What is luck?

Derren Brown’s latest and final episode of his new TV show concerned luck. I thought it was a brilliant piece of television and illustrated, artistically, some truths about luck. There was also a nice message that a positive outlook in life greatly influences how we react and respond to events.

So what is luck? This is my opinion: luck is a valid concept, metaphorically. It is valid in that it expresses the notion that seemingly random events have worked in our favour or against us. It is a way of saying, for example “such-and-such an event could easily have gone either way, but by the narrowest margins it went for (or against) me.” It could be a way of saying “the probability of such-and-such an event was overwhelmingly unlikely, yet it happened anyway.” When the incredibly unlikely happens, we call it fortunate or unfortunate depending on the result.

But we need to briefly consider the nature of existence. Existence exists; it is what it is – and everything in existence behaves according to its nature. Clouds form as gas then fall as water, because that’s what clouds do. Planets orbit stars and birds fly, because that’s what they do. Ayn Rand called the non-human aspect of existence the metaphysically given. It simply is. It is deterministic in the sense that everything in existence is the way it is, and according to the law of identity it couldn’t be anything else, and therefore couldn’t behave any differently. Human behaviour is of another sort, a unique nature: our actions, unlike the metaphysically given, are volitional.

So, if an asteroid was flung towards earth by gravitational forces 1 billion years ago, and only today hits the planet and destroys your house, it was always going to. This isn’t fate or destiny, at least not in the true meaning of those words, although you could use them metaphorically in the weak sense. Consider: if you drop a ball from your hand it will fall to the ground. It can’t NOT fall to the ground, because on a planet with a positive gravity objects of positive mass will be drawn towards it. The law of identity demands it to happen. If it didn’t, the universe would be a very different universe. That is, a universe where the law of identity did not hold. That is, a universe where existence did not exist. In other words, no existence at all. But there is no alternative to existence itself. Asking for the asteroid not to hit your house is like asking the ball not to fall to the ground. The variables are incalculably greater with the asteroid scenario, but the principle is the same. Of course, the odds of an asteroid hitting your house are astronomical – and in this sense you’d be right (metaphorically) to call it unlucky, but given the events that preceded it, it was inevitable. If you knew 50 years in advance that the asteroid was coming, when it finally happened would you say “that was unlucky!”? Not likely. It wasn’t “unlucky” because you knew it was coming; there was no surprise, no shock, no sense of regret or wishing to turn back time.

This is where an appreciation of probability comes into the discussion. Given a large enough sample, extraordinary events won’t just happen, they are bound to happen. An oft-used example is when you think about someone, and then the phone rings and it’s them. Or having a dream about something, and the next day it comes true. Or being 14-million-to-1 to win the lottery, but you do. But of course, someone had to win the lottery, and whoever won it would think “I can’t believe it was me!” The same is true for victims of road-traffic or airplane incidents; the latter being statistically unlikely, but they do happen, and whomever experienced it says “I never thought it would be me.” Most people never do.

To continue with the airplane example: if the aircraft has a technical fault that is critical, to knowingly board the aircraft would be suicidal; foolish. You wouldn’t declare yourself unlucky when it crashed. So being ignorant of knowledge one couldn’t possibly have has nothing to do with fortune, fate, destiny, or anything superstitious. So you’d be unlucky, metaphorically, because the odds were against you – but only in a very weak sense. To illustrate this, consider a sealed box in which I tell you is either a black ball or a white ball. If you guess correctly you win a fortune, if you don’t then you won’t. Without foreknowledge, your odds of being right are 50%, but of course the actuality isn’t 50/50. Let’s say the ball is white. There is a 100% chance it is white. It won’t change colour depending on your guess. The ball is white and always will be. Without knowledge your best odds are half that. Are you unlucky if you guess wrong?

The asteroid was always going to hit your house. The plane was always going down. That lottery win was bound to happen. The ball was always white. Your lack of knowledge had no effect on the actuality, and omniscience is not a valid epistemological precondition for choice.

