The Great Conversation:
Chance

By Gabriel Blanchard

Chance is one of those strange ideas that seems quite natural as long as you aren't thinking about it.

The general scientific outlook of today makes chance a kind of misnomer, a stand-in word for something we simply don’t understand. (As C. S. Lewis remarks of the idea of instinct, “To say migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way.”) One of the most famous examples of the importance of chance, “chaos theory,” is in reality a theory of rigid order—no event, however minuscule, can escape the interlocking laws of cause and effect. That this makes physical reality difficult if not impossible to predict does not, on this showing, make it any less orderly; the problem is that its order is too finely tuned for our observations to detect.

In this narrative, chance takes on more or less the same character as fate, and it is significant that some proverbs can alternate between “fate” and “fortune” in the way they are recited, with the principal difference being one of atmosphere. “Fate favors the prepared” and “fortune favors the bold” are near-identical sentiments, save that one evokes the importance of wisdom and the other the importance of courage. The Medievals made much of the figure of Fortune, whose continuously-turning wheel exalted men and brought them low alike; in the seventh canto of the Inferno, Dante makes Fortune an almost angelic figure: where other angels spin the planets they govern, Fortune spins, or rather stirs, the sphere of the earth, to keep it from growing stagnant.

Chance is not quite the same thing as contingency, an idea we will be discussing at greater length in its own Great Conversation post. What is contingent is what could have been different, that which did not have to happen; chance suggests something that has no cause at all. Whether this is even a coherent idea differs from one thinker to the next. Interestingly, the deterministic materialist and the transcendental theist tend to align here, in allowing for contingency but rejecting the idea of chance, or at least of rejecting it as anything more than a mental convenience, a shorthand for the limits of our knowledge: the one rejects chance as a truncation of the laws of nature, the other as an impossibility before the omniscience and omnipotence of the deity.

Chance is a word void of sense; nothing can exist without a cause.

Voltaire

One of the earliest advocates of chance as uncaused was Lucretius, a Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher of the first century BC. The Epicureans were strict materialists, but also supported the idea of free will; Lucretius accounted for this by positing that, in the otherwise deterministic movement of atoms that compose the world, some of them randomly diverge from their course, without any cause at all. In this randomness he found a basis for free will. Most other schools of thought in antiquity found this dissatisfying; the Stoics, who were also materialists, responded by rejecting free will, while Platonists, Jews, and Christians rejected materialism. Curiously enough, if we affirm the idea that chance means the uncaused, then the Christian doctrine that God is the uncaused cause would make him, in a sense, the only entity who exists “by chance.”

But whatever its objective reality, even if chance is nothing but a shorthand for the limits of our knowledge, it does identify those limits. The whole branch of mathematics which we call probability is in a sense the study of chance, an attempt to use statistics from the past to predict the future. The same is true of its close relative, game theory, which adds tools like psychology to its arsenal of strategy-building. One of the striking things about both fields is how counter-intuitive they can be, even at elementary levels: the famous Monty Hall problem is an excellent example, as is Simpson’s paradox. It would seem that the attempt to study the limits of our knowledge—to study our own ignorance, as it were—throws out paradoxes as a matter of course.

Suggested reading:
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
Aristotle, Physics
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.22
George Boole, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought
John Maynard Keynes, A Treatise on Probability

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If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Copernicus and Dostoevsky or this essay on the one and the many. You might also like our weekly podcast, Anchored, and our new seminar series, the Journey Through the Author Bank.

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