William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Summary Against Modern Thought: Chance Is Not A Cause

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

Be careful! Aquinas does not use ‘chance’ in the way we do now.

Chapter 39 That the distinction of things is not from chance(alternate translation)

1 HAVING disposed of those matters which relate to the production of things, it remains for us to treat of those which call for our consideration as regards the distinction of things. Of these the first that we have to prove is that the distinction of things is not from chance.

2 For chance occurs only in those things which it is possible to be otherwise, since we do not ascribe to chance those that are necessarily and always. Now it was shown above that certain things have been created in whose nature there is no possibility of not being, such as immaterial substances and those which are not composed of contraries. Wherefore it is impossible that their substances be from chance. But it is by their substances that they are mutually distinct. Therefore their distinction is not from chance.

Notes “Chance”, as Aquinas uses it, deals only with the contingent, which are things “which it is possible to be otherwise.”

3 Moreover. Since chance is only in those things that are possibly otherwise, and since the principle of this possibility is matter and not their form, which in fact determines the possibility of matter to one; it follows that those things which are distinct by their forms are not distinct by chance, but perhaps those things are, whose distinction is from matter. But the distinction of species is from the form, and the distinction of singulars in the same species, is from matter. Wherefore the specific distinction of things cannot be from chance, but perhaps chance causes the distinction of certain individuals.

4 Also. Since matter is the principle and cause of casual things, as we have shown, there may be chance in the making of things produced from matter. But it was proved above that the first production of things into being was not from matter. Wherefore there is no place for chance in them. Yet the first production of things must needs have included their distinction: since there are many created things which are neither produced from one another, nor from something common, because they do not agree in matter. Therefore it is impossible for the distinction of things to be from chance.

Notes Matter takes on form. The same matter can (often) be refashioned into other forms. The forms themselves cannot be from chance. The accidents which are not essentially to a thing instantiating a form can be “from chance.” A red car and a blue car are both cars, and the color could be by “chance.” This leads to the next arguments.

5 Again. A per se cause is before an accidental cause. Hence if later things are from a determinate per se cause, it is unfitting to say that the first things are from an undeterminate accidental cause. Now the distinction of things naturally precedes their movements and operations: since determinate movements and operations belong to things determinate and distinct. But movements and operations of things are from per se and determinate causes, since we find that they proceed from their causes in the same way either always or for the most part. Therefore the distinction of things is also from a per se determinate cause, and not from chance, which is an indeterminate accidental cause.

6 Moreover. The form of anything that proceeds from an intellectual voluntary agent is intended by the agent. Now the universe of creatures has for its author God Who is an agent by His will and intellect, as proved above. Nor can there be any defect in His power, so that He fail of His intention: since His power is infinite, as was proved above. It follows therefore that the form of the universe is intended and willed by God. Therefore it is not from chance: for we ascribe to chance those things which are beside the intention of the agent. Now the form of the universe consists in the distinction and order of its parts. Therefore the distinction of things is not from chance.

7 Further. That which is good and best in the effect is the end of its production. But the good and the best in the universe consists in the mutual order of its parts, which is impossible without distinction: since by this order the universe is established as one whole, and this is its best. Therefore the order of the parts of the universe and their distinction is the end of the production of the universe. Therefore the distinction of things is not from chance…

9 Hereby is excluded the opinion of the ancient natural philosophers who affirmed that there was only a material cause, and no other, from which all things were made by expansion and cohesion. For these are compelled to say that the distinction of things which we observe in the universe resulted, not from the intentional ordinance of one, but from the chance movement of matter.

10 Likewise is excluded the opinion of Democritus and Leucippus, who postulated an infinite number of material principles, namely indivisible bodies of the same nature, but differing in shape, order, and position, to whose convergence–which must needs be fortuitous, since they denied the existence of an active cause–they ascribed the diversity among things, on account of the three aforesaid differences of atoms, to wit, of shape, order, and position: wherefore it followed that the distinction of things was by chance: and from what has been said this is clearly false.

