# Is there such a thing as chance?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by hockeywings, Dec 6, 2001.

1. ### hockeywingsDon't dance without musicRegistered Senior Member

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I have come to beleive that there is a less likely possibility of such a thing as chance.
Chance is defined as The unknown and unpredictable element in happenings that seems to have no assignable cause.
Lets take one of the popular happenings of chance with the flip of a coin. A flip of the coin is a supposed 50-50 chance. Well when you flip the coin, the coin doesnt magically choose a side. you flip it with some much strength, spin, arc, velocity, direction. Then the coin comes into contact with other factors such as wind, tempature and other things. Well, if you were able to determine those other factors wouldnt it be possible to determine whether or not it will land on heads or tails?
Where is the chance in that?
I beleive that for any circumstance this is true, so what is this real value of "chance"? Any feedback would be appriciated.

Hockeywings

3. ### James RJust this guy, you know?Staff Member

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What you said about flipping a coin is correct. <b>If</b> you knew the exact strength of the flip, the amount of spin imparted to the coin, the air resistance characteristics and so on, in principle you could predict which way the coin would land. However, there is some <i>sensitivity to initial conditions</i>. Vary one thing slightly and you might get a tail where previously you would have had a head. Due to the inaccuracy with which we can determine the initial conditions for a coin flip, it is fair to say that it has a 50-50 chance of landing one way or the other.

At a deeper level, you could say that the motion of the coin is determined by the laws of physics. In the Newtonian sense, the coin acts completely deterministically, and is, in principle, if not in practice, predictable. However, our best theory of the motion of objects is no longer Newtonian mechanics, but quantum mechanics. Quantum theory seems to introduce complete randomness into some aspects of motion. According to the theory, some things can exist in certain states which, when measured, collapse to other states in a completely <b>random</b> and unpredicable way. Quantum mechanics, at least so far, seems to rule out the possibility that the universe is completely deterministic. It seems God does play dice, after all.

5. ### Chagur.Seeker.Registered Senior Member

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Hi, hockeywings ...

Welcome to Sciforums.

Re. Chance

Let's just say that any occurrence that has more factors than can be conceived and/or measured is considered to be 'chance'. Just the example you gave, flipping a coin, resulted in you mentioning seven factors that could affect the flip. And remember, each of those factors are quite variable for a whole bunch of other reasons. One hell of a lot of data needed to 'maybe' figure out which side ends up facing up.

Take care.

7. ### hockeywingsDon't dance without musicRegistered Senior Member

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I guess i was just confounded by how un-random it seems to be. if you take it as chance is something were your brain power and/or mechanics are to small at the time to find enough things out to know for sure, i guess that would be a correct definition.

On the other hand taht wouldnt be the known t ype of chance would it?

I dont know anything about quantum mechanics but it may just be random because we dont know enough about it yet.

On the side note, god playing dice would be irrevelant for a current difinition of god(which is a whole new subject, long long subject, undeterminable subject) for he would know all those tiny variables being omnicient.

Hockeywings

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Perhaps God does not play dice. Rather, the dice are God.

9. ### Chagur.Seeker.Registered Senior Member

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Porfiry ...

PROFOUND!

Question now remains: What color die?

Take care.

10. ### hockeywingsDon't dance without musicRegistered Senior Member

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god=dice

would make sense, using god as the things we dont know about (i.e. the randomness of quantum physics) or the things that we cant explain (i.e. all the variables needed to be known for tossing a coin, or on a larger scale the origins of the universe)

11. ### Alpha«Visitor»Registered Senior Member

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All the science we know cannot predict with absolute certainty how the coin would land, no matter how much information you gather. All our scientific theories are "perturbative." That means all of our equations etc., are really only approximations. When we calculate the path of the earth, for example, we use equations that give an approximate value for the path of the earth around the sun, and then figures in the affect of the moon, and other planets, etc, etc. But if all the masses were the same, we would not be able to make predictions. This is known as the perturbative method. String theory is the first nonperturbative theory that actually predicts exactly, but we don't understand it enough to derive the equations necessary. One of the problems in string theory has been that we have been trying to use perturbative methods to find these equations.

Now you may think that once we have these equations figured out we'd be able to predict anything if we could get all the info we need. But part of string theory says that we can never get all the variables. In quantum mechanics there is the uncertainty principle. In string theory it states that we can never probe distances shorter than the Plank length. In other words there is chance.

12. ### kmguruStaff Member

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11,757
All the science we know cannot predict with absolute certainty how the coin would land, no matter how much information you gather.

The big emphasis is in "We know"...

You could cheat...and put on your future glass to take a peak at the future?

James is right, chance is too many variables to count with both hands that God gave you...that is also stock market for you.

And that is your 401K going up in smoke if you are an ENRON employee....