So if luck is an acceptable metaphor, let’s say colloquially at best – when is it not valid? The realm of human decisions. As we saw above, the metaphysically given is what it is. And as with the secret ball, our choices aren’t always correct – but human actions are not the same as the rest of the universe, because nothing of human causing had to be. The ball had to be white, but you didn’t have to choose white. Trees grow, conditions permitting. Planets spins on their axes. Masses will attract each other with a gravitational force. But a sky scraper didn’t have to exist. A building have to be built. A car didn’t have to be invented. You don’t have to fall in love. Human actions are chosen, not determined. (To deny this is to contradict yourself.)  They could have been something else, if we’d have wanted it that way. But since omniscience is impossible (and invalid), humans make choices based on the sum of their knowledge. That we don’t have every single possible fact (although surprisingly, most of the time in the right context, we know all the need to know), is irrelevant.

So what’s the point? That what happens outside our control is impervious to retrospection and analysis (morally here, in the field of decision making), and is in this sense irrelevant. That is, the fact that an asteroid destroyed your house is, as far as your decisions leading up to that point are concerned, irrelevant. The only thing that is now of concern, the only area within your field of control, the aspect of reality that didn’t have to be (like the asteroid) but what could be, is what you do from now on. If you stand there, the universe will go on; asteroids will fly through space, vegetation will overtake the rubble of your house, and you will pass. The universe makes no concessions to our whims, but it can be controlled by our actions. And it is this difference between mystical wishing and positive action that separates people into negative and positive types.

The point of Derren Brown’s show was that people who think they are lucky seem to be get more lucky than those who think they’re unlucky.  Of course, to events outside human control, like asteroids and gravity – your outlook really has no effect at all. A universe that responds to lucky charms, prayers, crossed-fingers and positive attitudes is the same as one where balls don’t drop to earth and 2+2 equals 5; in other words, a universe without identity, without existence. And it is this view of luck that is unhealthy and destructive: if you believe that actions outside your control or understanding shape your future, you will not act to effect change in your life. But your actions are the only thing that can effect change! “Luck” is fine as a concept expressing probabilistic ignorance, but not as a way of saying the universe or the Fates are against you.

What is true, though, is that a positive view of your life (even a mystical one) can have positive effects in the realm of actions within your control. It’s a cliché, but it’s true (for instance in sport), that you must believe first. If you think you’re going to miss this penalty, you probably will. If you think you’re a loser who can’t find love, you probably won’t. If you’re looking for things to go wrong, you’ll definitely notice them when they do and ignore the times things went for you. The latter is called confirmation bias. If you believe there is no invisible force holding you back or conspiring against you, you are more likely to take chances or sensible risks. Not every chance taken will succeed; not every risk pays off – but if you never taking any chance or risk you’re pretty much guaranteeing that nothing will pay off.

Of course, being naively optimistic is dangerous too. So what’s the balance? Simple: accept that the universe is what it is, but your actions need not be. The universe isn’t for or against us, but it won’t stand in our way. It doesn’t like or dislike you, but it’s not out to get you. The beauty of existence is that if you work with it, the results are quite incredible. As proof of this, look at any field of modern science. Long ago, some clever people realised that wishes were not horses. It’s a shame that in the 21st century this magical thinking is still around.

Ultimately, bad “luck” befalls us all. But this is just another way of saying that there are setbacks in life, minor and major. Since the past cannot be changed, and since being caught unawares by facts we couldn’t possibly have known is no cause for regret, the only challenge facing humans is: ‘what do we do about things now? What will I do with the time ahead?’ To return to the asteroid scenario one last time: one could move away and get a new home. One could end up living next door to the woman (or man) or one’s dreams. One might be “forced” into getting a new job and discover a fantastic new career. One might take the opportunity to have a fresh start in more ways than one. Who now thinks the asteroid event was lucky or unlucky? Isn’t life full of stories that started out with misfortunate only to be the best thing that could’ve happened? I know I can think of many examples personally. And of course, the universe doesn’t try for this, just as nobody thought a billion years ago: “if I send this asteroid to John Smith’s house, he might be forced to up and move and meet his true love and raise kids in this house instead of that.” John could have gotten depressed and drunk himself to death, but he didn’t. Something bad happened, and he acted positively. At the end of the day, what else should one possibly do? As I once said to a friend, a real hero isn’t a superman who is impervious to damage or despair. A real hero is a person who acts positively every day to pursue their values in the face of possible failure. Or in the words of one of Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes: “We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.

