The universe is populated with random events. At first, this may appear an innocuous premise.  Intuitively, many of us accept the fact of randomness in our lives.  If we bet on a spinning wheel at a carnival or on dice at a casino, most of us expect there to be randomness in the results. There are those, however, who cling to the belief that “everything happens for a purpose” or that “there are no such things as coincidences.”  Certain popular works of the so-called “new age” movement have advocated this view.  It is a comforting view to some, allowing as it does the rejecting of traditional belief in God while still keeping all of the stuff which enables us to feel warm and protected.  Whether one believes in God (in the traditional Judeo / Christian sense) or in some other force which runs the universe with purpose, that person is stating that the universe is not populated with random events – that existence has an objective  point or meaning above that which we assign to it.

To say that the universe is populated with random events is to admit that there is no reason, meaning, or purpose to existence. For there to be a purpose, there must be someone or something which has a will which is directing events toward that purpose.  Otherwise the concept of purpose is simply being redefined. For there to be a meaning, then there must be someone or something, standing outside of the universe, which has assigned the meaning to it. For there to be a reason, there must be a reasoner.

If we reject the concept of a conscious, motivating force in the universe, then we must accept that the universe is populated with random events.  The concept of randomness seems to be born out by the latest (as of this writing) view on the physical properties of the universe.  The subatomic elements that make up the universe are impossible to pin down exactly; they seem only to have a tendency to be somewhere, or even to exist at all.  At the base level, then, things only exist on a statistical basis.

Let’s take a little mind cruise for a moment.  Imagine yourself as a physicist working with atomic particles.  For many years, these particles seemed to be very regular – they moved in a regular fashion, and their positions could be predicted with a high degree of success.  Then, as your instruments became more and more powerful, you discovered that what you thought were the basic building blocks of the universe were indeed themselves made up of other things.  These other things seemed to move randomly and effect things in a way that was very hard to predict on an individual level, but were easier to predict en masse.  Thus, you were able to obtain fairly reasonable reproductions of your experiments.

Now imagine yourself a scientist in a uber-race of beings that exist on a plane of existence so much larger than ours that our universe seems to them to be what the atomic world is to us. For many years, you studied some particles (what we call galaxies, solar systems, and planets) which seemed to be very regular – they moved in a regular fashion, and their positions could be predicted with a high degree of success.  Then, as your instruments became more and more powerful, you discovered that what you thought were the basic building blocks of the universe were indeed themselves made up of other things.  These other things seemed to move randomly and effect things in a way that was very hard to predict on an individual level, but were easier to predict en masse.  Thus, you were able to obtain fairly reasonable reproductions of your experiments.  Of course, in this second case, the unpredictable, seemingly random things were us.

To take this analogy further, we need to decide something: do our subatomic particles have a free will, or do we not?  It would be very difficult for most of us to believe that something so small could have free will; of course, we look that small to these imagined uber-beings.  If we can’t assign free will to the particles – which seem to move without their paths being determined – then why should we assume that this is what moves us?  This is the classic, long standing debate of free will vs. determinism.

The basic question can be formulated as: “In a universe where cause and effect seems to be the rule, why would we assume that we, as human beings, are somehow above this principle?”  Perhaps all of our choices have been determined for us by what has come before; we only think that we are making a free choice.

This mechanistic view of the universe is a bedfellow of Newtonian physics- okay, as far as it goes, but not really the entire story.  What has been hard for western thinkers to come to grips with is the fundamental principle that sometimes shit just happens.  A mathematics instructor once told the class that I was in that the only thing that held a glass on a table was the statistical probability that millions of particles weren’t all going the same direction at once.  If that happened, he said, the glass would leap into the air (or off the table, or whatever).  If I were to push the glass off the table, there would be an obvious cause and effect – however, if the glass seemed to simply leap into the air for no discernible reason, this would seem to have happened without a cause.  Of course, there would be a reason; there just wouldn’t be a cause.  The cause, in some sense, would be that it was bound to happen sometime.

A Short Guide to Comparative Religions

Taoism Shit happens.
Confucianism Confucius say, “Shit happens.”
Buddhism If shit happens, it isn’t really shit.
Zen Buddhism What is the sound of shit happening?
Hinduism This shit happened before.
Mormonism This shit is going to happen again.
Islam If shit happens, it is the Will of Allah.
Calvinism Shit happens because you don’t work hard enough.
Catholicism Shit happens because you deserve it.
Judaism Why does this shit always happen to us?
Zoroastrianism Shit happens half the time.
Marxism This shit is going to hit the fan.
Atheism No shit.
Agnosticism What is this shit?
Nihilism Who gives a shit?
Deconstruction Shit happens in hegemonic meta-narratives.
Christian Science Shit is in your mind.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Knock, Knock, shit happens.
Hare Krishna Shit happens, Rama Rama.
Hedonism There’s nothing like a good shit happening.
Rastafarianism Let’s smoke this shit.
Source (edited): http://www.friesian.com/no-shit.htm

