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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Chance, Fortune, Determinism and Indeterminism

Alice C. Linsley

My students have many questions about divine intervention, luck, randomness, etc. Luck is random. There is no pattern with luck. Divine intervention is detected by observing patterns in nature and in human experience over long periods of time (collective memory). Faith is built by those who observe and reflect on what they observe. This is true for religious people and for non-religious people.

Today, as in the ancient world, one hears conversations about individual choice, determinism, randomness, free will, predestination, destiny, fortune, and chance. We have had such discussions in class. To gain some definition, let us consider the meanings of the words chance, fortune, determinism and indeterminism. This will be helpful preparation for the lesson in which we explore the different worldviews of the physicists Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr.

The word chance expresses the idea of swerving, bending or falling away from a determined path. The swerve does not mean that the path will never be regained in the individual's life.

The concept of chance is related to the word “declension” from the Latin verb declino, declinare, declinavi, declinatum, meaning “to turn aside”, in the sense of varying the form of a noun, pronoun or adjective according to its grammatical function. This usage is much like that of inflectere “to bend” which refers to morphological changes. The word inflection, or casus, indicates a “falling” from the basic nominative case.

Chance implies a pattern of decline or inflection or an action that appears to spin off a projected path. Chance permits the possibility of a singularity or a rare anomaly. Soren Kierkegaard believed in chance in as much as he believed that the operation of the supernatural in the natural world may lead to side paths in the individual's life. This is how he understood Abraham's offering of Isaac. Such radical action is sometimes necessary to reach one's existential destiny, but does not represent a total departure from the original path of one's life.

The word fortune expresses the idea of making strong or fortifying. One's fortune is not left to chance, but forged by character and effort. When someone says, "May you have good fortune," they wish for you positive returns for your hard work.

Machiavelli did not believe in chance. He believed in fortune. He wrote in chapter 1 of The Prince that new principalities are won by "the arms of others or with his own, either by fortune or prowess." In other words a person can come into power by fortune or by his own strengthening of his position.

In determinism all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers take determinism to imply that individual humans have no free will and therefore cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

For some, determinism is the mechanistic and impersonal rule of causation from antecedents. This view is typically held by atheists and radical materialists.

Others may see God or some metaphysical explanation for Cause. An extreme view is found in a non-biblical teaching that God has predestined all humans to either heaven or hell.

Albert Einstein held a view that physics is fundamentally determined by laws that can be discovered and explained mathematically. Einstein preferred the determinism of classical physics over the quantum physics of Bohr and Heisenberg in which Complementarity and Uncertainty dictate that all properties and actions in the physical world are to some degree non-deterministic. Einstein and Bohr had good-natured arguments over such issues throughout their lives.

Bohr and Einstein at Paul Ehrenfest's home in Leiden 
(December 1925)

Indeterminism holds that not all events are wholly determined by antecedent causes.  When it comes to human actions, the will is free to make deliberate choices not determined by or predictable from antecedent causes.

Numerous physicists have asserted that a strict determinist view cannot do justice to nature. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Planck units suggest ultimate uncertainty. Complementarity and uncertainty dictate that all properties and actions in the physical world are therefore non-deterministic to some degree.

Now we must consider the principle that observes that randomness resolves itself in patterns. This can be observed in physics experiments and in studies of human thought that show that the human brain will construct meaning where something appears to be meaningless. This is why statistical randomness does not prove the actual existence of true randomness.

Related reading:  Machiavelli Believed in Fortune; Schr√∂dinger's 1931 paper on Indeterminism in Physics, presented to the Congress of a Society for Philosophical Instruction; Time and Eternity

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