Random Enough

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Mimi and Gavin toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. To sponsor a blog post or otherwise help send BeerAndTrembling to Cornell University, check out the crowdfunding campaign here: BeerAndTrembling’s IndieGoGo Campaign

I take for granted that the law of cause and effect are inexorable. Even in very complicated circumstances, it seems obvious that an effect is dictated by its cause(s). Imagine flipping a coin. If we knew the starting position of the coin, the force of the toss, the angular momentum, the air resistance, and dozens of other factors, we could accurately calculate the result every time. The way the coin lands is not random. Quite the opposite; it is inevitable.

This premise is taken to its extreme by the warrior monks of The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker:

What comes before determines what comes after. Dünyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determined every happenstance and minimizing all that was wild and unpredictable. Because of this, events always unfolded with granitic certainty in Ishual. More often than not, one knew the skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves. More often than not, one knew what another would say before he spoke. To grasp what came before was to know what would come after. And to know what would come after was the beauty that stilled, the hallowed communion of intellect and circumstance—the gift of the Logos.

We are inclined to call coin tosses or the movement of falling leaves “random”, but they move in ways that would be completely predictable if we only knew all of the inputs. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “if we know the cause, we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” The path of a falling leaf would be knowable if we only knew all of the forces at work: the directions and speeds of the breezes as they swirled about the tree, the weight distribution of the leaf, and hundreds of other considerations. The forces at work dictate with certainty the leaf’s path.

But unlike the Dünyain monks of Bakker’s fantasy world, we ordinary humans can never calculate the result of a coin toss or the path of a leaf in the breeze. We can get better at predicting certain things based on experience, but the vast majority of the springs and gears that control the movements of our world are beyond our ken. So even if the monks are correct in their determinism, even if the result of every coin toss is set in stone from the instant the coin is released, our own limited knowledge of what comes before makes it impossible to know what will come after. The world may not be truly random, but it is random enough for our purposes.

Beer of the week: Coors Light – This week, we are pairing The Darkness That Comes Before with “the (Coors) Light I drank during.” The can’s famous blue-when-cold mountains (as seen in the above image) may officially represent the Rockies, but to me they will forever be the Yimaleti Mountains of Northwest Eärwa. (Is it me, or is “Yimaleti” a pretty obvious play on “Himalaya”?) Coors Light is very carbonated and crystal clear. It’s aroma is faint, but not the least bit surprising. The beer is smooth and crisp, with just a hint of lingering stickiness. It is refreshing, drinkable, and (more than any coin toss) predictable.

Reading of the week:  Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Democritus – Democritus believed that all matter was made up of atoms, and that these atoms, once set in motion by the vortex of the universe, impassively and inexorably collided to create all of matters varying forms. He believed that matter would decay just as inevitably, as the atoms continued to be moved and move each other in turn, in the eternal cycle of causes and effects. Diogenes makes Democritus sound almost like a Dünyain monk himself. Democritus (presumably by accurately perceiving causes and effects overlooked by others) “foretold certain future events” and made what appeared to be impossibly accurate observations.

By the way, The Darkness That Comes Before is not the reading of the week because it is over 500 pages long and is still under copyright. However, I recommend that any fan of fantasy go check it out from the local library. Bakker engages in some very ambitious world-building, and is not shy about throwing the reader right into the deep end. I think some things are a bit too clearly based on real events, religions, etc., but the whole product is quite entertaining.

Question for the week: “The skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves” is one thing, but to “kn[o]w what another would say before he spoke” is much more complicated. While the leaf is only subject to simple physics, it seems that the mind is subject to much more complex and varied inputs. Even so, are our thoughts determined by cause and effect just surely as physical phenomena are?

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