"I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing that to have answers which might be wrong...I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell."

- Richard Feynman

"We are an impossibility in an impossible universe."

- Ray Bradbury

"Something unknown is doing we don't know what."

- Sir Arthur Eddington

"Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson



What is chance?


W.C. Fields begins a hand of poker when he is asked, "Is this one of those games of chance?" Dealing them in, he smiles wryly; murmuring to himself, "Not the way I play it."

- From My Little Chickadee

"To be forced to believe only one conclusion -- that everything in the universe happened by chance -- would violate the very objectivity of science itself...

It is in scientific honesty that I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life and man in the science classroom. It would be an error to overlook the possibility that the universe was planned rather than happened by chance."

- Wernher von Braun

6.1 Why is this important?

Chance is the focal point of atheistic cosmology and evolution. Chance is invoked to explain how life and the universe could have come about if not by the purposeful act of a creator-God. Chance is used in such a way as to convey the idea of by accident or having no purpose. Does life really exist without ultimate purpose? Could the universe have simply happened by chance?

6.2 Are there causeless happenings?

The word chance is somewhat ambiguous and often misused in a way that implies it to mean some kind of random, causeless happening. From a strictly scientific perspective, everything has a cause. There is no such thing as an effect without a cause. Even granting what appears to be the operation of chance in quantum mechanics, cause and effect is not a concept that is quickly or easily abandoned.

In the W.C. Fields example, chance is just a belief in the eye of the unwary beholder. The other player mistakenly thinks he has a possibility or even an opportunity to win. But Field's character is a card-shark. He doesn't suffer any delusion that winning is just being a fateful recipient of causeless happenings. Nothing is left unplanned or uncontrolled. Nothing is left to chance.

Today, you can be removed from a blackjack table in Las Vegas for counting cards. Why? Because the house likes to win, and it wins when people believe in chance. The greater the number of cards, the more difficult it becomes to remember which ones have and have not yet been played.

Most houses now play with four to six concurrent decks of cards. Bets by average players are then much less likely to be based on a knowledge of the remaining cards, and more likely to be placed on anxious desires to be a fateful recipient of causeless happenings.

To better understand chance, we'll try applying various definitions of the word to the origin of the universe.

6.3 Defining chance:

Chance is defined in the dictionary as:

1. "The way things turn out." This fails to explain how or why anything happens. This is just an after-the-fact statement of the current state of affairs. It is not very enlightening to say the universe came into being just because it turned out that way.

2. "A fortuitous happening." Describing an event as fortuitous is to judge it beneficial or desirable in some way. This does not explain either how or why the universe exists any more than the first definition. This just says that, assuming we want the universe to exist, it does because we lucked out.

3. "A possibility or probability." These synonyms for chance are illustrated by saying that there is a chance that a player will pick an ace off the top of a deck of cards. Chance, defined as possibility, has to do with the ability of an event to occur. For example, it is 100% possible that an ace could be drawn out of the deck (assuming a standard deck).

Meanwhile, probability has to do with the likelihood of an event to occur. Because there are fifty-two cards in that deck, four of them aces, but only one card on top, there is a 4-in-52 or 1-in-13 probability of an ace being on top.

Chance, defined as possibility, would say that the universe came into being because it was possible. Yet possibility is neither a guarantee nor a proof of actuality. (Each of the fifty-two cards could be the one on top, but not all are on top, only one is.) Neither does probability guarantee something will happen. (That player will probably not find an ace on top, but he or she still could.)

Understand that both possibility and probability are calculated based on having a certain amount of knowledge (the number of cards in a deck, which ones have been played, etc...). Without this basic knowledge, possibilities and probabilities cannot be determined. Because science is confined to studying this particular universe, this particular card in the deck, there is no way to be certain of what those other cards in the deck might be, or even to be certain if there are any others. Therefore, only one definition of chance remains which could be used to describe the origin of life and the universe:

4. "The apparent absence of cause or design." This defines chance as it is used most often. Example: if a spinning wheel stopped on a number that we had bet on, we might be tempted to comment, "It stopped there by chance". We didn't design the wheel or the circumstances that caused it to stop where it did, but there it stopped. Why?

It stopped where it did because of simple physics. The combination of kinetic energy, radial speed and friction is not too difficult a problem to be solved, but it is virtually impossible to calculate without instrumentation. In other words, it may have stopped without apparent cause, but its stopping was caused all the same.

