Eliminating “Good Luck” from My Vocabulary

I was reading a book of Hugh Nibley’s once and I came across something I thought was interesting. I’ve since forgotten what it was that caught my interest, but I do remember reading something to this effect: men shouldn’t play games of chance because chance doesn’t exist. After thinking about this for a minute, I got past this idea that “men can’t play games of chance if chance doesn’t exist!” and moved on to the implications of what he was saying: if chance doesn’t exist, then flipping a coin to determine who gets home field before a softball game isn’t chance or luck. What if I had a say in whether the coin landed heads or tails?

So I did an experiment: each time I called a coin toss (I play a lot of softball and frequently call coin tosses), I would call it then visualize the coin landing as I had called it, or, I would let the other team captain call it and I would visualize the coin landing opposite what they called. I had a streak of about 11 coin tosses going until I finally lost one.

Now, the naysayers among you will cry, “Lucky streak!” But I’m going to differ with you on this point (though I won’t beg). After all, doesn’t it say, in D&C 59:21, that we offend God if we don’t acknowledge his hand in all things? Why should we fail to acknowledge his hand in a coin toss?

Home field aside, I think Nibley has a point. So I’ve decided to try another experiment (one a little less self-gratifying): I’ve tried to eliminate the words “good luck” from my daily parlance. It has been a difficult thing to do, but I’ve met the challenge with moderate success. Now, instead of wishing people “good luck,” I usually say something like “Godspeed.” I must admit, it comes out awkward in a lot of circumstance: “I’m going to go take my final exam.” “Godspeed.” Sometimes I feel like William Wallace (or at least, Mel Gibson’s version of Wallace). But in the end, I thought it was important enough to say that any “fortune” or what we call “luck” that comes our way comes from God and I wanted my language to reflect that.

But really, what difference do the subtleties of our language make?

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13 Responses

  1. interesting post, I’m a bit confused, cause I know Hugh Nibley is a very reliable source. But recently I was listening to a Truman Madsen CD where he was talking on the prophets and he had been talking about how Wilford Woodruff’ had suffered from an unusually high number of accidents in his life, and went on to say that we must not count out that some things happen just by chance or randomly.

    At the same time the D&C scripture is a convincing point. Now I’m left to ponder this….

  2. Oh, that’s funny, because in what I read, he was pretty adamant against luck and chance existing (I’m pretty sure it was Approaching Zion…)

  3. Sorry, Joe, but as a teacher of statistics (among other subjects), I still believe in the law of large numbers. If you flipped the coin fairly a thousand times, then you would get half heads and half tails despite the streak of eleven in a row.

    Nonetheless, God can account for chance, just as God can account for anything else — which is why I don’t understand why most people make a big hub-bub over evolution involving both chance and non-chance factors. Oh, well, that is probably a change of subject. Sorry.

    Thanks for your stimulating thoughts.

  4. S. Faux,

    Sorry, Joe, but as a teacher of statistics (among other subjects), I still believe in the law of large numbers. If you flipped the coin fairly a thousand times, then you would get half heads and half tails despite the streak of eleven in a row.

    Yes, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Joe’s streak was simply chance. Which I think was his point. No statistical law of averages can tell you that THIS coin toss, THIS child’s gender, THIS traffic accident, THIS evolutionary change is “mere chance.”

  5. I choose to believe in a God that doesn’t micromanage. I’m also willing to take Nibley on and say that chance does exist even within pseudo-random scenarios.

    That being said, occasionally, God will influence things to create a given outcome. (The gentiles and their game of lots identified Jonah as the one who had forsaken God.) Most of the time? Eh. I doubt there’s any concern if I win the game of skittles poker or not, and I definitely don’t think that God caused my bag of chips to get stuck in the vending machine today.

  6. The odds of guessing 11 tosses of a coin are 1 in 2048. Still better than being struck by lightning (1 in 600,000).

  7. This is a topic close to my heart. I couldn’t possibly describe the years worth of discussion that has gone into this for me, but I will say that I take the words ‘All Powerful’ to mean that very literally. For years I’ve used the phrase ‘Luck is for Atheists.’ I’m sure some of you I know have heard me say it.

    I tend to lean toward the Ray Bradbury, stepping-on-a-butterfly-has-repercussions-we-can’t-even-dream-of perspective of life. Then again, ‘All Powerful,’ as we’re all aware, doesn’t mean ‘All Controlling.’ ‘All Knowing’ is another important phrase.

    Janell, I don’t think God micro-manages either, but I do believe that God KNEW your bag of chips would get stuck. I’m pretty positive He get upset because you didn’t get your chips. And you not getting those chips has some huge implications. I believe he knew about it ahead of time and could have changed it if he needed.

    On a film-related note, here’s a link to an article by Abbas Kiarostami, by far the greatest living filmmaker and one of the wisest men I can think of (http://www.dvdbeaver.com/FILM/articles/an_unfinished_cinema.htm). He has something to say on the topic of chance. He sees chance, as did Nephi when they drew lots, as a manifestation of Deity. In his ‘making of’ feature for the digital video homage to Yasujiro Ozu called ‘Five,’ he recalls a story from Persian history. The leader of India invented the game of chess and sent it to Persia’s leader. Persia’s leader was impressed but found the game flawed. He improved on the game’s flaw and sent Backgammon in return to India. He suggested that Chess had everything in the control of both players. Such a game is to deny God. Backgammon requires strategy, but an advanced strategy which can adapt for the unknown/chance/God. This plays into this man’s films and much of Persian poetry/literature.

