Definition

The lottery fallacy arises when we invalidly infer x must be designed because x is improbable.

Examples

1) I conclude that Bob must have cheated when he won the lottery because the odds of him winning were twenty million to one.

2) Some argue the teleological argument commits this fallacy because it is argued the universe must be designed because the laws of the universe (or some things in the universe) are so improbable.

Discussion

The fact that Bob won does not mean the lottery was rigged or that Bob was meant to win. Rather, we say Bob was lucky. After all, somebody had to win. Improbability does not always support design.

This fallacy is important in philosophy of religion where it is sometimes argued that the life-sustaining conditions of the universe are highly improbable, so the universe must be designed and that God is probably this designer. It is hotly debated, but this might be a lottery fallacy since some universe had to arise, and we are just incredibly lucky this one arose.

However, at some point, crushing improbabilities do indicate design. For example, I would be suspicious if Bob won the lottery every day for an entire year. I would infer that his is not simply lucky, but has a system to win or is cheating. Still, people can agree that it is fallacious to infer design from simple improbability.

How to avoid

Understand that something has to happen even if all possibilities are highly improbable. Understand that someone will probably win the lottery even if each person has a very low probability of winning. Be careful about jumping from improbability to design. Study math, probability, and statistics.

Exercise

1. Sometimes it is valid to infer x must be designed because x is improbable. Can you give any examples?
2. How can we tell when the lottery fallacy is applicable?