13. ### machaonRegistered Senior Member

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Chance.

How could there possibly be such a thing as chance? Is the way things are now, in this moment in time, merely a bottleneck through which all of the possible past must be filtered? How can the future be less resistant to change than the past? One might like to think that he/she can control future events via free-willed decisions. Fine, but where do the decisions originate? Perhaps the decisions we make are really just thoughts that are being sucked out by the vacuum of what will be. The present time is only big enough to contain what is. It is always the present time somewhere down the road.

14. ### hockeywingsDon't dance without musicRegistered Senior Member

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EXACTLY

exactly how i was thinking, now if you believe that to be true, then what follows from that is that we dont have free will, for all your present decisions denote is that of what your past desicions have led up to.

15. ### machaonRegistered Senior Member

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Free will

Does it really mattter as long as we FEEL like we have free will?

16. ### Captain CanadaStranger in TownRegistered Senior Member

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Illusion of free will is vital. The idea is, however, an inevitable concept that filters into the causal chain - assuming there is no such thing as chance.

But if there is chance, then free will as we know it is in fact that random element. How can that be 'will'?

Conclusion. No one is responsible for their actions - it is either pre-determined by a vast causal chain (for which we cannot be held responsible) or random (for which we cannot be held responsible). ?

I think God prefers Russian roulette to dice...

17. ### Alpha«Visitor»Registered Senior Member

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True so far...

What happens if you look and it turns out the other way?

18. ### BagmanRegistered Senior Member

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Hockeywings,

None of the replies you've received have touched on the fact that probability is a measure of knowledge, not of some randomness, or "chance," that exists in the world. It would be very hard even to say what it means to say that there is or is not randomness in the world, so the question that you pose is hard, but perhaps you wouldn't have asked it, if you understood probability.

When we say that the probability that a given flipped coin will come up heads is 0.5, all we mean is that we are utterly without information about which way it will come up. Another way of saying this is that we have no information about which flip, among all possible flips, we are dealing with. If someone else did know something about it, he would assign a different probability, and if he knew for sure that it would come up heads, he would assign 1.

Suppose that person A is like us; he has no information; so he says the probability is 0.5. Person B, however, has some information and says that the probability is 0.7. Both A and B are right; there is no "objective" probability; probability is a measure of what you know. It doesn't matter for assigning probabilities whether there is randomness in the world, and it would be very hard even to say what "randomness in the world" could mean.

Last edited: Jan 21, 2002
19. ### BagmanRegistered Senior Member

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>> But if there is chance, then free will as we know it is in fact that random element. How can that be 'will'? <<

It can't, of course.

>> Conclusion. No one is responsible for their actions - it is either pre-determined by a vast causal chain (for which we cannot be held responsible) or random (for which we cannot be held responsible). ? <<

You're overlooking the fact that some causes are nearby in the causal chain, and some are very far away. Suppose you were to ask me for the cause of my going to the store today, and I said, "Because the universe was created," or "Because my parents met," or anything remote from the fact that I needed some milk. My answer would be uninformative. Now, surely, I am more responsible for the fact that I went to the store than my parents meeting is, so of course I can be held responsible. You can only say that I am not responsible for going to the store if you don't care whether a cause is near or distant.

If you still object that I am caused, so I can't be responsible, then you're going to have to explain what "responsible" means if it is not about proximate cause.

20. ### Captain CanadaStranger in TownRegistered Senior Member

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Bagman,

The concepts of 'free will', 'cause and effect' and 'responsibility' have always been interesting to me for the reason that the ideas are central to our understanding of the world and yet also so ill-defined and poorly understood (in my view). It's intersting that the ideas of 'free will' and 'responsibility' are (I would say) necessary for society to function. However, as commonly understood (or at least as I beleive them to be commonly understood) the concepts make little sense to me.

I think that this depends entirely upon your definition of responsibility. You have adopted an understanding of it as 'proximate cause'. This certainly resolves the problems of 'free will' (or lack of it), but I don't think it's an understanding of responsibility that many of us would recognise morally.

Are we talking about 'responsibility' only in the sense of causation or are we also talking about the moral implications? If we're only talking about causation then I presume animals as well as rocks, trees and other such objects are 'responsible' for certain events.

If we're speaking morally then is it fair to (assuming we both agree on causal chains) hold people responsible for actions in which they had no choice or control over (in the sense of 'willing an action'). Regardless of how far back the chain goes, if we accept that there is one, the responsibility must be equal at all times in the sense of choice or will. They may be physically responsible in the sense of 'proximate cause', but in this they are equally as responsible as an asteroid falling from the sky or a tree that is blown down.

Of course regardless of all this the concept of responsibility (linked to free will) is one that is vital for society to function.

