|Jonas Burgert, Roulette|
Predating all of the wonderful props at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (HSWW), the original Wheel of Fortune surfaced in Monday Begins on Saturday, a Soviet-era science fiction novella by brothers Strugatsky, where we find it installed at a the Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Magic (НИИЧAВO). It looks like the side of a moving conveyor belt protruding out of a wall: since it never repeats its course, the wheel must rotate slower than one RPE (revolutions per eternity) meaning that its radius must be infinite, and its edge, projected into our physical universe, appears as the edge of a conveyor belt moving past us.
Unbeknownst to most of our contemporaries, Fortune is actually a deity, like Allah or Jesus, but unlike them she has been worshipped since most ancient times, as Tyche in Greece and as Fortuna in Rome. She continues to be worshipped in the present times, around the world, but especially in the US, where her temples and shrines are everywhere, from the humble lottery machines at every corner shop, gas station and liquor store to the casino capitalists who inhabit the glass towers of Wall Street. Millions of mortals supplicate before Tyche daily. Virtually unnoticed, the cult of Tyche dominates the religious landscape in the US: just compare the sizes of the casino buildings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City to the country's largest cathedrals and temples: except for a few mega-churches, the former consistently dwarf the latter.
The essential act of worshipping Tyche is by drawing lots, from which derives the term “lottery.” Tyche's promise is that you too may win some day, and this simple promise is powerful enough to allow her to hold much of the population captive to her every whim, ready to gamble away their last dollar. Tyche's spiritual solace is that, whatever happens, it is never your fault, just your luck. Tyche also keeps the peace, allowing us to overcome the envy and rancor we inevitably feel against our betters: they succeed not because of their superiority, but because of sheer dumb luck; we could all be just like them, if only the all-powerful Tyche would favor us.
Of our two biggest religions, Islam was far more successful of purging all the older polytheistic deities, locking up their idols within the Kaaba at Mecca. (I would love to take a peek inside the Kaaba to see if Tyche is imprisoned there, except that, being an infidel, I would get beheaded for even trying.) While the Christians have attempted to negotiate with Tyche, thinking that there is room in the universe for both God's will and Tyche's random chance, Islam did no such thing: Allah is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omni-licious, so, if you please, check your questioning mind at the gate and prostrate rhythmically in the general direction of Mecca. Wagering is allowed, but only at camel races, and only among the participating camel jockeys, while “intoxicants and games of chance” are, according to the Quran [5:90-91], “abominations of Satan's handiwork,” and so they are haram (verboten). In a strict Moslem society the cult of Tyche can gain no purchase.
Meanwhile, Christianity seems to have utterly failed at resisting Tyche's charms. In the middle ages Fortuna and her wheel were temporarily absorbed into Christian dogma, making her a servant of divine will. But this gambit has failed, as we recently saw when the Pope tried and failed to answer a simple question posed by a young girl from a war-ravaged land: “Why did God allow my friends to be killed?” Why does a just and merciful God allow the murder of innocents? The real answer (“They were unlucky”) cannot be spoken, because it would indicate that Tyche's authority supercedes that of the supposed Almighty, causing cognitive dissonance within the flock. At a less intellectual level, salvation can be seen as an infinitely long winning streak, and the faithful feel luckier from being sanctified in the blood of the Lamb. At the almost completely non-intellectual level of superstition wherein many believers dwell, Jesus is a sort of good luck charm. But what all of this points to is that, in Christianity, nobody is really in charge up there, so Tyche feels free to step in and fill the void, incidentally absolving God of any responsibility for what actually happens. He may be all-merciful and love mankind, but then He is not really the one issuing the orders on a day-to-day basis. Bewildering, isn't it?
More bewildering yet, Tyche's claim to dominance is not limited to religion or gambling or finance. In modern science, randomness (that is, chance, which is Tyche's domain) is at the heart of all explanations of what happens at the level of elementary particles. The functioning of the transistor—the device at the heart of all electronics—is explained by saying that the instantaneous location of any given electron is not a point in space but a probability distribution, with the actual location picked at random. In spite of this, the observed behavior of transistors is quite deterministic (except for a bit of hiss which we ignore).
