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?

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