storm;
I have included those, but not the extremely vague ones such as
if a chance development averted an apocalyptic epidemic -- or a nuclear war -- ....
where the "chance event" isn't even implicit. Also omitted is one clearly artificial sequence designed to demonstrate a point.

2. Several examples are repeated with minor variants, and I did not show such repeats.

3. He distinguishes between lucky and fortunate, so I have not included examples he categorizes as the latter.


The book's subtitle says .... in Everyday Life and it's clear that in the chapters cited the author does perceive he's talking about contemporary everyday life (some other chapters are more explicitly historical or more analytical). Recall also that I've have given all his examples from those chapters, not a (perhaps biased) selection.

In presenting this material in talks I cannot resist showing the "Notes for a historical novel?" list and making some comment like "well, everyday life in a Philosophy department sure seems more exciting than in a Statistics department"; and then showing extracts from searches for "chance of" in Bing or from References to chance in blogs which provide some insight into how people really do think about chance in everyday life. The contrast is striking; I am not talented enough to write a descriptive paragraph analyzing the difference, beyond commenting that real life is somehow "more textured" than the rather cartoonish fiction, and beyond recalling some Victorian schoolgirl doggerel:

Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid's darts do not feel.
How different from us
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.
(Anon, about 1884)

Now in one sense I am merely being humorous. You and I both know the author did not intend his examples to be literally "everyday life"; instead, he was interested in the abstract ideas surrounding luck and just made up illustrative hypothetical examples as he wrote. But in another sense I am perfectly serious. The author is adopting a style of intellectual enquiry where he starts with abstract ideas and then invents hypothetical examples to illustrate the ideas; whereas I am the kind of "naive empiricist" who believes one should start with real examples and then contemplate what abstract conceptual structure to build, based largely on the examples. This book provides a nice illustration of the dangers of this style. Here
(1) the choices reflect the author's personality: the overall patrician Eurocentric style, as well as the "historical novel" atmosphere;
(2) the choices show the author shares the ordinary person's fascination with unlikely dramatic events rather than with statistically likely instances of good or bad luck;
(3) when you make up a lot of stuff, you inevitably get some stuff wrong; for instance, one should not cut into a snake bite with a knife.