Upon Which I Randomly Theorize on Randomness

In my last post, I tossed out a few thoughts about negotiating randomness in our lives. Now I want to do a little haphazard theorizing (which is only fitting, considering the topic), accompanied by a bit of back-of-the-envelope illustrating.

Right up front, let me state my reason for theory leaping in this post: I want to know what people think about this topic, and will—I promise you—enjoy your feedback. I’ll even enjoy it if it starts with a statement like, “Dear theory dabbling jerkoff…”  I’m not encouraging that approach, but if you must, you must. 

Back to the topic. The core element of my theory is that how someone reacts to randomness directly correlates with the degree to which they externalize and impose their beliefs. The theory rests on the assumption that the hypothetical person is reacting to randomness even if she denies its existence (i.e. believes that everything is part of a higher order). The denial itself is part of the reaction.

The graphic below is my back-of-the-envelope attempt at explaining this visually. On the left are reactions to randomness, ranging from those with a fairly loose, or what I’m calling “low demand for control” disposition to those with a tightly structured, high demand for control disposition. Along the bottom are degrees of external imposition of beliefs/positions.

The curved line shows that the higher the demand for control a belief position requires, the greater is the need to externalize and impose it. 

Where the dotted lines meet, I’m showing the vector between the highest control position (for which “Almighty God” is the source of control) and the highest degree of externalization. At this point, the perceived threat to the source of control is the greatest, because if others do not endorse that source of control, then randomness retains power to not be controlled (in the mind of the person holding the high control position).

Another way to say this is that the more we draw from external power sources to deal with our dread of randomness, the greater is our need for others to agree. For them not to agree, or worse to posit alternative positions that give randomness credence, is threatening to the external source of power. 

On the far other end of the spectrum (bottom corner of the graphic), we have those whose reaction to randomness is self-contained. They acknowledge the randomness of living and try to assert whatever limited control they can to stay on the happier side of the statistical horizon. Since they are not drawing on an external source of power to exert control over randomness, they don’t perceive a threat from others who don’t agree with their position, which they acknowledge is subjective. As shown in the graphic, their need to externalize and impose their position is extremely low, because the perceived threat is low or nonexistent.

Somewhere in the fluffier middle are those who draw on nondescript sources of control over randomness–which might be external or internal depending on the specific belief.  For example, someone who believes that the “universe” is the source of power is pointing to something that encompasses everything else, so it’s both external and internal. The threat from others to this belief position is moderate, chiefly because its ambiguity allows it to slip past concrete arguments for or against. 

You can come up with an entire range of belief positions that  fall up and down this graphic, but the main point stays the same: how people face the randomness of existence strongly influences their perceived threat from others of differing positions and their need to externalize and impose their beliefs.  

The conclusion I’m coming around to is probably obvious by now.  Attempting to defeat the power of randomness in our lives by appealing to an external source of power invariably leads to conflict. We react defensively to perceived threats to the power we believe is lifting us up over the chaos. And we feel compelled to externalize our belief to eliminate threats and reinforce our position. The more successful this externalization is, the more psychological reinforcement we experience–and on and on the cycle goes.


19 thoughts on “Upon Which I Randomly Theorize on Randomness

  1. REALLY good David!!! This isn’t new ifo, you just presented it in a way I hadn’t thought of it before.

    Actually you’ve crystalized something I’d been mentally chewing on for a few weeks, but I was thinking more a bell curve and this is why: the “new atheists” seem to have the same threat level as the fundamentalists. They seem to take people not believing in “the truth” as a threat to human advancement in much the same way fundamentalists see not believing in “almighty God” as a threat to their belief system.

    Now I get how “new atheists” are using reason as a way to deal with their dread of randomness, but how does the internal v. external relate?

    Not even sure if I explained that well…

    • One of my best friends is a minister and he is one of the most tolerant people I know. I am not a believer but rather an agnostic. I have also known some atheists who were/are some of the most intolerant people I have ever known. As one of my cousins once said, all fanatics are the same. They know what you SHOULD believe in. So, if your theory is not deterministic but rather making a point about an expected average expressing a probabilistic expectation, you might be right.

    • Suzy,
      That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of the bell curve with the new athiests on the other end. I’ll have to digest that a bit more. On the face of it, though, I’m not sure I sense the same dread of randomness in the athiests as I do in fundamentalists. It seems like the latter are more inherently threatened by the idea that “their” power is not in control–because if he’s not, then that means there really isn’t a control power working on their behalf.

      For athiests, I suppose you could say that the control power is reason, but reason doesn’t have an external identity.

      In any case, good fuel for more thought on the topic.


