"Chance" is not an explanation of anything

I'm currently reviewing John McWhorter's The Language Hoax for The University Bookman. Here is my commentary on McWhorter's use of "chance" as an explanation for some language feature:

McWhorter commits a serious error in assigning the cause of this multitude of bewildering variety in human language. He writes, "In fact, there is a coherent explanation... That explanation is, quite simply, chance" (43). This is nonsense, albeit common nonsense. "Chance" is not an explanation for anything: chance is the word we use for happenings we can't explain. In cases such as the presence of evidential markers in the Tuyuca language, McWhorter is fighting against the Whorfian view that there is always a macro-level, cultural/environmental explanation for the features of a language. And he makes a strong case, throughout the book, that that is not so.

But there is certainly some explanation for how they arose: perhaps a long-lived Tuyuca chief was an especially suspicious fellow, and some little tic led him to put small sounds of doubt at the end of otherwise factual statements when he questioned their factualness. Now, this would be a fact of history that is long lost, and that we probably have no hope of ever recovering. And to that extent, McWhorter would be accurate if he had said, "It might as well have been the flip of a coin." But, of course, coin flips are not chance events! Or, rather, saying they are a chance event is an expression of our ignorance of, and, indeed, despair at ever detecting, what really caused a coin to come up heads or tails on some particular flip.

Consider the opening toss before a football game, which determines who kicks off. These events are governed by "chance" from the point of view of the players and referees involved. But whether the coin comes up heads or tails is, in fact, determined by the force and angle of the refs flip, the air resistance, the gusts of wind that impact it, the participants' movements, and more. If anyone involved could exactly determine the impact of all of those factors and could rapidly calculate with them, he could say for sure whether the coin would land on heads or tails. It is their inability to do such calculations that makes the coin flip, from their point of view, chance, and a fair way to decide who kicks off. But it is certainly not an explanation for why the coin landed as it did: it is the admission that the participants can't explain it.


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