SERMONS

Chance and Necessity

Remarks delivered at the regular services of The North Texas Church of Freethought, November 2nd, 1997

"Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity."

That was said by Democritus [Diogenes Laertius IX 44-5], who lived some 400-500 years before the Gospels were written. Twelve words that contain more information than a score of sacred texts.

Like most aphorisms, the information is there in embryonic form. Like most good aphorisms, it's a boiled-down germ of thought, a seed of thinking that, while it contains the shapes of much larger and more important ideas, nevertheless allows the thinker a wide latitude of interpretation and elaboration in developing them. But, to quote another aphorism, "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow." Bear with me, please.

"Everything existing" may sound very straightforward. But it's not. It could mean everything that we know of, you see. It could mean everything that we perceive or can build machines to perceive for us. It could even mean everything that we could in principle perceive or build machines to perceive for us, even though we haven't done it yet and may never do.

I like the most limited of these options myself. I share the suspicions of J.B.S. Haldane who said he thought that "the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." For it is all well and good for us to say that everything that exists must either be one thing or another, due to chance or due to necessity, which pretty much exhausts what we suppose is possible. But the natural consequence of further investigation and more thinking will inevitably be that someone in the future will have a good laugh at our expense just as we now laugh at the very best and most sophisticated understanding of the past: things like the Genesis stories and the universal ether, not to mention phlogiston.

Hardly anyone today remembers phlogiston. Phlogiston was the "element" responsible for combustion. It was the ancient Greeks who started out with the idea of there being elements out of which everything was composed. I'm sure 105 or 106 — whatever we're up to by now — would not have seemed aesthetically pleasing to the Greeks. No, they said there were just four elements earth, air, fire, and water. They had fewer elements than they had gods. It was quite an accomplishment. Anyway, though earth came to be known as silicon and iron and calcium and such, and air turned into oxygen and nitrogen, and water was found to be hydrogen and oxygen, fire was the last to go. Phlogiston was said to be in things that could burn, lost as they burned, and postulated to have negative weight. Antoine Lavoisier disproved the existence of phlogiston — and made other major contributions to chemistry as well — before he was guillotined in 1794 during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.

Then, in the 19th Century, the universal ether held sway. Ether was the "stuff" that fills all the places in the universe not otherwise occupied by matter. It was invisible, but the best minds of our species once knew for a fact that it was there because they knew that light, which propagates as a wave phenomenon, has to propagate through something, just as ocean waves have to propagate through the medium of water. So for electromagnetic radiation to travel around the universe, there had to be ether. Until Einstein, that is.

Phlogiston and the universal ether, as well as no one knows how many other discarded "facts of reality" did have one outstanding feature, though. Unlike such things as the Genesisstories, the useless, obsolete, and abandoned ideas that persist as curiosities of scientific history were discarded. They were not adhered to with irrational fervor as absolute and non-negotiable articles of faith until their ridiculousness was so apparent that it had to be glorified as a sacred mystery. Nor has — or should — any proponent of Freethought ever felt the need to either deny or defend these mistaken ideas. No one today is waiting for modern chemists to apologize for phlogiston. No newspaper, radio station, or television network would consider it "news" for a contemporary physicist to say that the universal ether was in error.

So it is well for us to remember that "everything existing" is, and will forseeably remain, limited to that which we can see, feel, hear, touch, taste, and smell, or that which we can build machines to detect for us. So long as we do that, we will be able to justify our thinking and discussing and making assertions on such matters without having to resort out of a foolish pride to the overconfidence — the arrogance, even — of superstition. All we want to do, after all, is to understand what it is that we have to work with. There is no need, and certainly no point, in pretending to "overstand" — which is the literal etymological translation of the word "superstition."

The universe. Does it make sense to refer to the universe after considering "everything existing?" I leave that to you. But cosmology, like any true science, is far from being settled wisdom. Besides the weird ideas — so far of no practical import — of some students of quantum physics, there are alternatives and variations on the Big Bang. Some years back, for example, several scientists, including semi-iconoclast Fred Hoyle in England, proposed a "Quasi-Steady-State Cosmology" in which a series of mini bangs occurring over long intervals could account for what we know of the universe. Another idea, which was given a popular hearing inScientific American a year or two ago, is that we exist in a kind of out-pouching of a larger collection of universes held together at the points at which they are born and give birth to yet other universes. I, for one, have to admit that that one has a kind of aesthetic appeal, placing our entire universe at the end of a twig of a colossal branching tree, just as each of us is a kind of twig at the end of our own family trees, and of a tree of our primate relatives, and of a tree of all life on this planet that ultimately grows out of the fundamental nature of the matter of which we and everything else are composed.

Did you think Chance and Necessity were next? Before we get there, consider what it means for something to be "the fruit" of something else. That is, what does it mean to speak of a cause, or to speak of something being caused by something else? Do we really know?

Everyone seems to have thought that they knew until David Hume came along in the middle part of the 18th Century. Hume asked one simple question. He asked, in essence: "How do we know?" He answered by pointing out that the only reason that we think that something is caused by something else is out of mere habit. "Custom," he said, "is the great guide of human life."

Yet the notion of cause and effect is central to our understanding of the world. It is fundamental to the notion of "Laws of Nature" and to scientific principles generally. It's also easy to prove. You can show that a cause will have an effect over and over and over again.

