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Spider

Does Randomness Really Exist?

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One of the really fascinating things to me is the apparent order and coherence in the things that we see around us and in the cosmos at large.
 
Yet there is a notion in the field of science that reality, at bottom, does not behave so orderly, but rather behaves in a probabilistic and random fashion. This is the view from the standpoint of quantum mechanics, at least. But in fact whether or not quantum mechanics is truly random is more a matter of one's own philosophical viewpoint instead of science.
 
One of the most rebellious reaction to the apparent randomness of QM (quantum mechanics) comes from Albert Einstein. His views are summed up in his famous quote "God does not play dice with the universe." But Einstein openly expressed in a letter that he didn't believe in a personal God, so what did he mean by "God"? And what was he trying to convey by saying that God doesn't play dice with the universe? Basically, it all has to do with his resistance to the idea that nature was inherently random and probabilistic. In fact, this was impossible according to the then accepted ideas related to space and time.
 
In an essay, Vasant Natarajan explains that Einstein's idea of God was at best "someone who someone who formulated the laws and then left the universe alone to evolve according to these laws. He saw the hand of God in the precise nature of physical laws, in their mathematical beauty and elegance, and in their simplicity. [...] Thus his used of the word God is to be interpreted as the existence of natural laws of great mathematical beauty, whatever form they might take." Regarding the dice metaphor in that quote, as Vasant explains, Einstein felt that the "natural laws could not be like the throw of dice, with inherent randomness or probability. But this is exactly what Quantum Mechanics tells us - that at the fundamental level Nature is inherently random, codified in Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle."
 
Thus, Einstein, like Laplace, Newton, and others before him, strongly believed that there was an underlying order in which particles would have well-defined positions and speeds, and would evolve according to deterministic laws. This was the worldview that fueled their science and curiosity.
 
But let's zoom down to randomness itself. Randomness is a difficult concept to study, let alone produce. However, I wish to offer some interesting ideas about it in the rest of this post.
 
Consider the infinite monkey theorem, which has been often used as an argument in favor of a probabilistic origin of the universe. The way this idea goes is that a monkey (or a bunch of monkeys) hitting keys on a keyboard at random for an indefinite amount of time would eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. When the same reasoning is applied to the universe, the typing monkeys would be analogous to random quantum fluctuations, which in turn would eventually give rise to the kind of universe we observe given an indefinite amount of time out of pure randomness.
 
Well, here's my opinion on that: First of all, I think that's a very absurd idea. Secondly, I don't think we will ever be able to correctly prove that anything in nature is truly random, essentially because of a lack of sufficient information. It's possible that the behavior of a system appears completely random to us, but it really isn't. Perhaps it follows some hidden pattern that we haven't figured out yet. Why? Because pattern recognition is retroactive. Therefore, until a pattern reveals itself, the perception is of randomness. That doesn't necessarily mean that it is truly random.
 
I don't disagree that many processes in nature indicate order arising from disorder. Nevertheless, the "disorder" is not actually proven to be truly random. For instance, the "chaos" in chaos theory is not actually chaotic in the sense of having no underlying order behind it. It only appears to be random, but is mathematically a deterministic evolution, thus not truly random.
 
Chaotic systems appear random because they evolve in a nonlinear and unpredictable manner. Chaos theory deals with things that are practically impossible to predict and/or control, things such as turbulence, weather, the stock market, snowflake formation, and so on. But being nonlinear and unpredictable doesn't necessarily mean that those things are inherently random. It's just that we haven't recognized any patterns in them, i.e. because we lack information.
 
Even people who have experience in programming acknowledge that true randomness is difficult to come by if not impossible. A random number generator would create a sequence of numbers that are random to themselves, but given a certain "seed" the sequence will be reproduced. Thus the numbers are pseudo-random. This supports the idea that even behind so-called "random" events there may be an underlying order yet to be discovered.
 
But random number generators (RNGs) can be categorized into two main types: Pseudo-random number generators (PRNGs) and true random number generators (TRNGs).
 
Here's an introductory commentary which explain the differences between the two:
 
 
Using a computer only, you can at best generate pseudo-random numbers, because the computer itself is a deterministic device which relies on rules on algorithms whenever it computes. Therefore it is fundamentally impossible to produce truly random numbers on a deterministic device. As John von Neumann said, "Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin." So the best we can hope for are pseudo-random numbers, a stream of numbers that appear as if they were generated randomly.
 
The kind of random number generators that are believed to be able to produce truly random numbers are those that rely on an external, natural phenomenon. Again, this website explains it well. These are called true random number generators (TRNGs). The computer or device would have to be connected to a physical source in order to be able to detect unpredictable changes from that source (such as a radioactive source, atmospheric noise, thunderstorms, etc.). But again, the question still remains whether or not even this method can produce truly random numbers. The answers depends on whether or not nature itself has any true randomness. And that's a philosophical question, ultimately.
 
The best example of a TRNG I can think of is rolling a six-sided die. Or better yet, a lottery machine. So let's look at lottery. I think that even lottery numbers cannot be proven to be generated completely randomly. Why? Because the outcomes themselves are dependent on the laws of physics (i.e. classical physics). In theory, then, if you could somehow "cheat" by knowing the initial conditions of the lottery machine and the balls inside it to the most accurate degree possible, you would be able to predict the winning numbers. There is of course no way we can ever acquire such complete information about anything in the first place, but I'm just saying, in theory.
 
What's your opinion on this? Does randomness truly exist in the physical world, or is randomness always pseudo-random?

