Random?

Lori wrote in a FaceBook note:

A friend of mine recommended a book recently to do with the utter random-ness of the universe and the human attempt to find order and patterns. We seek them. Perhaps they offer comfort in a seemingly random world. We seek to control and forecast outcomes in any situation. We seek to predict the behaviour of others, our own environments and the larger world around us. Even when our predictions fail us, we cling to them, trying to extrapolate reasons where we went wrong. What did we miss? Maybe, we missed nothing. Maybe, disturbingly, it is random. All of it.

This sounds like an interesting book. It’s called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow.

Prediction of seemingly random events is fascinating because we’re not really sure if they’re random. As Lori says, we try to find patterns, and through them, order. Humans are adept at recognizing patterns. We recognize others by the construction of their faces. We can recognize people at a great distance from the way they walk or run. These abilities were critical to our forest-dwelling ancestors. Is that person approaching a member of the tribe? Lives could depend on the correct answer.

Since we’re so good at seeing patterns, we find them where they do not really exist. The face of Jesus in the cloud of the space shuttle Columbia explosion is a good example. Sure it looks like Jesus, but only because we’re so good at seeing patterns. It’s just a cloud.

But what about in natural occurrences? Sure there are patterns. The day, the seasons, the year, but many people seem to be stuck in the 19th century regarding the number of patterns that exist, or even our ability to determine what will happen tomorrow based on what we observe today.

Take weather forecasting. It’s still an inexact science. In the 1950s, many thought that we’d be able to predict the weather exactly for weeks in advance with enough computing power. It didn’t work out that way. This is purely Newtonian thinking in a quantum/Einsteinian universe. The clockwork action of Newton’s universe was smashed forever by Einstein’s Relativity and especially by quantum physics. Not only can’t you predict the weather with as much computing power as you can ever hope to gather, but you can’t even know both the current location and velocity of a single sub-atomic particle. You can know one or the other, but it’s impossible to determine both. Measure one property, and the other changes.

You can predict with fair accuracy the motion and gravitational interaction of two objects floating in space, but as soon as you add a third object, everything is shot. You can work out the positions of the objects a short period in the future, but the accuracy of the complex calculations quickly plummets. It can’t be done with any real accuracy into the future. The work done on the three body problem in the 1800s forms the basis of the Chaos Theory, in fact.

Is it all random? Not everything. A universe with no patterns would be unlivable. When one talks about randomness and predictability, many people quickly move to whether events are random or have some sort of meaning. My belief is events do have meaning…the meaning we assign them. They’re otherwise random. You walk into the coffee shop ten minutes late one day, and meet your future spouse. Fate? No, it’s pure chance. Were you destined to be with them so you would have met them some other way if you had been on time that day? It’s certainly possible you would have met them anyway, but unlikely. That’s my take.

That things are so random make what happens to us even more amazing, in my view. You meet your spouse as a result of your being late one day in a hundred. How amazing is that? Totally. Otherwise it was predestined and inevitable…yawn. Accept fate and you run into the spectre of free will and the fact that you don’t have any. You’ll also have to explain who or what determines these events in advance. Random is exhilarating, putting your destiny in your hands. Give me random.

Besides, if there were a puppet master, I’d be upset with him. What could I have possibly done that was so bad to deserve some of the insanely frustrating things that have happened to me? Give me random or I’ll have to start looking over my shoulder.

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