Posted in: Common Sense
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Randomness is a concept with somewhat disparate meanings in several fields. It also has a common meaning which has a loose connection with some of those more definite meanings.
Casually, it is typically used to denote a lack of order, or purpose, or cause In addition, more closely connected with the concept of entropy, there is a casual sense of lack of predictability. Humans have used and considered the concept for a very long time.
Randomness, as defined by Aristotle, is the situation when a choice is to be made which has no logical component by which to determine or make the choice. More recently, and more formally, a random process is a repeating process whose outcomes follow no describable deterministic pattern, but follow a probability distribution, such that the relative probability of the occurrence of each outcome can be approximated or calculated. For instance, the rolling of a six-sided die in neutral conditions may be said to produce random results in that one cannot compute before a roll what digit will be landed on, but the probability of landing on any of the six rollable digits can be calculated because of the finite cardinality of the set of possible outcomes.
The term is often used in statistics to signify well-defined statistical properties, such as a lack of bias or correlation. Monte Carlo Methods, which rely on random input, are important techniques in science, as, for instance, computational science. Random selection is an official method to resolve tied elections in some jurisdictions and is even an ancient method of divination, as in tarot, the I Ching, and bibliomancy. Its use in politics is very old, as office holders in Ancient Athens were chosen by lot, there being no voting.
In the physical sciences
The thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat, existing in superposed dead and alive states until observed, hinges on the randomness of atomic decay.
In the 19th century, scientists used the idea of random motions of molecules in the development of statistical mechanics in order to explain phenomena in thermodynamics and the properties of gases.
According to several standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, microscopic phenomena are objectively random. That is, in an experiment where all causally relevant parameters are controlled, there will still be some aspects of the outcome which vary randomly. An example of such an experiment is placing a single unstable atom in a controlled environment; it cannot be predicted how long it will take for the atom to decay; only the probability of decay within a given time can be calculated. Thus, quantum mechanics does not specify the outcome of individual experiments but only the probabilities. Hidden variable theories are inconsistent with the view that nature contains irreducible randomness: such theories posit that in the processes that appear random, properties with a certain statistical distribution are somehow at work “behind the scenes” determining the outcome in each case.
 In biology
The modern evolutionary synthesis ascribes the observed diversity of life to natural selection, in which some random genetic mutations are retained in the gene pool due to the non-random improved chance for survival and reproduction that those mutated genes confer on individuals who possess them.
The characteristics of an organism arise to some extent deterministically (e.g., under the influence of genes and the environment) and to some extent randomly. For example, the density of freckles that appear on a person’s skin is controlled by genes and exposure to light; whereas the exact location of individual freckles seems to be random.
Randomness is important if an animal is to behave in a way that is unpredictable to others. For instance, insects in flight tend to move about with random changes in direction, making it difficult for pursuing predators to predict their trajectories.
The mathematical theory of probability arose from attempts to formulate mathematical descriptions of chance events, originally in the context of gambling, but soon in connection with situations of interest in physics. Statistics is used to infer the underlying probability distribution of a collection of empirical observations. For the purposes of simulation, it is necessary to have a large supply of random numbers or means to generate them on demand.
Algorithmic information theory studies, among other topics, what constitutes a random sequence. The central idea is that a string of bits is random if and only if it is shorter than any computer program that can produce that string (Kolmogorov randomness)-this basically means that random strings are those that cannot be compressed. Pioneers of this field include Andrey Kolmogorov and his student Per Martin-Löf, Ray Solomonoff, Gregory Chaitin, and others.
Randomness versus unpredictability
Randomness is an objective property. Nevertheless, what appears random to one observer may not appear random to another observer. Consider two observers of a sequence of bits, only one of whom has the cryptographic key needed to turn the sequence of bits into a readable message. The message is not random, but is unpredictable for one of the observers.
One of the intriguing aspects of random processes is that it is hard to know whether the process is truly random. The observer can always suspect that there is some “key” that unlocks the message. This is one of the foundations of superstition and is also what is a driving motive, curiosity, for discovery in science and mathematics.
Under the cosmological hypothesis of determinism, there is no randomness in the universe, only unpredictability, since there is only one possible outcome to all events in the universe. No event under determinism can be defined as having probability, since there is only one universal outcome.
Some mathematically defined sequences, such as the decimals of pi, exhibit some of the same characteristics as random sequences, but because they are generated by a describable mechanism, they are called pseudorandom. To an observer who does not know the mechanism, a pseudorandom sequence is unpredictable.
Chaotic systems are unpredictable in practice due to their extreme dependence on initial conditions. Whether or not they are unpredictable in terms of computability theory is a subject of current research. At least in some disciplines of computability theory, the notion of randomness turns out to be identified with computational unpredictability.
Randomness of a phenomenon is not itself random. It can often be precisely characterized, usually in terms of probability or expected value. For instance, quantum mechanics allows a very precise calculation of the half-lives of atoms even though the process of atomic decay is a random one. More simply, although we cannot predict the outcome of a single toss of a fair coin, we can characterize its general behavior by saying that if a large number of tosses are made, roughly half of them will show up heads. Ohm’s law and the kinetic theory of gases are precise characterizations of macroscopic phenomena which are random on the microscopic level.
Some theologians have attempted to resolve the apparent contradiction between an omniscient deity, or a first cause, and free will using randomness. Discordians have a strong belief in randomness and unpredictability. Buddhist philosophy states that any event is the result of previous events (karma), and as such, there is no such thing as a random event or a first event.
Martin Luther, the forefather of Protestantism, believed that there was nothing random based on his understanding of the Bible. As an outcome of his understanding of randomness, he strongly felt that free will was limited to low-level decision making by humans. Therefore, when someone sins against another, decision making is only limited to how one responds, preferably through forgiveness and loving actions. He believed, based on Biblical scripture, that humans cannot will themselves faith, salvation, sanctification, or other gifts from God. Additionally, the best people could do, according to his understanding, was not sin, but they fall short, and free will cannot achieve this objective. Thus, in his view, absolute free will and unbounded randomness are severely limited to the point that behaviors may even be patterned or ordered and not random. This is a point emphasized by the field of behavioral psychology.
These notions and more in Christianity often lend to a highly deterministic worldview and that the concept of random events is not possible. Especially, if purpose is part of this universe, then randomness, by definition, is not possible. This is also one of the rationales for religious opposition to evolution, where, according to theory, (non-random) selection is applied to the results of random genetic variation.
Donald Knuth, a Stanford computer scientist and Christian commentator, remarks that he finds pseudorandom numbers useful and applies them with purpose. He then extends this thought to God who may use randomness with purpose to allow free will to certain degrees. Knuth believes that God is interested in people’s decisions and limited free will allows a certain degree of decision making. Knuth, based on his understanding of quantum computing and entanglement, comments that God exerts dynamic control over the world without violating any laws of physics, suggesting that what appears to be random to humans may not, in fact, be so random.
C. S. Lewis, a 20th-century Christian philosopher, discussed free will at length. On the matter of human will, Lewis wrote: God willed the free will of men and angels in spite of His knowledge that it could lead in some cases to sin and thence to suffering: i.e., He thought freedom worth creating even at that price. In his radio broadcast, Lewis indicated that God “gave humans free will. He gave them free will because a world of mere automata could never love…”
In some contexts, procedures that are commonly perceived as randomizers-drawing lots or the like -are used for divination, e.g., to reveal the will of the gods; see e.g. Cleromancy.
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