The Lottery Of Life

Eighteenth instalment - reading around the subject

It’s an eccentric habit in this digital age, but I still buy (and usually read) a daily newspaper – you know, printed, using ink, on paper. My newspaper of choice is the Guardian ( It is owned by a trust, not by a wealthy individual; it is, in terms of content if not format, a broadsheet and not a tabloid; it is not associated with any particular political party or movement. I find that its news reporting is usually reliably factual; its comment pieces are thought-provoking.

In recent months I have come across in the Guardian a number of articles that relate to the argument I’ve been setting out in this blog. The first drew attention to a scientific paper that provides evidence for my view that the luck, good or bad, that determines your life situation tends to augment itself; the remainder touch more broadly on the wider topic of luck and free will.

Lucky enough to have had an education? Then you’ll have the additional good luck of a long life.

From the Guardian, Tuesday 23 January 2024:

Every year spent in school or university improves our life expectancy, while not attending school is as deadly as smoking or heavy drinking, according to the first systematic study directly linking education to gains in longevity.
          Using evidence from industrialised countries such as the UK and US as well as developing countries such as China and Brazil, the review found that an adult’s risk of mortality went down by 2% for every year in full-time education.
          Completing primary, secondary and tertiary education is the equivalent of a lifetime of eating a healthy diet, lowering the risk of death by 34% compared with those with no formal education, according to the peer-reviewed analysis in The Lancet Public Health journal.
          At the opposite extreme, not attending school at any point was as bad for adult health as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks every day or smoking 10 cigarettes each day for a decade.
          While the benefits of education on life expectancy have long been recognised, the review by academics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the University of Washington in Seattle is the first to calculate the number of years of education and its connections to reducing mortality.

The paper summarised above can be found here:

The conclusions of this research support the point I made in the previous instalment of this blog: both good luck and bad luck generate more of themselves.

Determinism or free will – yes to both, please.

From an article by Sophie McBain, writing in the Guardian, Monday 4 March 2024:

The big idea: should you blame yourself for your bad habits?
Our ability to resist temptation is increasingly shaped by forces beyond our control
If pushed, most people would accept that luck has played a big role in their life. You had no say over where you were born, whether your parents were loving or abusive, rich or poor. You didn’t choose your talents or personal attributes, your musical gifts or physical attractiveness . . . even your capacity for perseverance, your grit and willpower, are shaped by forces well beyond your control. A recent twin study suggested that your genes play a big role in determining your level of self-control. And that’s before you consider the influence of social status, upbringing and income, because childhood adversity, discrimination, stress, exhaustion and hunger all affect activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is activated when we try to do the right, hardest thing. If that’s the case, how responsible should we feel for our lapses in willpower?

I was snared by this article for the obvious reason that it rehearsed, in part at least, the main thrust of the argument I’ve been making in this blog. The overall theme of the piece makes the case that people are less responsible than they think for their failures to resist bad habits, but in making that case it refers – in the passage quoted above – to the significance of luck.

One of the suggestions for further reading cited at the foot of the article was this book:

Determined: The Science of Life Without Free Will by Robert M Sapolsky.

I was able to find a review – once again from the Guardian – written by Oliver Burkeman and dated Tuesday 24 October 2023. Burkeman writes of Sapolsky:

His strategy is an ambitious one: to track every link of the causal chain that culminates in human behaviour, starting with what’s happening in the brain in the final few milliseconds before we act, all the way back to how our brains are shaped by early experiences, and even before that, all mostly at the fine-grained level of neurotransmitters and genes.
          Along the way, he makes impassioned arguments against such ideas as “grit”, which seem to suggest that those raised in situations that tax their willpower could just choose to develop more of it. Yes, there are people who “overcame bad luck with spectacular tenacity and grit” – but their capacity for tenacity and grit was bestowed by luck, too. Everything is luck, including whether or not you have the right character traits for dealing with bad luck. In the words of the free-will sceptic Galen Strawson, “luck swallows everything”.

I confess that I haven’t read Determined, but it’s clear from Burkeman’s review that Sapolsky has charted in his book much the same course as I have in this blog – albeit in the opposite direction. He works back, step by step, from the moment of decision-making in the adult brain to the genetic and other determinants that operate even before that adult was conceived; I’ve started at the other end. But it seems that he and I have arrived at something close to the same conclusion: Everything is luck, including whether or not you have the right character traits for dealing with bad luck.

Intrigued by the reference to ‘free-will sceptic Galen Strawson’, I looked up this name and of course Wikipedia provided the goods:

Galen John Strawson (born 1952) is a British analytic philosopher and literary critic who works primarily on philosophy of mind, metaphysics (including free will, panpsychism, the mind-body problem, and the self), John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche.
          In the free will debate, Strawson holds that there is a fundamental sense in which free will is impossible, whether determinism is true or not. He argues for this position with what he calls his “basic argument”, which aims to show that no-one is ever ultimately morally responsible for their actions, and hence that no one has free will in the sense that usually concerns us. In its simplest form, the basic argument runs thus:
          You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
          To be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
          But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
          So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
          This argument resembles Arthur Schopenhauer’s position in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, summarised by E. F. J. Payne as the “law of motivation, which states that a definite course of action inevitably ensues on a given character and motive”.

Now this is getting very interesting (well, I think so, anyway). Strawson’s position, as described in Wikipedia, is that ‘free will is impossible, whether determinism is true or not’. I take that to mean that whether or not your life is determined by luck, you do not have free will – the ability to make decisions for yourself – because ‘you do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are’. And whether or not it’s a matter of luck, you have no control over the way you are.

We have now travelled a long way from the position I believe to represent reality. Strawson says the way you are may or may not be matter of luck, but in any case you have no free will; my conclusion is that the way you are is entirely a matter of luck, but you do have free will within the constraints determined by your luck.

You will note that I have yet to make the argument as regards free will, so I have jumped the gun somewhat. I will cover the topic in later instalments, I promise. However I hope that the prospect of having a measure of free will provides you with a glimmer of hope: the dim light that will draw you towards the far end of the tunnel of this blog.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.