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The Lottery Machine

Paul Sweeten



In 1974 the philosopher Robert Nozick offered a thought experiment. Would any of us, given the choice, enter an “experience machine”?

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Would you plug in? (Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick)

Nozick argued that one would not plug into the machine, as we are inclined to favour a “realistic” life of peaks and troughs, good days and bad: the kind of raw experience espoused by John Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave new World. “I don’t want comfort,” said Savage. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” Nozick thought that anyone would refuse to enter an experience machine whatever could be programmed into it, as a pre-programmed life would hold no relation to our sense of self-worth. No matter how fun it would be once inside the machine, the decision to enter would be a deeply unsatisfying prospect. In short, we want our successes and failures to be products of who we are. We want freedom. We want “real danger”.

On Tuesday 17th May, nobody won the ‚Ǩ15 million EuroMillions jackpot by correctly predicting the outcome of seven randomly selected numbers between the values of 1 and 50. The probability of winning, according to Wikipedia, was 1 in 116,531,800. Despite these odds, at ¬£2 a line a few of us might have thought playing worth the risk, particularly when the jackpot before last stood at ‚Ǩ121,019,633. Indeed, many millions of people did think it worth a punt, and one person in particular proved all those who didn’t entirely wrong by winning the jackpot.

Gambling, like the experience machine, can be understood as a concentrated lifetime experience, a no-nonsense way of gratifying one’s venturous spirit without the need to try very hard, be good at anything or, with the innovation of online poker, even put shoes on. What’s more, if successful, gambling could set you up for life. Win a jackpot of jackpots and you wouldn’t have to work, you wouldn’t have to clean, you wouldn’t have to cook; you could have a driver, a pastry chef, a valet, and you could pronounce “valet” in any way you liked because you would be free from the insufferable bourgeois pressure of impressing people. You could finally relax, or, to offer a synonym, you could finally spend money.

Most means of gambling require at least some measure of skill, either integral to the game in question or by way of some fun-injecting token (think of slot machines, where the act of “holding the cherries” from a flop of cherry/cherry/bell will occasionally congratulate the master tactician to the value of another spin). Lotteries, however, do away with flashing lights, do away with fun, and give it to us straight: regardless of how many people believe they have a “system”, winning is blind luck, which is perhaps why the EuroMillions draw is so un-enticing a prospect for those of us who have scarely played a scratchcard.

What sort of congratulations would be in order, what sort of fist-pumping and joy-jumping could be had, when the method by which one prospered—so disproportionate to the windfall appropriated—could have been performed by a calculator having been dropped down stairs, revealing the winning numbers? Indeed, playing the lottery seems wholly at odds with Nozick’s experience machine conclusions, yet many of us seem entirely comfortable with the idea of “making it” in the world without real danger, without even a gestural nod to one’s personality or beliefs or previous efforts; for nothing, in fact, but the cost of a ticket. We do, it seems, “plug in” to the lottery machine in full knowledge that the random ball-generator will not consider us for our business acumen or artistic talent or the way we look or behave in the world. It, like the experience machine, does not discriminate.

There is a danger here of professing an objection to lotteries with all the sanctimony of a fire-and-brimstone minister. After all, could any of us honestly say that we would refuse millions of pounds on the basis that we didn’t earn them by some precious notion of self-worth? What society, after all, can judge fairly, outside of the lottery machine, who should and shouldn’t prosper? Having won the lottery or having built an Empire, a euro is a euro (or about ¬£1.14), and as Nozick said himself, “while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there.” Let’s not underestimated the thrill of getting lucky. By playing the lottery we do not condemn ourselves to actually winning it, but merely relieve the pressures and avoid the humiliation that all other methods of pursuing success present to us. At the insular Lotto booth, we enter anonymously a low stakes arena in which no choices can be bad choices, but only unlucky ones.

What then becomes of the pursuit of happiness? Enlightenment writer Adam Ferguson said that:

Happiness is not that state of repose, or that imaginary freedom from care which at a distance is so frequent the object of our desire, but with its approach brings a tedium, a languor, more insupportable than pain itself. [Happiness] arises more from the pursuit than the attainment of any end whatever. It depends more on the degree to which our minds are properly employed than it does on the circumstances in which we are destined to act.

The obtainment of wealth, “that imaginary freedom from care”, so frequently results in happiness because it is so often paired with the mind’s proper employment: a successful business deal, a decade’s hard work, a well-calculated bluff in a game of poker, even. As the currency of so many forms of success, money has acquired its own value as a gratifier in and of itself: detached from all manner of endeavor, lucrative raffles such as EuroMillions advertise a lifestyle synonymous with entering an experience machine or with cheating at a computer game: a brave new world where anything is possible, full of tedium and languor because of it.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.