The Human Condition:

Chaos vs. Predictability – December 15, 2019

Red dice

Religious people would have you believe that, without a world or a universe ordered by an omnipresent, omniscient intelligence, or God, everything in human life would be meaningless, unpredictable chaos. If that is the case, I believe they don’t understand what chaos could truly be.

With or without a guiding intelligence, we live in a relatively predictable world. Yes, bad things sometimes happen in the lives of exemplary people, but this is not chaos. Storms sometimes blow down your house. Lightning strikes many places and people at random. Sinkholes open at your feet all over Florida and in other places built on limestone. But an intelligent human being can guard against some of these things. If you live in an area with hurricane-force winds, you can build your house out of steel and stone instead of lath and plaster. If the sky is threatening thundershowers, you can stay inside and not go out, because lightning almost never strikes from a clear sky. And if you live in sinkhole county, you can choose to move or survey the ground before you build.

A truly chaotic world would have hurricane winds and lighting bolts come out of a calm, clear sky. Gravity on Earth would be variable, so that if you accidentally stepped into a null-gee pocket, you might be thrown off into space by the planet’s revolution. Chemical bonds would change without rhyme or reason, so that a substance you had identified as food one day would become poison the next.

But, with or without an omnipresent God, we do not live in such a world or universe. Most interactions and events are governed by natural laws that can be analyzed and understood. Most hazards can be predicted and either avoided or insured against.

And then there is probability. While we can guard against windstorms and lightning, there is not much we can do about asteroid strikes. Even small bodies near the Earth and crossing our planet’s orbit are difficult to observe and harder to avoid—and when they hit, it’s going to be a hard day for anyone inside the impact radius. But still, we can study the history of previous asteroid strikes, observe the skies in our vicinity, and make a prediction based on probability about whether it will be safe to wake up and go outside tomorrow.

And if it’s not safe, if there is no prediction to be made based on identifiable probability, does that mean the world is chaos and life is pointless? Or that God, if He exists, does not love us anymore? Or that, if He does exist and still loves us, He must somehow be testing our faith and our resilience, in this best of all possible worlds?

Some things are unknowable. From a human perspective, which is bounded by experience, reason, and imagination, there are dangers in the universe that we can’t know about until they happen, and so we can’t evaluate them ahead of time. A comet falling toward the sun from the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt for the first time and just happening to cross Earth’s orbit at the same time we intersect its path—that would be such an unknown. The universe is also filled with unresolved questions that extend beyond our experience of life on Earth and observations from within our solar system: the presence, effects, and unforeseen future conditions of gravity waves, dark matter, and dark energy come to mind. For example, we know the universe is expanding, but we’ve only been watching this process for about a hundred years—a snapshot in geologic, let alone galactic time. Might the expansion eventually speed up, slow down, or reverse itself? Might that change create effects that could be experienced and measured here on the planet or within our solar system? Our physics suggests not—but the reasoning and mathematics behind our physics are relatively new, too.

The long-term futures of the world, the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe itself are all vaguely predictable but existentially unknowable. Is this chaos? Does this condition demand the existence of a God who knows, understands, and might deign to tell us one day, perhaps through a prophet or a revelation? In my book, probably not.

The world I was born into, or that my parents and teachers prepared me for, is predictable in the short term: what errands I will run this morning; what I might plan to have for dinner tonight; where I’m going to be on Thursday, or next week, next month, or even next year. But in the long term all bets are off. I could die in a motorcycle crash or be struck by lightning or get hit by a bus anytime between now and then—although I would hope to be able to watch out for and guard against any of these eventualities. But still, that uncertainty is all right. Because I was born with the ability to reason in one hand and the capacity for hope in the other, but otherwise I was and am as naked as a clam without its shell. As are all of us.

Nothing is promised. Everything is ventured. Sometimes something is gained. And as Robert A. Heinlein is supposed to have said: “Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.”