In the early-1980s, as a teenager, I met a gambler and his girlfriend. This was in Puerto Rico, where I’d travel with my father and visit people I knew through his import-export trading of beans. The gambler may have been in his 60s, and she, a gorgeous blonde, might’ve been in her 30s. A family with whom we were close knew this Anglo couple, though I don’t know how they’d met. They mentioned his gambling had a connection to organized crime. “He washes money,” said our friend, the family’s father, in imperfect English. My father corrected him: “Launders money, not washes it.”
My Spanish was minimal. A group of us were having dinner at a restaurant, and the discussion was about the upcoming space shuttle launch, one of the first times the vehicle would fly. A space buff, I wanted to see the event on TV. One of our friends was telling me the launch would be broadcast in English, even if the local channel segued into it in Spanish. “If you hear Spanish, don’t worry,” my friend said. The gambler wisecracked: “If you hear Russian, worry.”
The next day I was swimming at the Caribe Hilton’s beach. I turned and saw the gambler’s girlfriend in the water, walking in my direction in a one-piece swimsuit. She waved as she caught my eye and continued approaching. We chatted and swam for a little while, and then she went back onto the beach. This wasn’t the start of a torrid romance that would put me in mafia crosshairs; I never saw her after that day. I mainly recall my adolescent thrill as she approached, like Aphrodite but entering, rather than exiting, the surf.
I’d hardly thought of this fleeting encounter in decades, but it came to mind, oddly, as I was reading Why?: The Purpose of the Universe, by philosopher Philip Goff. This book engagingly argues that the seeming “fine-tuning” of physical constants for life suggests the universe has a purpose, but that God’s existence doesn’t follow, since a benevolent, omnipotent entity would’ve made a better world. After considering various alternatives, Goff propounds a form of panpsychism, where some form of mind underlies the material world and has chosen to enable development of life and consciousness. Along the way, Goff argues that free will exists and, in a postscript, that society should be more socialistic.
How’d any of this bring up the Puerto Rico anecdote? Goff criticizes those who argue that a fine-tuned universe suggests there are multiple universes for committing the “inverse gambler’s fallacy.” The gambler’s fallacy is thinking that a run of bad luck means a better outcome is imminent. The inverse would be seeing a gambler have a run of good luck, and thinking there must be many other gamblers in the casino, to make it more likely someone would have such an outcome; it’s a fallacy to think the presence of other gamblers affects the odds of the one outcome that’s been observed. Similarly, other universes, if they exist, have no bearing on an improbable situation in our universe, according to Goff.
There’s a debate about whether this analogy holds, which I won’t try to sort out. I’m intrigued that such an arcane topic can evoke memories and thoughts so tenuously connected to the matter. Fallacies involving gamblers reminded me of a wisecracking gambler I met long ago. His girlfriend stands out in my mind, even though our interaction was limited. Her legs reminded me of a Greek goddess, and I note there are selection effects at work: she walked towards me because we’d met before; and she walked rather than swam because the water was shallow. Some of the debate about fine-tuning has to do with selection effects.
Late in Goff’s book, he argues for “cosmic purposivism,” an outlook of seeking to make the universe better on a belief that the potential for such improvement is central to existence. He contrasts that with “helping your kin alone—the exclusive concern of the Mafia boss—or helping your nation alone—the exclusive concern of the fascist.” I suspect the word “Mafia,” evoking the laundered money I’d heard about decades ago, helped spark my circuitous thoughts about that witty gambler and his hot girlfriend.
—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber