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Quotes about Chance

Chance is powerless

At this point must I not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that there are certain solid and indivisible particles of matter borne along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this elaborate and beautiful world? I cannot understand why he who considers it possible for this to have occurred should not also think that, if a countless number of copies of the one-and-twenty letters of the alphabet, made of gold or what you will, were thrown together in some receptacle and then shaken out on the ground, it would be possible that they should produce the Annals of Ennius, all ready for the reader. I doubt whether chance could possibly succeed in producing even a single verse!

Cicero: De Natura Deorum. [Against the cosmology of Leukippos. Quoted in Jorge Luis Borges: "La biblioteca total." Sur (August 1939).]
Cf.: Theo Lutz: Zum "Problem des Cicero". In: Elisabeth Walther & Ludwig Harig: Muster möglicher Welten. Eine Anthologie für Max Bense. Wiesbaden: Limes, 1970.



. . . the ymage in hys slep told hym hys cheance.

Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle (late thirteenth century)

The ancients, struck with this irreducibleness of the elements of human life to calculation, exalted chance into a divinity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Ess. xiv. Works (Bohm), 1841-1844.


Probability Theory

Thus, bringing together the rigor of scientific demonstration and the uncertainty of chance, and reconciling those things which are in appearance contrary to each other, this art can derive its name from both and justly assume the astounding title of the Mathematics of Chance.

Blaise Pascal [To do: Find original French]

Nothing, for example, is more difficult than to convince the merely general reader that the fact of sixes having been thrown twice in succession by a player at dice, is sufficient cause for betting the largest odds that sixes will not be thrown in the third attempt. A suggestion to this effect is usually rejected by the intellect at once. It does not appear that the two throws which have been completed, and which lie now absolutely in the Past, can have influence upon the throw which exists only in the Future. The chance for throwing sixes seems to be precisely as it was at any ordinary time – that is to say, subject only to the influence of the various other throws which may be made by the dice. And this is a reflection which appears so exceedingly obvious that attempts to controvert it are received more frequently with a derisive smile than with any thing like respectful attention. The error here involved – a gross error redolent of mischief – I cannot pretend to expose within the limits assigned me at present; and with the philosophical it needs no exposure. It may be sufficient here to say that it forms one of an infinite series of mistakes which arise in the path of Reason through her propensity for seeking truth in detail.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Mystery of Marie Roget, 1842.

Since mechanically obtained randomness contains all kinds of possible permutations, including the most regular ones, it cannot be relied upon always to exhibit a pervasive irregularity.

Rudolf Arnheim: Entropy & Art, p. 24.

Le vertige idéal est celui du coup de dés qui finit par "abolir le hasard", lorsque, contre toute probabilité, le zéro sort plusieurs fois de suite par exemple. Extase du hasard enrayé, captif d'une série définitive, c'est le phantasme idéal du jeu: voir sous le coup du défi, se répéter le même coup, et du coup s'abolir le hasard et la loi. C'est dans l'attente de cette surenchère symbolique, c'est à dire d'un événement qui mette fin au processus aléatoire sans retomber sous le coup d'une loi objective, que tout le monde joue. Chaque coup singulier ne cause qu'un médiocre vertige, mais c'est quand le destin surenchérit - ce qui est le signe qu'il se prend vraiment au jeu - lorsqu'il semble lui-même lancer un défi à l'ordre naturel des choses et entrer dans un délire ou dans un vertige rituel, c'est alors que la passion se déchaine et qu'une fascination véritablement mortelle s'empare des esprits.

Jean Baudrillard: De la Séduction (Paris: Galilée, 1979), pp. 201/202.


Chance is useful

Spielen = Experimentieren mit dem Zufall.

 Novalis [To do: Find precise reference.]

Der Poet braucht die Dinge und Worte, wie Tasten und die ganze Poesie beruht auf thätiger Ideenassociation – auf selbstthätiger, absichtlicher, idealischer Zufallsproduktion   – (zufällige – freye Catenation .) (Casuistik – Fatum. Casuation .) (Spiel.)

Novalis: "Das allgemeine Brouillon" (September 1798 - März 1799), Notat 953.


The history of human knowledge has so uninterruptedly shown that to collateral, or incidental, or accidental events we are indebted for the most numerous and most valuable discoveries, that it has at length become necessary, in any prospective view of improvement, to make not only large, but the largest allowances for inventions that shall arise by chance, and quite out of the range of ordinary expectation. It is no longer philosophical to base, upon what has been, a vision of what is to be. Accident is admitted as a portion of the substructure. We make chance a matter of absolute calculation. We subject the unlooked for and unimagined, to the mathematical formulae of the schools.

C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allan Poe: The Mystery of Marie Roget, 1842.

Den Zufall ausschalten

das Ziel
des Lebens. Reibungslos.
Und doch
ist der Zufall ein
notwendiger Wert
Er macht das einförmige Leben
erst erträglich

Franz Richard Behrens: Geflügelte Granaten. Werkausgabe, Band 2. München: edition text + kritik, 1995, p. 69


Chance doesn't exist

It is incorrect to say that any phenomenon is produced by chance; but we may say that two or more phenomena are conjoined by chance . . . meaning that they are in no way related through causation.