  8. There have been a number of interesting things opened up in the comments of this post.

    I find myself agreeing with a little of what everyone is saying, and yet I think in the end I have a more radical take on this than most people.

    There are several things to keep in mind here: the eternal nature of matter and intelligence, the question of God’s foreknowledge, the Fall, and the question of God’s intimacy with the world.

    Regarding the issue of God’s hand being in “all things,” I agree. But we must ask what “all things” means, and HOW it is that God’s hand might be in such things. Certainly, in Article of Faith 13, when we say “we believe all things, we hope all things,” we do not really mean “all things” in the common sense notion of the term. I see this as saying that we believe all things that are good — “whatever is virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy.” Perhaps we could say the same of God’s hand — it is in all things that are good. There is nothing that is good that God cannot be properly said to be involved in, and we offend him by not recognizing this. Certainly this includes many things that we might be tempted to call “chance” or “luck.”

    However, we must be careful lest we turn “God’s hand” into some kind of omnipresent pantheism that denies human agency and makes God responsible for evil. The beauty of Mormon theology, in which God did not create the world ex nihilo, is that genuine human agency ensues, including evil (which God is not responsible for). In this respect, I prefer thinking that God simply lets some bad things happen. If I get my bag of chips stuck in a vending machine, it might not mean there was a grand purpose for it to happen. It could have possibly been prevented had I chosen to take a different street. In other words, there is a sense in which it can be called “bad luck” or an “accident.” However, to say that God is not somehow involved in some of these accidents is also saying too much. He certainly is and perhaps more (or less) than we realize. It is also saying too much to automatically discount God in the name of statistical probability. It might be that, yes, your odds of an old friend randomly contacting you sometime this year are quite good — but for the odds of THIS friend contacting you at the THIS time (or even THIS coin toss), any statistical probability is pure metaphysical conjecture and totally useless.

    But what about God’s foreknowledge? This is where I differ from Trevor a little bit, I think. Frankly, I’m not sure whether God has exhaustive definitive foreknowledge. I find no reason to conclude this from my own experience, from LDS doctrine, or from the scriptures. He surely knows many things He is going to do, He has enormous foresight, and He has a confident assurance in His own stability as God (simply because of who He is). We may even say that God knows “all things” — but again, what does “all things” mean? Is the future a thing? Perhaps not. But whether he knows, for example, that Janell’s bag of chips was going to be stuck — I don’t know. And in fact, I tentatively lean to the position that He does not — well maybe, He could have known at a certain point, but even then He wouldn’t have known that it would have happened no matter what.

    My reasoning here is that I prefer not to believe that God knows everything that I am going to do. I fully admit that I could be wrong here. But I prefer to act as if He does not, and I don’t see any negative consequences of this (maybe He sees them, hee hee). For other Latter-day Saints, however, there may be enormous negative consequences for thinking this way (as I have written about).

    In this respect, I am committed to a very strong notion of libertarian freedom, in which mortals truly have the possibility to do otherwise. If God already knows what you will do, then you don’t have a possibility to do otherwise from that knowledge. I see God, in this sense, as being able to be surprised by our actions. He is never perplexed, however. Just as Bobby Fischer will surely beat me in chess, even without knowing what moves I will make, so does God have a surety of many things, even without knowing what every individual will do at every given moment. We could even say that God knows all possibilities, but not all actualities.

    But, here’s where things get really exciting. It may well be that even if God did not (initially) care about Janell’s bag of chips being stuck in the vending machine, nor could He foresee it, that He could still be involved. How is that? It depends on the meaning that Janell (or perhaps others) assigns to it. Interestingly, Janell made a point of bringing up the bag of chips in this very forum. Perhaps something said here will be said that otherwise wouldn’t have been. Perhaps this stuck bag of chips, for some reason, means something important to me, even as I am writing this. Well, how would God be involved? Because God is always co-implicated in the world with us. He truly is in the details, even if He doesn’t know or cause all the details. He is with us in the present moment of each moment, particularly through the Holy Ghost.

    So it may be that a stuck bag of chips is assigned meaning by a mortal (a meaning-maker) in a way that God did not foresee and did not intend, and yet in a way that God is fully co-involved with in the here and now. Same for 11 coin tosses in a row. These tosses may or may not have been caused by God. Or — they may have only been co-caused by God, in keeping with Joe’s desire. Or, total chance. However, in any case, the 11 tosses are clearly meaningful to Joe, and surely this meaning is neither fate nor chance.

    I told you I’d be more radical.

  9. Continuing on one of Dennis’ thoughts, I bet the person after me who got that extra bag of chips felt blessed ;)

  10. Hmmmm . . . Dennis are you implying that God may not be the only agentic being in existence? Maybe some of these other agentic creatures will help him with that rock he cannot lift.

  11. […] Some may see this as a coincidence, but I happen to think it no coincidence (after all, you know how I feel about chance). Abraham Lincoln was the president of the nation who would become one of the most influential […]

  12. I had a BYU professor some years ago who apparently objected to the use of “Good Luck”, for quite different reasons. We were in the classroom for our final exams. The teacher’s assistant passed them out and said, “Good Luck!” Whereupon the prof said to us (with a big smile), “Never mind that–you make your own luck” and cheerfully left the room.

  13. Yes, you make your own luck – just like you work out your own salvation, right?

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