Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXXXV of The Rational Argumentator on February 11, 2010, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 22, 2014
A widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of the term “randomness” often results in false generalizations made regarding reality. In particular, the view of randomness as metaphysical, rather than epistemological, is responsible for numerous commonplace fallacies.
To see randomness as metaphysical is to see it as an inherent aspect of reality as such – as embedded inextricably in “the way things are.” Typically, people holding this view will take it in one of two directions. Some of them will see randomness pejoratively – thinking that there is no way reality could be like that: chaotic, undefined, unpredictable. Such individuals will typically posit that, because reality cannot be random, it must therefore be centrally planned by a super-intelligent entity, such as a deity.
Others, however, will use the metaphysical perception of randomness to deny evident and ubiquitously observable truths about our world: the facts that all entities obey certain natural laws, that these laws are accessible to human beings, and that they can inform our decision-making and actions. These individuals typically espouse metaphysical subjectivism – the idea that the nature of reality depends on the person observing it, or that all of existence is in such a chaotic flux that we cannot ever possibly make sense of it, so we might as well “construct” our own personal or cultural “reality.”
But it is the very metaphysical perception of randomness that is in error. Randomness is, rather, epistemological – a description of our state of knowledge of external reality, and not of external reality itself. To say that a phenomenon is random simply means that we do not (yet) have adequate knowledge to be able to explain it causally. Based on past observational experience or some knowledge of aspects inherent to that phenomenon, we might be able to assign probabilities – estimates of the likelihood that a particular event will occur, in the absence of more detailed knowledge about the specifics of the circumstances that might give rise to that event. In some areas of life, this is presently as far as humans can venture. Indeed, probabilistic thinking can be conceptually quite powerful – although imprecise – in analyzing large classes of phenomena which, individually, exhibit too many specific details for any single mind to grasp. Entire industries, such as insurance and investment, are founded on this premise. But we must not mistake a conceptual tool for an external fact; the probabilities are not “out there.” They are, rather, an attempt by human beings to interpret and anticipate external phenomena.
The recognition of randomness as epistemological can be of great aid both to those who believe in biological evolution and to advocates of the free market. Neither the laws of evolution, nor the laws of economics, of course, would fit any definition of “randomness.” Rather, they are impersonal, abstract principles that definitively describe the general outcomes of particular highly complex sets of interactions. They are unable to account for every fact of those interactions, however, and they are also not always able to predict precisely how or when the general outcome they anticipate will ensue. For instance, biological evolution cannot precisely predict which complex life forms will evolve and at what times, or which animals in a current ecosystem will ultimately proliferate, although traits that might enhance an animal’s survival and reproduction and traits that might hinder them can be identified. Likewise, economics – despite the protestations of some economists to the contrary – cannot predict the movements of stock prices or prices in general, although particular directional effects on prices from known technological breakthroughs or policy decisions can be anticipated.
Evolution is often accused of being incapable of producing intelligent life and speciation because of its “randomness.” For many advocates of “intelligent design,” it does not appear feasible that the complexity of life today could have arisen as a result of “chance” occurrences – such as genetic mutations – that nobody planned and for whose outcomes nobody vouched. However, each of these mutations – and the natural selection pressures to which they were subject – can only be described as random to the extent that we cannot precisely describe the circumstances under which they occurred. The more knowledge we have of the circumstances surrounding a particular mutation, the more it becomes perfectly sensible to us, and explicable as a product of causal, natural laws, not “sheer chance.” Such natural laws work both at the microscopic, molecular level where the proximate cause of the mutation occurred, and at the macroscopic, species-wide level, where organisms with the mutation interact with other organisms and with the inanimate environment to bring about a certain episode in the history of life.
So it is with economics; the interactions of the free market seem chaotic and unpredictable to many – who therefore disparage them as “random” and agitate for centralized power over all aspects of human life. But, in fact, the free market consists of millions of human actors in billions of situations, and each actor has definite purposes and motivations, as well as definite constraints against which he or she must make decisions. The “randomness” of behaviors on the market is only perceived because of the observer’s limited knowledge of the billions of circumstances that generate such behaviors. We can fathom our own lives and immediate environments, and it may become easier to understand the general principles behind complex economies when we recognize that each individual life has its own purposes and orders, although they may be orders which we find mistaken or purposes of which we disapprove. But the interaction of these individual microcosms is the free market; the more we understand about it, the more sensible it becomes to us, and the more valid conclusions we can draw regarding it.
The reason why evolution and economies cannot be predicted at a concrete level, although they can be understood, is the sheer complexity of the events and interactions involved – with each event or interaction possibly being of immense significance. Qualitative generalizations, analyses of attributes, and probabilistic thinking can answer some questions pertaining to these complex systems and can enable us to navigate them with some success. But these comprise our arsenal of tools for interpreting reality; they do not even begin to approach being the reality itself.
When we come to see randomness as a product of our limited knowledge, rather than of reality per se, we can begin to appreciate how much there is about reality that can be understood – rather than dismissed as impossible or inherently chaotic – and can broaden our knowledge and mastery of phenomena we might otherwise have seen as beyond our grasp.
Click here to read more articles in Issue CCXXXV of The Rational Argumentator.