- Randomness and NarrativityA Cognitive Reassessment of Fortune and Nonsense in Montaigne's Essais
Vitam regit fortuna, non sapieta.
Fortune governs life, not wisdom.1
When Montaigne visited Rome in 1580 he presented the first two books of the Essais to Roman censors for their seal of approval. Surprisingly, the censors' first and chief misgiving upon the second review of the Essais, the only misgiving that Montaigne actually mentions, and mentions twice in his Journal de voyage, pertained to the pervasiveness of the notion of fortune in the Essais (Journal de voyage 119 and 131).2 To the censors' mind, apparently, Montaigne's repeated ascription of fortune to inferential causality was the most threatening challenge to the metaphysical edifice upon which Catholic dogma stood, and not, [End Page 1037] as one would have expected, his skepticism, nominalism, and relativism, all deeply steeped in pagan Greco-Roman thought. The censors' intuition was spot on, and so was Montaigne's subsequent resistance to removing the discussion of this pivotal notion. Montaigne in fact kept all references to fortune and added many more in essays written at a later date.3 Fortune stands opposite Providence. The random nature of complex social realities and events stands opposite coherent narratives. And, among all such narratives, Providence, which is the overarching understanding of all events as being part of the unfolding of God's will in the world, is one of the worse offenders. Providence is a theoretical dogma as to the origin, current meaning, and future trajectory of history. Providence is thus a series of post-hoc, comforting, and most often self-serving "just so" stories (i.e., the systematic confusion of causes and consequences), precisely what, as I will show below, Montaigne frequently derided as the ultimate form of nonsense.4
Depending on the circumstances, what Montaigne names "fortune" may be understood as "things that take place," "happenstances," "chance," "contingency," "luck" or "destiny."5 More interestingly, from our point of view today, Montaigne uses "fortune" in certain passages to signify a special case of randomness, commonly known today as the butterfly effect. This is a contemporary mathematical notion that is just as ontologically and existentially disturbing at present (even among cognitive and mathematical elites!) as it was on the doctrinal level to the Roman censors in the 1580s. I will argue below that we are evolutionarily biased against reasoning in terms of probability and especially in terms of randomness, and that these evolved biases for the attribution of linear causality within narrative structures and against thinking in terms of probabilities and randomness impact our relationship to knowledge, and thus, to doubt, judgment, and decision-making. Indeed, Montaigne's frank emphasis on randomness is prescient in its depth, and especially so in its articulation of the linkage of randomness to our confabulating propensities. Being keenly aware of how [End Page 1038] randomness rules our lives allows Montaigne to become as lucid as a human being can ever become as to the empirical fabric of social reality, allowing him to shed the protective clothing of self-serving just so stories. Giving randomness its true preponderant role in all human affairs enables Montaigne to paint himself "tout entier, et tout nud" ("entirely and wholly naked"; "Au Lecteur" 27); that is, wholly naked, in the sense of being exposed and being subject to the vagaries of randomness all while avoiding as much as possible the fig leaves of coherent but deceptive narratives. To the best of my knowledge, only John Lyons, in a single sentence in the introduction to The Phantom of Chance: From Fortune to Randomness in Seventeenth-Century French Literature, has clearly highlighted in Montaigne's thought the crucial link between negotiating randomness and the human propensity toward narrativity (23–24).6 This article endeavors to flesh out in detail John Lyons' critical insight. My thesis is that contemporary cognitive sciences may permit us at this moment to take a fuller measure of Montaigne's pivotal insights into the link between randomness and narrativity, in the same manner that structuralist anthropology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism (and all their myriad offshoots) promoted in enlightening ways a rereading, a reassessment, and a re-actualization...