As Einstein famously said, “God doesn't play dice with the world.” And he was right: it is not God who plays dice with the world, it's Tyche, and she is not shy about it. The scientists are certainly keeping her busy with the so-called Monte-Carlo models that are widely used in particle physics, which are driven by randomness. The gigantic particle accelerators at Fermilab and at CERN are the largest prayer wheels ever built, praying that Tyche might show us an exotic particle or two. Impressive though these are, perhaps the largest playground science has given over to Tyche is in evolutionary biology: we are who we are thanks to a sequence of random mutations. Thank you, Tyche, for the opposable thumb, for bipedal locomotion, binocular vision, and for the fact that we possess language! Without you, not only would we not exist, but life itself would not have evolved out of primordial ooze incessantly zapped by lightning.
I see all of this particularly clearly because I am by nature highly resistant to Tyche's charms. The idea of gambling revolts me, and I have never gambled, or purchased a lottery ticket or a raffle ticket, or made a bet. To me, chance and randomness are noise and garbage. I try to construct pockets of difference and meaning within what appears to me as an indifferent and meaningless universe. Any explanation that hinges on the work of chance strikes me as one lacking explanatory depth. I do whatever I can to eliminate chance from my life, and I actually detest the very idea of luck. This puts me at quite a considerable advantage vis à vis those who waste their energies on Tyche. This has nothing to do with luck; it just has to do with conserving energy, because that is precisely what Tyche is (in my opinion): a demon that haunts feeble minds, forcing them to expend their energies in futile pursuits, in order to keep other, even worse demons at bay.
Such futile pursuits can be quite pleasant (not to me, but then I will concede that I am unusual) when there is plenty of energy left to squander. But when that energy starts to run out (along with most other resources on this overcrowded, depleted, polluted planet), which it is currently showing every sign of doing, then everyone's luck starts to run out at the same time. As the situation goes from bad to worse, people gamble away their savings and drop out of the game. The US labor market since the financial collapse of 2008 is a case in point: the labor pool has shrunk to the point that something like 10% have lost their jobs, never to gain them back. There is a term for that: it is called a decimation.
Decimation is a Roman military practice that was used to discipline legions that did not perform well in battle. Soldiers were organized in groups of ten and drew lots. Out of each group of ten, one comrade drew the shortest stick, and was promptly bludgeoned to death by the others. This, to them, made perfect sense. In a superstitious culture, victory is a matter of luck, and so to achieve victory, all one needs to do is to identify and purge the unlucky ones, by the luck of the draw. Once they are gone, then by definition all those who remain are lucky, and can go on to victory confident in the knowledge that Tyche is on their side.
The decimation in the labor market has had a similar effect: a lot of people are gone and have faded from view, but the ones who were dismissed as companies “trimmed the fat” are seen as the unlucky ones. Those who remain are, by definition, lucky, and try to make the best use of their luck by working ridiculously long hours. That may work once, but what if the cycle of decimation is to repeat endlessly? The only historical case of repeated decimation (the Legion of Thebes) was an act of martyrdom, and so is not relevant. If a single round of decimation fails to rally the troops to victory, the next one should drive them to mutiny.
The labor market is just one example of this sort; the retirement debacle is another. Those people in the US who have managed to save for retirement are gambling with it, by investing it in stocks (whose upside is limited by the economy's inability to grow) and bonds (whose upside is limited by runaway public debt, currency debasement, and eventual sovereign default and/or currency devaluation). The financial collapse of 2008 has decimated their retirement savings, and yet they are still gambling with them. At what point will they refuse to keep playing? When all of their savings are gone, or at some point before then?
At what point does a society made up of gambling addicts refuse to gamble? Once they have lost everything? Or once it has become clear to them that the game has degenerated into “Heads you lose, tails you lose”? Tyche's charms are appealing only when she isn't cheating. But if you are invited to play, although you (and just about everyone you know) always loses while some perpetually “lucky” group always wins, then that fails to satisfy the gambling urge, and Tyche fades away, to be replaced by the far more destructive demons of envy and rancor which she previously held in check. It will be very interesting to see how this will (pardon the pun) play itself out. Obviously, I am not making any bets.