The Impossibility of Chance

FEW words, as commonly used, are so entirely false and misapplied as the word “chance.” Sorrow and joy, health and sickness, success and failure, life and death, the most trifling as well as the most important events of life, are familiarly referred to chance. To the same cause the gamester ascribes his gains or losses, and the unbeliever the origin and continuance of the universe. I chanced, he chanced, it chanced, — all the inflections of the word are among the most common expressions of the language. Yet there is, there can be, no such thing as chance. Nothing ever chanced to happen. Whatever occurs is due to the antecedent operations of immutable law. Whatever takes place is the result of a cause, and can, therefore, in no way, be a chance occurrence. For an event to chance implies at once no cause. If it had a cause, it did not chance. The inquiring minds of this age are earnestly engaged in exploring natural law, and in tracing out its modus operandi. But the unphilosophic, or rather the unthinking, do not connect man’s actions, sensations, emotions, and thoughts with the same farreaching causes which make the earth revolve and the dew fall. Prepossessed with the idea of man’s free-will, they are unable to connect his passions, appetites, aspirations, conceptions, with co-relations of forces in nature. All this is physical, earthy, belonging to matter; but man’s mind, his impulses, his actions resulting from the impulses, are something very different and quite apart from such physical law.

Supposing this to be the case, that all these exhibitions of human power are sui generis, they are all as directly traceable to a cause as rain-drops to the cloud whence they fall, — directly, but not always readily traceable. The apparently causeless occurrence of events gives rise to the familiar thought of chance. The hidden causes from which those events result may extend far into the past, may be manifold and vast in their workings. Human intelligence may not be able to trace them ; their wonderful complexity and scope may altogether transcend man’s limited comprehension. But the simplest, the most apparently fortuitous event is directly the result of forces coexistent with the universe. This may be called fatalism ; but, style it as we may, such is the simple truth, and fatalism is only an equivalent term for the working of inevitable law governing the universe. Whatever man may reserve to himself as the motive of his own actions, certainly the events which occur without him, not emanating from him. result from the laws of nature, and are inevitable, because beyond his control. And these outer events influence him in every way: they are incentives to his actions, they sway his thoughts, impulses, and emotions.

Let us take a simple instance, and follow up a few of the antecedent causes of what seems to be mere chance. I chance to be struck on the head and killed by a brick falling from the hand of a mason, as I walk along the street. Here is certainly what may be called a chanqe occurrence. But what a multiplicity of causes combine directly and indirectly to produce this result. The brick fell because the support of the mason’s hand was removed from beneath it,—one instance of the everacting law of gravitation. The mason dropped it because of the previous night’s excess, which made him trembling and uncertain, — and here I might follow up the causes which led him to commit excesses, such as example, suffering, disappointments ; and the causes which led the builder to undertake the erection of that house. I might go far back and trace the causes which led men to build brick houses. I was there at that unfamiliar spot, at that time, because I was seeking a doctor for my child, who had slipped on an orangepeel and had broken his arm. Here is another series of secondary causes. The cause of his fall was the importation of a certain orange from Sicily. It was imported because oranges are edible. and he slipped because orange-peel is soft and yielding. I might go further than this, and trace the causes of shipbuilding, and thence to the cause of the turning of the magnetic needle to the north. Certainly the falling of the brick results from the force of gravity, the use of bricks in house-building, the use of the compass in sailing vessels. All these causes, which might be indefinitely extended, combine to make a direct series, without which the event could never have occurred. I was not there by chance, the mason was not there, the brick was not there, the orange-peel was not there, by chance. Their existence and influence, extending to the results of my death, were due to a wonderfully complex and far-reaching action of natural laws.