Notes So what is “chance”, then? Not a thing, not a cause; rather it is the effect of unanticipated, or rather accidental causes. Argument 9 is still compelling to moderns, but only because they believe, or implicitly accept, chance is ontic. Saying something is “caused by chance” is to give up saying what actually caused the thing.

It takes something actual to actualize a potential, and actualities can only operate insofar as they have powers, and these powers are not (on earth) absolute; they have restrictions. Thus there can’t be “chance” as an actual thing. It is only epistemological.

24 Comments

  1. richard stadter

    June 12, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Hello,
    I’m not a smarty. I have been smart-alecky far too much. I do struggle as I read these posts. Please help me with these areas.
    “The form of anything that proceeds from an intellectual voluntary agent is intended by the agent. ” This was said with reference to the universe. I was wondering “what about the affects of sin?” Sin affects all things. I recall the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 where, talking about marriage and divorce, He says “from the beginning it has not been this way (v.8).” He was making a point about intent and original design, yet there was an accommidation by Moses because of man’s sinful nature. Now I recognize that misusing something and redefining something is not the same as creating a new thing or changing the intent, but that those things do change a form or image is what I am trying to demonstrate or use as a basis for explaining my questions. If God is omnipotent, and He is, and if God created all things of creation well, and He did, did He not create in them the potential to deviate from His will, as is evident in mankind and is obvious in its effects upon nature and the universe? Does this creation of potential evil make God unjust? No, He cannot be. Do the effects of evil ruin God’s plans? Ultimately no. His plans will be fulfilled. Has God designed the potential and effects of evil to bring about His purposes? I think we must say yes and recognize the tension between His justice, love and power. Through Christ and His work, all things will be made right, and that was the plan prior to the foundations of the world, yet now immediately and the universe remains marred. Forgive me for thinking outloud as I type but the form of the universe exhibiting the boundary of design and intent seems a circular argument unless we acknowledge that it has been affected by sin and will one day be restored, changed, perfected ( Romans 8). Am I making any sense?

  2. richard stadter

    June 12, 2016 at 10:39 am

    “yet NOT immediately”

  3. Aquinas had a hard time with the notion chance as well. I don’t think he understood the forming of matter from non-matter as simply a change in form (energy-to-matter, for instance), but rather as magic. Chance in this context is simply a way of saying, “we don’t know the details of how.” Since Aquinas claims to know the details (or at least the base assumption that a magical God did it), he dismisses the uncertainty and therefore the chance. Ironically, his view is quite primitive compared to the classical thinkers he says to disregard.

    JMJ

  4. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 12, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I don’t think he understood the forming of matter from non-matter as simply a change in form (energy-to-matter, for instance)

    But energy is a form of matter and so a tranformation from energy to some other form of matter is not being from non-being.

  5. It’s instructive that JMJ can’t even get the science right.

  6. How do you guys even read this blog? You can’t even understand my comments. Of course I KNOW how physics work (as a modern educated man), and AQUINAS did not, of course, but he guessed in a way that was primitive compared to the classical thinkers he was saying should be disregarded. What’s the matter with you too? Please tell me it is at least adolescent teasing and not genuine stupidity.

    JMJ

  7. Richard S.
    Your guess is as good as anybody else’s.
    Don’t be hoodwinked into thinking it takes somebody smart to conclude about these things. The subject is too important to swallow somebody else’s opinion.

    There are no answers, only options.
    Otherwise prepare to be pressured. Some things are not up for discussion.
    Not my attitude, my observation.

  8. I think that if we condense Tom’s discourse by defining “chance” as a physical occurrence without any obvious, apparent, or discerned immediate cause or purpose the matter becomes more intelligible.

    It is well known and easily demonstrable by any student of physics (and intuitively known by any sane rational being) that nothing in the physical realm will ever “do” anything (no movement, change, occurrence) without something that causes it. A stone will remain just where it is unless it is “moved” by something(s). Even an electron will not jump a spark gap unless it is “pushed” to do so.

    Some events with few unknown contingencies are quite predictable and are not considered “chance” occurrences… like holding a house brick over your head and letting go of it… no sane would regard being hit on the head with that brick “chance”.

