Epistemic Luck?

James Garvey has some thoughts about an astute observation from Pascal:

‘Chance gives rise to thoughts, and chance removes them; no art can keep or acquire them.’

I tripped over that from Pascal after breakfast and had to think about it all morning.  There’s a lot written about moral luck — a philosophical industry owed to Williams and Nagel.  We think we should morally evaluate people only on the basis of what is within their control, but in fact we assess each other on the basis of factors that depend on luck all the time.  (Compare our treatment of murderers with attempted murderers who were unlucky enough to equip themselves with faulty guns.)

Pascal is on about epistemic luck, but not the sort that gets a few philosophical headlines having to do wtih lucky routes to the truth.  I think he means that sometimes thoughts just pop into our heads and pop out again.  It can’t just be chance, can it?  Isn’t there something going on in there, something blank to us but nevertheless ours?  Certainly, as Pasteur put it, chance favours the prepared mind.  But is that it?  We read up, then cross our fingers and hope for some lucky mental voodoo to kick in.

Maybe parallel thoughts to those we have about moral luck lead to a slightly odd conclusion.  We shouldn’t give someone credit for a Eureka moment, a flash of inspiration, a brilliant but unbidden thought.  We should treat such people as merely lucky.   It’s not just Archimedes, by the way. Such mighty inventions as Cartesian co-ordinates, Post-It-Notes and Velcro are, so legend has it, owed to chance leaps of thought.  Should we praise Descartes?  Or just count him lucky?

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.