Coping with randomness

How well are our brains suited to deal with randomness? Let us explore two forms of randomness – perceived randomness and real randomness.

Perceived randomness happens when we have an effect with a cause that eludes our complete understanding – as with a slot machine or the pick of a lottery ticket. When your computer generates random numbers, it actually runs an algorithm that is pegged to a deterministic variable (such as the ticking of the computer’s clock). With enough randomly generated data from the computer (and a lot of time), you can calculate backwards to find out the method the computer uses to generate these numbers. Similarly, when you toss a coin, you flip it with a particular force applied at a particular distance from the coin’s center. More than 20 years ago, Prof. Persi Diaconis demonstrated this by building a coin-tossing machine. Here’s a video where he explains how a coin toss is actually deterministic. Here’s another video where programmed robots can flip bottles with a better accuracy than humans can ever aspire to.

And then, there is real randomness, which I define as an effect without a cause. Now the natural question is if such a phenomenon can even exist. How can we have an effect without a cause? How can there be a response without a stimulus? Our brains are not capable of fathoming such a situation. But at the quantum level, we have learnt how an electron can, at once, be everywhere within an orbital and nowhere within it. Even with everyday phenomenon, such as the smoke rising above a cigarette, we see how this smoke forms a regular trail for a couple of centimeters (laminar flow) and then disperses randomly in several directions (turbulent flow). Despite today’s super-computing powers, precise prediction of how turbulent cigarette smoke disperses eludes our understanding.

And yet, when you think of yourself living in a world of effects without causes, how does that make you feel? To mitigate the mental tension of the unknown, our brain creates stories to explain these effects. Several people attribute the results of even deterministic coin-tosses to destiny or to divine sources, even as we are surrounded by phenomenon that are far more complex – ones that we are yet to comprehend.

“Man is a deterministic creature thrown into a probabilistic universe”, said the psychologist Amos Tversky. Much of our suffering occurs when our causal stories collide with a world which doesn’t care much about them. Perhaps there is no greater truth in the universe than its fundamental unknowability.

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