The most recent lesson in the Wilford Woodruff manual contains a quote from a general conference sermon given by Woodruff on April 6, 1872:
The Lord never created this world at random; he has never done any of his work at random. The earth was created for certain purposes; and one of these purposes was its final redemption, and the establishment of his government and kingdom upon it in the latter days, to prepare it for the reign of the lord Jesus Christ, whose right it is to reign. That set time has come, that dispensation is before us, we are living in the midst of it.
Woodruff seems here to posit a deterministic model of reality, a claim that would perhaps have been less philosophically and scientifically jarring in 1872 (just 13 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and substantially before the rise of quantum mechanics) than it is today. Such may have been part of the original intent of the statement, but a careful reading shows that Woodruff draws a contrast between “randomness,” on the one hand, and “purpose,” on the other. In other words, randomness here may perhaps be best interpreted as an antonym of purpose — rather than a formal claim about statistically meaningful patterns in data.
What I’d like to ask in this post is whether there is a role for chance, understood as action without purpose. Rather than reaching back to the creation of the world or of humanity, let’s focus on a set of creative acts that we are rather more familiar with: the creation of our own characters. A standard debate between Mormons and others (and sometimes among Mormons) involves the relative importance of God’s will (“predestination” or, perhaps, “foreordination”) and our own choice (“free agency”) in accounting for the decisions and events that shape our personalities and our inner lives. The implicit assumption is that anything which doesn’t fall in the second of these two categories must necessarily fall in the first, and vice versa.
But what if Woodruff was wrong, and there are events that really happen without purpose? What if some things just happen to us — not as a result of our own choice, nor because of God’s eternal plan? What if there is a role for chance in the creation of our characters?
This isn’t a topic where I can offer compelling evidence in one direction or the other. But I can tell a story that helps explain why I am drawn to the question. At one point when I was in high school, there were two different girls that I was interested in dating. Just exactly because I wasn’t sure which I wanted to date, I didn’t take any action with respect to either of them. But a kind of caring busybody friend of mine decided that she shouldn’t just stand by and watch; she went behind my back and arranged a date for me with one of the two girls. How did she decide which one to pick? Was she simply unaware of my interest in the other? Did she decide that one of them would be better for me? Was her decision a part of God’s plan? Certainly her choice never reflected my own agency; perhaps it really was chance.
In any case, the decision was incredibly influential with respect to the development of my character. The girl and I dated throughout the rest of my time in high school. Much to the dismay of my parents, we fell in love. Of course we used the word “love” at the time, as high school sweethearts will do. But in adult retrospect, I can say that what I felt was full, committed love. Of course, while my emotions may have been of the mature variety, my decision-making was not. I decided to believe what I was told by the adults around me: what I was feeling didn’t really mean that much, and the relationship between the two of us wasn’t important enough to make major life decisions around.
So when the girl asked me to choose to attend the University of Utah so that we could be close to each other the following year, I decided that her request was not important enough to outweigh what I took to be the compelling intellectual advantages of attending Brigham Young University. That mistake of mine cost us our relationship; when the separation arrived, we broke up, an event that left me with a bonanza of emotional pain. I made at least one more hideous error with respect to the relationship, though. One day, a couple of months after we had broken up, we went on one last date. At the end of it, she plaintively asked me, “Why can’t I stop loving you?” Rather than hearing what was being said to me, I answered out of my misery, “You know, you’ve never made this break-up easy for me.”
The lasting hurt from this separation certainly changed my character. I developed the habit of ironic distance — from everything, if I indulge myself. For a long time, I lost faith — not in God (that kind of faith I had lost earlier on and would not recover for several more years), but in people. There have probably only been two other aspects of my life that have exercised as great an influence on who I am: my mission, and my marriage.
But here’s the question that haunts me: why did this all happen? Certainly the mistakes I made were my own. But, when the whole thing started, did I choose it? Partially I did, of course. But I didn’t choose the fact that my friend arranged a date for me with the girl I fell in love with, rather than the other girl. Was that act divinely commanded? Or did my friend make a free choice? If she did, that choice is part of her story, not mine — indeed, that choice is chance for me. Have I (that is, the version of me which exists today), then, been created at random?