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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Afterword: Randomness

Afterword: Randomness

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Thanks for helping to get Philosophy Cafe off to a great start on 2014 by "Inquiring into Randomness".  There were many surprises, all of them pleasant and no less random for being pleasant.  Of course, there's only so much that can be done in an impromptu group.  As usual, here are some questions for further contemplation.  Once this email is posted to the Discussions area of the Meetup site, you are encouraged to post your response to one of these topics--or write your own topic question and answer that!
A look at the meeting notes­ might improve your memory of the meeting, or help you imagine that you did attend.

* The word random is used in many different senses.  Having originated as a reference to carelessness, it went from denoting undesirability in the 1980s, to being proudly featured in many Meetup group names today.  Try to impose some order on the Top Ten Synonyms for Random that we developed:  Aleatoric, Capricious/Whimsical, Nondeterministic, Meaningless, Unmotivated/Unintentional, Uncanny, Nonsequiter, Arbitrary, Unpredictable, Contingent.  One technique to amplify fine distinctions between them might be to explore their opposites.
* Games of chance provide our earliest handles on randomness.  What do your favorite games illustrate about the nature and use of the random?
* The six-sided die is used in gambling to determine winners and losers (though this is an interpretation you are welcome to probe).  The gambler believes that luck is on his side; the house believes in the law of large numbers, in mathematical probability.  What significance do you find in this juxtaposition of personality and impersonality?
* Polyhedral dice are used in Dungeons & Dragons to determine the outcome of complex or risky events.  It is up to the players to create meanings around these (and it would seem that this improvisation is key to the game's enduring popularity).  How is randomness essential or instrumental to the process of fabricating meaning?
* Tarot cards, as a tool of divination, are supposed to "sample the order of the universe".  That revealing or unconcealment, while absolute, is only partial.  Choose some mundane example(s) of random sampling, and consider in each case the interpretations given to the terms "random", "samples", and "error".
* A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates is a 1955 random number book by the RAND Corporation.  How oxymoronic is that?  Or is it a matter of perspective:  the numbers are random, for those people not in possession of the book?
* Sometimes we grant randomness to events we don't consider to be "truly" random.  What might this have to do with disparate senses of randomness?  (Give examples.)  What do you make of the implication that the "presumption of randomness" is a privilege?
* How does randomness make us feel?  Try "reading" this question with different emphases:  What feelings do we attribute to randomness? and By what means does randomness contribute to feeling anything at all?  Probably you'll find more than one feeling, and a plurality of means:  how do situations and feelings correlate?
* Freud asserted that anxiety was the most basic emotion.  Explore anxiety's connection to randomness.  No need to limit yourself to psychoanalysis, as links can be found in evolutionary psychology and the sociology of "class consciousness".  You might also consider other "negative" responses to randomness, such as dismissing it or dissociation.
* Get a jump on next month's theme:  what does it mean that the physiology of fear is the same as that of love?  Combine this concern with another question to relate your suspicions to randomness.
* Some "positive" attitudes toward randomness cast it as coincidence.  Why do we have special terms--serendipity, synchronicity--to "explain" why good things happen to us?  How are they different from those that explain the bad events?  How do they compare to each other?
* Contrast the Stoics' concept of Fortune to the more personal concept of luck (perhaps The Secret would serve as a modern example).  What is their about an individual or their age or times in which they live, that might steer us toward one or the other?
* A feeling of "wandering" was mentioned.  Is the wanderer lost, or searching?  Perhaps the feeling aimlessness is a combination of goal-seeking behavior, but minus the goal.  Or the goal is a goal--any goal--itself.  What was the question?  ;-)
* “Realism is punishing.  Probabilistic skepticism is worse.” ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.  What problem would using probabilities as truth values exacerbate?  What is a probability, anyway?
* Taleb harps on the folly of our persistent attempts to explain (some) random happenings; Melanie Klein talks of an "epistemophilic instinct"; physics' timelessness is belied by the ever-changing model physicists' give us.  What does the obsessiveness of our pattern-seeking behavior mean?  Does being compelled to seek reasons make reasons less compelling?
* "At the bottom, there is only randomness."  If we cannot eliminate the random, perhaps that is because it is order that is the veneer.  Must we then embrace randomness?  How can we grasp it?  Quantum mechanics makes no "sense".
* Randomness in certain domains (quantum-sized events) does not seem to infect other domains (Newtonian bodies).  What kinds of things might provide a barricade against randomness?  What overcomes randomness, what selectively cancels it, or can it simply be sidestepped?
* Randomness seems like a peculiarly modern concept.  Today we think of "order" as being machine-like regularity, but what metaphors did presecular societies use to picture randomness?  Did we simply discard them, or can we find primitive and religious precursors in the contemporary view?
* Hegel and Nietzsche advanced the notion that all consciousness is consciousness  of inferiority:  those with power don't worry about what others think of them, they just do.  If this asymmetry accounts for the negative valence of the "Other", for our fear of that which is beyond our intention, does Randomness really strike us as Disobedience?  Rather than abstract definitions of disobedience, evaluate its pluses and minuses using a range of exemplars, like psychopaths, Edward Snowden, and artists.
* “Importance of the random: keep brushing up against people, books, experiences we don't yet know what to do with.” ― Alain de Botton.  Some composers and poets, like John Cage, use aleatoric methods to pull themselves out of habitual associations.  By giving up "choosing", they defy the militarism of language, whose very understandability makes it a tool of manipulation (so they say).  Yet the products of this method strike many lovers of poetry as an "in" joke, or worse, an inversion of values regarding expertise.
*  Mallarmé saw poetry as "chance defeated word by word".  Randomness is to be opposed, and our overcoming it produces something new.  Is this a masculine conceit?  Is creativity meaningfully possible without obstacles?
* “For what are myths if not the imposing of order on phenomena that do not possess order in themselves? And all myths, however they differ from philosophical systems and scientific theories, share this with them, that they negate the principle of randomness in the world.” ― Stanisław Lem, Highcastle: A Remembrance.  We seems to have a love/hate relationship with randomness:  one minute we swear that everything has a reason, and the next we affirm our free will by pointing to quantum mechanics.  The story we read last summer by Borges ("The Lottery in Babylon"­) highlighted this paradox, with the poor begging to be subjected to a lottery of punishments.  The forms that embody randomness have to be taken into account....
* The rustic Greek god Pan was credited with making noises that pan-icked forest travelers.  He is musical, dances, and a nymph-chaser.  What aspects of randomness does he (or some other Greek god) embody?
* Consider the court jester, or the Trickster gods popular in primitive cultures.  How are they different from those who have lost their minds?  Why is the scientific mind set against these whimsical figures?
* "Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin." ― John von Neumann.  Some will be interested in the scientific-mathematical sense of randomness. is a site that generates "true random numbers" using atmospheric noise:  does that seem mathematical to you?
* A card falls onto a table:  there are plenty of random variations to be found in how it falls, but it does reliably land after a certain interval.  What metaphors from our discussion might help frame the randomness here?  Or highlight its differences from them.
* As we run out of time, we tend to realize we forgot to consider Time.  Quantum mechanics differs from classical mechanics in spreading measurement out over intervals of time.  Bergson used the chaotically dissolving sugar cube to explain "duration".  How crucial is time to the various metaphors we considered?  Or can time be safely dismissed as a fourth dimension, analogous to space?
* Explore any connection(s) between the Randomness theme and the Opportunities­ theme we did six months back.­
* Address the roles of randomness in understanding the economy, cryptography, or psychology (infant, child, or adult).
* Write your own question using any of these:  climate perception, stock markets, shuffle mode on your iPod, "The Most Random Last Minute East Bay Meetup".
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