165. Chance and Law

Can chance without law exist? It doesn’t seem so. It seems we have to appeal to laws to make sense of any chance changes that occur. W. B. Gallie, in his book Peirce and Pragmatism, claims that “the idea of pure chance, or of a purely random distribution of characteristics, presupposes the ideas of (a) a law determining how the purely random character of the distribution shall be ensured, and (b) certain actual physical conditions whose persistence (predictably regular persistence) will ensure the applicability of the law that determines the randomness of the distribution” (Dover, 1966, p. 225). If this is right then chance, to function intelligibly, would need law. However, we might consider Charles Sanders Peirce’s claim that law must ultimately come from chance. This can make sense if we think that it is law-like regularities that need explaining. After all, how can we be satisfied with explaining law from law? Wouldn’t this just lead us into an infinite regress or a brute, presumably unacceptable, inexplicability? But for such a genetic account of law from chance to be intelligible, which is something we would want from an explanation, it seems plausible to think there would have to be some law, or at least regularity, within the chance; and thus the view that law comes from chance might assume the law-like dimension it seeks to avoid. If there is no law-like dimension to the chance out of which law comes, then it is unclear how the appearance of law would be intelligibly explained. But if that is the case, why not just explain particular things using laws and explain certain laws by appealing to the more general laws that subsume them? True, we might be inclined to ask where the whole system of laws comes from and we might have to simply accept that law is fundamental. Such observations, if true, would vindicate Aristotle’s view that chance can only explain breaks from the norm: it cannot explain law-like activity. But could it be that Pierce was right and that it is more intelligible to see law coming from chance? Could be it be more satisfactory to terminate our inquiry in brute chance? A lot rides here obviously rides on what exactly we mean by law, chance, regularity, and explanation. And it is possible that this brief inquiry is beset by a false dilemma that overlooks the way in which chance and law are intimately intwined to the extent that we can’t really intelligibly ask, let alone understand, which came from which.

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