Chance, what chance?

Bas-reliefs mettant en scène le Farvahar, symbole accompagnant les préceptes essentiels du zoroastrisme, dans l'antique ville de Persépolis en Iran (©CC BY-SAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA)

Bas-reliefs mettant en scène le Farvahar, symbole accompagnant les préceptes essentiels du zoroastrisme, dans l'antique ville de Persépolis en Iran (©CC BY-SAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA)

Is chance coincidence? No chance that memento knows the answer to that question! If we managed to explore the tentative terms of this tricky question we would need every bit of luck on our side to attract the votes of those whose destiny leads them to read these words.

If everything in existence is the effect of one or more causes, and if all that happens is the result of a glut of agents (physical laws, conscious or unconscious intentions) that mechanically determined it, then chance is only the word for what the mind could not foresee because it did not know all the causes and interactions simultaneously. Chance is only “the accidental meeting of two independent causal series”  says mathematician and philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot (1801-1877) – or of several. This is certainly logical but all the reasons behind such an effect are so complex and intricate that it is considered an indeterminacy that is unpredictable – and that is chance.
Mocking the imposture of diviners whilst considering that reality is always in line with a transcendent plan, G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) wrote the following in his Metaphysical Discourse: “Suppose, for example, that someone does a lot of dots on a piece of paper quite randomly, like those who practice the ridiculous art of geomancy. I say that it is possible to find a geometric line that is constant and uniform according to a certain rule and that this line goes through all the dots in the same order as the hand that made the marks on the paper.” He points out at the end of the chapter that he does not claim “to thereby explain the great mystery of the Universe”. This consideration is subsequently condensed by the poet: “the disconcerting things that we name, in nature, caprice and in destiny, chance, are glimpses of of laws” (Victor Hugo, Laughing Man).
It might be that everything was written since time immemorial. In which case, providence would unfold the thread of the universe and the apparent chaos of the story of life by following some cryptic plan devised by whichever God. As if nothing was written about things that pass through time but everything happens because of a steady succession of causes and their effects to infinity. In both scenarios, one determination, the other indetermination, chance only describes the lack of understanding why such an occurrence prevailed over all other potential possibilities.

For there to be chance, it must be possible at any time to intervene in a cause that is ex-nihilo that is not the rational consequence of a previous cause, but which somehow invents itself. Chance must pop out of magician’s top hat. And on a human level, this can only be freedom.
Because (thank God) clinamen comes to the rescue. This concept by poet Lucretius (1st century BC) who in his De Natura Rerum describes in verse format the doctrine of the great Epicurus (342-270 BC). It is quite possible that Lucretius’ clinamen diverges from that of Epicurus but this is a matter for scholars to debate. This so-called materialist philosophy explains that in the beginning there was a shower of atoms that moved down vertically through the void parallel to each other but without colliding into each other. The clinamen is this slight swerving movement that causes one atom to swerve away from its path and join another, giving rise to matter, existing things and to life. At the origin of suns, planets, life and death, and love there was the random pile up. Without clinamen, “nature would have created nothing”.  But nothing accounts for the cause of this slight swerve that led to the diversity in the universe. Which fly touched the atom? Was it its decision to do this? Reality is open and ephemeral, scattered and perishable and it does not respond to any pre-existing idea, In Clément Rosset’s opinion, this instability and jumble of reality is the basis for a tragic materialism in which the work of living is to look at reality without blinking or making up stories, without assuming a backward world that renders it liveable but to love it just the way it is, with open arms and great joy.

Because this original chance is the foundation of choice, election and freedom. And the acceptance of reality without a plan does not in any way frustrate the fight against it on occasion.  To acquiesce does not mean to be servile: “We are foot soldiers fighting against the giant Chance; insanity and nonsense has ruled the lives of human beings to this day”  taught the prophet Zarathustra  using the words of F. Nietzsche (the opposite is true). “I am Zarathustra the godless. I still cook up every chance event in my pot. And when everything has cooked I declare that it is excellent because I cooked these dishes.” So much for accepting reality in a state of high consciousness but then he goes on to say: “And in truth, more than one chance event came to me arrogantly, but mywill responded to it with even more arrogance and then I saw it collapse, pleading, at my knees.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, And thus spoke Zarathustra). So much for the strength to decide or to invent the decision, including the one by which one chooses to agree that one does not have the choice of voiding it, starting with death. “How did reason come into the world? As it should, unreasonably and by chance. It must be deciphered like an enigma.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Aurore), Such a thought process shuts out all beliefs because the philosopher denounces the illusion that makes us distinguish between two “kingdoms”, one of ends and will on one side and one of “cosmic imbecility” on the other, without reason or aim and where everything is just chance events. Or not: “the iron hands of necessity that shake the dice of chance play their game in infinite time: it is therefore necessary that there are strokes that seem totally in conformance with every degree of finality and rationality.” (ibid.) In this case, would freedom and necessity be the two pensive faces of an imperturbable world? There is still the enigma of chance.

If there is chance, it is all good, but if there isn’t, then the necessary causes hide behind a fake chance that is a good excuse. In the third issue of the surrealist magazine The Minotaur, André Breton and Paul Eluard pose these questions to three hundred of their friends : “Can you tell us what has been the key encounter in your life? To what level did this encounter give you of fate, or the impression of fate? Or of the necessary?” The artist Max Jacob responded: “My encounter with God on my wall at 7, Ravignan Road on 28th September 1909, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.”