    I am completely confident that “chance” is the effect of unexplained causes and not, in any way, or even possibly, the unexplained cause of effects.

    Jersey, quantum physics is fascinating stuff. At that level lots of “things” only seem to exist as “properties” or “qualities”. Quite consistent, in my opinion, with the proposition that physical Creation is “a great thought in a great Mind”.

  9. richard stadter

    June 13, 2016 at 5:10 am

    Oldavid- very good perspective.

  10. “It is well known and easily demonstrable by any student of physics (and intuitively known by any sane rational being) that nothing in the physical realm will ever “do” anything (no movement, change, occurrence) without something that causes it.”

    Yet, evidently, it needs pointing out, over and over and over again. I’m not sure why this is but am starting to raise my eyebrows at the regularity with which the obvious is stated and in such a way as it is to be considered a revelation.

    Even a dog knowns when something moves apparently on it’s own that it is irregular, so is afraid or startled. I was going to say a two year old as a witness of such a thing until I remembered dogs also register normal ‘movement’ of things.

    Still, chance and cause is a different matter.

    Quantum physics?
    Not everybody who understands quantum physics agrees with the theory. The individual I am thinking of is nearly as contemptuous of it as he is about the existence of God.

    QM is a club wherein everybody pretends to understand it, very few actually do but as long as you don’t admit it you will be accepted. “Go with the grain”.

    How silly they will look. Yet when the ideas are cast aside many of it’s loudest proponents will pretend they always doubted it anyway.
    It is the way with intellectuals who suffer from great pride in their work.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 13, 2016 at 7:05 am

    he guessed in a way that was primitive compared to the classical thinkers he was saying should be disregarded.

    Which classical thinker did he propose to disregard, Aristotle? Let us grant that he answered the objections of Parmenides, but he was going with the scientific consensus of the ancients, who Aristotelians, Platonists, and Stoics alike likewise disregarded. And of course he accepted the ‘settled science’ of the ancients where he had no means of refuting it. His central interest was not the physics of matter in any case, but he did contribute a thing or two. For example, he contended that the qualities of material bodies, such as heat and color, had quantitative extensions. IOW, heat could in theory be measured as ‘temperature’ if only some instrument could be invented to do so. He was surely not the only person to do so, but nonetheless this marked an important step from the qualitative science of the ancients to the quantitative science of the moderns.

    To get the full thrust of his thinking in this area, try here:
    http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Physics.htm

  12. swordfishtrombone

    June 13, 2016 at 7:09 am

    @ Joy:

    There’s essentially zero chance of QM being wrong. It’s the most accurate, most thoroughly tested scientific theory ever devised. I can’t remember exact figures, but it’s predictions have been measured to 20 decimal places of accuracy decades ago and no observations which contradict it have been made in 100 years despite ever more elaborate experiments.

    The only problem QM has is that it reveals nature to be counter-intuitive and non-classical at a fundamental level. Some people just aren’t prepared to accept that, so invent all sorts of interpretations which are inevitably flat-out wrong. The fact that we can’t visualise how something can be a wave and a point-like particle at the same time doesn’t mean nature can’t make it so.

  13. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 13, 2016 at 7:20 am

    Chance, in the physics of the day, meant the crossing of two (or more) causal lines. Kamraj the bus driver had reasons (largely explicable by his break schedule) for being on the campus of Bharathidasan Engineering College. The meteorite too had reasons (largely explicable by Newtonian mechanics and orbital dynamics) for being there. But for the unhappy congruence of Kamraj and the meteorite, there is no separate reason, just as there is no reason for the moon being in full phase at the same time I eat a bowl of kashi. That is, there is no causal connection to a coincidence, which is why it is truly said the correlation is not causation.

  14. sft: you’re thinking of QCD.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 13, 2016 at 11:50 am

    There’s essentially zero chance of QM being wrong. It’s the most accurate, most thoroughly tested scientific theory ever devised.