      • David, I was with you in your response to Suzy until you said reason doesn’t have an external identity. I think it does. I’ve gotten into some ugly tangles with atheists when I’ve tried to point to instances in which I thought they were being dogmatic and intolerant of theists. When you chase atheists they often run to reason, resorting to it as if it’s pure, as if it emerges naturally from some indubitable font inside the human. But reason is a system of thought, not thought itself. It’s a way of thinking, and not the only way of thinking. People are taught to reason, just as they’re taught a belief system. We train in reason for decades, and in a sense, we train in it all our lives. It’s a dogma. A capital-T Trvth for many atheists. An absolute. And sometimes it serves as a god substitute.

      • >>>>> I’m not sure I sense the same dread of randomness in the athiests as I do in fundamentalists.

        I used the word dread to make my theory mesh with yours. Of course it’s an emotional response to the randomness that drives one to live a life based on reason (or religion). As to what that specific emotion is… I will say there is a thin line between dreadful & charming.

        Thank you Jeff, for clarify the internal v external. I’m thinking this would be a good discussion over drinks, I can see both sides of the argument now.

        ~~off to read part 3!! 🙂

  2. Where do you see creativity in your scheme:is artistic creativity high or low demand for control over randomness? how about scientific or even technocratic control?

    If I got it right, for those low on your Y-axis, “shit happens” answers WHY while for those higher up there needs to be some externalized answer to WHY. So what would you say about this when it comes to the randomness of the mind, those feelings and passions that seem to come from nowhere (random?) but can’t be ignored? Lots of people (psychologists?) would seem to be high on demand for control (if control is understanding) while looking internally rather than externally.

    Also, as we used to say in grad school, “this is an empirical question”. It would be fascinating to find a couple of measures so you can see if demand for control correlates with externalization.

    Finally, insofar as randomness connects with meaninglessness (which I think it does in very important ways), you seem to be swimming in the deep, interesting waters frequently associated with Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I wonder if his work and the work he spawned has been an influence.

    • Todd,
      Good question about creativity. My intial reaction is that I don’t necessarily think of creativity as a method of “control” but instead as a means to imprint patterns and develop meaning (see my latest post). I think someone could be entirely at peace with randomness and still engage in creative actions; I don’t see a contradiction there.

      Frankl is a definate influence – good call.

      And I agree with your empirical point, though I can’t say I’m certain how such a study would be structured (though I’m sure the right creative researcher could crack the nut).

  3. At first I thought your theory might be very culturally specific, bound to the old debate in the West of free will and determinism, but maybe not. I wondered where a Buddhist might fall on your graph, Buddhism being a credo religion with a source of power but with allowance for randomness. I think theory still works, in the way that your example works of someone who believes the universe is the source of power. It’s difficult to externalize power, or to feel threatened, if life and time are illusory and the source of power is within as well as without.

    So I think Todd’s on point: the next step is empirical.

  4. David (and skeptic/atheists, all),

    Excuse me if I pick at your sophomoric perspective on randomness for a while–that is if you will permit me to say something that is contingent upon the canon of western philosophical genius that has preceded us in a “non-random” way!

    I swear, sometimes I think that all skeptic/atheists are only half-here, half-read, and some even half-baked. But from reading your long list of blogs over the last 13 months or so, I can see that you are, in fact, VERY well-read, and a genius in your own right–so I want to be careful here. For the record, I have been reading your blog posts since the beginning, and I wish to commend you on your mastery of this relatively new space (is it true that you currently enjoy more than 50,000 views a month on True/SLANT and that you have only been blogging for one year? That is truly remarkable for someone who started at zero. You are what my nephew would classify as an uberdude-bloggerbeast!)

    But, with commendations aside, you really must help me understand how atheist/skeptics like you and Michael Shermer can (1) know all you know about Kant’s watershed contribution to science, philosophy AND religious faith, and still call yourselves atheists (not agnostics) with a straight face, (2) make a posteriori propositional truth claims about anything in a universe that you also posit is causally contingent (a priori) upon random, non-contingent “forces,” and (3) how can you belittle and discount the faith of thousands (yea, millions!) of people who PREFER to make similar subjective truth claims which acknowledge a God-concept that currently animates the only global civic tradition known to humankind that protects the individual’s right to accept, reject or ignore one, some or all faith perspectives?

    (With the limited space here, I’d better take these three points one at a time, starting with point number one–I will post subsequent comments to deal with the other two points later…)

    To my first point:

    Please explain to me how you and other skeptics like Shermer and Jennifer Michael Hecht obviously claim to know all you know about Kant’s watershed contribution to science, philosophy AND religious faith, and still call yourselves atheists (not agnostics) with a straight face.