Derren Brown and Hypnosis

I was always a big fan of Derren Brown. As far as his work goes, I think he’s one of the best illusionists of all time. His stage entertainment is best described as “illusion” because almost everything he does is false. Even “effects” (to use the correct phrase in magical circles)  which he hints at being due to one thing are in truth another. Years ago, I was taken in by his ability to ostensibly pick up clues in mouth twitching or facial movements to deduce what word someone was thinking of. I’m not saying he isn’t doing this in some cases, for example – asking people a series of questions and picking out the single lie from the truthful answers has a readily-observable explanation (which he provides) and makes perfect sense. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s a nice ability that anyone could do with a bit of practice in the right setting. But most of the time, if Derren Brown is giving you an answer, or even hinting at the answer, he is almost always deceiving you.

I got into a discussion with a friend recently about DB’s latest TV show. In this episode, which admittedly I didn’t watch, he hypnotised a man into believing a bath of freezing water was mild, even having him lie in it for 8 minutes without discomfort! This supposedly demonstrated the power of hypnosis, or suggestion.

As much as I admire DB’s skill and most of the effects he achieves, in recent years my interest in him has cooled. There are two main reasons for this. One is his over-(mis)use and over-misdirection of supposedly scientific means and his own mental powers (which lessens the impact of his effects), and the other is his use of hypnosis.

Contrary to popular misconceptions and what hypnotists would have us believe, hypnosis is merely socially-learned unconscious behaviour. It is a form of reciprocal role-playing based on how the hypnotised person believes they should act, and how the hypnotist believes he should act. Both expect certain results and play their parts to achieve them. Hypnosis is very much like “speaking in tongues”; of course, the holy spirit isn’t really possessing people and causing them to utter nonsensical sounds, rather, these people are so hyped up in religious fervour they believe they are overcome with holy spirit and unconsciously act how they believe they should. They are playing a role, albeit unknowingly. This is all hypnosis is. Or in the words of Irving Kirsch, it is a “nondeceptive placebo”. In other words, hypnotised people believe they are “hypnotised” and act how they have come to understand a “hypnotised” person behaves. This behaviour can be guided or moulded by the hypnotist in more specific ways.

So, when you see DB take a young lady up on stage, ask her to look ahead, then up, then at him, after which he clicks his fingers and tells her to sleep – and she drops her head and closes her eyes – you are not observing magic or any abnormal power at work. He is doing nothing that you couldn’t do. (Consider that those who don’t believe in hypnosis can’t be hypnotised.) There is nothing going on here except the power of suggestion.

Now, the power of suggestion is very real, and is probably a testament to what the human mind can achieve when so conditioned. If anything, we should really take inspiration from it as a tool in our lives, (for example by having a positive outlook and an expectancy that we can and will achieve our goals). Hypnosis is simply an elaborate game to dress up suggestion and make it appear that something deeper is going on. Hypnosis adds a sense of wonder to the proceedings, if done for entertainment, credibility, if done professionally, otherworldliness, if done for occult or supernatural reasons.

There is no such thing as a hypnotic trance, and “hypnotised” people will not perform actions that are far removed from what their regular sensibilities will allow. For example, someone under hypnosis will not shoot themselves or jump off a cliff. The “power” of hypnosis will only go so far, and is curiously similar to what the subject is prepared to do anyway for attention, keeping the hypnotist happy, entertaining the audience, or the pressure to play along. In other words, if you really don’t want to get undressed on stage, you won’t – no matter how hypnotised you are or think you are.

But Derren Brown knows all this. He knows that hypnosis is largely convoluted, but is more than happy to perpetuate the myth because he needs people to believe it works. Even if they don’t believe it, he needs them to play along.

There is more going on with a good DB effect than the effect itself. He is perhaps most famous for being the guy who achieves seemingly supernatural effects by natural means, and is firmly opposed to the harm done by supernaturalists. He can cold-read better than most of the best “psychics” out there, levitate tables and chairs, produce coins with messages from beyond the grave, and have you subconsciously intuit dead from alive merely by looking at photographs. We know he isn’t doing any of this, but the effect is powerful, and those rational in the audience accept that it’s all done naturally. It  amazes us and baffles us, perhaps sends a shiver down our spine, and discredits the fraud and evil of the mystics all in one go. We don’t need to know how he does it, all we need to know is that it’s a trick.