This is an event occurring butside of man’s individuality, resulting in a consequence to him. When a similar occurrence results in protection or preservation of life, it is called providential. That is, Providence, the Deity, is supposed to come to rescue a human being from the results of his own laws. A boat’s company is upset. All are drowned but one man, who has made a providential escape. The safety of that man is as directly due to laws governing the action of matter as the death resulting from the fall of the brick. But no one ever says providential death. An oar, being made of wood lighter than water, floats, — gravity again. The man was taught by his father to swim, because that father had lost a father by drowning, — other instances of gravity. He swims to the oar. and is buoyed up thereby. A vessel sails by, likewise enabled to sail by the force of gravity. . The vessel was despatched by a merchant to a foreign port, the cause of the voyage being the deposition of guano on a Peruvian island. Guano is wanted because ammonia fertilizes plants. Now the safety of that man is directly traceable to the visits of certain sea-birds, years before, to a desert is and. The laws which saved him were a combination of the different gravities of certain substances, the chemical action of ammonia on vegetation, the force of the wind that bore on the vessel, the desire of gain in the merchant, the nervous shock of the father who suffered the loss of his parent, and all the mingling ramifications, which might be traced indefinitely. The providential escape, that is, the chance safety, is as simply a result of cause as sunlight is the result of the sun. If these things be readily accounted for, it is because we can easily trace the primal influences to those ends. If we cannot explain others, it is because our imperfect powers fail to detect the antecedent, hidden causes, which are too complex, remote, and inappreciable. Cause is only antecedent action of persistent force, and nothing can take place which is not the result of it. Were it not so, every event would he something outside of and apart from nature, and therefore miraculous. We need scarcely recur to miracles, however, to explain occurrences which are obviously natural in their sequences. The more we know of Nature, the better we comprehend her workings, the more we discard the possibility of miracles. But, with all of our knowledge, the ignorance of men is surprising. In our own day recourse is had to the supernatural to account for novel phenomena, which, could we only trace them to their origin, would be found to be as simply natural as any familiar occurrence. From the earliest period of recorded history, ignorant men have looked outside of nature for the cause of what they could not understand. The savages were terrified at an eclipse, and thought their Great Spirit was angry. We might just as well say that the earth chances to come between the sun and the moon, every now and then, as to maintain that any of the co-ordinations of events in life chance to occur. Had Adam possessed the necessary powers, he could have calculated the fall of that brick and the overturning of that boat as accurately as an astronomer to-day will calculate an eclipse which will be seen by the inhabitants of the earth thousands of years hence. We are able to calculate the orbits of the heavenly bodies ; but the inconceivably complex workings of the forces of matter are infinitely beyond our petty powers. Yet, being eternal, they must ever work undeviatingly; and, consequently, their results are calculable, though not by finite human faculties.

Do these laws then rule over the minds of men as they do over their bodies ? Is the will of man an. exception to the influence of those far-reaching forces which sway matter with immutable certainty ? Does a man chance to think, chance to feel, chance to desire ? Free-will is chance. Because if thoughts, feelings, and desires do not arise from some stimulus, some incentive, some outer influence, then they chance to occur. As in the physical world nothing occurs without antecedent impulse, so mind must remain inert, or else be moved by either antecedent impulse or chance. If those thoughts and feelings have no cause, then they certainly chance to exist. Let us, as before, take an example. I am asked to take a glass of wine. Certainly, if I have free-will, I can elect to say yes or no. No simpler exercise of free-will could well be given. And yet the answer will be a direct, irresistible result of antecedent cause utterly beyond my control. My head aches badly ; I say no. I am perfectly well; I say yes. I dislike wine ; I say no. I like it, and say yes. Here my differing physical state dictates the reply. I have an engagement, and cannot stop; I say no. I am at leisure, and say yes. I am fond of wine, but my brother was a drunkard, and the trouble I have endured influences me to shun the temptation ; I say no. I never saw a man drunk, and say yes. I have promised my parents not to drink wine ; I say no. My parents offer it to me freely; I say yes. Here previous pain and previous resolution, my connection with others, compel the negative answer. I neither dislike nor like wine, I am not biassed in any way, I have perfect freedom to decide ; but I dislike you, and do not wish to accept your politeness. My enmity overbears my courtesy, or I don’t like wine, but I wish to please you ; I have a motive for being agreeable. My impulse of friendship towards you is stronger than my impulse of aversion to the wine. In all these cases, and they might be extensively multiplied, my simple yes or no is directly determined by some physical status, some antecedent impulse, some mental stimulus. My feeling, my thought, and my decision are results which may go far back in time and to remote place to seek their cause. Indeed, we cannot imagine a state of the mind or body not the direct result of long antecedent influence.

