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Alternative perspectives on randomness and its significance

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interesting lunch conversation with Mike Sears over winter break, following up on issues that have arisen in the evolving system open discussions.    Mike and I have different takes on "randomness" ("stochasticity").  For Mike (as I hear him, hopefully he'll weigh in if I'm misrepresenting him) randomness/stochasticity/probability distributions provide useful tools for describing/modelling things but should always be understood as acknowledgements of ignorance, useful ways of dealing with things in the absence of the complete information that would make them unnecessary.  To think otherwise would, from Mike's perspective, serve as a barrier to continuing inquiry by elevating randomness/stochasticity/probability distributions to the status of a "final answer," one which, like God, would discourage or preclude further inquiry into what is going on.  Surely there must be a set of deeper principles, as yet to be described but in principle describable, that would eliminate the need to appeal to randomness/stochasticity/probability distributions? 

What intrigued me particularly about the conversation iis that I tend to think of determinacy, the absence of a need to accept a fundamental role for  randomness/stochasticity/probability distributions, as itself a presumption of the existence of a "final answer" that would in turn be a barrier to further inquiry.  If there is to be discovered a set of deeper principles from which everything else follows, including what we currently make sense of in terms of randomness/stochasticity/probability distributions, then at some future point in time everything will have been understood and there will be no further need for inquiry.For me, some element of randomness is an assurance that there will always be uncertainties and surprises, that we are dealing with an evolving universe, hence one for which there can be no "final answers." 

What's interesting (to me at least) is not only that the difference between Mike's perspective and my own parallels historical disagreements in a variety of different realms (cf A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein) but that there is no empirical way to resolve the difference (cf Multiple worlds, multiple interpretations, quantum physics, and the brain).   No finite set of observations can distinguish between two possibilities: that the underlying process has a probabilistic element or that the underlying process is fully deterministic (cf discussion of the nature of intrinsic variability in Variability in brain function and behavior).  To put it differently, the two perspectives are either actually the same in practical terms or one has to choose between them for reasons other than empirical observations.  If there didn't seem in fact to be a practical difference, Mike and I wouldn't be arguing about it, nor would untold others.  My guess is that the practical difference has less to do with how one makes sense of the past and more to do with how one evaluates the present, and approaches the future.  

There is certainly something appealing about a perspective that equates current uncertainty with ignorance that can be overcome in the future.  Among other things, it defines a clear task, to make certain everything that is currently uncertain.   But I find still more appealing the notion that uncertainty is a persistant and generative condition, one that allows us a creative role in shaping a future that will in turn always have new things into which to inquire (see Evolution/science: inverting the relationship between randomness and meaning).  Does it matter which perspective one adopts?  I suspect it does, but there's no way to tell for sure except by trying them out.   And even then ...