Are Chance Or Randomness Real After All?

Are Chance Or Randomness Real After All?

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’.

Now me:

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


  1. In physics, nothing happens by chance. However, many things happen by processes that are simply not determinable. The universe is not random, but it is chaotic, on a very fundamental level.

  2. James

    “The universe is not random, but it is chaotic, on a very fundamental level.”

    Does quantum mechanics not falsify this statement? At best, physics can calculate probabilities of future measurements; when a measurement is made, one of the calculated measurements turns out to be what is actually measured. But Nature decides the outcome of the measurement randomly. And since quantum mechanics is fundamental—i.e., its rules apply to everything and cannot be escaped—true randomness is fundamental to the Universe.

  3. @James,
    I wouldn’t quite say it that way. Random is another way of saying “I don’t know”, and that’s it. No, quantum mechanics does not falsify it. The very act of instrumenting a system and making measurements changes the system. So when you make that measurement, you, as the experimenter are acting upon nature (and both are doing something that is ‘natural’).

    We are also within that universe, so there are limits to us that He that Is happens to be outside of, so those don’t apply to Him. Consider the imaginary “Flatlander”, who exists in 3 dimensions (two physical and time) that perceives a “Volumelander”, who exists in 4, moving through his world.

  4. Ken

    Seems an absurdly petty distinction; an outcome — after it has happened – can ALWAYS be said to be determinate on the factors affecting it. Dice tossed by a craps player, for example, the instant they leave the player’s hand are destined to land in specific locations on the table with particular values showing.

    Briggs, splitting semantics and invoking unknowable facts regarding the myriad of factors involved in effecting any outcome asserts there is no “chance” or “randomness” in this. He is correct. But so what?

    The myriad of tiny factors determining one dice throw (or whatever act) from the next—by a player or finely tuned machines designed to maximize reproducibility cannot remotely be modeled. Even when they are known. How those known unknowns specifically interplay and force a particular result may also be known but still are beyond capacity to model precisely. Leaving us to use short-hand jargon to summarize how those myriad of factors affect outcomes.

    That jargon is “chance” and “random” among others.

    These exist — such are the terms we apply to our ignorance of how to model the interplay of oodles of infinitesimal and tiny influences affecting an outcome.

    To argue semantics as if “chance” or “random” are some kind of force and then refute that nonsense (so frequently at that!) is to define and resolve a problem that doesn’t seem to exist. I have never observed anyone who fails to grasp the concepts as anything other than human ignorance & inability to model myriads of tiny factors. Heck, this is basically the so-called “Butterfly Effect” that’s made it to the mainstream.

    If anything, the problem is exactly the opposite — people attribute decisive or strong magical influences to affecting outcomes (making those myriad of factors turn out a particular way) when these have no real affect — that do not exist at all. Sunday football is such an example with the goofy rituals many fans invoke to ensure their teams win. If there’s an issue warranting tutoring, superstitious rituals are it. Philosophical hairsplitting about “chance” or “random” being tangible things of some sort is to address issues of no real-world relevance — just twisting semantics to a contrived issue.

  5. Gail Finke

    Hmmm. As usual, philosophy requires very precise terms that everyone discussing something must understand. It’s hard to have this conversation because what we generally mean by “chance” is not a force, but we act is if it is. Therefore, saying “there is no such thing as chance” seems to contradict what we all know to be the case — that often things, sometimes very important things — happen without anyone intending them to. We refer to them happening as “happening by chance” as we would say “happening by design,” but we mean something very different. Something more along the lines of an unexpected or unintended consequence, but one that SEEMS like more.
    Very few people, I think, would assert that there is no such thing as an unexpected or unintended consequence. For example, suppose I am at a festival and want some food, and the line at one food booth is shorter than the others, so I go to that one but the food is from another country and I don’t know what any of it is, and then I order the the item that is medium-priced and discover that I love it — I might very well say that I “first had that dish by chance,” even though I had chosen to do every single thing from going to the festival to ordering the item. Because while I intended all the other things, I did not intend to develop a lifelong love for that menu item, or even to eat it at all. And that’s one way to talk about somethign that happened “by chance.”
    Similar things happen when the causes are not always our own actions — sometimes they’re the actions of others, the effects of weather or other natural occurrences, etc. We often experience this kind of thing as a “cause,” especially if it makes a big difference in our lives (ie: bumping into the person you eventually marry). We may say it’s an unintended consequence — John Hartford had a wonderful song about a person’s being born after a long chain of unintended consequences that led to his mother and father meeting — but it seems like more than that. It seems to have been done by something or someone or some force.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    Dr. Briggs was responding to an interlocutor who believed he had found an Aristo-Thomist objection to the proposition that “There is no such thing as chance.” The confusion stemmed from [was caused by] equivocations involving the usage of the English word ‘chance’ and Aristotle’s technical use of ????, plus a secondary confusion between “thing” and ?????. The mandatory evocations of quantum mechanics and the meaning of ‘chance’ in that context have been addressed in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, by particle physicist Stephen M. Barr.

  7. @Ye Olde Statistician
    “The confusion stemmed from [was caused by] equivocations involving the usage of the English word ‘chance’ and Aristotle’s technical use of ????, plus a secondary confusion between “thing” and ?????. ”

    I think a greater confusion is caused by conflating the pre-modern notion of cause with the modern one, which Mr. Briggs seems to do. The notion of the entire universe evolving in response to precise, deterministic, mathematical laws of nature is an entirely modern concept that neither Aristotle nor Aquinas was familiar with. To the pre-moderns, a cause was an explanation for the existence and general features of things, not a mechanical process which led by mechanical laws to a pre-determined result. Causes were goals and tendencies, not laws.

    In Aristotelian philosophy there is a cause why a tree grows leaves, but no cause for why each individual leaf is in the place where it is. Those are the kinds of things that Aristotle would have said happen by chance–not by unknown causes, but by chance.

    The very notion that every single moment in the universe is fully and precisely determined by the previous moment is an astonishing claim that I don’t think hardly anyone would have endorsed before the rise of materialist reductionism in the nineteenth century.

  8. @David Gudeman
    “every single moment in the universe is fully and precisely determined by the previous moment” is a true statement. However, the processes by which this happens are of a subtlety and complexity that will be forever beyond human ken.

    This does not take away from the majesty and grandeur of The Almighty. They instead add to it. The ineffable mind of God has created a fundamentally unpredictable universe that operates by precise and simple rules.

  9. Yonason

    “Something always happens to somebody.” – Zasu Pitts

    from “The Crooked Circle.”

    Or, as we used to say, “if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.”

    Great way to start a mystery novel, but not a good way to live one’s life.

  10. DAV

    If you are sitting in a chair and drop something, by Chance it will land out of reach 100% of the time (Murphy’s Law). Randomly, it will end up in an unanticipated place. The Random breakdown is:
    95% just out of reach
    4% within half the area of the room
    0.99% wthin the confines of the room
    0.01% completely vanish

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *