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Inquiry into Randomness

Philosophy Cafe kicks off its third year of themed explorations by asking what we mean by calling something "random".  What kinds of things can be random?  Does randomness have a good, bad, or indifferent connotation?   Why has random become such a hip word recently, and in what does its hipness consist?  How does it compare to the "unknown" or "unknowable"?  What does the concept of randomness reveal about how we conceive the world?

"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?

“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 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....

“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.

I could go on:  climate perception, stock markets, shuffle mode on your iPod.  As always, you are invited to contribute quotes, anecdotes, props, etc. that help expand and focus our discussion.  Probably there will be additional chance components to spice up the proceedings; however, the title is "Inquiry into Randomness" because we DO aim to make some sense of it.  Seems like nice, wide-open way to launch the year, anyway.  Hope to see you there!


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  • Gary J.

    Excellent...just hard to hear everyone!

    January 30, 2014

  • Paul

    “In short, there is cause only in something that doesn’t work.”

    - Jacques Lacan, 1979


    January 14, 2014

  • Jay C.

    Might the universe possibly be whimsical ?

    January 13, 2014

    • Paul

      I think whimsy is a trait we typically assign to people and that it's tempting (and often useful) to make our relationship to the universe animistic, but if anything it points to the impossibility of naming something as final cause and the overwhelming craving on our parts to do so.

      1 · January 14, 2014

  • Jeff G

    Here's a quote I can't get my head around:
    “Realism is punishing. Probabilistic skepticism is worse.”
    ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

    1 · January 14, 2014

    • Paul

      I think he's speaking to the dialectical relationship between determinism and what we often refer to as causality in reality, a relationship which is strictly speaking human and neurotically apprehended as such.

      January 14, 2014

  • Dee

    "It is out of Chaos Theory proven that there is no system in nature or relationship between systems in nature that are random, otherwise referred to as truly Chaotic. Which means there is a well defined mathematical order to every system in nature and also has a well defined mathematical relationship with every other system (or event). "

    January 13, 2014

    • Paul

      How does a theory prove something? And are all systems of mathematics in agreement? What order or system puts all other systems in agreement? We can save this for the group (-;

      January 14, 2014

  • Josh C.

    This will be my first meet up. I look forward to it.

    January 9, 2014

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