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Not a Chance

(2 posts)

This is one of my favorite Sproul excerpts, if only for the “cat with nine tails” syllogism. What Is Chance? We begin by asking the simple but critically important question, What is chance? Because this question is so critical, however, I think it important first to explain why the definition of chance is so crucial. Words are capable of more than one meaning in their usage. Such words are highly susceptible to the unconscious or unintentional commission of the fallacy of equivocation. Equivocation occurs when a word changes its meaning (usually subtly) in the course of an argument. We illustrate via the classic “cat with nine tails” argument. Premise A. No cat has eight tails. Premise B. One cat has one more tail than no cat. Conclusion: One cat has nine tails. We see in this “syllogism” that the word cat subtly changes its meaning. In Premise A “no cat” signifies a negation about cats. It is a universal negative. In Premise B “no cat” is suddenly given a positive status as if it represented a group of comparative realities. Premise B assumes already that cats have one tail per cat. If we had two boxes, with one box empty and the second containing a single cat, we would expect to find one more cat in that box than in the empty one. If cats normally have one tail, we would expect one more cat’s tail in one box than in the other. The conclusion of this syllogism rests on the shift from negative to positive in the phrase no cat. The conclusion rests upon equivocation in the first premise. “No cat” is understood to mean a class of cats (positively) that actually possesses eight tails. Such equivocation frequently occurs with the use of the word chance. We find this in the writings of philosophers, theologians, scientists’indeed pervasively. Here’s how it works. On the one hand the word chance refers to mathematical possibilities. Here chance is merely a formal word with no material content. It is a pure abstraction. [For example, if we calculate the odds of a coin-flip, we speak of the chances of the coin’s being turned up heads or tails. Given that the coin doesn’t stand on its edge, what are the chances that it will turn up heads or tails? The answer, of course, is 100%. There are only two options: heads and tails. It is 100% certain that one of the two will prevail. This is a bona fide either/or situation, with no tertium quid possible. If we state the question in a different manner, we get different odds or chances. If we ask, “What are the chances that the coin will turn up heads?” then our answer will be “Fifty-fifty.” Suppose we complicate the matter by including a series of circumstances and ask, “What are the odds that the coin will turn up heads ten times in a row?” The mathematicians and odds-makers can figure that out. In the unlikely event that the coin turns up heads nine consecutive times, what are the odds that it will turn up heads the tenth time? In terms of the series, I don’t know. In terms of the single event, however, the odds are still fifty-fifty. Our next question is crucial. How much influence or effect does chance have on the coin’s turning up heads? My answer is categorically, “None whatsoever.” I say that emphatically because there is no possibility, real or imagined, that chance can have any influence on the outcome of the coin-toss. Why not? Because chance has no power to do anything. It is cosmically, totally, consummately impotent. Again, I must justify my dogmatism on this point. I say that chance has no power to do anything because it simply is not anything. It has no power because it has no being. I’ve just ventured into the realm of ontology, into metaphysics, if you please. Chance is not an entity. It is not a thing that has power to affect other things. It is no thing. To be more precise, it is nothing. Nothing cannot do something. Nothing is not. It has no “isness.” Chance has no isness. I was technically incorrect even to say that chance is nothing. Better to say that chance is not. What are the chances that chance can do anything? Not a chance. It has no more chance to do something than nothing has to do something. It is precisely at this point that equivocation creeps (or rushes) into the use of the word chance. The shift from a formal probability concept to a real force is usually slipped in by the addition of another seemingly harmless word, by. When we say things happen “by chance,” the term by can be heard as a dative of means. Suddenly chance is given instrumental power. It is the means by which things come to pass. This “means” now assumes a certain power to effect change. Something that in reality is nothing now has the ability or power to do something. —R. C. Sproul, Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology (Baker Books, 1994), 4–7.

A Cat O’ Nine Tails

Tuesday··2018·01·16
Explaining the fallacy of equivocation, R. C. Sproul demonstrates one big reason I love him. Words are capable of more than one meaning in their usage. Such words are highly susceptible to the unconscious or unintentional commission of the fallacy of equivocation. Equivocation occurs when a word changes its meaning (usually subtly) in the course of an argument. We illustrate via the classic “cat with nine tails” argument. Premise A. No cat has eight tails. Premise B. One cat has one more tail than no cat. Conclusion: One cat has nine tails. We see in this “syllogism” that the word cat subtly changes its meaning. In Premise A “no cat” signifies a negation about cats. It is a universal negative. In Premise B “no cat” is suddenly given a positive status as if it represented a group of comparative realities. Premise B assumes already that cats have one tail per cat. If we had two boxes, with one box empty and the second containing a single cat, we would expect to find one more cat in that box than in the empty one. If cats normally have one tail, we would expect one more cat’s tail in one box than in the other. The conclusion of this syllogism rests on the shift from negative to positive in the phrase no cat. The conclusion rests upon equivocation in the first premise. “No cat” is understood to mean a class of cats (positively) that actually possesses eight tails. —R. C. Sproul, Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology (Baker Books, 1994), 4–5.

@TheThirstyTheo



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