Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Cult of Chance

I am reading as many books as I can by Fr. Stanley Jaki, in preparation for my one-man show, Science and Religion, in which I will portray Fr. Jaki at the Portsmouth Institute Conference next June.

One of the fun things about reading Fr. Jaki is that he makes intriguing off-handed comments in all of his books that you wish he'd elaborate on more, but you find you have to read more of his books to get a sense of what he's saying.

Take this aside from his Miracles and Physics (Christendom Press, 1999)

Miracles should seem to abound even today except for those who take refuge in bad philosophy of which its present most fashionable kind is steeped in the cult of chance. Only they fail to give a definition of chance which is more satisfactory than the handy use of that word to cover-up one's ignorance.

What a great phrase - The Cult of Chance. Fr. Jaki means by this the devotion to Chance as the catch-all for materialists and agnostics and Darwinists, who ascribe to "mere chance" or the "random combination of matter" everything we see around us.

What causes evolution? Chance mutations. What causes consciousness in man? Chance chemistry and random firings of neurons. What determines our fate? Chance.

But Fr. Jaki tantalizes us with the implied challenge to define Chance. Jaki himself does not do so in the paragraph from which I quote. He merely points out that the idolators of the god Chance fail to define the word, using it as a catch-all, a buzz-word to cover ignorance.

In fact, it's worse than that. The acolytes of Chance are not merely using a word to cover what's missing in their thinking, they are making what's missing into what's there, into the source of all that's there.

So before you read further, accept Fr. Jaki's implied challenge. Define Chance.

Here's my own definition, an easy one, and one helped along by St. Thomas Aquinas and his meditations on Chance. And though it's a two-word definition, I think it's an accurate one - accurate enough to reveal the sleight-of-hand behind the Randomists, if we can coin a term for those who worship that which is Random.

The definition is this. Chance is unintended events.

Now the first thing to note about this definition is that it begs the question, "unintended by whom?" St. Thomas points out that strictly speaking nothing is "unintended" by God, for example. Nothing is outside of either His positive will or His permissive will.

But leaving God outside of the question, this definition would mean "unintended by man" or "unintended by any agent capable of intentionality".

When we roll the dice, for example, the result we get is determined - determined by a jumble of causes that we can not control. The jarring back and forth of the dice, the surface of the table they land on, the atmospheric pressure - thousands of causes will determine the number the dice display when their jarring ceases. But these causes are (practically speaking) beyond our control; thus the effect is beyond the scope of our intent.

We can know something about the probability of the event, based on a mathematical analysis of the history of previous roles of the dice, extrapolated into the future. But we can not intend the result of a particular number on the dice, the way we can intend to pick up a flower or pass the mustard to the person who asks for it. (If we could, we would clean up at Vegas). Events that we have willed to do (and that turn out the way we willed them) are not chance events. Events that are beyond our will - though caused by who knows what - are (from our perspective) chance events.

Defining Chance clearly, then, reveals something interesting.

What it reveals is that nothing can happen by chance.

What I mean when I say that nothing can happen by chance is that quite literally nothing can happen by the agency of or caused by chance - for the phrase "by chance" implies that Chance is an agent, that Chance does something.

Chance does nothing. Chance, in a sense, is nothing. Chance is our word for a lack of agency. To say, "This was caused by a lack of agency" is like saying "this was caused by a lack of cause". What we mean when we say "this happened by chance" is "this event was caused by something that is beyond the scope of our intent".

Chance thus refers to the event, not the cause, except insofar as the word refers to our lack of possible participation in the cause.

Of course this opens up the shady area of the intent of creatures without free will. When a tree moves nutrients throughout its structure, this movement is not an "unintended event", though assigning "intent" to a plant is stretching what that word typically means.

The point here, without going further, is simply that "chance" refers to results that happen outside of a perceived deliberate agency, and the hallmark of all living matter is a kind of intentionality or deliberate doing - so all events intended and caused by a living agent are not chance events.

Thus, to say that evolution is caused by random or chance mutations is simply to say that evolution is caused by nothing deliberate. And this is tantamount to saying, "We don't know what causes it".