John Stuart Mill: Logic III, xvii, § 2 (1846).

Es gibt kein Zufälle. Ein Tür kann zufallen aber das ist kein Zufall, sondern ein bewusster Erlebnis der Tür, die Tür, der Tür . . .

Kurt Schwitters: "Lieschen." [To do: Find precise bibliographical refence in Schwitters' collected writings. It's not in the poetry volume.]

Die Theorie liefert viel, aber dem Geheimnis des Alten bringt sie uns doch nicht näher. Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt davon, dass der nicht würfelt.

Albert Einstein about quantum mechanics in a letter to Max Born, 1926.

Chance can do anything

Six eternal apes, randomly striking the keys of six eternal typewriters with unlimited amounts of paper and ink would be able to produce Shakespearean sonnets, complete books, and the 23rd Psalm. In the same way, molecular movement, given enough time and matter, could produce Bishop Wilberforce himself, purely by chance and without the work of any Designer or Creator.

Thomas Henry Huxley, in a debate with Samuel Wilberforce, Anglican Bishop of Oxford, about Darwin's theory of natural evolution. Meeting of the British Association, Oxford, June 30, 1860.

If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters, they might write all the books in the British Museum.

Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1928.

One version of the infinite monkey theorem states that a single (immortal) monkey typing randomly will ultimately reproduce the script of Hamlet. Estimate the time needed for this, assuming that the monkey can type two characters per second and that the play has 50 pages, each containing roughly 80 lines and 40 characters per line. Assume there are 30 possible characters (a through z, space, period, exclamation period, and carriage return). Compare this time to the estimated age of the universe, 10^10 years.

Richard O. Duda, Peter E. Hart & David G. Stork: Pattern Classification. Second Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. [Chapter 7: "Stochastic Methods." Problem 1, p. 383.]


Russell Grigg: "Could Monkeys Type the 23rd Psalm?" Creation Ex Nihilo 13(1): 30-33 (December 1990-February 1991). Reprinted in: Apologia 3(2):59-64 (1994).

Lawrence McCartin: Proving the Infinite Monkey Theorem, 2000.

David Foster: "Monkeys with Typewriters." Chapter 10 of The Philosophical Scientists. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993. [Review of this book: Gert Korthof: "Does Protein Specificity Destroy the Theory of Evolution?", 2003.]

To add:

Illustration: Arman: Infinity of Typewriters and Infinity of Monkeys and Infinity of Time = Hamlet, 1962. [Sammlung Sonnabend, p. 95.]

Creating Chance

Chance does nothing that has not been prepared beforehand.

Alexis de Tocqueville. [To do: Find exact reference.]

Loin que je voie dans la surréalité un amoindrissement du contrôle, j'y vois au contraire un contrôle plus grand.

Antonin Artaud: Le Pèse-Nerfs (1927), p. 88.

Machines take me by surprise with great frequency.

Alan Turing

In order to harness the creative potential of Chance a rigorous set of procedural steps must be established in order to have pure Chance appear. If one strays from the established equation and, there are many Chance will respond to, the result is mere subjectivity.

Michael Byron: Korsmit and Chance.


Everything is accidental

The world is not an organism at all, but chaos.

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Will to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 379.

Das Wirkliche ist zufällig.

Fritz Mauthner: Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, Vol. 3 (1902), p. 579.

Die Erforschung der Logik bedeutet die Erforschung aller Gesetzmäßigkeit. Und außerhalb der Logik ist alles Zufall.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus, Annalen der Naturphilosophie, 1921 (Satz 6.3)

Alle Sätze sind gleichwertig.
Der Sinn der Welt muß außerhalb ihrer liegen. In der Welt ist alles wie es ist und geschieht alles wie es geschieht; es gibt in ihr keinen Wert – und wenn es ihn gäbe, so hätte er keinen Wert.
Wenn es einen Wert gibt, der Wert hat, so muß er außerhalb alles Geschehens und So-Seins liegen. Denn alles Geschehen und So-Sein ist zufällig.
Was es nicht-zufällig macht, kann nicht in der Welt liegen; sonst wäre dies wieder zufällig.
Es muß außerhalb der Welt liegen.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus, Annalen der Naturphilosophie, 1921 (Satz 6.4 / 6.4.1)


Chaos Theory

It may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible, and we have the fortuitous phenomenon.

Jules Henri Poincaré: Science et Méthode. Paris: Flammarion, 1908.

"Es wäre gar nichts geschehen, wenn nicht . . ."

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Vermischte Bemerkungen, p. 31.

To do: Look up: Demokrites: the klinamen (the accidental deviation of a particle from its lawful trajectory).


Information Theory

Es ist ganz klar daß eine zufällige Folge von Symbolen oder ein rein zufälliges Schema keine Information übermitteln kann.

Norbert Wiener: Cybernetics or control and communication in the animal and the machine (New York, 1948) (German trans.: Mensch und Menschmaschine, 1952)




Compiled by Remko Scha. Bibliographic research by René Glas, Pepijn van der Meer and Chuntug Taguba.