Does random chance exist or is everything predetermined?

Published 2:38 pm Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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The issue of free will has plagued mankind for millennia. Do we have it? Let’s think about that from the perspective of two very different movies.

Anton Chigurh randomly inflicts death in No Country for Old Men. For him, life is a mere random chance. In one famous scene, he is on the run from the cops when he stops at an old gas station on an all-but-deserted stretch of west Texas highway. No one is around but the gas station operator, who, Chigurh is shocked to learn, married into the service station as a step up in his life. When Chigurh cannot make up his mind about whether he should kill the man he sees as pitiful and unnecessary, he decides to let the man’s fate rest on the toss of a coin.

He pulls out a quarter and tells him to “Call it”. He asks “For what?” In frustration, Chigurh tells him to “Just call it”. He again asks what they are calling it for, and Chigurh responds that he can’t call it for him, “It wouldn’t be fair”. He says he didn’t put nothing up, and Chigurh says that he’s been putting it up all of his life, that he just didn’t know it. Then Chigurh explains—with a nod to random chance—that the date on the coin is 1958, and that it has been traveling 22 years to get there, and “Now it’s here and it’s either heads or tails”. The man asks what he stands to win, and Chigurh tells him he stands to win everything.

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The tension builds, and the old man looks down his eyelids, and, with heavy breathing, calls heads. When Chigurh moves his hand and heads it is. As he walks off he tells the old man to keep the coin, that it is his lucky coin, not to let it get mixed in with the rest and become just a coin—which it is. The man stares blank faces as Chigurh walks away. He never understood he was a coin toss away from death.

His fate was determined on a coin toss, and he’s not the only one in the movie who lives or dies based on the fall of a coin.

On the other side of the coin, free will asserts itself over random chance in It’s a Wonderful Life. George Baily (played by James Stewart) has lived the life of a self-sacrificing small-town banker in the town of Bedford Falls. When his younger brother, Harry, fell into a pond, the very young George saved him, but the resulting pneumonia made him deaf in one ear. As he was growing up he worked in a drug store where he saved a child’s life by stopping the pharmacist from giving him the wrong prescription. He planned on going to college after working for four years helping his father build up his bank, but when Harry wants to go to college, he lets Harry go first on the promise that Harry would come back and George would go.

After graduating, Harry had a lucrative job offer from his father-in-law that would take him away from Bedford Falls. George told his brother to take the job, foregoing his chance to go to college. George got married, but as he and his wife were heading off to their honeymoon he noticed people making a run on the bank. Rather than let it fail, he loaned it the $2,000.00 he’d saved for his honeymoon and they stayed home. His hearing loss costs him his chance to serve in the military, but his brother, Harry, became a Navy pilot and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down a kamikaze pilot and saving a ship full of sailors.

None of George’s life goes as he planned it. He feels like a failure.

Things got worse. On Christmas Eve, his Uncle Billy misplaced $8,000.00 that had to be deposited in his bank. The local bad-guy competitor, Mr. Potter, found the money but did not return it. The loss of the money was about to cause the bank to fail, and Mr. Potter called the police to arrest George for taking the money. George, facing jail, goes to a bar and finally prays for help. His prayer apparently unanswered, he leaves the bar, crashes his car, stares into an icy river, and contemplates suicide.

But just as he’s about to kill himself, he sees someone else in the river. Just like he did with his younger brother, he jumped into the icy waters and saves the person.

As it turns out, the person he saved was Clarence, his bumbling trainee guardian angel.

George, in his frustration, tells Clarence that it would be better if he’d never been born. Clarence accepts that as a challenge and decides that the best way to save George is to show what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

He shows George a world he was never born into. His brother would have died and so would all of the men he saved in the war; the pharmacist would have been sentenced for unintentionally poisoning the child; his wife would have become an unhappy spinster librarian; and Mr. Potter would have turned the town into a horrible place, not the bucolic small town that George loved.

He chooses—exercising his free will—to go back to the life he was living, understanding that his sacrifices had made the world a better place. He has a new birth as they celebrate the birth of the Christ child.

In short, his prayer was answered. He understood that he and his choices mattered, that his life was exactly as it was supposed to be, even if it was not exactly as he’d planned it. Again, it was a matter of perspective, and he needed some shifting. His sacrifices—chosen by his free will—made for better lives for a lot of people.

Remember Chigurh, our representative of random chance? What if what appeared to be random chance was really externally-imposed judgment which is, by definition, the opposite of random chance?

After all, everyone in the movie upon whom he inflicts judgment is where they are because of a choice they made—and many of them made very bad choices.

So, does random chance exist? Or is everything predetermined, including that I’m writing these words and that you are reading them?

These issues have dominated theology for hundreds of years and my wandering mind for an intense fraction of that time. The implications of both sides of the argument are enormous.

I believe in free will. If I’m being honest, I have moments when befuddlement walks in and stakes its claim. But, even then, I choose to believe in it.