What is luck that all our swains commend her?

I ask because:

  • Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens–well-known atheists–have affirmed their belief in Determinism and rejection of Free Will
  • In his brief book, Free Will, Sam Harris recounts a horrific 2007 story of atrocities perpetrated by two men on a family, and concludes with this remarkable statement:
    • “As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in [one of the violent criminal’s] shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.”

  • Paraphrased,IMO, Harris was saying: “If I had been the vile criminal–‘atom for atom’ and ‘had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state’–I would have done the same thing he did. And the only reason that I never did what the vile man did is luck.”
  • So Harris’ thesis seems to be: “The only reason that I’m not Mr. X is luck.”
  • I think that’s a remarkable thing to say because, IMO, “The only reason that I’m not Mr. X is because Mr. X is Mr. X and there appears to be a law of physics that says there can only one Mr. X in the universe at a time. In other words, I say: luck doesn’t have a decisive role in the fact that I’m not Mr. X.”
  • Harris’ conclusion moves me to ask: What is luck that enables Harris to claim its importance in Determinism?
  • And how is “There, but for luck, go I” an improvement over “There, but for the grace of God, go I”?

It isn’t an improvement at all. Whether or not you call it God there simply is more to a person than the best purposeful deliberation he can muster. That is why pausing to reflect is often extolled. When it comes to making sense of human affairs our capacity for ungrounded abstract thought is not the best we can do.

To believe we are billiard balls doomed to a lucky or unlucky path would be debilitating. The other formulation doesn’t suffer from the same ill effect unless ones theological understanding leads one to feel the same fatalism by leading one to adopt a self abnegating posture toward God.


Well … if Mr. Harris had been the criminal in question (“atom for atom” as he says), then Mr. Harris would no longer be Mr. Harris - he would instead be that man who did what that man does. That’s just a tautology and doesn’t help us rule one way or the other on the philosophical question of luck, determinism, free will, etc.

We don’t even need to speculate that far into such a rabbit hole in order to encounter equally disturbing plausibilities. What if I was to take myself (as I am - no need to exchange any atoms or make me into physically another person) but put me as a child in Nazi Germany - coming of age just as the 3rd Reich is in its ascendancy. Would I have been one of the all-too-few in that society who resisted those trends? Or would I have been one of the many complicit ones - or even worse one of the many enthusiastic participants? We all want to indulge in the wishful thinking that surely we would have, even then, carried our present moral sensibilities cultivated within our present cultural context that would feel nothing but loathing for such cruel practice - but it doesn’t take much sober and realistic self-reflection to realize that this is probably more wish than reality about the kind of moral stamina we each want to imagine we have on tap.

But even this is still hypothetical. We did not grow up in some other time or context, much less being “atom-for-atom” somebody else. We were given only our own atoms, families, and environments. And each of us will be held responsible for what we did with our own situations.

“Luck” is just the label for our own ignorance about the particulars. It isn’t any kind of real agent that we need worry displaces God, except within the thoughts of those who don’t wish to speak of any God.


In what way is God a real agent? In the context of Harris’ sick criminal? Or Nazi Germany? Or any other way?

(What a fine paraphrase of Will!)

Perhaps I am fated to believe in free will, but I do. In my mind, free will is what made Adam and Eve different from the rest of creation. I am reminded of a psychiatrist in my training who in dealing with schizophrenics hearing voices telling them to do this or that, acknowledged them and their reality, but reminded them, “You hear them, but you don’t have to do as they say.”

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Okay, … that makes two of us. We’re off to a great start!

Aye, … So much more.
Paul wrote: 1 Corinthians 13: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Debilitating indeed.

Right! And “hope” is the stuff that prevents fatalism. In my case, it’s not unfounded hope based solely on Bible verses, but hope encouraged by Bible verses vindicated by and founded on those who have loved me more than I deserved and when I deserved nothing.

Am I a swirling mass of dust moving through this world? I believe I am, but my experiences and my theology tell me: the transformation process is not over until the transformation is finished, at which time, I shall see the One who called me into being and transformation, face to face.


I read, in NeuroQuantology | June 2013 | Volume 11 | Issue 2 | Page 332-359 Kim SW et al., Neurobiology of sexual desire,

Monkeys have the Brodmann area 10, but monkey Brodmann area 10 appears to be the functional analog of the human ventromedial prefrontal cortex to monitor action outcomes (Tsujimoto, 2011). The human dorsolateral Brodmann area 10 (monkeys do not have this part of the brain) appears to subserve unique anthropoid function, providing cognitive flexibility that leads to emergence of human reasoning and planning abilities (Koechlin, 2011).

Through this anatomical arrangement humans can link sexual motivation to an almost unlimited number of strategies that will trump temporal and spatial limitations. For example, rats cannot say “Let’s meet again next week at the corner ice cream parlor”.

In humans, sexual desire that emerges during adolescence parallels the development of self-concept. From this point on, a person (self) makes a conscious (volitional) decision to have or not to have sex, a Shakespearean metaphor but based on scientific evidence (see Koechlin’s work above).

Animals will never kill themselves (willfully) out of romantic fallouts. Countless numbers of young people have done just that when their intense love fell apart. Why does this happen? This happens because human strategies and human identity (self) are one and the same. They both originate within the executive regions; especially in the Brodmann area 10 (see the references above). “Self” is an abstract representation of accumulated episodic memories. Humans have a monster called “self”. Each and every decision has to be filtered through the self. It is the self that makes decision to kill the self; animals do not have a sense of self, so animals die only when they run out of food, or are killed by a predator, or by accident, but humans commit suicide even if plentiful amounts of food are available to them. In this regard, the methods of engineering human sexual desire are significantly more complicated than those of animals.