    In other words, specifically what did you (Gnostic?) Atheists catch in Kant’s three main works on human epistemology and ascent to transcendent ideological preference, (Critique of Pure Reason; Critique of Practical Reason, Critique of Judgment) that I, Wittgenstein, Karl Jaspers, W.V. Quine, Jurgen Habermas, and a few other philosophers seemed to have missed along the way. What did you read in Kant that gives you the freedom (a freedom you deny to many others, by the way, self-proclaimed material-world empiricists that you are) to sneak into the room upstairs above Kant’s wall, seemingly unobserved–with unfettered access to a gazillion a priori propositions–subjectively picking and choosing which ones you think will be acceptable to the task of meeting your empirical objectives when publicly conversing in the phenomenal realm below?

    The fact is, your last trip upstairs to Kant’s attic did not go unobserved, and I saw you when you chose the idea of “randomness” as the topic for your recent two-part, True/SLANT rant. (Actually, I go up there frequently to polish up my faith…but I digress.) I saw you when you snuck in and I saw you when you snuck out using the back staircase, just like Shermer did the last time he went up to check on his cutsie neologism, “patternicity.” The only time I saw Ms. Hecht up there, however, was the day she needed an immaterial concept like “joy” to describe her “empirically verified state of absolute doubt,”–whatever…

    Number One: I am a man of FAITH
    Number Two: I ain’t stupid.

    …and you atheists have some ‘splainin’ to do.

    Donald Wilson Bush

    • Donald,
      Thanks for your comment. You said that there will be more to come, so I’ll refrain from response until then.

      One question, though: you say that you are “a man of FAITH,” yet throughout your comment you use the term “God-concept.” For the sake of clarity, in what or whom is your faith?

  5. I sort of have a problem with the theory of randomness, because it is contradicted by science, namely, DNA.

    We now know that our DNA is a four-out-of-five error correcting code—it’s basically information. And know that information only comes from intelligence.

  6. I sort of have a problem with the theory of randomness because it is refuted by science—namely, DNA. We now know that our DNA is a four-out-of-five, error-correcting code—it’s basically information. And we know that information only comes from intelligence. Nowhere in the universe can we find an example where information emerges from randomness.

    • gyorgychopper, do you mean that all information is encoded in the DNA? This seems to be impossible since one does not have enough units in the DNA molecules to encode all of the possibilities. We even are not sure that all of the genetic information resides in the cell nucleus. Moreover, even is all of the information is pre-destined by the DNA configuration, it is still possible to describe what is happening using a statistical model- the same a with molecular motion that is assumed to be governed by physical laws but the motions of aggregates of molecules could be described statistically. Look at a crowd, for example. Each person knows where he/she is going, but it “looks” like people are moving in random…

      • Dear Shmooz:

        I don’t mean that our DNA contains all the information in the living universe.

        I mean that our DNA contains all of the information necessary to make us unique individuals, and that information is very precise. Where did that information come from? My thesis is that information of any kind, whether it’s a newspaper or a biological system, originates from a source of intelligence. Intelligence begets information, randomness does not.

      • gyorgy,
        It seems like you are defining “information” in a very specific way in line with your thesis. What qualifies the information you’re describing as having properties unexplainable by billions of years of evolution? Simply saying, “only intelligence begets information” isn’t really an argument. If that’s the case, I could just as easily ask what or who produced the information contained in the intelligence that begets information? Clearly an intelligence that produces information comes from somewhere, and it’s only logical to assume that an even greater intelligence produced it, yes? Where did it come from?

  7. Thanks for the response, David, especially considering that my original comment is slightly off topic from your thesis that “attempting to defeat the power of randomness in our lives by appealing to an external source of power invariably leads to conflict”.

    My comment was not really directed at that assertion. My point is an argument for an eternal, intelligent creator who is responsible for the existence of life.

    As far as trying to “control” the curveballs life throws at me, I can only speak for myself. As a Christian, I’m not so much trying to control unpredictable events in my life as much as I’m trying to interpret their meaning—with God’s help.

    The conflict that arises from this is mostly between me and God, not so much between me and other people.

  8. This is all interesting. Definitions and qualifications sometime elude me, but I think I can catch the drift of many points made here. I wonder though, why does everyone seem to assume that “randomness” is a bad thing? Order deadens the senses over time, doesn’t it? It’s surprise, the unexpected, the unexplained– chaos — that wakes us up and inspires us to question, explore, and invent! I suspect that both atheists and theists might agree. Wonder where the argument would go from there …

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