Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sod's Law

I propose that Sod's Law is a very pessimistic idea. It implies that there are situations that reality just imposes on us, that we aren't responsible for and can't do anything about. But as Popper says, "The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted - except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite." I don't think that Sod's Law is compatible with Popper's view of reality.

If you imagine a situation in which something happens that you would prefer did not happen—let's say, your interesting friend phones you at precisely the same time that your favorite TV show starts. That is Sod's Law.

Now, let's imagine potential solutions. You could ask your friend to hang on a moment, record your TV show (perhaps you have TiVo, which would be convenient), and continue the phone call. You could ask your friend quickly if you can call them back later, and then watch your TV show. You could revise your opinion of the TV show and decide that you didn't really care about it anyway. You could watch the TV show again on Youtube. You could ask your friend to talk to you on AIM instead, and then continue the conversation via IM whilst watching the TV show. You could ask your friend to email to you whatever it was they wanted to say, and then respond to the email when the TV show is finished.

There are more solutions that one could come up with. But there's quite a lot up there that take less than sixty seconds to implement, so let's imagine that one of them is suitable for you. You have solved the problem, and Sod's Law is no longer in effect, because you are no longer being inconvenienced.

Complaining about Sod's Law is irrational. You can just think about the problem and solve it and then it doesn't exist any more. That is a rational way to behave. Throwing yourself at the mercy of situations and refusing to apply any creativity to them, and then complaining that reality is in some way inherently harmful or unpleasant in some percentage of situations (which is what Sod's Law means) isn't a very good policy.


  1. Wouldn't incurable cancer be a situation reality imposed on you and you couldn't be responsible for?

  2. There is no such thing as incurable cancer. All cancer is curable; we simply lack the knowledge of how to cure it. But cancer is not /an insoluble problem/. And there exist lots of problems we haven't solved yet, such as how to live without religion (before you say that you're an atheist, you still have a lot of detailed knowledge of religion; I do not believe there is anybody who exists with no knowledge of religion). Even in the case of incurable cancer, reality is not /inherently harmful/. Man shapes reality to his own specifications, within the laws of physics, through creating knowledge and solving problems.

    I think that in light of the above points, even cancer is not an excuse to lapse into negative interpretations and pessimism.

    I point to Feynman as a good example of what to do when you have cancer.

  3. Having and solving a problem is not the same thing as not having a problem.

    Sod's Law is true: sometimes problems *do* occur when not convenient. It says nothing of the solubility of these problems; merely that they occur. As such, it is neither insightful or useful. It's about as pessimistic as observing that sometimes food tastes better with salt added.

    The social practice of observing an event to be an instance of Sod's Law serves only as a shorthand for indicating that the new problem has occurred at an inconvenient time.

  4. ubermammal, do you not think that Sod's Law contains implications that reality is inherently unpleasant, and also that there are some problems that we shouldn't/can't take responsibility for solving? I mean, implications in the way it's usually used.

  5. The cancer would be incurable for the person who lived before the cure was invented.

    Reality is inherently unplesant. Pleasantness is something people have to create for themselves.

  6. So when pleasantness is created, it is not actually real?

  7. It wasn't real before it was created. For the person who died before the solution was created, the problem was insoluble. There is no "we" as you know.

  8. (Hm, could have sworn I already replied to this.)

    "do you not think that Sod's Law contains implications that the universe is inherently unpleasant"

    I think it contains implications that the universe is inherently inconvenient. I think that's true; we can create knowledge of how to mitigate those inconveniences or render them moot, but the universe itself is most definitely very inconvenient for us. Particles don't move the way we want them to, the sun doesn't shine on the right parts of the earth at the right times, and so on.

    "and also that there are some problems that we shouldn't/can't take responsibility for solving?"

    No, I don't think the usual use of Sod's Law implies that at all. Just because the problem is inconvenient, does not mean it does not still have to be solved like any other problem. Nobody really thinks, "I don't have to fix this; if my boss complains, I can blame it on Sod's law and he'll be fine with that."

  9. Ubermammal, perhaps one wouldn't think, "my boss would be fine with that". But might people not often be content with giving that excuse to themselves? (Perhaps not.)