Understanding Luck and Chance (Aristotle)

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Investigating The Causal Natures of Chance and Spontaneity.

After introducing the principle causes (efficient, formal, material, final), Aristotle talks about chance and spontaneity in Book II, (Physics) for the purpose of investigating their place among the said causes. Aristotle bases his enquiry on the observation that in history, these terms are conflictive in their interpretation. Some people say that everything that we consider luck or spontaneity really has some underlying definite cause. Yet there are other people, such as Empedocles, who invoke chance when describing the physics of air; or some, who “ascribe this heavenly sphere and all the worlds to spontaneity” (196a 25). In setting out to elucidate the nature of these terms and their place among the causes, Aristotle contends that chance and spontaneity are not explanatory causes of their own, but concurrent causes. By drawing from Aristotle’s view on nature and deliberate intention, this essay sets out to develop a clear understanding of the term concurrent in relation to chance and spontaneity. Aristotle begins his account with the basic observation that some things always occur in the same way and some things occur for the most part in the same way. Yet some occurrences are exceptional-this third category, according to Aristotle, is the class of chance and spontaneity: “…as there is a third class of events besides these two-events which all say are ‘by chance’-it is plain that there is such a thing as chance and spontaneity” (196b 12-14). He continues to state that events that occur, but that do not occur as a direct result of intent (thought) or nature, but rather incidentally, “are said to be ‘by chance’” (196b 24).  Here, we can identify what constitutes an event of chance or spontaneity. It seems that when the specific cause does not yield the intended result always or for the most part, then the result is produced by chance or spontaneity. Conversely, when the cause does yield the intended result always or for the most part, then chance or spontaneity has not affected the process. At this point, it is necessary to distinguish chance from spontaneity. Clearly then, when events directed towards an end “do not come to pass for the sake of what actually results, and (3) have an external cause” (197b 18-19) we ascribe this to spontaneity and chance. Chance follows this same structure, but differs only in that the external cause is the deliberate intent of rational beings. In other words, chance exists only for “agents that are capable of good fortune and of moral actions” (197b 1-2); for rational beings that are capable of “intelligent deliberation” (197a 2). Spontaneity, on the other hand, “is found both in the lower animals and in many inanimate objects” (197b 14-15). Before analyzing the way that chance and spontaneity are concurrent causes, it is necessary to understand Aristotle’s example of the house and house builder. The efficient (and determinable) cause is that which can build the house, while the concurrent cause (the builder’s skin tone or musical ability) is infinite in range, (and thus is indeterminable). By ‘concurrent cause’, it follows that chance and spontaneity are indeed some form of cause, for ”…just as a thing is something either in virtue of itself or incidentally, so it may be a cause” (196b 25-26). Aristotle further states that they (chance and spontaneity) come “to pass among events which are for the sake of something”. (196b 30-31) Thus, chance and spontaneity are causes by virtue of concurrence with a principle cause, and occur concurrently with events directed towards an end. Yet, what does it mean to say that chance or spontaneity occur concurrently with a cause directed towards an end? First, we will investigate chance as a concurrent cause. In the example in chapter 5, a man goes to the market with a specific purpose (to buy fruits for example), and by chance, he meets his debtor and collects subscriptions for a feast....
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