On Quirks and Luck

Chance is built into the very structure of nature



Frank Sinatra encouraged “Luck” to “be a lady tonight.” The lady in question had not always been so. Even perfect “strangers in the night,” wondering as they do “what were the chances” of “sharing love,” might well fare better. Johnny Mathis, he of the honeyed throat, was more upbeat. “Guess you feel you’ll always be the one and only one for me,” he crooned; and straightway he added “Well, chances are your chances are awfully good.”

Romance, where art thou? Nowadays, gentle reader, we are more focused on the chances of a poll being accurate and its margin of error. (I’d actually prefer the poll to “get it wrong,” and that’s one reason I don’t talk to pollsters.)

As it happens, Dame Philosophy is in dialogue with Lady Fortune. They’ve long conversed about luck and chance. Not surprisingly, Aristotle took an early interest. Then as now, people pondered their chances and thanked their lucky stars.

Philosophers are keen on test cases. What, Aristotle asked, are we to make of a grave digger, going about his business, who upturns a long forgotten treasure? He framed his answer in terms of “incidental causality.” No independent cause, he observed, led to the grave digger’s good fortune. Still, there was a happy coming together of distinct causal lines. So what explains that? Inquiring minds want to know, since the puzzling event did take place in a context of purposive action.

Fast forward, very forward, to the physicist Neils Bohr (1885-1962). On his Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which comes into play at the foundational level of physical processes, there are “quantum jumps.” Say, what? There are, it seems, events that no appeal to causal laws or their convergence can describe, much less explain.

Such strange events, goings on that Isaac Newton could not imagine, suggest that chance is built into the very structure of nature. On this view, our explanations of them are not frustrated by our ignorance. Rather there is an ontological quirkiness deep down in the order of reality.

Some find this quirkiness intellectually insulting. As it happens, Thomas Aquinas would not. After all, reality remains reality. The whole of reality is the work of the Creator which is, lest we forget, an ongoing Creation. Indeed, this divine dynamic expresses God’s providence. It’s a providence that reaches down to each and every particular, including the (few) hairs on my head and the quantum jumps that are in play at their foundational levels.

In the words of the Common Doctor, “[I]t would be contrary to the character of divine providence if nothing were to be fortuitous and a matter of chance in things” (SCG III, ch. 74, no. 2). There’s “a play” in the very order of the real, and all the while the Creator orders this play as the Lord of the Dance. Let philosophers and physicists join in, and let us all, whoever we may be, join in as well.

Here a tip of the hat is due. The Dominican theologian Michael Dodds is a source of this blog post. See his Unlocking Divine Action (2012). By the way, Dodds, alert to the existential, notes  an answer to Humphrey Bogart’s implied “why” question (in Casablanca): “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…she walks into mine.” It’s chance, Bogie, chance.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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