A Case of Win-Win by Graeme Hunter


A Case of Win-Win

Graeme Hunter on Probability, Death & the Existence of God

There is a true story about a French widow of ninety who made an attractive real estate offer to a lawyer of forty-seven. He was to give her monthly payments of 2,500 francs (then roughly $500) until her death, in exchange for which she would bequeath to him her fashionable flat in the town of Arles. It looked like a win-win situation. The woman would be assured of a roof over her head and living expenses until death, and the lawyer would inherit a place worth far more than he would spend to acquire it. He would manage comfortably until then on his current earnings. It seemed probable that he would not have to wait long before coming into his inheritance.

Probability, however, is a fickle thing. It is probable that a woman of ninety has not long to live, but it is also probable that a woman who has already lived ninety years will keep right on living. As indeed happened in this case. Jeanne Calment lived to be the oldest person in the world, dying at 122 in 1997, outlasting André-François Raffray, the lawyer, by about one year. He paid for her upkeep to the end of his days and received nothing in return.

Death Not Random

Probability is fickle, but life is all about probability we are told. Scientists are less interested in laws nowadays than in probabilities, and it is in everyone’s interest to understand them. That, at least, is the thesis of Leonard Mlodinow’s best-seller, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.

Mlodinow’s subtitle may be an exaggeration. Perhaps not everything in life is random. But even if almost everything were, there would still be one aspect of life that is not so: there is nothing random about life’s terminus, called death.

You may think that nothing is more random than death. Human deaths occur in the womb, at birth, in infancy, and all the way up to ages of 122 and more. But randomness, like probability, is a fickle friend, and death, like life, can be thought of in different ways. Deaths appear to occur at random, but only if you overlook the fact that it is not random that we die. If deaths were random events, not all human deaths would happen within the first 150 years following conception. Such an outcome would be no less surprising than if all lottery winners were named Alfred, Ben or Charles.

There is supposed to have been vegetation on earth for the last several billion years. If death were a random event, there should be at least a plant or two that is a billion years old and going strong. And by the same reasoning there should be one or two of us human beings who are at least ten thousand years old. But to my knowledge there is nothing of the kind. Everything that was alive several billion years ago is now as dead as our stone-age ancestors.

“To everything there is a season,” we read in Ecclesiastes, “a time to be born and a time to die.” This is part of the curse that descended on the human family after Adam’s sin. But death did not come upon us like an astrological fate, as some ancient thinkers thought it had. “At birth, we die,” said the ancient astrologer, Marcus Manilius, meaning that our beginning and end were equally carved in astrological stone. He thought that death, like birth, must arrive through the inexorable momentum of events and be fully determined the instant we drop into the river of time.

The Fatum Christianum

God had a different idea. He does not cause everyone to die at the same age, or of the same ailment. He doesn’t cause us to die at all. Except in particular miracles, no time or cause is fixed in advance for anyone’s death, though of course God foresees how each of us will die. What Marcus Manilius did not realize was that God wished to allow for human freedom, so that we could, as he commanded us, choose life over death, and, in choosing life, choose also what path in life we would follow. Those who choose well often enjoy long lives, unless floods or earthquakes or other acts of God, or man, or beast, or bacteria, cut short their lives.

A strange thing about death, though, is that it could snatch us away even if nothing caused it. Because the life of the cells we’re composed of is finite, we can die of nothing in particular. For death there are no pardons. Extensions are rare and brief.

Yet just as randomness and probability may be viewed in different ways, so may fate. Even with all the freedom God allows us, there may still be a fatum Christianum associated with our lives. It is not that some particular path is appointed for us, but that no matter what path we choose, it ends at a door. And behind that door is always death.

Behind the door of death there is new life, Christianity also teaches, but that is not what my present tale is about. It is about the way that every life leads to death in fewer than 150 years.

You will die. This proposition has a probability of 1. It resembles fate and is in no way random. Only God escapes it, because he is not of the world or in it. God is not subject to the fatum Christianum of death that limits us. Yet in another way something like the fatum Christianum pertains to him as well. The universe he created could have turned out in many different ways; it could have pursued any of innumerable different causal histories. Yet whatever path it went down, God would have been its Alpha and Omega, present both at its beginning and at its end. However things had shaken out, the divine shaker-outer would be there.

One Plain, Anchoring Truth

You may wonder whether that is true, whether there even is a God. But surely it is at least possible that there is a being who is at the beginning and end of every possible sequence of events. All I mean by calling such a being possible is that no logical contradiction is involved in talking about it. That’s hard to deny, but if you admit it, you will not afterward be able to deny that God exists in fact. However, unless you’re a logician, you likely won’t see immediately why that is so. So let’s approach it from another angle.

Many people in frozen Ottawa believe in global warming. But they shouldn’t. If warming were a global phenomenon, it could not be occurring elsewhere without also happening here. But warming is not happening here. If anything, our winters have been growing longer and colder over the last few years. If warming is not happening here, then global warming is not happening anywhere. You can have warming in sub-Saharan Africa and not have it here. But you can’t have global warming in sub-Saharan Africa without also having it in Ottawa.

In a similar way, a being who turns up everywhere can’t be in just one place. If such a being is anywhere, then he’s also in the same place you are. But that’s just what a necessary being is: a being who turns up everywhere, no matter how things shake out. Our world is the way things shook out. So if there is a necessary being, he’s got to be here.

But maybe he’s not actual, only possible, you’ll say. So let’s suppose you’re right. God is merely a possible being. If he’s possible, that means there is some way things could have shaken out that would include God’s existence. Had things shaken out that way, there would also have existed a being that could not fail to exist. That being would exist because he would have existed, even if things had shaken out as they do in our world. He would exist no matter what. He therefore must exist in the world as we find it. It’s a world full of confusing probabilities, disconcerting randomness, and something like fate. But it also contains this one plain, anchoring truth: that God exists. And behind the door of death is life.

Graeme Hunter is a contributing editor to Touchstone and Research Professor of Philosophy at Dominican University College in Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate).