We cannot cope with randomness

We, as a species, are unable to deal with randomness. This manifests itself, among other things, in our clinging to a higher power or will, a design or a master plan in the world. We feel that it would somehow demean us if we conceded that, for example, we or humans in general exist as a result of highly unlikely random events rather than as a result of some necessity.

As an aside, let us, for the moment, forget about the question whether the Universe is deterministic, which would mean that there is a master plan. Even if it is, with our current knowledge and tools, we cannot determine it sufficiently to predict, for example, individual actions or thoughts.

Our thinking is teleological: that is, we seek a purpose in everything, even though every fact appears to point to its precise lack.

Is, for example, the fact that most organisms around us devote most of their time and energy to reproduction a result of a sentence in Genesis? Cannot one argue that in any population where some living organisms focus on creating offspring, and others do not, the former will soon crowd out and finally destroy the latter? Looking at the overall population a few million years later, as we do, we will hardly see any exception to the reproduction rule. Or, to take another example of teleology, what would we think of Douglas Adams’s famous sentient puddle, who gets convinced of the existence of a deity because he fits his hole so well it must have been designed for him?

But our inability to grasp randomness does not end here. There is also our sense of justice. It is unusually hard for us to accept that random bad things can happen to otherwise good people. While it is natural and laudable for everyone witnessing an unfortunate accident to wonder what could have been done to prevent it — for example, lock your doors, drive at an appropriate speed, and so on —, we usually go further than that, and, deep down, remain sure that the victim must have done something to deserve what had happened.

It is not difficult to see this kind of thinking in action: take one of the worst crimes, rape. Who has not heard that the victim ‘had it coming,’ encouraging healthy males by lewd behavior and scant clothing?

And then, last but not least, there are the games of chance. I hope no one thinks that anyone would spend real money on horses, blackjack, lottery or fruit machines unless they believed in lucky streaks and third time’s the charm, almost deliberately turning a blind eye to the fact that one draw, deal or race has, or at least is supposed to have, no effect whatsoever on the next.

A related phenomenon are the self-help books that say that the sure way of achieving or getting something is willing it to happen, or imagining that we already have it.

In my opinion, this technique works because it pretends that there is agency where in reality there is none; it pretends that we have total control and responsibility over something where we probably do not. If we do not get the desired thing in the end, it was because we did not really want it; if we did, it was because we did. We no longer need to face the randomness of our environment, as we supposedly have complete ability to act and control.

But it is clear that this is little more than victim-blaming directed against ourselves, where we would rather blame ourselves for not being successful than to face an inherently unpredictable and unjust world.

Randomness is a beautiful and liberating thing. We need to stop believing that our thoughts or wishes can alter the course of events, or that anything has happened, ever, with us humans in mind, and the world will be a better place to live in.


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