Hume didn't disagree with most of this. But he said that past experience was no proof of anything. What we call cause and effect, he said, is no more than the constant conjunction of our perceptions in such a way as to give rise to our supposing the reality of what we call cause and effect. Just because a given cause reliably and reproducibly occurs before a given effect does not mean that it must occur. There is no logical requirement, for example, that two masses must attract or that mass and energy must be conserved. Gravity and the "Laws of Nature" are merely an expression of our experience, which we — prejudicially — assume will be the same in the future as it has been in the past.

This really upset people at the time. It's upset people ever since because Hume's radicalism is the basis for familiar philosophical conundrums such as "Will the sun rise tomorrow?" and "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?"

After that, vitalism was discredited. Vitalism was (is) the very scientific idea that living things are special and cannot be fully explained objectively. Then Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea — an organic compound — from inorganic materials in the laboratory in the early 19th Century. Darwin came on the scene a few decades later, and after that Einstein and Bohr and the other architects of modern physics.

And do you know what modern physics says? It says that there is a finite chance that the sunwon't rise tomorrow. It says that it could happen that a tree falling in the forest, whether anyone is there to hear or not, won't make a sound. Granted, the chance is very very very very small, but it is not zero. Down at the quantum level, though, modern physics says that such things are commonplace. Particles can pop into and out of existence for no apparent reason — always in pairs that conserve charge and other physical variables though — and some of our modern electronic devices even depend on this sort of thing for their operation. Modern physics also says that determinism — necessity — is merely a statistical result of quantum indeterminacy at the atomic/subatomic level.

Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with the realization that Democritus' chance and necessity, which you might have been wondering when I would get to, are really both tied up with the idea of cause and effect as well as with our ideas about what is real and unreal. It leaves many people very confused, too. It leaves them ripe for manipulation by con artists of every stripe, from those who ply the religious trade to those who claim to be able to cure cancer.

But it should leave a devout Freethinker — it leaves me, at any rate — with the following realization:

All of our objective knowledge is really just an organized restatement of our experience up until the present time. To say that there is gravity is simply to summarize an innumerable number of human observations made from before recorded history, though Ptolemy, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Galileo, and right on through the U.S. moon landings and Mars Pathfinder missions and my dropping this object at this very moment. This same objective knowledge is also fully applicable to every aspect of our nature that can be objectively assessed or measured, right down to the neurotransmitters and synapses in our brains and the particles of which they, in turn, are composed. That is, they have behaved in the past, and can be demonstrated to behave in the present, in certain regular, reproducible ways and, when they have not done or do not do so exactly, have been and are nevertheless constrained by the mathematical details of quantum indeterminacy and the like.

So everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.

And the future? No, it doesn't have to be like the past. The ceaseless consistency of phenomena that led people to suppose such things as the law of conservation of angular momentum could all come to an end in five minutes. But if it did, and if we somehow survived it, we would simply set about trying to make sense of what we could see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, or what we could build machines to detect for us, all over again. And we'd probably assume that whatever we figured out would continue to be applicable for the indefinite future. Or, if we started experiencing repeated dislocations, we'd almost certainly start looking for some regularity in their nature and appearance.

Why? What drives it all?

Well, to put it bluntly, Hume was right. It's habit. Custom. But a very special habit. A very singular custom. It's the habit of always trying to boil down, distill, and concentrate experience into a systematic order. It's the custom, you might say, of relying on Occam's Razor as an engine for creating intelligibility from our perceptions.

Occam's Razor calls for a short digression. As you may remember, Occam's Razor is the K.I.S.S. principle: the idea that simplicity is to be preferred. The maxim is attributed to William Of Occam, a 14th Century Scottish (like Hume!) theologian who said that "entities are not to be multiplied without necessity." Although he was a Franciscan monk, Freethinkers will be interested to know that he was denounced by Pope John XXII and held under house arrest for four years before he fled to Munich and was excommunicated. His crime? He had the temerity to show that religious doctrines such as the oneness and omnipotence of God, or of His having created all things, and also the immortality of the soul, could not be logically supported. That was probably the most that an Atheist could even hope for in those days, whether or not Occam himself accepted or rejected his own conclusions.

At any rate, that is also why we suppose that the future will be very like the past. What could be simpler? Yes, it is possible to consider the possibility that gravity will be suspended for ten minutes sometime tonight. But why ten minutes? Why tonight? Why gravity? And why not imagine all sorts of scenarios such as the possibility that gravity won't actually be suspended for ten minutes but only weakened somewhat, and perhaps only in Zambia or in the broomcloset where you work? Clearly, an innumerable variety of possibilities could be dreamed up. How can we possibly choose among them?

Keep It Simple Stupid, right? It's simpler to assume that the future will be pretty much the same as the past and the present, right now. And every minute that passes, though it still doesn't create any logical necessity for our assumption, nevertheless reinforces it.

Well, at least we don't salivate when we hear a bell ringing.

But the point is that we make sense of things in the way we do because if we're going to make any sense of things, that's the best way to do it. To choose what's simpler among the available alternatives is the essence of choosing the better over the worse. Was that a value judgement? It certainly was. One that we'll have to come back to in the future — the part that won't be so much like the past — some other time.

Don't forget another question, now. Where do the available alternatives from which we must choose come from? Where do gods and devils come from? Where did we get natural selection and genetics from? Where did phlogiston and the universal ether come from? And where did they go? What is the source of atoms and elements and quantum particles? Souls and synapses? Immortality, the Selfish Gene, the Big Bang, and all the rest of it?

Why, they all came from the same place: from the fertile human imagination. It proposes, and the principle of austerity, simplicity, intelligibility — a kind of Occam's Razor writ large — disposes. We chance upon the possibilities and we must necessarily choose the best from among them.

Therefore, everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1997 Tim Gorski