But how many evolutionists are honest enough to say, "Evolution is our word for the slow development over the eons of living things from simplicity of form and function to complexity of form and function, and we have absolutely no idea what causes it." Instead you'll hear them gloat, "We all evolved by chance."

Thereby covering their ignorance with pride and making a Something out of nothing.


Mark Scott Abeln said...

Very interesting!

I do know that there are at least two schools regarding Probability Theory -- the Frequentists and the Bayesians. Whenever you see a disagreement in mathematics, then you know that they've crossed the line from mathematics to metaphysics.

It's said that biology is for people who like science but are bad at math. Nowadays, I'd add that the sciences are for people who like the truth but are bad at philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Read up on Chaos Theory; that one puts a bee in the evolutionists bonnet.

ck said...

I cannot recommend Jaki enough. I will say, though, that I was surprised that he called the miracle at Fatima a natural phenomenon.

Howard said...

I think your definition of "chance" still needs to be tweaked. Lack of predictability seems to be at least as important as lack of intention in the actual use of the word "chance". For example, let's say I am preoccupied by job and family pressures so that I eat what is quick and convenient, not necessarily healthy, and get too little exercise. As a result, I get fat. It was not my intention to get fat; it was the unintended consequence of my preoccupation with other matters. In spite of this, anyone who knew me would see clearly what was happening and easily predict that I would gain weight. They would not buy my contention that I became fat either through chance or the inscrutable will of God. By the way, I know that this would still count as a voluntary action, but you focused on intention, not whether or not the action was voluntary.

Kevin O'Brien said...

But, Gorilla Grodd - I mean, Howard - aren't you describing "probability", which is the science of cause and effect as defined mathematically?

In other words, we can look at the world and find that effects arise from causes, but we have neither full knowledge of the causes, nor a complete understanding of their relation to effects, and so the best we can do sometimes is to describe a large picture of causes and their various effects over time. We can paint this picture mathematically, and we can be quite accurate within the large frame of the picture - the more events and the longer the time, the more the picture will conform to our equation of probability; while in specific cases, the frame is too big to tell us much more than "chances are".

So perhaps a better definition of chance would include "unintended or unpredictable effects arising from a particular instance of a cause".

Howard said...

Grodd gets better pay than I do.

Your definition of chance is becoming unwieldy. What does "arising from a particular instance of a cause" mean here? It does not seem to add definition to your definition.

Worse, I still get to blame being overweight on chance, since you used "unintended OR unpredictable" effects.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by your middle paragraph. At the very least you seem to be advocating a frequentist interpretation of probability, but I am concerned that you may also be relying on a classical view of the universe, such as that expressed by Laplace (paraphrased by Hawking to eliminate the overly complicated sentence structure): "If at one time, we knew the positions and speeds of all the particles in the universe, then we could calculate their behaviour at any other time, in the past or future." This view has been convincingly disproven by a variety of careful experiments.

Kevin O'Brien said...

OK, Grodd, then go back to the original definition, which is Aquinas', not mine. Chance is that which is unintended, or (to be more precise) uncontrolled. Chance is our word for an absence of agency that we can define: for we know an agent by its effects.

Thus caloric intake leading to weight gain is not a lack of definable agency, nor is it beyond control. We know the cause and its effect.

And I invite you to offer your definition of chance if you don't like this one.

By the way, if there is a "non locality" aspect to nature, how does that negate what I'm saying about chance?

Kevin O'Brien said...

What I mean in that last question, Howard, is even if one cause produces a non-local event, or an event outside of the normal flow of time, it's still cause and effect - and, from the point of view of the definition of chance, nothing has changed. Things are still determined by other things. "Chance" is still our word for our ignorance of how an outcome is controlled.

Howard said...

Yes, I will probably write a post on chance soon on my own blog.

In the classical universe, it is possible to observe the universe without making any significant change to it. In the quantum universe, that is not possible. It is impossible to know what is happening in the universe without observing it, but the very act of observation makes changes to the universe that may be significant and that are impossible, even in principle, to predict. Many people do not like to believe that we live in a quantum universe; Einstein was one, even though he contributed some important ideas to quantum mechanics. Too bad! The Nazis didn't like the fact that we live in a universe where "Jewish physics" works, either, but in no case do we get to choose what universe we live in.

