The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, November 8, 2009
◊  At Random
Science ...

Just what is “randomness”? That’s actually a good question. In everyday life, we separate things that happen “for a reason” from things that “just happen”, things that seemingly have no reason (and are thus beyond our own control, beyond any human control for that matter). Sometimes we want randomness, we want there to be “no reason” for what happens; as in the selection process for lottery numbers. We want to make sure that the government agency from whom we’ve bought those tickets is selecting the numbers without regard to who bought the tickets. We want to make sure that if some bigshot buys a bunch of million dollar lottery tickets, the government won’t sway the outcome because of that bigshot and all his or her political pull. We want RANDOMNESS, and the government gives it to us by putting balls with numbers in a drum, and shaking up the drum really well. Then there’s also the “heads or tails” situation, where we flip a coin to see who gets the last piece of cake or who bats first, or whatever bit of booty or honor is at stake.

But generally we don’t like randomness. We don’t like the idea that while we’re driving down a road, someone might “randomly” run a stop sign in front of us and really mess things up for us. Or that we might randomly come down with a nasty disease. This is when “lack of control”, lack of predictability, is our enemy.

I’m thinking about “randomness” because it was discussed in a DVD series called “Understanding Complexity”, put out by The Teaching Company. (I’m not getting paid to plug TTC, but a lot of their stuff is good, IMHO). This video course is presented by Professor Scott Page; it’s not the best-produced teaching video I’ve ever seen, but the subject matter turns out to be really important. It’s not easy stuff to wrap your mind around, but if you can, the intellectual rewards are fantastic; Professor Page offers the best explanation I’ve ever heard regarding the financial melt-down of 2008. But then again, it is “complex”; thus the name of the subject matter, “complexity theory”.

Regarding the nature of randomness in our Universe, Professor Page gives three ways of looking at it. The first way is that randomness is just a given, a fundamental feature of all that exists. This is basically what the “Copenhagen view” regarding quantum theory says. The tiniest things that make up our world (quarks, photons, gluons, etc.) act in ways that are random; there is no explanation, there is nothing behind their unpredictable actions. Randomness JUST IS.

Of course, Einstein did not like that line of thought; recall his statement that “God does not play dice with the Universe”. Physicist David Bohm also tried to come up with quantum physics concepts that allowed for hidden physical processes that determine how quantum particles jump around. But most physicists reject both Bohm and Einstein on this and accept Neils Bohr and the Copenhagen view. So, in the famous “Schrodinger’s cat” thought experiment, where a cat in a box with a vial of poison gas will either die or live depending on a quantum fluctuation in a piece of radioactive matter, the cat is “both dead and alive” until we open the box. And once the box is opened and the cat attains unique dead or alive status again, that outcome will be RANDOM. There is no conceivable way to predict or even understand what caused the radioactive atom to emit a particle or not emit it, which would or would not set off the plunger mechanism breaking the glass bottle with the poison in it.

But Professor Page offers us another way to look at randomness – i.e., as the outcome of complex system interactions. When predictable systems like automobiles and rockets and aspirin pills interact with simple systems, the outcomes are quite predictable. But when they interact with other complex systems, the outcomes can indeed be technically random. I.e., there is no pattern to the outcome, even though the inputs were completely understood and recorded. The study of complex systems shows that systems that loop around (are subject to feedback loops) and interact with other such systems can produce randomness, even on the technical level of definition.

So what does this mean for the Universe and the quantum world? Professor Page is a cautious type, so he does not offer any speculation on that. But I’m not as cautious, so I will. Maybe randomness is NOT just a “given” to the Universe. Maybe it has to be “manufactured” by complex system interactions. If so, then quantum randomness might then really be a result of the interaction of complex processes that we currently don’t know about, but ultimately do follow physical laws. If that were the case, THEN EINSTEIN AND BOHM WERE RIGHT!

Well, we’re a long way from that. But there have been some speculations that the Universe is ultimately “digital” and granular, and that everything happens because of interactions between the “grains of reality”. These “grains of reality”, too tiny for us to see or even detect with present scientific equipment, would be something like the “cellular automata” that Professor Page described in the Complexity course. Cellular automata are just little parts of a computer program that have rules about how they act around other little parts like them. In these computer programs, the little “automata” are allowed to interact over time, and the program catches the overall effects of those massive interactions (between thousands or millions of these “automata”). Sometimes, one of these effects is RANDOMNESS. (A simple example of these “agent-based” computer models is the famous “Game of Life”).

There have been some scientists who have pondered the idea of “cellular reality”; one of them is Edward Fredkin, I believe. Our present day science is nowhere near being able to measure or detect what Fredkin thinks is happening on the tiniest levels of reality. But maybe in a couple hundred years? Who knows. Perhaps the clues given by modern-day complexity theory about randomness is just a dead end, and quantum randomness is indeed just woven into the fabric of time and space and energy. And even if it somehow turned out to be right, it may not be controllable (just too complex!!). But still, I think it would be really exciting, a true revolution in scientific thought. None of us alive today may live to see it, but one day, perhaps randomness will not be such a big deal. Perhaps our universe – and perhaps we humans too – are ultimately complex, but not random in nature.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:57 am      

  1. Jim,
    Long ago I read some of the material you refer to here. However, I should caution that I lack the ability to "speak" or "understand" the language of mathematics. But I generally am able to understand the ideas behind the math.

    After pondering, admitedly, my version of how I see these ideas, I always come back to the idea I originally I thought about after reading and thinking about these concepts.

    I wonder very often if in the end we (that is, the scientists who we might describe as representing the math illiterates of this world) do not "find" what it is we (again, the scientists who stand for all the rest of us) are looking for.

    So if that might be the case, it would then turn out that we (scientists and those who stand for those like me who are illiterate in math) are the creators of "all that is." In short, I find myself, after considering such thoughts as you have put down here, if we are not the creators.

    I might add here that I would add a component to "us" that is (chose the word you prefer or all of them) intangible, spiritual, life-giving that endures after the body is gone.

    Of course, we cannot see that we are the creators because either we are busy proving there is no creator and/or we are busy proving there is an "outside" creator.

    After all, even the Greeks posited a "being beyond being" as the "first cause." Perhaps that "being beyond being" is US.

    I may be wrong here; if I am, I wonder how it is that I always return to this thought. Perhaps my illiteracy in the language of math is the problem. But then again, I wonder if, given that illiteracy, I still can comprehend the ideas in what might be called "my own language."

    And I am back to: Are we our own creators? Might we even create any "after life" as we might conceive it? Are we who we will find at the end of all the questioning? Will we find what it is we are looking for and it will be we, the creators?

    I just don't know the answer. But I still wonder.

    Comment by MCS — November 9, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

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