The same explanation holds true for dice games, lotteries, or any other so-called games of chance. To say that any of these events involve chance is just applying a simplistic label to a complex situation that one's personal intellect fails to grasp. This is not a return to determinism, but instead an acknowledgment that we sometimes have the same overconfidence in our tentative understanding of the universe as did deterministic thinkers.

Now imagine we learned all of the physics and energies involved with that spinning wheel. This would not take into account unseen devices under the roulette table that might be secretly operated by the dealer's foot. We place our bet, the wheel stops, and our perfect calculations fail to predict the winning number. Several paychecks later, we might mistakenly conclude that because our perfect grasp of physics could not predict the winning numbers, those numbers must be random products of chaos. But again, just because we didn't find their cause doesn't mean there wasn't one. We were simply unaware of all the influences on that wheel.

6.4 The omniscience of chance.

To declare that an event had no cause assumes more than one might think. For me to make such a claim, for example, I would have to recognize absolutely all causes and know that none of them had produced the given event. But unless I possess all knowledge, I cannot say with certainty that I know all causes. Therefore, if I am not aware of every cause, then I must concede that any seemingly uncaused event may have been generated by causes as yet unknown to me. This is both logical and the general consensus of most scientists. For no scientist, to my knowledge, is as yet ready to throw out his or her belief in cause and effect. The lone challenger to cause and effect is quantum physics.

6.5 Quantum physics: Cause and effect still reigns

In quantum physics, subatomic particles are believed to occasionally pop into and out of existence. There is currently no cause conclusively proven to be associated with such phenomena. More recently, an energy field theory is being used to describe the same phenomena. What are the philosophical implications of this?

Atheism, since the advent of Newton's laws, has traditionally rejected belief in God on the basis that everything in the universe is explainable without him. In other words, God is viewed as unnecessary because everything is explainable merely by cause and effect.

Now many atheists' writings look to quantum theory as a godless (i.e. causeless) explanation for the origin of the universe. The universe does not need a creator God to cause it because, they reason, quantum theory might allow for a particle to have suddenly appeared which ended up being the universe. Overlooking an obvious problem with the quantum theory for now, herein lies a logical dilemma.

If atheism claims to reject belief in God:

A) based upon the acceptance of cause-and-effect (via Newton's laws), ...and...

B) based upon the rejection of cause-and-effect (via quantum theory), ...then...

this suggests that atheism might just be a rebellion in search of a cause. It cannot have it both ways. To be consistent, atheists may continue to reject God for either A or B listed above, but not both. (More on this in Where did the universe come from? - part two.)

As for theism, one always recognizes God to be the true first-cause whether any intermediate cause is readily visible or not. If a creator God exists, he is separate from that which he created (space, time, matter...) and is thus not subject to the cause and effect principle of this created universe (i.e., was himself uncaused).

6.6 Conclusion

In terms of origins, the last definition of chance says that the universe came into being by an unrecognized cause. This is the most reasonable definition to explain the origin of the universe from a secular standpoint. Indeed, it's the only scientific application of the word left. Therefore, it's needlessly ambiguous and misleading for anyone, including atheists, to say that the universe happened by chance. It is more precise to state that the universe was caused.

Perhaps scientists refrain from stating it that way because it begs the question, "Caused by... what?". The definition of science, as you recall, is limited to the testable; the predictable as confirmed by repetition of experiment. Thus, if the cause of the observable universe lies outside of itself, then, by definition, the cause also lies outside of science.

At this point, science has reached a dead-end and it is up to other branches of learning to continue the quest for the origin of the universe. For some, it results in appending the question from "Caused by what?" to "Caused by who?" The Bible claims that who is God. As far as how he might have caused things to be is the subject of our next chapter: "What is meant by creation?"



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next: What is meant by "creation"?

See also:

The Cosmological Argument for God

Where did the universe come from?

Intelligent Design

Creation Science

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Chance is the veritable god of atheism; the antithesis of intentional divine creation.

The universe, the earth, life, evolution, your lot in life - all is said to be the product of chance.

This section examines if chance is truly the best explanation for such things.

1. Why is this important?
2. Causeless happenings?
3. Define chance
4. Omniscience of chance
5. Quantum physics
6. Conclusion