Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is It All Luck?

Tibor R. Machan

Woody Allen has been peddling the idea that it's all a matter of luck (v. no luck). Several of his movies promote this idea--Match Point and Whatever Works are just two recent ones. Crimes and Misdeameanors is an early one.

Well, much may be luck or its absence but much also isn't. This is a case of what I called in one of my early books, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (1973), the blow up fallacy. It involves taking a picture--i. e., considering--some small portion of the world or life and seeing it quite clearly but then making the leap of applying it to everything.

The blow up fallacy, also known by other names (hasty generalization, for example), is very tempting and widely committed, especially by erudite people--a good many economists, sociologists, biologists, and others like them. These folks know a thing or two about some part of the world--their own discipline, usually--and then claim that what they know about it is actually something they know of the entire world.

In this instance of its application, one may find that quite a few things are a matter of luck. Indeed, most of us have lucked out big time in some cases, as when while we turned around and talked to someone in the back seat of the car, no one crossed the street and so we didn't smash into anyone. Or, as in my own case, when a huge brush fire engulfs one's neighborhood, one's house is "spared." And so on and so forth, luck, just as its absence, plays a part in one's life, no doubt about it.

But that surely isn't the whole story. Consider Mr. Allen himself. Although even in the few published and broadcast interviews he has given he insists that it's all luck, the fact that he gets it together quite competently, even at times superbly, whenever he sets out to make his movies belies the point of view he is peddling. And as the British psychologist Bannister remarked about those in his own field, “... [one] cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” Woody just cannot claim that it is all a matter of luck when, in point of fact, hardly anything about his own work fits the bill.

Why then make this assertion? I do not know Mr. Allen and haven't some way to accessing the content of his mind, let alone his motivations, yet I venture to guess the reason may well be that he finds it awkward to take credit, just as all those academy award recipients do who wave off the compliment implied by the award they received show--or feign--humility. "No, it is not me, it's my mother, brother, second grade teacher and, of course, all the others associated with the movie!" Or something to this effect.

This calls to mind what W. H. Auden said in another context, namely, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." This can be paraphrased, "We are here never to accept compliments, only others may, but then why may they but not us?"

It is, I venture to suggest, mainly a matter of being badly taught about how things get accomplished in this world. The eggheads tend to tell us that we individual persons are nothing to brag about, that it is dangerous pride to take credit, that humility is the name of the game. Never mind that they, the eggheads, tend to have great pride in producing insights like this, or at least they are superbly confident that they get it right! But then they themselves must be taking credit for how well they have figured things out. And if they can take credit for that, why not others for different achievements, great or small?

No, it is only partly luck. And even the part of it that is luck needs to be made good use of before it can be of benefit.

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