But to me, responsibility morally depends upon free will. If we are speaking of responsibility as a 'proximate cause' then I have little problem with it, apart from the fact I believe that to be a definition few would commonly recognise.

21. ### kmguruStaff Member

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Is chance an accident or an accident is the result of chance?

22. ### BagmanRegistered Senior Member

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The concepts of 'free will', 'cause and effect' and 'responsibility' have always been interesting to me for the reason that the ideas are central to our understanding of the world and yet also so ill-defined and poorly understood (in my view). It's intersting that the ideas of 'free will' and 'responsibility' are (I would say) necessary for society to function. However, as commonly understood (or at least as I beleive them to be commonly understood) the concepts make little sense to me.
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"Free will" has a sensible meaning that has nothing to do with any alleged fiction that is "necessary for society to function." Examples: (1) If I take you somewhere at gunpoint, you are acting less freely than if you went there on your own initiative, and clearly you are less responsible. (2) If you move your arm in your sleep and strike your wife, you are not acting from free will, even if you move it to smite an enemy in your dream, because it is not of your will that you strike your wife. If you had been awake, it would be.

You may object that this type of free will is merely relative, but so far I'm only addressing the question of a fiction that is needed for society to function. This relative free will is needed for society to function, but it is not a fiction. However, you may object that when I blame you for striking your wife while you're awake, I assume that you are entirely free, not just more free than when you're asleep. But that's not true! I don't require you to be entirely free, in order to blame you. I would blame you even if you had struck her because you were upset or slightly drunk or were being coerced in any other way that was not extreme. All I require is that you be __free enough__ to make and act upon a morally informed decision whether to strike her. If you make the right decision, I infer that you were free enough to make it. If you make the wrong decision, I look for a reason of self-interest that is in conflict with the moral rule, and if I find one, I infer that you were free enough. I only infer that you were not free enough if I can't find a reason. For example, you may be mentally ill.

So far, I have not found any assumption of complete freedom that is necessary for society to function. Perhaps you'll say that this "necessary" is not crucial to your position (such as it is), since even without "necessary," you can still say that free will makes "little sense"; but I think it's important, because I've just shown that free will does make sense. You've spoken of our having "no choice or control" over our actions, but it is impossible that we could have no choice or control while also having degrees of choice or control, because "nothing" doesn't come in degrees.

This doesn't necessarily mean that I've won, but it does mean that, whatever you mean by "free will," it is not what we ordinarily mean by it. For us to have "no choice or control," the degrees I've shown must be mere appearances of degrees of something that does not exist; the evidence is not evidence; it counts for nothing; we are being deceived.

This raises the question of how there appear to be degrees of something that does not exist. There are such things, e.g., degrees of elevation of the sun, when actually the sun does not move, but the degrees correspond to something that does exist, the rotation of the earth. So this example, at least, does not suggest an answer to the question. Besides, it is not true in any absolute way that the sun does not go around the earth every day; we could recalculate all the motions of heavenly bodies on the basis that it does, and no one could say we were wrong; they could only say that our description of the universe was unnecessarily complex. (Galileo was wrong about this; he claimed that the sun __really__ stood still.)

Now let me get to your idea that general responsibility is not the same as moral responsibility; i.e., that you may be responsible for your acts in some sense, but not necessarily the moral sense.

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I think that this depends entirely upon your definition of responsibility. You have adopted an understanding of it as 'proximate cause'. This certainly resolves the problems of 'free will' (or lack of it), but I don't think it's an understanding of responsibility that many of us would recognise morally.

Are we talking about 'responsibility' only in the sense of causation or are we also talking about the moral implications? If we're only talking about causation then I presume animals as well as rocks, trees and other such objects are 'responsible' for certain events.

If we're speaking morally then is it fair to (assuming we both agree on causal chains) hold people responsible for actions in which they had no choice or control over (in the sense of 'willing an action'). Regardless of how far back the chain goes, if we accept that there is one, the responsibility must be equal at all times in the sense of choice or will. They may be physically responsible in the sense of 'proximate cause', but in this they are equally as responsible as an asteroid falling from the sky or a tree that is blown down.
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A person is not a falling asteroid. If an asteroid fell by calculating its path, taking on fuel, starting an engine, and propelling itself toward the earth, this would be nearer to what a person is, but it would still not be the same (since the asteroid might contain a computer). A person's actions depend more on the particular person than an asteroid's falling depends on the particular asteroid; any object in the same circumstances as the asteroid will fall the same, even if its mass is vastly different from the asteroid's mass.

