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April 4, 2002

A closer look at some selected Books & Journals: Nicholas Rescher/”Luck”

What if passengers on United Flight 93 had tried to overpower terrorist hijackers minutes earlier last Sept. 11, when the plane was flying over Pittsburgh?

What if the hijackers — outnumbered and losing control of the situation — had then aborted their plan to attack Washington, D.C., and settled for crashing into the tallest building in Oakland?

"What has been widely overlooked in the tragedy of Sept. 11, as far as we here at Pitt are concerned, is that there was an element of luck to the fact that the plane went down in the wilds of western Pennsylvania rather than taking out the Cathedral of Learning," says University Professor of Philosophy Nicholas Rescher, during a recent interview in his Cathedral of Learning office.

For thousands of people, Sept. 11 was a day of extraordinary luck, good or bad. But humans are at the mercy of luck every day of their lives, Rescher argues.

Convinced that modern philosophers have not taken luck as seriously as the topic demands, Rescher wrote a book, "Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life," to redress his colleagues' oversight. It was reissued in paperback last year by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Compared with Rescher's 80-plus other books, "Luck" is slim (209 pages plus appendix, notes and index) and accessible for non-philosophers. It was well-received by critics and readers alike when published in hardback in 1995 by Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

Booklist praised it as "a fascinating look at an underexplored topic," while The New York Times Book Review called it an "intelligent effort to bring the rarified air of philosophical speculation to bear upon the concerns of everyday life."

"Luck" sold 10,000 copies in hardcover, 10 times as many as Rescher's books usually sell. "The rest of my books have, in general, been very technical things published by university presses," he says. "Like most other scholars, philosophers today usually write for each other rather than for the world at large. But the topic of luck has such wide interest and intrigue, it seemed worthwhile to communicate with a wider audience and publish through a trade house."

"Luck" earned Rescher new readers and phone calls from journalists seeking quotes about such topics as "the luck of the Irish" (a favorite angle for St. Patrick's Day stories) good luck charms (even the sober-sided Admiral George Dewey wore a lucky rabbit's foot at the battle of Manila Bay, Rescher notes) and the role of luck in the careers of U.S. politicians (an extreme example: An assassination elevated Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency; Roosevelt himself later survived a point-blank assassination attempt when the bullet deflected off a metal eyeglass case in Roosevelt's pocket).

"We live in a world of chance and chaos, choice and contingency — a world in which rational foresight can go only so far," Rescher writes.

His advice? Act prudently. Don't push your luck. But don't avoid taking sensible risks either, out of laziness or fear of failure. "You have to give luck a chance to help you," he says.

Humans always have sought to make life more orderly and predictable by, among other things, reducing risks posed by diseases, floods, fires and earthquakes. One reason that some peoples such as the Chinese are more luck-conscious than Americans is that Chinese have been less successful in reducing these natural risks, Rescher suggests.

"We Americans tend to believe, quite falsely, that we can control all of the forces that have power over our lives," he says. "But in times of war, even Americans will do things that appear to be superstitious attempts to get luck on our side."

Too much security takes the fun out of life, says Rescher, quoting Erich Fromm's observation that man is the only creature capable of being bored. "We need order and stability," Rescher writes, "but we also need novelty and innovation to nourish our minds and spirits." Luck literally keeps us from dying of boredom, he says.

Luck also is a great leveler. "Life being what it is, only talented and hard-working people can get to be concert soloists, navy admirals or corporate CEOs," Rescher writes. "But anyone can get lucky and win the lottery."

Luck, he concludes, "holds out rays of hope for those whose chances of actual achievement are slim."

Rescher dismisses the possibility that an interventionist God controls details of life on Earth, thereby eliminating luck. "When good luck comes our way, we can be happy but we can't be literally grateful," he writes. "There is no one — and nothing — to be grateful to."

He condemns good-luck charms as being "no more than an attempt to control the uncontrollable" but sees advantages to putting faith in such talismans. "If you are a tennis player, and in big matches you always wear your lucky shirt, that will make a difference in your performance because it will affect your attitude," Rescher says. "You're going to have that added bit of confidence. There are lots of performance kinds of things where confidence makes all the difference in the world, and feeling that luck is on your side is going to enhance your performance.

"On the other hand, if somebody steals your lucky shirt you're going to fret about it, and you probably won't play your best game."

Rescher dedicated "Luck" to his wife: "For Dorothy, my own bit of good luck." Dorothy, he explains, began working at Pitt in the development office. But, following personnel changes there, she transferred to philosophy, where a job had just opened up. "All of this created the opportunity for us to meet," Rescher recalls. "In this society, people don't tend to find each other through matchmakers. It's usually a matter of luck, simply being in the right place at the right time."

Rescher believes his luck began before he was born. During World War I, his father fought in the German army on the western front. "Of my father's high school class of about 80 students, fewer than 20 survived the war. My father didn't do anything significantly different than his classmates. Obviously, if he hadn't survived, I wouldn't be here today."

When Rescher (who was 9 when his family immigrated to America) finished his Ph.D. and was drafted into the U.S. military during the Korean War, he expected to serve in this country as an Army researcher, a job arranged for him by one of his Princeton professors. "But at that time the Marines, this proud volunteer force, were building up very fast and couldn't get enough volunteers, so they had to resort to the draft," Rescher says. "By lottery, every fifth draftee was assigned to the Marines."

Rescher was among the one-in-five draftees sent to Parris Island for Marine basic training. But, in yet another reversal of luck, he ended up being assigned stateside, "to keep the North Koreans out of Washington, D.C., rather than out of South Korea," as he self-mockingly puts it.

Discharged in the early 1950s — "when, in an example of unlucky timing, the academic job market was as bad as it has ever been in American history," Rescher points out — he took a job with the Rand Corp. "Through sheer luck, the man who ran the job placement service for philosophers pulled my card from a big file of candidates." Rescher took a pay cut to begin his academic career at Lehigh University.

Rescher rejects the ancient Greek view of humans as masters of their own fates.

"But the Stoics had a point," he allows in his book. "We are to a considerable extent the masters of our own spirit and personality — controllers not of what happens to us but of what we allow good luck and bad luck and fortune to do to us. We are not masters of our circumstances but we are — or should be — masters of ourselves.

"How the world treats us lies largely beyond our control. But how we deserve to be treated is something that, in the final analysis, lies wholly within our power."

— Bruce Steele

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