Historians generally agree that Universities arose from Medieval Christian roots. Existing educational institutions began to pursue higher forms of learning and teaching. Instead of focusing on a single vocation or skill, they sought to become centers of learning about a wide variety of subjects and topics. A certain form of standardization began to emerge with levels of education noted by degrees. A bachelor’s degree was awarded for competence in a field. A master’s degree was awarded to one who was qualified to teach a particular subject. A doctorate was awarded for demonstration of competence in teaching a wide variety of subjects. In general, doctorates were awarded in only two fields: theology and philosophy, which were considered to be superior to other lines of inquiry. To this day, an earned doctorate is generally a PhD, or a philosophy doctorate. The old traditions have less meaning in a world where the teaching and learning of humanities in general and philosophy in particular have been dropped by many educational institutions in favor of focusing on specific areas of inquiry such as science and engineering. Nonetheless scholars emerge who have not only a command of a particular subject, but also engage in regular philosophical inquiries.

One such person is Leonard Mlodinow. He is a physicist, specializing in quantum physics, but among his books are at least three significant volumes of philosophy: “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives,” “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,” and “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World.”

I am not a physicist and I struggle to understand even the vaguest outlines of the topic. My friend Luke Corwin, a physicist and professor is very good at explaining basic concepts to me, but I don’t always follow the mathematics as well as I might have had I studied calculus when I was younger. What I do know is that creative thinking is essential to the process of inquiry into physics. So much of how this universe operates is unknown that one has to advance theories and work to either prove or disprove those theories as a method of understanding why things happen the way that they do. Mlodinow has been involved in that type of inquiry long enough to be comfortable with randomness. Sometimes things just happen the way that they do because that’s what happens, not because that is what had to happen. Mlodinow has studied Brownian motion. As early as the 19th century people noticed that little grains of pieces of pollen would jiggle around for no apparent reason in liquid. The original theory is that there was some kind of life force or energy contained in the pollen. In the 20th century, Einstein explained the motion asserting that the jiggling comes from the impact of the molecules of the liquid on the pollen, pushing it this way and that way.

Mlodinow studied Brownian motion and considered it in the context of his own life. In “The Drunkards Walk” he tells the story of his own father, who was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, where he stole a loaf of bread from a bakery. The guards were called in and they lined up all the people who had access to the bakery. They asked for the thief to identify himself. When no one stepped forward, they threatened to start shooting people one by one until the thief identified himself. Mlodinow’s father stepped forward before the first shot was fired, figuring that his time to die had come. It was a purely practical decision. If there is going to be death, his stepping forward would decrease the number of people who died that day. He wasn’t however, executed. Instead he was given a job in the bakery and survived. He went on to become a father. It was a random action by someone in authority in the midst of a terrible injustice carried out against people because of their religion. In the midst of extreme cruelty, there was randomness that allowed his family line to survive.

When I look at my own life, I see examples of randomness. A banker declined to loan money to my father when he wanted to purchase a business in Oklahoma. As a result of not obtaining the loan, he returned to Montana and started his business there. Because of that, I was born and raised in the state where I met my wife instead of a location where we would have never met. One of my brothers experienced a heart attack while at work and died before emergency medical technicians could be summoned. One of my sisters experienced an aortic aneurism in a hospital where immediate surgery saved her life. The randomness of location of the events resulted in dramatically different outcomes. Our son met his wife at college. Had either of them chosen to attend a different college they would have never met. Their three children would have never been born. Our daughter met her husband while he was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City. She had returned home to work after attending college. Had he been stationed elsewhere or she decided to pursue a different job they would have never met.

As much as we plan and prepare and try to control the major events of our lives, there is always present the reality of randomness. Things happen. They may be good things. They may be bad things. How we react to the events in our lives determines the direction that our lives take. When we moved to South Dakota, I didn’t expect that I would serve this congregation for 20 years. I thought perhaps ten years and then I would move on to another location. In fact I applied for another job about ten years into my time of service here. I didn’t get that job and I don’t regret it for a moment. Staying here was a good thing for me and for my family. But who knows? Perhaps things would have turned out well had I moved on to another position.

Philosophy still matters in our technical and scientific world. I’m grateful that there are scientists who are willing to ask the bigger questions and to study the realities of randomness in our lives.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!