Is Anything Truly Random?

Is Anything Truly Random?


John David Best

There is some disagreement regarding the proper definition of the word “random”. Here it will be defined as something that cannot be predicted. The word random is used to describe events themselves, and states or outcomes resulting from random events. Things commonly thought of as being random include: a coin-flip, where a raindrop falls, a number generated by a software random number generator, and when certain radioactive decay events occur; but are any of these truly random? No.

It is axiomatic that for something to happen, it must have a cause. This is one of the most basic facets of reality as we experience it. To believe otherwise isn’t science or mathematics, it is mysticism. Things don’t just happen without something that causes them to happen. With sufficient information about what causes an event, its outcome is predictable, and since predictable events are not random, there is no such thing as a random event. In the case of a coin-flip for example, with sufficient information about the hand doing the flipping and its motion, the fall distance, the dimensions and weight distribution of the coin, and its initial position, it would be possible to predict whether it will land heads or tails. Casino operators can testify that players have found ways to predict games of “chance” including blackjack and roulette. If we had sufficient information about atmospheric conditions and wind currents, we could predict where a raindrop will fall. We may not have enough information to predict a particular event such as radioactive decay, or even know the mechanism by which it takes place, but this does not mean that it happens without a cause.

If the outcomes of all events are predictable, does this mean that the future can be predicted, given enough information? The answer to this question is yes, to a limited extent. Humans, and even lower animals, have long possessed the ability to predict some aspects of the future. A housecat can predict that if it mews beseechingly, its owner will feed it. If you hold a glass in the air then drop it, you can predict that it will break when it hits the ground. You can predict nightfall and daybreak. You can predict what will happen to a cake if you leave it in the oven for too long. Among the most sophisticated (if unreliable) capabilities of humans for predicting the future is that of forecasting the weather, an endeavor that uses supercomputers coupled with enormous amounts of data.

Is there a possibility that some time in the far-off future that man or machine may develop the capability to predict the future in its entirety? No. Even light arriving from the most distant galaxies that we can detect, influences what happens on earth. We can suppose that still more distant galaxies influence what happens to those at the limit of our detection capability. The universe is likely infinite, and it is all interconnected. However our ability to acquire data will always be finite. Another more fundamental reason why the future will never be entirely predictable is that predictions of the future cannot take into account the influence on the future of the prediction itself. The actions of humans, animals, and even machines, are influenced by their predictions of the future, and even the actions taken to arrive at the predictions, unavoidably cause the future to follow a different course than that predicted, even if the difference is small. Small differences in the near-term future are amplified into larger differences in the long-term future.

Those with a philosophical bent may realize that if every event in the universe has a cause, then reality itself is an infinitely large, long, and complex chain of events. If reality is infinite in the temporal sense, as well as the spatial sense, as it likely is. (rejecting the absurdity of the “big bang” theory), then this chain of events must have never had a beginning, and will never come to an end.

Do human thoughts and actions, also need a cause? Yes. On a macroscopic level, when we have “something on our mind”, such as a fight with the significant other, or a problem that needs solving, the cause that prompts our thoughts is evident. Other times, our thoughts and dreams seem random, like they just pop into our heads; but actually they aren’t random. It has been well established by neuroscience that thoughts are the result of electrochemical events in the brain. Anyone who has experienced strong psychedelic drugs can testify that chemicals can affect what happens in the brain. Since thoughts have a cause, electrochemical events, so do our actions, because actions are motivated by thoughts. Does this mean that our human consciousness itself is merely part of a chain of cause and effect, and any self-control or volition over reality and our thoughts and actions is merely an illusion? Yes it does. Perhaps “blame” is an irrational and cruel concept. Why should someone be blamed for actions that are the continuation of a chain of events that was predetermined before the person was even born?