Triumph of hope over laws of probability

The appeal of lotteries is profoundly pagan because it elevates the role of chance above that of God and reason

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So you think the lottery has peaked, do you? Well, I can understand your reaction.

Nine out of every 10 adults (that is about 40 million people) bought a ticket last week, shelling out a flabbergasting pounds 128m in the space of a week. Given that only three people won a share of the pounds 42m jackpot and that only a million or so won anything at all, that leaves about 38,999,997 punters tearing up their tickets in disgust and muttering to themselves, "Never again."

But they will soon be back. And what is more, this is merely the beginning of lottery mania. Soon, I predict, only a handful of cranks like me will shun the weekly mass flutter.

My authority for this prediction is impeccable. It is the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose short story, The Lottery in Babylon, which was first published more than 40 years ago, should be required reading for all the lotto-holics.

In Borges's imaginary ancient Babylon, the lottery begins as "a game of plebeian character ... Barbers sold, in exchange for copper coins, squares of bone or of parchment adorned with symbols. In broad daylight a draw took place. Those who won received silver coins."

But this elementary system proved only modestly successful because it was "not directed at all of man's faculties, but only at hope". So someone suggested a reform (Camelot, please note): "the interpolation of a few favourable tickets in the list of favourable numbers". This reform meant that punters ran a double risk: not only of winning a considerable sum, but of losing it, too. "This slight danger" immensely increased public interest. The lottery became a kind of mass Russian roulette.

Nor was this all. When all the losers refused, or were unable, to pay their fines, "the Company" (as Borges called the organisers of the lottery) sued them and secured their imprisonment. After a while, "the lottery lists simply omitted the amounts of fines and lifted themselves to publishing the days of imprisonment that each unfavourable number indicated".

Yet this, too, implied reform: if losing could take a non-monetary form so, too, should winning - or so it was argued. And was it quite fair that the rich should be able to afford so many more lottery tickets than the poor? "The just desire that all, rich and poor, should participate equally in the lottery" led to its being made secret, free and universal. "The mercenary sale of chances was abolished ... Every free man automatically participated in the draw ... which determined his destiny until the next draw."

This perfected system was no longer merely a game of chance: it was a way of life. Indeed, it was life itself. "A fortunate play could bring about promotion to the council of wise men, of the imprisonment of an enemy ... A bad play: mutilation, infamy, death." Babylon thus became "nothing else than an infinite game of chance".

Of course, in order for such a system to function properly, it was necessary for "the Company" to be given total power.

Now the point of all this is not to prophesy that Camelot - our own version of "the Company" - will one day take over all our lives (though there were times during the weekend when this began to seem a distinct possibility). The point is that Borges had a deep insight into the appeal of all lotteries. That appeal is profoundly pagan, because it elevates the role of chance above that of God or reason.

There are two reasons for boycotting the lottery, and only two. One is an ethical - usually religious - aversion to gambling. This is most strongly developed among Calvinists. Not only does their belief in divine predestination leave no room for the operation of chance; Calvinists also instinctively feel that good fortune must be earned by hard work - hence their aversion to all forms of gambling.

There is, I suspect, an atavistic element of this in my boycott of the lottery. But it is the second argument - the rational argument - which, to my mind, counts for more. It is the simple matter of probability. The chances of winning millions of pounds are so infinitesimal as to make it irrational to participate.

That is not to say that all gambling is irrational - just the lottery. Other popular forms of gambling - betting on horse races, for example - contain a genuinely rational element. It is possible, by studying the form of racehorses, to make informed predictions about their chances of victory in a given race.

However, to pay pounds 50 for a handful of lottery tickets - like the man queuing in front of me in the petrol station on Friday night - is not rational. It is a triumph of mere hope over the laws of probability.

How are we to account for the present mania for the lottery? The answer should by now be obvious: 90 per cent of us are clearly neither Calvinists nor Rationalists. Or, to put it another way: only 10 per cent of us continue to be in any meaningful way influenced by the teachings of either the Reformation or the Enlightenment.

Not that this is wholly surprising, though I confess I would have expected the proportions to be more evenly balanced. After all, the 20th century has waged something like a war of attrition against both Protestantism and reason. A few ingenious scientists, notably the distinguished Richard Dawkins, continue to believe that reason is winning its long-running battle against all forms of "superstition". To Dawkins, belief in Calvin's God is as irrational as belief in astrology - or the National Lottery.

Yet his own work on genetics, especially his theory of the selfish gene, implicitly weakens the rationalist case by arguing that the conscious individual is merely a "machine" or "a temporary vehicle for a short- lived combination of genes". Up to a point, genes depend for their survival on the rationality of their "vehicles". But (as Stephen Gould and others have argued) luck also plays a pretty big part, for the simple reason that major environmental changes cannot be predicted.

Nor can the minor changes we call the weather. This was one of the first problems addressed by chaos theorists such as Edward Lorenz. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Calvin and Newton agreed on one thing: that the universe was governed by deterministic laws. But chaos theory tells us those laws are so complex as to rule out accurate prediction. It seems the universe itself has become a lottery.

Small wonder, then, that "the Company" is doing so well: the National Lottery is simply a profitable offshoot of the chaos theory. Only one question remains: how long will it be before Borges's vision is realised and we can run the delicious risk of actually losing pounds 42m by buying a ticket?

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