We assume that true “randomness” exists. But is there really such a thing as a purely random event or thing?
I think we only use the word random to describe things that we can’t fully explain. I think that the events which first appear to be random are actually be very structured and organised. It’s easier to say “it’s entirely random” than to explain the myriad of intricacies of any particular system…
Picture several hundred people moving at a train station or crossing a busy intersection. At first glance it looks purely random. But there is really nothing random about it. Each of the people has a distinct set of reasons for being there. Maybe some of them are going to work, or coming home from night shift or meeting a friend for a coffee. They are doing what people do: shopping, socialising, travelling, working, playing, walking, seeing, doing and a multitude of other things that other people do to make themselves feel happy. None of that is random.
“There are no accidents” — Master Oogway
Some of these visible “people effects” are happening more than others for different reasons and that is the hardest part to understand. Delve a little deeper and you’ll discover the real reasons behind this apparent randomness. If you ask any person why they are there, they will tell you. If you ask any one of them why they chose that particular day, they will tell you. If you ask any one of them why they choose to cross at that particular intersection instead of another, they will tell you. Even if they don’t know themselves why they are there, they have a subconscious reason for being where they are (based on their genetics, and environment, and even their mood). Even if they saw they “threw a pair of dice” to help them decide, then they still chose the dice rather than the dart board. So if you keep asking enough questions, you realise that things just happen. But most of them are not what I’d call ‘random’ events.
The same goes for a mixture of particles suspended in a liquid. Imagine now that we stir the container. The distribution of those particles would usually thought of by most scientists or mathematicians as being purely ‘random’. Is it random though?
Right now we can’t study it in precise enough detail, so we call the distribution of particles in such a system ‘random’. I don’t imagine that we will ever be able to do this in practice, but nevertheless, it’s a quick and dirty thought experiment. If we could tag each and every single atom and molecule within our container and proceed to track and record their initial positions, velocities and directions, spin, vibrational modes, energy states, all without disturbing any of them, we’d build up a more complete picture of ALL the molecular interactions that took place since we began stirring.
What about the distribution of matter in our cosmos? The distribution of galaxies, stars, planets looks to be fairly random. Is it? However, there is a reason why certain galaxies get to where they are. There is a reason why they form into different shapes. There is a reason why every star is where it is now. And when I say there is a ‘reason’ I don’t mean to imply that there was a creator (because the more I study materials, the more I realise things just happen by themselves).
The shapes of plants aren’t random either. There are chemical and thermodynamic reasons they tend to take the forms that they do 1. Speaking of plants, I’m willing to bet that the all those peach blossoms that fall down from the tree and surround Master Oogway in Kung Fu panda in the above scene aren’t purely random either. A 3D animator put them all there. Even if he or she used an computer algorithm to generate the entire swarm of peach blossoms in bulk and get them to flow based on a few simple rules 2, someone initially had to program all of that. That was no accident. That wasn’t random. Then the art director no doubt had their say and helped to guide the way all of the peach blossoms moved around Master Oogway… like if there was one peach blossom that was too big or obscured their faces for too long, or came too close to the camera, then they would have taken the offending beach blossoms out of the whole animation sequence.
So let’s say we could trace the history of one individual particle such as a single neutron back to the creation of the big bang. I am no cosmologist and I’m not about to get bogged down in it, but I’m sure that if we could then we would begin to understand all the numerous collisions our lone neutron had with all the other particles over its lifetime as it went hurtling through space and time. Perhaps our neutron atom would land on Earth and go on to be a part of a carbon atom. Now wouldn’t that be something… if one day it became part of a peach tree?
- I’m sure that most people don’t actually know this; they think that DNA does everything. Unfortunately I’ve run out of time here, so I’ll have to leave that for another post.
- Emergence is the study of apparently complex behaviour arising from simple rules. But even that behaviour is not random. It’s interesting to note that even psuedo random number generators develop exactly the same sequence of numbers whenever they are introduced with the same initial seed value.