Adrian's Writing Blog

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New Philosopher Magazine short-listed article

Just a quick note to say that an article of mine on the subject of Luck was shortlisted in the latest New Philosopher magazine writing competition. I entered the competition because I enjoyed the recent issue of New Philosopher on the subject of Nature. Not surprisingly, the issue was dominated by climate change but it was very refreshing for the contributors to speak candidly about the subject. Unlike many popular magazines and newspapers, the articles in New Philosopher were direct, thoughtful, imaginative and knowledgeable.

Anyone who has read my recent non-fiction, popular science book How Science Shows (that almost everything we've been told is wrong) will find a lot of the article's content familiar but it does have a unique twist, and it's shorter. Here's the article:

‘Luck’ by Adrian Ellis

Most people would like to be lucky; they’d wish that random events such as a lottery draw would swing their way and give them a windfall. They’d love to know that when they’d meet their future soulmate, they’d not - in the inimitable words of Alanis Morissette - then ‘meet his beautiful wife’. But everyone knows, at the end of the day, that the world is ruled by random chance. What happens is entirely beyond a person’s control and is simply pure chance.

Oddly enough, science can show us that the very opposite may be true. To explain this, we’ll need the help of a warmongering ex-Hungarian with a penchant for memorising telephone directories, a deeply uncertain cat and a man with a very large moustache.

The ex-Hungarian was John Von Neumann; a brilliant mathematician and theorist. He was said to have remembered, by heart, every book he had ever read. As a child in Budapest, his party trick was to recite any entry in the local phone directory on request. After he left Hungary and emigrated to the United States in the 1930‘s, he joined the U.S. military science corps and worked on the computations required for the atomic bomb. Afterwards, he continued his mathematical studies, along with his many other areas of expertise, including the development of the computer as a computational machine. Hans Bethe, who later won a Nobel Prize for physics, commented; "I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man".

Unfortunately, Von Neumann’s analytic brilliance wasn’t matched by his compassion. As far as he was concerned, Soviet Russia should be bombed with nuclear weapons at the first possible opportunity. This rabid desire for communist annihilation continued throughout his life, even when he became ill and wheelchair-bound. It was in this state that he allegedly became the inspiration for Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s cold-war, cinematic masterpiece. Nevertheless, although Von Neumann was a manic warmonger, he made many brilliant theoretical insights and one of these has to do with a deeply uncertain cat.

Schrödinger’s Cat is possibly the classic physics thought experiment; it was created by Erwin Schrödinger because he was very annoyed with a fundamental aspect of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. According the the Copenhagen Interpretation, until a subatomic system was measured, its state remained fundamentally uncertain; it was neither one thing nor another but instead, a superposition of all possible states.

Schrödinger thought this aspect of the Copenhagen Interpretation was nuts. To show how nutty he thought it was, he devised a very clever thought experiment. In the experiment, a radioactive source, a detector, a hammer, a flask of poison and a cat are placed in a box, insulated from all outside influence. In the box, the detector is set so that when it detects an emission from the radioactive source, it triggers the hammer to break the poison flask, which will kill the cat. The box is sealed up and after a period of time - when there’s a 50% chance that a particle will have been emitted by the radioactive source - the box is opened. Accordingly, there’s a 50% chance the cat will be dead.

Thus far, the experiment is quite straightforward. But things get weird when we remind ourselves that the radioactive source emits a particle according to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. In other words, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, until the box is opened and someone observes or measures the outcome of the experiment, a ghostly combination of the radioactive material emitting a particle and the radioactive material not emitting a particle exist at the same time. Until someone observes the result, everything in that box is undecided, including whether the car had been poisoned or not. Until one opens the box and observes what has happened, the cat is both alive and dead.

Schrödinger’s Cat is an elegant and memorable thought experiment but in fact, it isn’t complete. It has a crucial missing element. In the early 1930’s during his work on quantum theory, Von Neumann spotted that missing part. He realised that ‘opening the box and observing the outcome’ made no sense. From a physical perspective, all of us are just a collection of particles. If that is the case, then how can a collection of inanimate particles somehow ‘observe’ another set of quantum particles? How can a dumb pile of chemicals cause the uncertain state of a system to become one real thing or another?

Von Neumann realised that the only way to solve this crucial problem in the Schrödinger’s Cat problem was by accepting that something entirely outside of the physical world must cause the cat to be alive or dead. Something non-physical and outside of physical reality must be the active agent in changing the quantum uncertainty into something real. If one simply assumes another physical thing, like a scientist, does the job, one is only extending the system; the problem never goes away.

Decades later, in the 1960‘s, another Hungarian emigre, Eugene Wigner, who became a Nobel Prize winning physicist, popularised Von Neumann’s clever point in his long article ‘Remarks on the Mind Body Question’. His explanation became known as ‘Wigner’s Friend’.

Since that time, this idea that minds cause the quantum uncertainty to become real things has become known as the Neumann-Wigner hypothesis. No one has yet refuted it; it is simply regarded by the scientific establishment as ‘unpopular’, to quote an article in the New Scientist magazine.

But what has all this to do with luck? Strangely enough, it has everything to do with luck, for luck is simply the idea that events turn out in your favour improbably often. Science tells us that luck is impossible, as events are ultimately random; if you bet on black on a roulette wheel often enough, you will get a 50% success rate. But if our minds decide the outcome of subatomic events, according to the brilliant Von Neumann, and subatomic events underpin all of physical reality, then physical events are not ultimately random. Instead, they are all products of mental influence.

Many people would find such an idea very hard to believe. They might like the Buddhist idea ‘with our thoughts we make the world’, but they probably wouldn’t think it was actually true. But this may be the same kind of blinkered thinking that concludes that trees get their material from the ground, or that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly become President, for there is solid scientific evidence that mental intent does in fact alter the probability of outcomes.

Daryl Bem at Cornell University, Michael Franklin at UCSB and other experienced, qualified research psychologists have found, using thorough scientific trials, that ordinary people can alter the probability of supposedly random events. For example, in Michael Franklin’s paper ‘Using Retrocausal Practice Effects to Predict On-Line Roulette Spins’, he found that the subjects could predict (or possibly cause) a 57% success rate on a 50/50 chance event through mental influence.

But if all the above is correct, then it would mean that all of us have the ability to influence events; we can shape reality to our own ends. We would therefore have the potential to be as lucky as we like. Why don’t we make use of this? Why aren’t we existing in a reality where we all live wondrous, idyllic lives where we always win at roulette, at the lottery and we all meet our soulmates who turn out to be single? On this matter, the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made a very perceptive point:

“Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.”

In other words, Nietzsche made it clear that the only meaningful life is a difficult one, because that is the only way we can really become quality people. We must have a hard time and face hardship, unfair outcomes, bad luck, tragedy and other obstacles so that we can overcome them and thereby prove to ourselves that we are admirable people. We may not like it at the time but that’s the life we truly want because that’s the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re the sort of person we’d be proud to be.

If that’s true, then luck isn’t random; it’s worse than that. Instead of having no influence, deep down, at a level beyond physical reality, we’re actually rigging the wheel against ourselves. It’s something to keep in mind when you next take out your money to buy a lottery card, or head off to a singles-dating event. Before you go, heed this warning; the odds are in your favour.