World without Explanation

In the opening scene of Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet's hapless school chums pass the time by betting on the toss of a coin.  Rosencrantz has nearly cleaned out his friend by calling heads successfully 76 times in a row.  At this point, Guildenstern comments, "A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability."  As the string of identical coin tosses reaches 90, he begins earnestly casting about for an explanation.  It occurs to him that he might be willing the outcome, unconsciously betting against himself, or that it might be divine intervention, God betting against him.  He does not overlook the possibility that they are witnessing "a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does."

I remember when I was still in school and the law of probability was first introduced in math class.  The students had a great deal of difficulty accepting the teacher's assurances that the odds of a coin turning up heads or tails on the 100th toss remained 50-50, even if the coin had already come up heads 99 times in a row.  It seemed the odds would have to tilt the other way to bring the overall result back into balance. 

The original Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would never have speculated about the law of probability, since it was unknown in Shakespeare's day.  The mathematicians who worked out the principles of statistical probability in the 17th and 18th centuries were often gamblers themselves and wanted to improve their chances of winning.  Until that time, the most popular explanation for the outcome of a fortuitous event was divine intervention (a vestige of which survives in the gambler's belief in luck).

Now that we have the law of probability to fall back on, there is little serious discussion of fate, however we might choose to characterize it.  Even Stoppard's artistic treatment is played mostly for laughs, although it edges right up to the precipice, if not over.  "Where we went wrong was getting on the boat," Guildenstern laments after discovering that he and Rosencrantz have been dispatched to Denmark to be killed.  "We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and the current..."

For all our speculation about fate or chance, it's not clear that either explains very much.  The coin spins in the air, heads or tails, double or nothing, lady or the tiger.  Things either happen, or they do not.   We may take solace in faith or philosophy, but nothing we say or think alters the outcome.    As G. K. Chesterton once observed, "This world does not explain itself."  Indeed not.  And neither does God.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy           

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