Friday, August 15, 2008

Is There Any Chance That Chance Is Real?

I have often written about choice. I have also thought a lot about chance. The idea that something happens "randomly" without cause strikes me as unlikely.

Simple example: Consider coin tosses. There are only two possible outcomes, heads or tails. If heads comes up four times in a row it is a little weird, but we generally are confident that over time the tosses will average out to half heads and half tails. If heads comes up four thousand times in a row, and the toss is actually random, we are astonished, but there was always a small but finite probability that we would get that result, just as there is a larger but finite probability that we would get heads four times in a row. However, another possibility is that the toss is not random. Perhaps the coin is cleverly weighted or perhaps it is being impacted by a control system involving a high speed camera, image recognition, and a variable magnetic field. In other words, there may be causes we are not aware of. Perhaps someone has made the choice to bias the system and create non-random results. How many heads in a row does it take for us to differentiate between behavior that is random, but very unusual, and behavior that is a result of intentional bias?

A statistician cannot tell you how many coin tosses are needed to establish, unequivocally, that the coin toss is truly random. They must equivocate, because their mathematics always tells them that there is a very small chance of four thousand or even four million heads in a row. Very, very small. Inconceivably small. But extant, nonetheless.

Frankly, I find true choice to be inconceivable as well. Take away coercion, misinformation, group think, and all other sorts of influences. How then is it that I choose blue as my favorite color? What led me to choose engineering as a college major. How did I choose to create this post?

Whether we speak of chances or choices, either is mysterious.

I am completely convinced that I can make choices. I have grave doubts about the idea that things happen by chance. I always suspect that any system (including coin tossing) will have a bit of bias in it. I just can't tell how much bias there is without an infinite number of tosses.

Infinite tosses might assure that there is complete randomness. But we are finite beings in the sense that the tosses will come to an end in this life, and we will still be left wondering whether something improbable happened or whether someone biased the system.

Everything that happens, happens because of choices that persons make, nothing is random. If anything at all were truly random, all choices would be irrelevant. Any choice might be negated by a random event. Randomness would prevail.

What we call random or chance is simply that of which we have no complete understanding.
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