It is the essence of statistics that sometimes unusual things happen; that’s what makes them unusual and not impossible.  A basic concept of statistics is what is called a distribution, which is the set of all possible situations, considered in terms of their (real or theoretical) frequency of occurrence.  The “normal curve” is one of the best known of these (see below).  Taking the area under the curve to indicate the chances of something happening, it is easy to see that the area partitioned off between points -1 and 1 get the lion’s share of the possibilities.  The area to the left of -3 and to the right of 3 have what we theoretical types like to call a snowball’s chance in hell of actually happening.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaavbaaaajgyynzixntk2lwvjzwytndiwoc1iyme3lwywzgq4ztgzzguwyw

 

There is an infinite amount of difference between something that is damned unlikely and something that is impossible.  Something that is simply unlikely, no matter how unlikely it is, can still happen; something that is impossible cannot.  This may seem obvious, but in daily life these distinctions are often blurred.

If I have a terminal disease and I make a pilgrimage to Lourdes and come back to find that the disease is gone – that is damned unlikely, but it is not impossible.  What it takes for this to happen is probability and a sufficient amount of time (or, equivalently, a sufficient number of test cases).  It is important, though, to keep in mind the difference between correlation and causation.  Just because some event x happens with a high degree of frequency along with another event y doesn’t mean that x causes y – in fact, they may have nothing whatsoever to do with one another (as may be the case in the example about Lourdes).

Very few things in life are actually impossible; most of the things that are, are of a class of things which are logically impossible.  For example, something can’t both be blue and not blue – although something can be both blue and, say, red.  Those times when one is inclined to say that something both is and isn’t something else are almost always situations in which the categories being used are inappropriate.

But some things are physically impossible, although one always runs the risk of being seen as unimaginative when these things are pointed out.  My favorite example of this is when, in the comic books and the movies, Superman stops a massive meteor in midair.  We may be willing to accept that Superman can fly (although by what principle is not well explained) and is very strong, however, with nothing to push against, how does his meager mass alter the course of the much more massive meteor with high velocity?  This violates a very fundamental principle of physics (force = mass x acceleration).  Thus, this action, common in fiction (at least for superheroes) is physically impossible.  No amount of explanation will make it less impossible (which is a meaningless phrase).

So, we have some things which can happen, some things which cannot, some things which have causes, and some things which do not.  This is a fundamental insight. Accepting randomness in the universe frees us from being overly concerned with our own place in it.

So, we have some things which can happen, some things which cannot, some things which have causes, and some things which do not.  This is a fundamental insight.  Accepting randomness in the universe frees us from being overly concerned with our own place in it.  We can stop feeling self-important because we begin to see that whether we exist or not is simply a matter of chance.  If there is no divine plan for the universe, then there certainly isn’t one for us.

At first, this may seem very depressing.  In fact, it is interesting to note that many standard psychological tests assume that if one believes that life has no meaning, then they must be depressed.  Not at all.  Giving up the idea that life has objective meaning and that you were put here for a reason is very freeing.  Accepting this, one stops thinking in terms of ought (as in, “I ought to be further in my career by now” or “the government ought to spend more money on education”) and starts thinking in terms of what is.

Neither is it true that, if we assume that life has no objective purpose, that we will necessarily be bad people.  In fact, it is relatively easy to show what the purpose of being ‘good’ is without relying on underlying theology.

Nor am I suggesting that religion is without worth; quite the contrary.  What I am suggesting is that religion is good in and of itself, without the necessity of validation by some other, higher purpose.  Granted, what I mean by religion is slightly different than what the garden-variety TV evangelist might mean.  However, although we see some return to the ‘Old Time Religion’ for sentimental reasons, it seems clear that we can never really return as a society to this form of Christianity for solace.  We have outgrown it, and can never go home.

The idea that there is no plan or reason in the universe may seem to necessitate a major change in religious attitudes, but this is not the case.  With this belief, religious attitudes (as opposed to concepts) remain untouched.  For example, most of us are familiar with the phrase “Let go, and let God.”  The attitude expressed by this aphorism is exactly right – we must stop attempting to control the universe (since we can’t anyway) and let what happens, happen.  The only difference here is that we are not assuming a plan – the belief changes, but not the attitude.

The same attitude underlies the oft-quoted prayer (adopted, I believe, by many 12-step programs) which says: “God, grant me the courage to change what I can, the patience to endure what I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And now we come back to mysticism.  Recall, if you will, that the fundamental mystical insight is that each of us is inextricably connected to the universe.  The fundamental power of the universe is the same power of which we ourselves are forged.  Since there is no external, bestowed meaning or purpose to the universe we are free to assign one to it ourselves.  The purpose that we give our lives is, then, a divine purpose.  This divine purpose can have all of the power of being on “a mission from God” if we grant that each of us is, indeed, a child of God.

 

Image references:

Normal Curve: https://media.licdn.com/mpr/mpr/shrinknp_800_800/AAEAAQAAAAAAAAVBAAAAJGYyNzIxNTk2LWVjZWYtNDIwOC1iYmE3LWYwZGQ4ZTgzZGUwYw.jpg

Mission from God: https://media0.giphy.com/media/Pf0d7Y5oAKZgs/200_s.gif

 

Advertisements