    There’s a difference between the observable facts (quia) and a theory or interpretation devised to explain them (propter quid). Through any finite collection of facts you can draw innumerable theories, just as through any collection of stars you can draw innumerable constellations. But measuring the movements of Polaris to 20 decimals does not prove that Ursa Major is correct. Or to quote the bumpkin Thomas Aquinas:

    The suppositions that these astronomers have invented need not necessarily be true; for perhaps the phenomena of the stars are explicable on some other plan not yet discovered by men
    De coelo, II, lect. 17

    or again

    “the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established, because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them.”
    Summa theologica, I, q.32, a.1, ad. 2

    This was several hundred years before Popper.

    That is why is it useful to distinguish between quantum mechanics, the mathematical formalism that works out so well, and quantum theory, the interpretation of what that formalism means. See, e.g., the wave/particle duality predicted by Bohm’s ‘standing wave’ theory of quantum mechanics.

    +++++++

    For some comments on chance, see here:
    https://thomism.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/newsflash-some-things-happen-by-chance/

    and here:
    https://thomism.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/the-definition-of-chance/

  16. How do you guys even read this blog? You can’t even understand my comments. Of course I KNOW how physics work

    Yes we can, and no you don’t.

  17. swordfishtrombone

    June 14, 2016 at 6:47 am

    @ YOS: “But energy is a form of matter and so a tranformation from energy to some other form of matter is not being from non-being.”

    But “non-being”, by definition, doesn’t exist.

  18. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 14, 2016 at 7:13 am

    But “non-being”, by definition, doesn’t exist.

    Exactly.

  19. swordfishtrombone

    June 14, 2016 at 10:13 am

    @ YOS: “Exactly”.

    You didn’t understand. It doesn’t exist so “being from non-being” is meaningless.

  20. YOS,
    More food for thought than a disagreement.

    Is matter a form of energy or vice versa? In a nuclear or chemical reaction the rearrangement of the reactants into products can be expressed as a change in mass or binding energy as related by E = mc^2. The excess can appear as kinetic or radiant energy. I’m not sure that this means that matter is a form of energy (binding energy?).

    If an electron and a positron annihilate to form two or more gamma rays has mass been converted to energy given that you need a matter-antimatter pair to do this. You certainly start with a mass of twice the electron and end with massless particles but is the photon a form of energy or a type of matter? Since momentum must be conserved this would argue for the latter.

    Can you produce matter from pure energy alone? It would seem not. You must run the particle reactions in reverse so to speak. You need a gamma ray of sufficient energy interacting with an electric field in order to conserve momentum.

    What is energy beyond an abstraction, i.e. the ability to do work? It is thus a way of keeping track of particle reactions. Then again, what is matter (mass)? That is the tricky question. What gives particles mass and how is the gravitational force mediated? Thus I am not sure what people mean when they say matter is a form of energy. I think it is more bookkeeping. An analogy: is ice a form of water?

  21. STB,
    Thank you for the reasoned response. It’s refreshing. Confident people don’t need to insult people.

    Despite todays post, I am unmoved on this.
    It is not that the individual I mentioned did not understand. It is that he did not concur. .
    _________

  22. You didn’t understand. It doesn’t exist so “being from non-being” is meaningless.

    No, he did. It isn’t meaningless, it is, however, on its own impossible. Being can only come from something in existence; namely, that which cannot be named due to sensitivities.

  23. swordfishtrombone

    June 17, 2016 at 10:23 am

    @ dover_beach:

    Inventing something which doesn’t exist (nothing) then saying those things which do exist must have ‘come from’ the ‘nothing’ is meaningless.

  24. swordfishtrombone

    June 17, 2016 at 10:30 am

    @ YOS:

    “There’s a difference between the observable facts and a theory or interpretation devised to explain them.”

    That depends. If reality is fundamentally mathematical in nature (as it appears to be) then maybe there isn’t any ultimate difference.

    That aside, and bearing in mind I’m not any sort of expert on this, all ‘interpretations’ of QM are just wrong and don’t fit the facts. (Pilot-wave theory doesn’t account for spin, for instance) Your ‘many theories explaining the same facts’ argument is therefore inapplicable.

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