BRIAN COYNE. The randomness and chanciness of life…

Feb 22, 2017

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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