Randomness – Can humans understand randomness?

Previously, we discussed what constitutes randomness, and described how the illusion of randomness can lend itself to erroneous conclusions concerning the probability of something occurring. We examined how a series of 6s rolled by a fair die may seem bias, but in reality, it has the same probability of occurring as any other string of rolls. But why do we believe that some events are random, whilst others must the consequence of bias or “luck”, despite them having the same probability of occurring?

In reality, there a couple of reasons. The first, and perhaps most widely held fallacy that contributes to our illogical conclusions surrounding probability is the gambler’s fallacy. The gambler’s fallacy is the belief that events are not exclusive to each other, and that if an event occurs more frequently at one point, it will occur less frequently in the future – that there is a balance. For example, as suggested by the name, gamblers who watch a roulette wheel land on black five times in a row are unlikely to put their money on black, despite the fact that it is equally as likely to occur as red. This fallacy is also demonstrated by our previous example of die rolls. If a die lands on a 6 five times in a row, it’s less likely to land on a 6 again. Whilst the logic is obviously incorrect, it’s extremely hard not succumb to the fallacy. If you’ve ever been in a casino and seen a string of the same result, it’s very hard to convince yourself that it’s just as likely as anything else to come up again!

Which leads me to the next point about our perception of randomness. Heavily linked to the gambler’s fallacy, is the just-world hypothesis. According to the just-world hypothesis, we believe that outcomes and consequences are the result of a morally just world. Bad things happen to people who do bad things, or are bad, and good things happen to people who are good. For example, people often believe that victims of tragedy are in some way deserving of their fortune.* As well as this, we believe that, similar to the gambler’s fallacy, a string of negative outcomes will be balanced by a string of positive outcomes. If you experience a streak of “bad luck”, the just world will reward you with an accompanying “good luck” streak. If you’ve ever experienced a string of negative events, it’s hard not to expect a few good things in return.

This is clearly an illogical thought-process – morality is a concept specific to humans, and so why would an insensate universe abide by the laws of morality? – but it brings me to the crux of my point. Can we, as humans, even understand randomness? I would argue that we cannot. To demonstrate my argument, I will present two main arguments. The first relating to our integral sense of morality, and the second concerning our survival and instinct.

My first argument for our inability to understand randomness is that we are not random in our actions, or in our understanding of actions. We have a sophisticated degree of moral, social, and physical factors influencing our every waking moment. We do not act as a matter of whim, but instead we (un)consciously act in accordance with all of the aforementioned factors. In addition to this, we do not live in isolation. Our wellbeing and our very way of life is intertwined with the necessity of interaction – which is almost always interaction with other humans. Ultimately then, we do not act randomly, and the acts we observe are seldom random themselves.

As a result, we automatically attach meaning to anything we observe. If we employ our empathic skills, we are asking ourselves “why would I have done that?”. If we are purely observing, we try to understand why the individual has performed in the way they have. This also extends to actions which are not necessarily committed by a person. If you ever watch a David Attenborough documentary, just monitor how watching a young turtle being killed before it reaches the sea makes you feel. You’ll feel uneasy, and if you say that you don’t you’re lying, because you should feel uneasy! It’s an unpleasant thing to watch, because we attribute morality to the actions we observe. Despite our inability to know whether the turtle experiences pain in the same way as us, coupled with the knowledge that if the predator did not feed, it would also die, we find it extremely hard to rationalise our way around certain events.

In relation to events of supposed random probability, we behave very much the same way. We take negative events that occur purely as a matter of probability as a personal and moral attack – that we must have done something to deserve it. In very much the same way the just-world hypothesis suggests that we believe the universe to be just, we also believe every event that occurs within it to be just. Our bad luck is either just, or it is not. And if it is not, we expect this discord to be rectified. But it never will be, because a random event will have no morality, no agenda, and no specificity. That however, is our crucial downfall. We cannot understand randomness because we cannot fathom events without morality, or without specificity. Therefore we seek meaning in an event, meaning for why something has happened to us, and we hope to use that meaning to increase our situation in the future.

Which brings me to my next point – assuming things occur randomly is a dangerous thing. For example, say you are running through a forest when a pine cone drops inches in front you. Is it safe to assume that the event was random, or is it safer to assume that some action (such as you brushing the tree as you ran past) may have been the cause? Even if the dropping of the pinecone was entirely random, it is safer from an evolutionary perspective to believe that events have causes, even if they don’t. That way, you can decrease the chance of negative events occurring, and increase the chance of positive events occurring (even though, every now and then, you’ll assume something has a cause when it doesn’t).

The difference between the aforementioned example and today’s world, is the frequency with which we experience randomness. In a world without cryptography, without bar codes, without the stock exchange, the desire for randomness is significantly less. By extracting everything that requires randomness that wouldn’t have existed in an evolutionary environment, we are left with very little. But, importantly, erroneous assumptions about random events did still occur. Dances to increase (or decrease) the likelihood of certain weather conditions, believing to be cursed after a series of illnesses or negative events, are all consequences of attributing meaning to random events (I’m aware that the weather and illness aren’t necessarily random events, but in the sense that, at the time we are discussing, they would have had very few predictive factors, we can treat them as random). Importantly then, we have always failed to understand randomness.

When I describe our inability to understand randomness, I am not speaking of a logical or academic understanding, I am instead speaking of an emotional understanding. To demonstrate the difference, if you enter a casino with a friend and constantly inform them of the odds of each decision they can make, the likelihood is that he or she will make the logical decision each time. But, in doing so, he or she will be in a state of emotional dissonance, fighting implicit urges based on emotional reactions. He or she will want to double down when winning, and be convinced that a winning streak will be on the way when losing. When you explain the probability of those events occurring, your friend will likely change his or her mind, but the implicit emotional response – the desire – will remain.

And this is how we, as humans, do not understand randomness. We make quick, emotional decisions, and the factors that influence logical emotional decisions are not random. Emotion is based on meaning, and so emotion and randomness are discordant. That’s not to say that we cannot work our way round our emotional impulses to make logical decisions in the face of randomness and random events, but our entrenched human instincts toward randomness are irrational.

In conclusion, randomness is a fascinating concept, and one which I believe we, as humans, have a logical, but not emotional understanding of. The prevalence of randomness in today’s world has made this dichotomy ever more noticeable, and the consequences cover an infinitesimally refined number of examples, some of which I may discuss in the future. Importantly, however, I argue that randomness is something which does not come naturally to us. It is conducive to chaos and to unpredictability, two factors which in turn, are causative of danger, and therefore are not strings to the bow of the human being. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting.

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