Some Clarity on Randomness

Randomness is one of the basic principles of contemporary culture. It underlies contemporary models of the universe from the very large (everything in space and time) to the very small (subatomic  effects). It is an essential pillar of contemporary theories of the evolution of life. Contemporary mathematics and philosophy and art-making are based on trying to identify it. Sociology adores the stuff. Writers practice it. They even make machine-like games, into which they fit themselves as if they were, at that point, random. In short, if you look for randomness, you will find it everywhere. The thing is, though, it is not precisely random. Here, let’s look at a common substance: water…


Randomly formed mud puddle bubble slowly stilling in the winter cold?


…No. This bubble formed under the influence of delicate interactions of temperature, air movement, water purity, the molecular forces of water, the gravel on the floor of the puddle, humidity and so on. That’s incredibly complex, but it’s not random. If it were random, it would be like throwing dice: up to chance. It’s not chance, precisely. And about those dice:

In physics today, all things in the world, including water, are seen as being formed from statistical probabilities of energy with no substance or location until you have a look at them and say something to the effect of “Oh, there you are.” And there it is. (In physics, you get to use a lot of very expensive machinery to do this. Loads of fun.) 

The lesson is that there is no water in the world unless someone or something apprehends it. The lessons that the human-based culture of physics draws from this is that matter is insubstantial: it is energy — and only human logic can reveal it. What logic cannot reveal is, logically enough, according to the game, called insubstantial. There’s a word for this type of excluded energy: randomness — energy that has defied being translated into a human social space. Examples of human social spaces of this type are mathematics, physics, highways, hydroelectric dams, crude oil pipelines, plastic yoghurt containers with folding plastic spoons, cities, farms, and coffee shops.  If something is not translated into a social space of this kind, it cannot be measured by the measures of those spaces, and if it cannot be measured, its patterns are invisible, and so it is called, logically enough, random. Physically, however, it was already there — whatever physicality is. This perhaps:

ice17 Man and His Ghost? Mud Puddle?

You decide. I just think it’s beautiful.

What I’m trying to say is that randomness is a marker. It’s a relative term, like “beauty”, which is in the eye of the beholder, “wilderness”, which is only a wild space in comparison to one that is not (The ravines that run through the mega-city of Toronto, for example, are called by some people wilderness and by others urban space. Same ravine!), “I” (and “you” and “we” and “they”) which is relational to a point of view (When you repeat to me what I said to you, you became I and I become you. Whew!), and so on. What “randomness” marks is a boundary, between what is known within a social system and what is not. Random behaviour for a mechanical engineer, for example, might be perfectly logical to a poet. Random behaviour from a disadvantaged group (women in a misogynistic society, for example, or terrorists setting Improvised Explosive Devices) might appear, from within the group, perfectly logical, because members of the group have a different social system and a different point of view, but are viewed by other social groups as “random”. What’s more, when the idea of ‘randomness’ is applied to the physical world, in relation to the study of scientific reasoning, it misses a deep and unified body of knowledge that all of us figured out long ago. It looks like this:

ice16Water and Air Being Very Cool Together

The foundation of contemporary scientific inquiry is statistical, which is to say, science today measures probable effects, based on statistical averages, and ignores other effects which it deems unmeasurable or statistically insignificant. Normalcy, not exceptionality, is the goal. And it’s not just science: art, literature, sociology, government, and almost all other forms of study follow the same model today. This is a reflection of a particular form of government, based upon statistical majorities (and usually minorities) gaining power. That’s a social thing, which is showing up these days in all the activities (including science and art) of the culture based upon its social assumptions. Why would it be otherwise? Beats me. The result is that this …

ice14 … or this …

ice13… appear random. Now, let me turn it a little bit on its head and sideways to see if I can’t tease a little bit of a different truth out of it. If we consider that physics rests on a mathematical foundation and appears mathematical as a result (I mean, really, doesn’t quantum theory look like a perfect image of mathematics? Saying that the unification of mathematics and observations of the physical world proves the accuracy of mathematically-based scientific procedure, is like saying a lemon is a lemon because it’s a lemon. It’s not really a proof of anything at all. So, let me pose a question:

If mathematics leads to a science that views the universe as a mathematical model, what would a science based on a different founding principle look like?

What, for instance, would one look like that was based on the properties of water? Take a look:

ice11Mathematically, the above image is random. But physically, on the principle of water, it is totally organized. The thing is, all humans know this principle. You just exercised it by looking at the above (blurry, sorry, it was dusk) image. The discipline of science was not developed to replace that apprehension of unity, but to work out its details, so they could be re-used in socially useful technologies. Something has happened in the past 200 years, though, and now the math of it all is the dominant force and the unity of it all is discarded. There’s no rule in the universe that binds us to that viewpoint. What if we chose, say, art, or line, as the founding principle of science? Why, then the following image would lead to technological rather than aesthetic developments…

ice10Randomness, after all, is a relative term, and it needs a boundary. It requires an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, an inside and an outside, order and disorder, and not ghosts, for gosh sakes …

ice7 Boo!

Anthropomorphizing? Physical apprehension of a physical world? Random effects? You decide, but remember, your decision has an ethical dimension, because it will determine the world you can see and the technology and social relationships you will be able to make. This will impact your planet and the people with whom you interact.

I suspect that a technology based upon the scientific founding principle in the image below …
… would not lead to the technology of today. Now, I don’t propose replacing the powerful technologies of contemporary culture, but I am curious as to why there is one form of science and one set of technologies, whereas, in fact, there are potentially many, each with the ability to contribute a different set of possibilities and solutions. Calling them “art” or “metaphysics” or “faith” misses the point completely. Prescribing more order, more rationality, more statistical measurement, and so on (a common response to the apprehension of randomness… such as world terrorism and global spying by computer databases) is to retreat farther and farther from solutions. Things do not have to be understood to be apprehended and thus made present and real in the world. “Understanding” is a word from the days of early science, and its fate is bound with that of science. What, though if we stopped using that word and used “standing with” in its place, to say, not “Do you understand the patterns of water in the image below?” but “Do you stand with the water standing with the air in the image below?”

ice2Well, you do, in fact, if you see a face in the above pattern. In fact, solutions may come visually, rather than logically. 200 years ago, Goethe pointed out that the most delicate of all instruments was the human body. He didn’t mean that technologies couldn’t be developed that superseded the abilities of the human eye, for example, but that only the human eye apprehends totality, instantly, and only the human eye translates it into human, bodily terms. A mathematics devised by a computer would, I suspect, lead to a completely alternate vision of the universe. The computer might apprehend this …

ice8 … or this …

ice9 and see something that is neither random nor ordered. I believe that state is called death, but I don’t know, and I hope I don’t find out for a very long time indeed.


And that’s post 602 on Okanagan Okanagan, after my first walk up onto the hill in 5 weeks.   A great day!

2 replies »

  1. I hope that walk on the hill yields another fine group of photographs!

    Lately, I’ve been reading some excellent books by the British science writer Philip Ball, who seems to be publishing them faster than I can find time to read them. Ball is keen to uncover sources of form in physical and statistical circumstances. Just now, I’m reading “The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature.” His observations are, like yours, subtle and inspirational.


    • The ice pictures came from the walk on the hill yesterday. I hope today’s walk will bring other surprises, and better light. Thanks for the book tip. I will look it up. Best, Harold


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.