From reader Nick L comes this question (in which I hope I have properly rendered the Greek):
I am still regularly enjoying your blog. I notice one of your consistent claims is that there is no such “thing” as “chance” or “randomness,” and I wanted to see how you respond to a couple of objections, if you’d like. They come from the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. This is a lot of stuff, and I know you don’t have infinite time on your hands, but if it interests you I at least wanted to bring it to your attention.
The first “objection” is from Aristotle. He seems to say some things are caused by “chance,” at least as he understands “chance”:
Nor is there any definite cause for an accident, but only chance (τυχόν), namely an indefinite (ὰόριτον) cause …
It is obvious that there are principles and causes which are generable and destructible apart from the actual processes of generation and destruction; for if this is not true, everything will be of necessity: that is, if there must necessarily be some cause, other than accidental, of that which is generated and destroyed. Will this be, or not? Yes, if this happens; otherwise not.
Causes from which chance results might happen are indeterminate; hence chance is obscure to human calculation and is a cause by accident.
My best try at re-phrasing the objection is something like this: there is a cause called “chance,” which is the same thing as a contingent cause, or a cause that by definition could be or could not be. From my reading of Aristotle, I think he along with St. Thomas (in the Commentary on On Interpretation) would point especially to the decisions of men as the paradigmatic “contingent causes.” I.e. if Henry donates $1 million to the college, it will survive another 2 years. We cannot really quantify our uncertainty of the outcome (Pr(the college will survive)) in this case (it’s “obscure to human calculation”), because Henry’s decision is not a coin flip, but a human decision, and we can’t supply any premises to move the probability needle one way or the other.
The second is from Alasdair Macintyre, who writes in After Virtue (pdf, p. 93):
Machiavelli certainly believed as passionately as any thinker of the Enlightenment that our investigations should issue in generalizations which may furnish maxims for enlightened practice. But he also believed that no matter how good a stock of generalizations one amassed and no matter how well one reformulated them, the factor of Fortuna was ineliminable from human life. … We can by improvements in our knowledge limit the sovereignity of Fortuna, bitch-goddess of unpredictability; we cannot dethrone her. But was [Machiavelli] right? I want to argue that there are four sources of systematic unpredictability in human affairs. The first derives from the nature of radical conceptual innovation … [etc.]
It looks like Macintyre, identifying as an Aristotelian, is here trying to draw a line between Fortuna (chance?) and the incalculable “randomness” of the free activity of the human mind. How would you respond? Can we say that “chance” is a cause in this qualified way, i.e. insofar as it is indeterminate and must remain indeterminate?
We’ve met Aristotle’s, and Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle’s, understanding of chance as explanation several times in Summa Contra Gentiles (the on-going Sunday series).
Explanation is a kind of cause, a similar kind of cause expressed as in the “final cause”, i.e. the reason for something being the way it is, but not a power like an efficient cause is. We say “chance” (or randomness, which I won’t keep typing to save effort) is a cause in the sense that it is an explanation. Chance and randomness are not forces, like say gravity is a force, a field which has the power to cause changes in position of things. There is no “chance” field; there is no way to extract or create or manipulate chance, as we can with gravity.
Quoting from 2 Physics iv (from the above SCG link):
Some people even question whether [chance and spontaneity] are real or not. They say that nothing happens by chance, but that everything which we ascribe to chance or spontaneity has some definite cause, e.g. coming ‘by chance’ into the market and finding there a man whom one wanted but did not expect to meet is due to one’s wish to go and buy in the market.
Similarly in other cases of chance it is always possible, they maintain, to find something which is the cause; but not chance, for if chance were real, it would seem strange indeed, and the question might be raised, why on earth none of the wise men of old in speaking of the causes of generation and decay took account of chance; whence it would seem that they too did not believe that anything is by chance…
There are some too who ascribe this heavenly sphere and all the worlds to spontaneity. They say that the vortex arose spontaneously, i.e. the motion that separated and arranged in its present order all that exists. This statement might well cause surprise.
For they are asserting that chance is not responsible for the existence or generation of animals and plants, nature or mind or something of the kind being the cause of them (for it is not any chance thing that comes from a given seed but an olive from one kind and a man from another); and yet at the same time they assert that the heavenly sphere and the divinest of visible things arose spontaneously, having no such cause as is assigned to animals and plants.
Yet if this is so, it is a fact which deserves to be dwelt upon, and something might well have been said about it. For besides the other absurdities of the statement, it is the more absurd that people should make it when they see nothing coming to be spontaneously in the heavens, but much happening by chance among the things which as they say are not due to chance; whereas we should have expected exactly the opposite.
Others there are who, indeed, believe that chance is a cause, but that it is inscrutable to human intelligence, as being a divine thing and full of mystery.
Now 2 Physics v.
A man is engaged in collecting subscriptions for a feast. He would have gone to such and such a place for the purpose of getting the money, if he had known. [But he] actually went there for another purpose and it was only incidentally that he got his money by going there; and this was not due to the fact that he went there as a rule or necessarily, nor is the end effected (getting the money) a cause present in himself — it belongs to the class of things that are intentional and the result of intelligent deliberation. It is when these conditions are satisfied that the man is said to have gone ‘by chance’. If he had gone of deliberate purpose and for the sake of this — if he always or normally went there when he was collecting payments — he would not be said to have gone ‘by chance’.
Notice that chance here is not an ontological (material) thing or force, but a description or a statement of our understanding (of a cause). Aristotle concludes, “It is clear then that chance is an incidental cause in the sphere of those actions for the sake of something which involve purpose. Intelligent reflection, then, and chance are in the same sphere, for purpose implies intelligent reflection.”
And “Things do, in a way, occur by chance, for they occur incidentally and chance is an incidental cause. But strictly it is not the cause — without qualification — of anything; for instance, a housebuilder is the cause of a house; incidentally, a fluteplayer may be so.”
Chance used this way is like the way we use coincidence. But there is also spontaneity, which is similar: “The stone that struck the man did not fall for the purpose of striking him; therefore it fell spontaneously, because it might have fallen by the action of an agent and for the purpose of striking.”
Lastly, “Now since nothing which is incidental is prior to what is per se, it is clear that no incidental cause can be prior to a cause per se. Spontaneity and chance, therefore, are posterior to intelligence and nature. Hence, however true it may be that the heavens are due to spontaneity, it will still be true that intelligence and nature will be prior causes of this All and of many things in it besides.”
Without quoting all of it, Aquinas has a entire chapter in SCG (Book 1, 39) “That the distinction of things is not from chance“. Quoting only paragraph 5 (of 10):
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.
Chance, in short, is the word used to describe effects that were not caused intentionally, toward a known or desired goal. Like the subscription example above (also see this comment from our own YOS). Not intentionally by yourself. But since it always takes something actual to reduce a potentiality to actuality, some power need always need be evoked.
In other words, I stick to it. Chance and randomness are not real.
More can be found in the article and papers reference in Quantum Potency & Probability.
To support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card or PayPal (in any amount) click here