BRIAN COYNE. The randomness and chanciness of life…

In this short essay, Brian Coyne, explores how much randomness and chance play in the outcomes we experience in life. He asks how much we are influenced by the Christian biblical mythology that an afterlife where the first will be last the last will be first helps us cope with the inherent unfairness and injustice that is the outcome of randomness and chance in life.  

Over the years I’ve become increasingly convinced that life is a huge lottery. Chance and luck play a huge part in it. Some of this understanding comes from my original studies in Physics and our understanding of the role chance, randomness and probability play right down at the most fundamental or quantum level of existence. Chance and randomness percolates all the way up through life to even watching the profligacy of God and nature — how a billion seeds might be scattered to the wind and some fertilize other plants, other creatures, even other human beings, and some, as the Bible tells us, fall by the wayside. Even for each of us, man or woman, over our lifetimes we produce hundreds, thousands or possibly even millions of “seeds” but if we are lucky we might produce a small litter of offspring. For my wife and myself we have five surviving offspring between us but we also lost more than that through miscarriages, still births and premature infant death. This profligacy of nature is quite extraordinary — and a lot of it is grounded in randomness and chance. For those who have fathered or mothered children, remember back to that sense of expectation as to whether it would be a girl or a boy, and whether your baby would be free of any defects.

It also applies, it seems to me, in how the wealth of society is distributed. Some people are incredibly lucky and earn, or inherit, large amounts of money and capital. They seem to also come to a belief that it is because they have found some economic formula, or Calvin’s Protestant work ethic, or because they’ve learned to say their prayers the correct way and they are “good citizens”. They come to believe their “good fortune” comes about because they’re clever, or they are God’s “chosen ones”. I increasingly see it as a massive fallacy. There is this delusion, particularly in modern Western societies, that wealth is somehow connected to brains and cleverness: because a person is wealthy, they must be “really clever”. You only have to look around your own neighbourhood or nation to learn that some of the wealthiest people are the dumbest and most clueless (albeit perhaps in all things besides making money or ripping others off in the case of criminals and drug lords).

But the question still remains: even if randomness plays a massive part in our lives, how do we deal with it? I often think of people who end up as refugees; or people who end up getting abused; or even the victims of some genetic disability; or some traffic or industrial accident that wrecks their entire lives. My heart goes out to people in our own community here at catholica who have been victims of abuse of one kind or another, virtually deprived of an education, and you see them trying to cope with incredible challenges their own children are going through a generation down the track from their personal victimhood. It makes you wonder whether or not God, or nature, will ever give them a break?

Is this how we human beings thought up this huge mythology of “everlasting life” and “heaven” where all the unfairness and injustices of this life would be reversed — where the first would be last, and the last would be first?

Brian Coyne is the editor and publisher of catholica — a website and community seeking to explore an intelligent and adult form of catholic spirituality. This short essay was originally published on the catholica forum at:


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3 Responses to BRIAN COYNE. The randomness and chanciness of life…

  1. warren johnson says:

    To ask this question these days is firing blanks because the best modern science, aka quantum science, tells us that now we need to cope with the discovery by quantum science of the unity of the Universe. Which means that we need to go beyond reason and common sense because they rely on difference and separation and so contradict quantum science which is about unity which is about difference but there is no separation. So Fritjof Capra tells us that “Quantum theory and relativity theory, the two bases of modern physics, have made it clear that this reality transcends classical logic” and John Polkinghorne tells us that “quantum theory frees us from the undue tyranny of common sense.”
    Which explains why Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, the founders of quantum science, went to the Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita which are about mystical unity. So quantum science has always been linked to mystical unity right from its very beginnings. So no surprise “Today, quantum experiments deny a common sense physical reality. It is no longer a logical option.” (Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, pp.5, 6, 118) No surprise that “Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson says that in order to go beyond Quantum Theory, physicists may need to meditate and experience the deeper levels of reality in altered states as mystics have done”.
    To go beyond rational thinking and common sense and do what the mystics do is to go to intuition and like Einstein said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” But of course as Hegel says “What is intuited must then be thought.”
    But if we continue to stay just with common sense and rational thinking then we are confined in what Edward de Bono calls the little boxes of our categorical thinking and how do we think we can confine God in a little box? But as de Bono says “Perhaps it is not the boxes that are the problem but the absolute certainty with which we hold a particular boxed view of the world.” (p.84) The problem is that it is a delusion to think that we can cope with unity just by using common sense and reason especially when Josephson tells us that we can experience deeper levels of reality that are beyond what we are pleased to call our reason and common sense. At these deeper levels of reality we can get a real answer to the question.

  2. Albert Haran says:

    It makes you wonder whether or not God, or nature, will ever give them a break?

    In our”real world” there is no god, because a benevolent god would not allow such suffering and if that god is not benevolent then he is not one I want to follow.

    If all the people who profess to believe in their god, and follow his teachings, and put into practice those beliefs the problem would be solved, so are they true believers or fair-weather travellers.

    With regard to drug dealers at least they give the punter a high, (something to look forward to however fleeting and destructive) whereas randomness, propped up by a political elite, starts your day with a down that progressively deteriorates, which (after watching ABC the ice wars), has the eventuality of having people seek out drugs.

    Now there is a vicious circle.

    The problem is the system, but, as long as a reasonable percentage of us are doing OK no one will move to fix it, however, to cure randomness we need to fix the system.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Exactly! I usually see it as a kind of given that life is capricious – we simply don’t know which corner we are about to turn and what will greet us there when we do. To (heaven help us!!) fame and fortune – or tearful tragedy. I grew up out of a blind fundamentalist belief system into one where the good fortune of a scholarship (thanks to the people of NSW) sent me off to university – where I studied – as best I could – having come from where I had – to a life of educational service – with its attendant adventures – to date a fortunate and colourful palette of experiences and friendships. But I take nothing for granted nor do I think it’s my just desserts – for whatever element others might wish to attribute their own lives and good fortune. And I do not imagine that this vale of tears which we think of as living – is a mere dream – nor that after my death I will into a real garden of eternal heavenly delights – my reward for whatever suffering I have endured in this dream. That way of thinking permits us to endure the tyrants and not fight back. Not my style. Thanks, Brian COYNE!

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