But when it comes to hypnosis, this is one quasi-scientific area he’s happy to leave alone. You can’t say that we, the ones in the know, us clever people in the audience, aren’t supposed to be fooled by it, because we are supposed to be. For me it’s a bit like his “prediction” of the National Lottery numbers. It seemed impossible, and the effect was amazing. But then he went and ruined it by explaining how he did it. Not because he really explained it, but because he tried to feed us the most bullshit explanation ever, which most sane people wouldn’t buy, and which he himself would never believe! It was exactly the kind of mystical anti-scientific crap he works hard to discredit! He’d have been better off not explaining anything, or actually showing us how he really did the trick. To be fair, he admitted himself he didn’t like this stunt and wished he’d have done it differently.

But the point is, don’t take anything DB does as a performer at face value. Not even the stuff you think he’s explaining. As I mentioned earlier, a favourite trick of his is to intuit a secret word in the mind of a guest by their mannerisms or face movements. Of course, no human being in the world can do this – and I challenge anyone to guess a word I am thinking of. He drops hints that he’s picking up on subconscious clues and invites us to do the same to the subject. In reality, he is doing nothing of the sort.

Similarly, an effect he performed for his original TV show had a man separate photographs into two piles based on whether he got a superficial positive or negative vibe just by looking at the pictures. At the end, it was revealed that the “positive” pile were people who were alive, and the “negative” people happened to be of deceased. (I won’t reveal how it’s done, but this trick is very famous in its original form). But, it was a better effect by not being accompanied by some pseudo-rational explanation, which would’ve been a discredit to reason and somewhat condescending to the audience.

In another effect, and a more light-hearted one, he identifies the “liars” from a row of people just by listening to their answers without even looking at them. It’s a great trick, and gets the audience laughing, as the dirty liar gets exposed from the most innocuous answers. His brilliant showman skills allude to being a master of reading people, when the secret behind this effect is incredibly mundane. It took me 10 seconds to figure out how he did this: there is more deception on deception taking place here, and a good example of taking everything Derren says with a pinch of salt. (By the way, I’ve been to all DB’s stage shows each year. Ironically, and unfortunately, the most powerful and beautiful effect he performed last year was also the easiest to explain. I won’t say which one it was. During the intermission, my friends and I figured it out – and I was disappointed, not because of how he did it, but because afterwards the emotion of the effect evaporated. I would rather not figure it out, or more precisely, not be able to. Once the mystery is revealed, the emotional resonance is lost. What remains, and is by no means trivial, is an appreciation for the technical skill of the illusionist. I should also mention that whilst the emotion of the effect was thereafter lost, the meaning and the accompanying message was still beautiful and true.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter that he’s lying – because he’s an illusionist. He’s supposed to deceive us spectacularly, and the delivery and style is unique and engaging. But do some of his alleged “powers” actually give a false notion of science and the human mind? My problem is not with any of his effects, but is it better to maintain total mystery than to hint at a lie? How much credibility should be given to the idea that words and truths can be plucked from someone’s head before it goes from “it’s obviously only a trick” to “it takes a special skill to do that” to “I can do that with people myself”? How healthy is it to lend credence to hypnosis, just for an effect, if people run off to buy books on it, or spend hundreds on classes for it, visit a hypno”therapist”, or worse, attempt past-life regression?

In one effect (I mentioned the girl on stage who was hypnotised after a click of the fingers), DB gets the subject to use “unconscious writing” to apparently divine a word or number she couldn’t otherwise have known. You can say that it’s not supernatural, which it isn’t. You can say that DB despises mediums and abhors the supernatural as an explanation of anything, which he does. But the effect is: ‘under hypnosis, this person achieved a feat they couldn’t have otherwise’. If that isn’t the effect, why hypnotise them? One answer is: he is recreating a supposedly paranormal effect using natural means, thereby discrediting the former. But this effect wasn’t even about the power of suggestion (like the bath tub one was). Hypnosis is here just a means to an end, and did it present a false image of hypnosis? Did it give hypnosis a rational scientific credibility? It surely misrepresents the power of suggestion and the capriciousness of the human mind. Now, one could object that what it really does (with stunts like The Heist, where people were “brainwashed” to perform an armed robbery), is show how gullible some people can be, in which case DB is providing a very important object lesson for us all. Though I’m not sure how positive or life-affirming it is to perpetuate the idea that we can all be controlled to varying degrees to act completely out of character, just with the right “programming”. This isn’t a healthy self-image, nor do I believe a correct one. It is a trick staged with purported rational and scientific credibility. Is DB doing reason and science good or harm here? And if he is painting a false picture of the world, how is this any different to some of the people he denounces? Again, you could say that he is genuinely able to achieve these results using manipulation alone (which is the implication) – but when so much of his patter is nonsense, how can we be expected to know the difference?