Vive la différence! Hip-hip-hurrah for free will.

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Sam Harris’ “remarkable” statement is incoherent. It is like saying… If 2 were 3 then 2+2 = 4 would be false. Ultimately it is an attempt to annihilate the “I” and say there is no such thing – only matter. This kind of thinking is a result of buying into the greatest delusion of modern times that one can live purely as an objective observer. The result is no life at all. For how can there be life if there no “I” to be alive. The delusion is in the denial of its incoherence. And when it comes to incoherent rhetoric like this the only meaning to look for is in the effects on action… the ability to justify doing anything. It is the Nietzsche liberation from morality. There is no greater evil.

It may not be a huge difference but there is a difference. With God there is a bias in favor of the good. The point of both is that we cannot take too much personal credit, for indeed a great portion of what we have become is indeed circumstances beyond our control. Nevertheless, I agree with you that it is still an exaggeration annihilating free will – saying that the ONLY difference between people is circumstance – which simply isn’t true. Different people respond to the same circumstances in different ways. We are of course dispensing with the nonsensical logic above, “if 2 were 3 then 2+2=4 would be false” replacing it with the more sensible notion of circumstance to say that if 2 were in a different equation such as 2+3=4 then it would indeed be false.


Aye! Which made Oliver Saks review comment all the more funny. Oliver wrote: "“Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.”

Psalm 130.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Screenshot_2019-12-01 Messenger


I dont believe in luck.But i do believe in a form of predestination

Of course that begs the question: how can any of us know we are hooked into the real McCoy? As you know I think what supports God belief is on board and probably fully capable of being interpreted as whatever local deity is culturally given. But believe me, if I was already attuned to experiencing this something more as the Christian God I’d be quite happy to go on doing so. But I have prior commitments now to understanding it another way and my feeling is don’t fix it if it ain’t broken. I’m content.

It is a dangerous game you are playing, not seeing the tsunami coming.


  • Why did I give this thread such a strange title?
    • Because, when I first tried to entitle it: “What is luck?”, Biologos wouldn’t allow me to do so, because thread titles must be > 14 characters, or was it 15? So I tried to think of something else to add to the basic question and make it longer.
    • “that all our swains commend her” was the best that I could come up with on the spur of the moment. Source: William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen from Verona.
      • Who is Silvia? what is she,
        That all our swains commend her?
        Holy, fair, and wise is she;
        The heaven such grace did lend her,
        That she might admirèd be.
        Is she kind as she is fair?
        For beauty lives with kindness.
        Love doth to her eyes repair,
        To help him of his blindness;
        And, being helped, inhabits there.
        Then to Silvia let us sing,
        That Silvia is excelling;
        She excels each mortal thing
        Upon the dull earth dwelling;
        To her let us garlands bring."
  • This thread is an off-shoot of my even less exciting thread “Monergism versus Synergism” [Which I’ve considered entitling: “Monergism versus Synergism (The XXX-rated version)” or “Monergism, Synergism, and Sex”] in the hope of attracting more viewers. One of the things that I learned from posting that thread is that there is either a paucity of Calvinists around here or the few who are here don’t understand what “Total Depravity” implies. Are viewers of that thread following the link to the “Table of Main Christians Concerning Salvation and Grace?” Give it a gander.
  • To idle atheists passing by this thread: I have the distinct impression, from reading Harris’ book Free Will that Harris and other reprobates are unaware that there are some Christians who firmly believe in the principle doctrines of Christianity [e.g. Original Sin; the historical, incarnated, crucified, resurrected, and ascended Jesus] but not in “free will”. IMO, somebody ought to break the news to Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, and their ilk. Don’t worry about Christopher Hitchens. He knows, … now. :rofl:
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I did have to read the definitions to know what Monergism and Synergism mean.


Join the club! Me too.

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OK, I goggled it too. It is interesting how theology, like every field of study has its own special language, and even if you have gone to church all your life, you have no idea what it those words mean.


In case you are thinking this can make sense because we could change the symbol used for 3 to that of “2” in which case 2+2=4 would indeed be false using that symbol. But then Sam Harris’ statement becomes…

I have to admit that if I were to trade names with one of these men, letter for letter, my name would be his: Then since it is unlikely that name alone would change his behavior, there is no part of the result which would see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people.

This no longer sounds so preposterous and since the atoms of the person have no part of the name, then perhaps this is the only rational way of interpreting Harris’ statement.

The bigger questions is, where do we draw the line between the person and the circumstances. Sam Harris makes it out that there is no line at all (except in what we call it) – that there are only circumstances and there is no person (except perhaps the name) separate from that. Sam’s way is a strange way of looking at people, don’t you think? I think most people would draw a very different line between the person and the circumstances, even without inventing anything supernatural.

Indeed, … as I wrote in the OP:

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It reminds me of music… I don’t “speak the language” of academic music theory, but I appreciate my friends that do. But as far as real life goes, all the jargon doesn’t really impact me and I’m not missing out on anything by not knowing it. I sometimes feel that way about aspects of theological study. :wink:


They mean that Protestantism doesn’t get it. Even worse than Roman Catholicism.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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