Sunday, February 7, 2010

Luck, wishes and shooting stars

It can't be said that I'm a superstitious person. In fact, those of you who know me know that the truth is just the opposite. All my experience tells me the good or bad fortune of someone in a certain moment is due to a collection of causes that can, or not, be tracked to a possible origin. In the second case, it is when one would talk of "randomness". Because of this, that the good or bad luck of someone was due to some kind of blessing or curse, that certain person or institution might have an intrinsic ability to attract beneficial events by some supernatural means, that because of breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder one would suffer some disgrace, or that rubbing a lottery ticket against someone's bald head would increase my probability of getting the prize is something that doesn't find a rational justification in my mind.

Why? It depends on what does one understand by "luck". When I say that something was lucky, I generally mean that it had a low probability of happening, and nevertheless it did. And to help something to happen, the best thing you could do is to act in some way increasing that little probability to a higher level. For this, obviously the act you do would have some kind of causal relation with the event you want to favour. How could it increase the probabilities of it happening if what we do doesn't have any relation to that event? For all I know, it has not been proved that rubbing a lottery ticket had increased above the statistical noise the frequency of one number being the winning one, nor that the breaking of a mirror had caused someone seven years of disgrace out of what would have happened by normal means, to continue with those examples. Not to mention that there are not plausible mechanisms for which these two things could affect in some way the result.

But however, it must have been thousands the times I've wished good luck to someone, as it can be shown, and if one thinks about it this can be contradictory with what I said above. How can saying "good luck" or "have very good luck" have something to do with the fortune of the person in what he or she were going to do from now on? The answer is easy —it has hardly any influence. Saying it doesn't automatically increase the possibilities of success as if by magic. Does this mean I consider it an empty expression? Something I tell people, knowing it doesn't have an effect, because it's a mere social convention? My response here is clear —not at all. When I say good luck to someone, what I'm actually doing is to express my most sincere wishes that the probability of success in what he or she were going to do was really higher than expected. I'm telling this person that I'd like him or her to manage to do that task. And I say it sincerely. In fact it's probable that showing my support with this expression I can cheer this person up, which could, exactly, rise the possibilities of him or her succeeding.

And having mentioned the topic of wishes, I'll take this opportunity to comment on a detail of me that's less known. And the thing is that I make wishes to shooting stars. It's not a joke, I've done it more than once. Before saying why, I'll stress to believe the things I believe I normally have solid reasons (susceptible of being dismissed by convincing arguments), and that I use to act consequently. Seeing all I've written in this text, one can follow the same reasoning to wonder why do I do that. It seems obvious that making a wish when a shooting star goes by is not going to make it become true, since it's hard, if not impossible, to find a causal relationship between both. Can it be that making the wish after contemplating the meteor cheers me up and that encourages me to achieve it? It's a possibility, but it seems something a bit farfetched. Furthermore, this rules out being able to wish something you don't have control over. No, these are not my reasons.

Falling star

But think for a moment: supposing these wishes did become true… what would you ask for? This is an interesting question. If given the chance, would I ask for the first thing that comes to my mind? I wouldn't consider it sensible. It may actually be some caprice, that in the long term causes more bad than good. Or that it was something relatively easy to get by other means, so the wish would have been wasted. No, it has to be something more important. Since I stopped to think about this, I consider it a quite interesting exercise. One starts to think about his priorities, that sometimes end up being reorganized. You think about what would you really want, or even in which ways could it be achieved. If conditions are right, a meteor shower can be a good occasion to consider these things, that can become an extra motivation to try to see more meteors. What better moment to spend with these kind of thoughts that lying down in the night, relaxed, contemplating the sky full of stars, and being amazed from time to time at how a tiny grain of dust with enough speed can create such a short lived but eye-catching sight? In my opinion, there's no other…

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