Perhaps my gripe, and it’s really minor I must stress, is personal instead of professional: perhaps I feel slightly let down because I think in some ways I’m being patronised. If you know for example that hypnosis is rubbish and have a good idea how DB performs his effects, a lot of the delivery and window dressing loses its impact. I’d rather be told nothing and be totally stumped on a mystery, than be offered some half-truth. DB invites us to “meet him half way”, between what he apparently achieves and what is really happening. That’s all well and good, but he isn’t really meeting us half way is he? Even his half is a deception, yet another misdirection on a misdirection, leaving us in the position of not being able to take anything he says with honesty. And when you do that, you start to scrutinise his effects more for the real answer, which in my experience dilutes the power of the illusion. A far simpler and more famous trick, like sawing a woman in half, is far more impressive to me than programming people to commit a crime.

Similarly, when one has achieved so many great things in a career, it’s natural to keep pushing the boundaries and going for bigger and more extravagant. I wonder if DB has reached the limit of what his amazing skills can achieve, without redressing an old trick in new garb. In my opinion, magic is best when it’s personal and confined, and the emphasis is on the emotional impact of the effect, not on the sheer size of the effect. That’s why the illusionist Dynamo is much better when he’s materialising a phone into a sealed bottle than walking on water across the Thames. The former is personal: my phone teleported inside a jar – impossible! Incredible! Right before my eyes! A man walking on water? Meh. There’s glass under the surface; the trick is so incredibly false and surreal it’s hollow. Predicting the lottery results? Not interested, but making this chair float? That’s magic! Hypnotising someone to forget how to be a pianist? Social role-playing. Winning a race with the losing ticket? Jaw-dropping!

The best effects are usually the simplest. But if DB is going to be a champion of rationality and oppose the mystical, like the Randis and Dawkins of this world, then perhaps it’s worth looking at what image he himself generates of it. DB is at his best when he’s performing the incredible and being honest about it. One example is using a voodoo doll on a New Age believer only to present a twist at the end. The New Age movement (and the subject) come off looking silly and undermined, whilst the power of belief and suggestion is demonstrated, and there’s a lovely little sleight of hand to go with it. But we know what we need to know about the effect. A better example is his use of cold-reading to recreate paranormal effects. We know that he can’t commune with the dead, and we could never hope to match his skill and delivery, but we know how it’s done; we understand the trick and skill involved, and we’re wiser as a result. We aren’t being fed some crap about lip movement or crowd wisdom.

Nor are we led to believe that a psychological response is anything other than expectancy-based suggestion. The power of suggestion is real, but hypnosis is elaborate garb which detracts from a very real, fascinating and potentially useful ability. The truth might be better served by not giving hypnosis more power than it really has. And if hypnosis is worthy of anything, surely it must be separated from those who misuse it, even unknowingly, like hypnotherapists and occultists? Just like cold-reading should be separated from communing with the dead, so should genuine suggestion be from the act/game/con that accompanies the field of hypnosis. If hypnosis has reasonable and practical applications, like any placebo effect, all the more reason to be clear about what it is, and isn’t. There’s a reason medicines are medicines and placebos aren’t. One could retort that by being totally straight about hypnosis, any power it has is destroyed. But isn’t that the point? If some get comfort from hypnotic treatment, despite it being superficial, and despite most practitioners being well-meaning people – how is this different than the comfort one might get from a visit to a well-meaning medium who isn’t aware they are being fraudulent?

Perhaps I’m just saying that Derren Brown, one of the great performers and showmen of all time, is at his best when he’s deceiving us honestly.

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