On randomness

The nature of a random event is both complex and chaotic, but again, predictable in a certain way. When you flip a coin, the result is both random and predictable because you will get either a head or a tail, but never know which one since all events are individual and isolated, independent, and do not foreshadow in any real way what the next result might be. Sometimes we use the word “random” to refer to unpredicted outcomes such as rain shower on a sunny day or an unannounced visit from weird Aunt Hortensia who normally lives in Portland but just happens to be in Minnesota for the weekend for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, neither the rain nor the visit are random, being more a part of predictable chaotic patterns to which we may not be privy. They seem “random” but if we had more information, we would understand how they might be “strange,” but certainly not random. Teenagers love to abuse this word to describe events that seem tangential or extraneous to them, but then again, it’s because they don’t see a bigger picture. The idea of randomness has bothered me every since I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927) which tells the story of a number of people who are killed when a bridge collapses. “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below,” but is any of it random? The people are relatively unrelated and their stories and lives are all incredibly different, but they all die together when the bridge collapses. The question that the novel proposes, I suppose, is the random nature in life’s events–is there a meaning to it all or is it all random? How was it that those five people were all on the bridge at the same time and that the bridge decided to fail at that moment. At the end of Conan Doyle’s “The Cardboard Box,” Holmes remarks, “What is the meaning of it, Watson?” […] “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.” So sometimes, life looks really, really, random, even when, perhaps, it’s not.