So a human is more responsible for his actions than an asteroid is for its actions, even if he is not morally responsible; the calculation occurs in the human. In your view, this is not sufficient for moral responsibility. You admit that a human can perform acts that are called moral or immoral, as an asteroid can not, but you deny that he should be called morally responsible for them. This is odd, because it denies that a human is responsible for something for which only a human could be responsible, so it implies not only that he is not morally responsible but that the notion of moral/immoral makes no sense in the first place; morality is nothing without responsibility.

Now, clearly it does make sense to speak of moral and immoral. For example, if you take something from me without paying and against my will, this is immoral. We're able to make the distinction. Then how does it not make sense? Perhaps you'd say that your act was not "ultimately" or "absolutely" immoral. I would reply that this only means that the act is not moral or immoral once it is divorced from its context of ownership and so forth. But no one would deny this, because when we say "moral" or "immoral," we are not divorcing the act from context.

If it makes sense to speak of moral and immoral, it must make sense to speak of moral responsibility. Provided that "moral" makes sense, you are the moral cause of your acts. This is like saying that, provided that "physical" makes sense, you are the physical cause of your acts. The fact that there are causes antecedent to you does not change this. Just as it would be uninformative to say that I stole your money, not because I wanted the money, but because my parents met, it would be uninformative to say that I stole it, not because I made a moral consideration, but because my parents met.

To deny this, you must say that assigning moral responsibility to me gives me a heavier burden than is indicated by what it means to say that I made a moral consideration. But that is precisely what it does not do. For example, we do not assign moral responsibility to a person who harms someone by accident, since the moral consideration was not involved. The same goes for crazy people, drunk people, unconscious people, etc.

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Of course regardless of all this the concept of responsibility (linked to free will) is one that is vital for society to function.

But to me, responsibility morally depends upon free will. If we are speaking of responsibility as a 'proximate cause' then I have little problem with it, apart from the fact I believe that to be a definition few would commonly recognise.
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The reason few would recognize it is as moral responsibility is that it's broader; it includes moral responsibility. Furthermore, moral responsibility is even narrower than that might suggest; e.g., a crazy person is the proximate cause of his acts, but he is not morally responsible.

Suppose that someone's being morally responsible for a bad act did not entail a requirement to punish him in any way, nor even for him to feel badly. Would you still say that he was not morally responsible for it, or would you admit "proximate cause" (plus his having made the considerations) as sufficient for saying he was morally responsible? I think you'd have to admit it, but this would mean that your issue was punishment. You'd be saying that "morally responsible" was good enough as a description of the relationship between him and the act but not good enough to justify punishing him for it.

Bagman

23. ### Captain CanadaStranger in TownRegistered Senior Member

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I thank you for a full and admirably detailed account of the various issues we have touched on relating to 'free will', but, no doubt to your eternal exhasperation, must confess to still having trouble with the concepts.

I found it a little difficult to follow the specific line of argument you took, so perhaps we can clarify the positions.

My first suggestion was that 'free will' and 'responsibility' are necessary concepts for society to function. I suggest that without 'free will' 'responsibility' has little meaning, and that consequently society is no longer able to function.

If I understand correctly you first argue that 'free will' is not necessary for society to function. This is because we can have a sensible understanding of freedom that does not depend upon the assumption of 'complete freedom', but rather in degrees of freedom. The very fact that we can speak of degrees of freedom proves that freedom must exist.

If I have misrepresented or misunderstood this argument then please correct me.

My problem is with the concept of 'free will' which I still don't understand. You did your best to explain it to me, but I'm still confused.

I would say to this:
(1) Your action is caused by the threat of being shot.
(2) Your action is caused by a dream.

Of course we have further, perhaps infinte causal chains which go further back, but for the moment we'll stick to the basic cause.

But why is (1) less of a free choice than (2)? This is what I want to know. They were both caused by something you had no control over. Let's even assume that (2) occurred whil I was awake. What is the difference? Regardless of why I struck her there would be a cause and ultimately one which had nothing to do with me. Now if we accept that everything is cause and effect, why should we draw a line under cause 1 rather than 2, 3, 4, and so on?

Of course I understand that most people will view (1) as less free than (2), but why? Essentially, what is this freedom you speak of?

I suspect that you must mean choice. But what does this mean? To do otherwise? Thus far, no one has. So if we look at the empirical evidence, we have absolutley no basis for believing in choice as the ability to do otherwise. If we cannot do otherwise, ever, then what does freedom possibly mean?

To recap:

(1) Your action is caused by the threat of being shot.
(2) Your action is caused by a dream.

So

if we accept that everything is cause and effect, why should we draw a line under cause 1 rather than 2, 3, 4, and so on (why should we say the closer the proximate cause, the more freedom you had)?

But if we could not do otherwise in either case, why should we say we were more free in one example than the other?

I don't want to confuse the issue further so I will limit myself to this for now, but if there's any specific argument of yours you'd like me to respond to let me know.