Kevin O'Brien said...

But our observations affect only sub-atomic particles. To jump from this to the strange quasi-Taoism that some scientists claim it implies is ridiculous.

After all, you can't observe a dark room with your naked eyes and see anything without turning the light on. And turning the light on changes the object you're observing - even in the macro-world. Does this imply that subjectivism is the proper philosophy of the day? Of course not. But many good scientists and bad philosophers would have us think so.

Howard said...

I've written about chance at greater length on my on blog.

Three quick comments. (1) Most quantum effects are confined to the microscopic, but not all. Superfluids and superconductors are examples of macroscopic quantum phenomena. There is no magic insulation that protects the macroscopic world from the unsettling aspects of quantum mechanics. (2) According to 19th-century physics, it should have been possible to make the lights arbitrarily dim so that the effect on the room would be arbitrarily small, but with careful enough measurement it could still be observed. (We're not really talking about the human eye, of course, which has definite limitations; we're talking about what might be done in principle with sufficiently advanced technology.) Quantum mechanics says that there is a minimum amount of disturbance which is very very small by human standards, but which is not arbitrarily small. (3) Subjectivism has nothing to do with science, so "good scientists" might have any opinion regarding it. "Bad philosophers" might believe anything, including the truth; they are bad philosophers because they do not know the right standards for judging whether something is true.

Kevin O'Brien said...

But then what's your point? If to observe we must disturb, then it's the disturbance that causes the effect.

So if there's still cause and effect, on both the micro and the macro level, then how does this effect my definition of chance?

Perhaps this is better: CHANCE is an unintended effect or an effect whose relation to a cause cannot be clearly predicted or correlated.

What I'm trying to get at, Howard, is that cause and effect still operate on the micro level, though in ways that surprise or befuddle us.

Thanks for your input here, by the way. It's helping me sort this out, and maybe the odd reader or two who may stumble upon this old post ... by chance.

Howard said...

What breaks down is the one-to-one mapping of cause and effect. Let me give a specific example. Suppose I set up a Stern-Gerlach experiment and shoot a silver atom through an inhomogeneous magnetic field to measure the y-component of its spin, and that the measurement shows Sy = +1/2. After that measurement, the atom will be in an eigenstate of the y-component of spin, which is not an eigenstate of the z-component of spin. As far as the z-component of spin is concerned, it is in the same situation as Schrödinger's Cat. I go ahead and measure the z-component of the atom's spin anyhow. The measurement will cause it to have a well-defined value -- either +1/2 or -1/2 -- because that happens predictably and certainly. This time, when I take the measurement the z-component of the atom's spin is -1/2. what caused it to have the value -1/2 instead of +1/2? I can run it through identical measurements of the y- and z-components of spin, and because these are incompatible observables the measurements will not be consistent -- but if I keep measuring the z-component only (or the y-component only), the results will be the same every time.

As a result, you have to either say, "Chance causes it to have the value -1/2," or, "Effects are not fully determined by their causes." If you choose the latter, I would say you are talking about influences, not causes.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Howard.

Please bear with me, as I am a layman when it comes to physics. All I'm trying to do here is pierce through the philosophical implications of these things.

Let me focus on your last paragraph, 'As a result, you have to either say, "Chance causes it to have the value -1/2," or, "Effects are not fully determined by their causes." If you choose the latter, I would say you are talking about influences, not causes'.

Why can you not say, "We don't know what causes it to have the value of -1/2. And our word for our ignorance of the cause is CHANCE." This is true even if you only know a portion of what may be many causes or influences at work.

Phrasing it this way preserves the mistaken notion that "chance" causes anything. Chance is a negative. It is the absence of intent or of a known cause.

To say that Chance causes something is like answering the question, "Who put the mustard in the fridge?" with "No one and nothing put it there", rather than with, "I don't know."

My whole point is chance is not an agent. You can't ascribe agency to the absence of agency.

But are you saying that at some level of physics there literally is no agent - or are you saying there is no discernable agent? That is, obviously, a huge difference.

Thanks again for bearing with me in all this. It's fascinating stuff. I know we both may get too busy to attend to this thread regularly, but it's fun when we can!