All thought is a result. It is never original, never self-existent, self-beginning. More delicate than grosser physical phenomena, thought and its consequent action are as directly derivative from incident stimulus as the electric current is from chemical dissolution. Though it is difficult, impossible, to trace thought back to its remote or immediate stimulus, it is evident, from lire manifold cases in which such tracing can be made, that the impossible cases are those in which the stimulus is recondite and hidden. Free-will is either a chance mental impulse, having no dependence upon antecedent stimulus or impulse, or else it creates itself out of nothing with a motive. If it have a motive, it is no longer free-will ; for it is the result of something impelling the impulse. Thus free-will is an impossible thing in a being whose mental, as well as physical, attributes are derivative, and are swayed in their slightest action by the influences of inheritance and environment. All thought is but a reflex of previous sensation. The wildest fancy, the most soaring imagination, only reproduce in memory sensations previously experienced. Such faculties never create,— they reassemble. The reassemblage may be heterogeneous ; parts of many images may be combined in a new whole ; but the new images are all made up of previously experienced cerebral sensations. If it were not so, the poet’s page and the painter’s canvas would be utterly incomprehensible to others. An object portrayed and a thought expressed must represent what is known, to possess any meaning. The mind cannot conceive anything which has not, in its ultimate detail, a prototype in nature. We cannot imagine anything out of nature. The Devil may be figured with horns, hoofs, and tail. No such creature is known to exist; but horns, hoofs, and tails are all common in the animal creation. We may collect in strang.e groupings the images of things which are novel in such groupings ; but analyze them, and we shall find that the component parts are all reproductions of more or less familiar forms. It is the same with abstract thought, which we cannot free from its dependence on memory. Without memory there is no thought. What is memory, but a cerebral sensation reiterated under the same repeated stimulus, or awakened, secondarily, by a chain of stimuli which act mnemonically? Thought and memory are, to a certain extent, identical; a reproduction of cerebral sensations previously felt, but mingling in new combinations. Insanity furnishes many illustrations of a confused memory assembling a strange, incoherent, because unnatural, combination of previously experienced brain motions. Dreams are likewise unnatural series of faint sensations occurring in meaningless sequence,— meaningless, because different from their combination in the actual occurrences which they distortedly reproduce. An insane fancy and a strange dream are like the scrap-work, once common, in which all sorts of figures are pasted together in every conceivable position, having no natural connection with each other, and mingled in a chaotic manner. Thought is a cerebral sensation, of an infinitely delicate and mobile character, responding to the touch of some stimulus, often recognized, oftener hidden. Long trains of sequential thoughts are as directly initiated by a sight, a sound, or an odor, as a magnetic current is by the touch of a magnet; the sequences being identical with those which before answered to the same influence. Memory thus becomes a reiteration of previously experienced sensations. Our thoughts are often so strongly sensations that we cannot rid ourselves of them, any more than we can of disease. They infest us, and defy our will. They well up within us like spasms of pain. They sway our bodies with their sympathetic action. Fear, love, jealousy, and anger are thoughts, and the influence they exert on our bodies, ,by communicated nervous force, is as powerful as that produced by drugs. We sit alone in solitude, and memory is aroused, not from outer stimulus, but from coincident brain motion. We feel the same as we previously felt, our nerves are vibrated as they were at the sight of the loved or the hated. As time elapses, these sensations become fainter, from the inability of the brain to react upon the impulse, until they are only experienced at wide intervals, as some more powerful stimulus than usual is applied, which may come in a sight or a sound or an odor. Finally, utter forgetfulness ensues, when the brain refuses to respond to the stimulus. What our brains have recently felt, they are readiest to repeat. We therefore remember distinctly a recently seen or often-seen object. For an instant after an object is removed we see it almost as clearly as before. If we shut our eyes suddenly, after gazing at it, we retain the full sensation that it makes on our brain for a recognizable time ; this continuance being the unexpired motion of the nerves, originating in the light from the object which touches them. So with our thoughts. They fade away with the lapse of time ; and, if some remain more permanently than others, it is because the brain, for some unknown reason, answers longer and more readily to the stimulus which awakens them. We retain the sensations aroused by an exciting scene with great freshness, and recall it with great vividness; but gradually the newer sensations, aroused by later influences, occupy the brain. Gradually our ability to experience them passes away, and no stimulus can recall them. The poignant grief of youth cannot be reawakened in age by any mnemonic stimulus. The time arrives when all ability to recall the event which caused it disappears. When we reflect upon the myriad brain sensations, the thoughts and emotions of our past lives, of which so few now remain or can be recalled, and what a vast number have passed away, utterly beyond the power of repetition, we can understand that these thoughts and emotions are states of our nervous structures, which disappear when their causes are removed, which reappear when those causes are repeated, — if our structure remains identical, if we have not too much changed, — and which cannot be reiterated when our substance has so far differentiated that the same incident force cannot produce the same result as at first.

The incident force which initiates alt these changes of thought, as well as the vast ramifications of all the physical and psychical phenomena of nature, is fixed in immutable law. As no change in the physical status of nature takes place without a cause, so no change in the mind of man occurs without a cause. We may not detect it; but it exists. The action of the human brain is no exception to the laws which govern matter. If it thinks, it is because something made it think. It answers to some direct stimulus, and the answer is thought.

It may be said that chance exists in the reference of one event to another. The falling of the brick had no connection with the child’s broken arm; it was therefore a chance occurrence in that relationship of events. But this is merely our finite ignorance. If I had perceptions and power to grasp all the ramifications of all the forces of nature, I should have traced out the coincident fall of the brick with my unusual walk as readily as I trace the passing of the earth between the sun and the moon on such a year, hour, minute, second. The only difference is that in the first case the workings of those laws are far beyond the measure of my faculties. The great motive-powers of the universe all move in obedience to eternal law, out of the action of which has arisen the present status of that universe. There is no exception. If there seem to be, it is because of human ignorance and weakness. The deeper we examine into these laws, the more wonderfully comprehensive they appear, holding the great host of suns in their orbits, and inciting the human brain to a thought of love. The idea of chance vanishes from us in the contemplation of their vast complexity and invariable action.