It's easy to see what happens in life. It's much more difficult to comprehend why something happens.
For example, we know that Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. But why this occurred -- beyond the obvious "Trump got more electoral votes than Hillary Clinton" -- is a question that can't be definitively answered.
This doesn't stop people from theorizing, though.
At one extreme, a religious believer might say It was God's will. Or phrased more generally, This was fated to be. At another extreme, a nihilistically-minded person could opine, Shit just happens; end of story.
A book I've been reading, "The Simplest Case Scenario: How the Universe May Be Very Different from What We Think It Is," contains a metaphor that strikes me as an appealing middle ground between extreme determinism and extreme randomness.
Karl Coryat, the author, argues persuasively that the universe is composed of information rather than matter/energy. I'll write about his intriguing interpretation of modern science after I've finished his book, which should be in a few days. I'm looking forward to posting a highly positive Amazon review.
Coryat uses a Plinko Board analogy to convey how the universe, or by implication any part of it, could take many potential pathways -- but ends up taking only one.
The Price is Right game show uses a Plinko Board. Here's a video showing it in action. (I've made the video start at the point a contestant does the Plinko thing.)
Coryat explains how a Plinko board, or box, works.
If you drop a chip into a Plinko box, the chip may take any of a number of paths to the bottom. Whenever the chip falls between two pegs, it hits a peg underneath and must "decide" whether to go left or right. In this manner, each row of pegs that the chip encounters is like a coin toss, where we would expect the chip to go to the left or right with equal probability. Stated another way, it's as if the chip is presented with a series of yes-or-no questions, and the chip chooses an answer every time, effectively at random.
So this makes it sound like life is a crap game. You throw your dice and random luck makes things happen. However, in a footnote Coryat deepens our understanding of what is going on when a chip is dropped into a Plinko board.
Technically, the falling chip is exhibiting chaotic behavior. Rather than its path being determined strictly by the laws of probability, the path depends upon the precise way it was dropped, as well as minute factors such as air currents, dust, the exact shape of the chip, unevenness of the pegs, etc.
Still, the path is sufficiently unpredictable and unreproducible, and the outcome closely enough simulates probability laws, that we can think of the chip's path as being determined by probability. (The same is true of a well-performed coin flip or dice-roll.)
Chaotic behavior is deterministic. But the factors causing the behavior are so complicated, or so subtle, or so difficult to discern, for all practical purposes the ultimate reasons why something happens remain hidden in a chaotic shroud.
Often this is called The Butterfly Effect. Wikipedia says:
The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects. Initially, it was used with weather prediction but later the term became a metaphor used in and out of science. In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
The name, coined by Edward Lorenz for the effect which had been known long before, is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.
Lorenz discovered the effect when he observed that runs of his weather model with initial condition data that was rounded in a seemingly inconsequential manner would fail to reproduce the results of runs with the unrounded initial condition data. A very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.
I find a lot of comfort in these notions: Plinko box, chaos theory, butterfly effect.
Now, I admit that in my true-believing days I also found comfort in a belief that karma determined what happened in life, and that it was possible to escape karma's clutches by raising one's consciousness to a higher supernatural level through meditation and the grace of a guru.
(Yeah, I know that sounds weird, but so is every false religious belief. In addition, much of modern science sounds decidedly weird, even though it is true. So weirdness is found almost everywhere one looks.)
Thus in my previous state of mind, I would have thought, "Donald Trump won the presidency because this was meant to be."
Not believing this anymore, yet not being willing to accept that randomness rules the universe, I'm attracted to the logical, scientific, reasonable notion that determinism controls what happens in life -- yet usually not in obvious ways.
Mostly we like to look for Big Reasons that explain Big Events. Like, the winning of a presidential election. Or more personally, why we ended up married to a certain person, living in a certain place, having a certain career, and such.
So political commentators obsess over election results, exit polls, demographics, campaign strategies, etc., etc. There's nothing wrong with this. However, there's good reason to suppose that a presidential election is more akin to a Plinko box than we might like to think.
What if a staffer had said something at a certain time that made Clinton decide to not set up a personal email server for her Secretary of State work? What if Attorney General Lynch had the thought, "I shouldn't let Bill Clinton onto my plane," which would have made it much more possible for her to overrule FBI Director Comey's decision to publicly reveal a further investigation into Clinton's emails just before the election?
Many what if's of this sort can be visualized. A few tiny influences could have had a giant impact on the election, per the butterfly effect. In fact, almost certainly they did. It's just impossible to figure out what they were.
The course of real life events can't be observed like the falling chip in a Plinko box. All we know is the final outcome, not the convoluted chain of often-chaotic causes and effects that led to this rather than that happening.
Like I said, I find this comforting.
I don't enjoy the thought that Trump's victory was destined. Nor do I embrace the notion that it is possible to know why he won, and Clinton lost, because this would mean that if the Clinton campaign had been smarter, they would have come out on top on election day. Which leads to a sense of blame. And neither do I believe that there is no reason Trump won.
But in between It was meant to be and Shit happens is Sometimes life takes strange turns. Why? Impossible to say. Just like it is impossible to say why a single chip falling in a Plinko box ends up where it does.