 

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On 4/19/2017 at 5:38 PM, Spider said:

One of the most rebellious reaction to the apparent randomness of QM (quantum mechanics) comes from Albert Einstein. His views are summed up in his famous quote "God does not play dice with the universe." But Einstein openly expressed in a letter that he didn't believe in a personal God, so what did he mean by "God"? And what was he trying to convey by saying that God doesn't play dice with the universe? Basically, it all has to do with his resistance to the idea that nature was inherently random and probabilistic. In fact, this was impossible according to the then accepted ideas related to space and time.

 

Einstiens view of QM has been disproven. It's called Bell's Theorem.

 

That is to say, that if QM does describe our reality, then it is inherently probabilistic

 

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Ok I think you are confusing two kinds of randomness here.

 

There is classical randomness (not a real term btw) that people like Boltzmann and Maxwell would have spoken about. Here the dynamics and evolution is completely determined by the laws of physics so if you knew all the initial conditions of the system, you can predict where it will end up. It is not true randomness. Like throwing a die, if you know the angle, the force at which you throw it etc.. than you can predict where it will land.

 

The issue is that there are too many initial conditions and variables, so there is no way we can ever predict the trajectory of such a system. So we model the system (ie describe it mathematically) as if it is truly random. This approach was hugely successful when applied to large systems such as gasses. You can thank Boltzmann for that. Now that I think about it, this approach shouldn't have necessarily been so successful - so good on Boltzmann for having that insight (that's why hes famous and I am not).

 

Einstien felt that at the Quantum level systems were still classically random - ie an electrons position is inherently determined by some hidden variables. But these variables are hidden, so the electrons final position looks like it was chosen randomly. Ie we can't see what caused the electron to choose a certain location so we just say its random.

 

However, this was proven to be false in like 1980 or something where experiments finally showed once and for all that Quantum Mechanics is indeed truly random. So unless the Quantum Mechanical framework itself is flawed, there is true randomness in the universe.

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On 4/19/2017 at 5:51 PM, superman said:

However, this was proven to be false in like 1980 or something where experiments finally showed once and for all that Quantum Mechanics is indeed truly random. So unless the Quantum Mechanical framework itself is flawed, there is true randomness in the universe.

 

I don't think the answer is really so clear cut though. I still don't feel like there is really any way to tell if anything is genuinely random. To me, true randomness in the universe is more of a belief.
 
The points you made simply suggest that QM appears random to every test humanly possible. That's not evidence that it is truly random.

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I don't think the answer is really so clear cut though. I still don't feel like there is really any way to tell if something is genuinely random. To me, true randomness in the universe is more of a belief.

The points you made simply suggest that QM appears random to every test humanly possible. That's not evidence that it is truly random.

 

Ok let me clarify.

 

Statistical Mechanics is the science of describing pseudo random, or classically random systems. It is able to predict the probable trajectory of a system when there are some hidden or unknown variables (like the force I throw a dice at). If the probabilities observed in QM violated those predicted by statistical mechanics then we can argue that QM has to be 99.9% inherently random.

 

Bell's Theorem basically said that if QM is governed by stat mech then we should observe X.

 

However in 1980, some French dude did a bunch of tests and saw that we did not observe X. In fact we saw the opposite of X. ​Something that should have never occurred if Stat Mech was truly correct in describing QM. So QM has to be random.

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Ok let me clarify.

 

Statistical Mechanics is the science of describing pseudo random, or classically random systems. It is able to predict the probable trajectory of a system when there are some hidden or unknown variables (like the force I throw a dice at). If the probabilities observed in QM violated those predicted by statistical mechanics then we can argue that QM has to be 99.9% inherently random.

 

Bell's Theorem basically said that if QM is governed by stat mech then we should observe X.

 

However in 1980, some French dude did a bunch of tests and saw that we did not observe X. In fact we saw the opposite of X. ​Something that should have never occurred if Stat Mech was truly correct in describing QM. So QM has to be random.

 

Well, if QM is really random, then we could say that QM has nothing to do with the order and complexity that characterize the things we see around us (plants, animals, the earth, human beings, etc), because true randomness can't be attributed to events that are "less random" than it already is. If it is then you can't call it truly random; it's pseudo-random.

 

Also, the fact that scientists have long been trying to unify quantum mechanics and the classical deterministic laws implies that they themselves believe that there has to be some kind of order or relationship between the two.

 

But if QM is totally random, then it can't possibly have any connection with anything that we observe in the world because, again, it's completely random.

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Well the randomness is distributed so not everything is as likely to happen. On a large scale you can imagine this probability distribution to be a spike in one area - so we get deterministic dynamics. The chances of you winning the lottery could be totally random. But i can predict u will lose 999/1000 times. All the protons could suddenly decay and end life, it's totally random. But also unlikely. Finally i think your trying to hint at entropy by saying order can't arise from chaos. However it's a big universe so it's not so surprising that theres a chemical soup to support life.

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Also, the fact that scientists have long been trying to unify quantum mechanics and the classical deterministic laws implies that they themselves believe that there has to be some kind of order or relationship between the two.

 

yea they're always trying to unify everything under a single theory. It's funny you say qm has to be determined coz of classical physics but perhaps classical physics is random itself. Just you don't notice it because at this scale the probability distribution is super concentrated in 1 area.

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But if QM is totally random, then it can't possibly have any connection with anything that we observe in the world because, again, it's completely random.

 

so is Ur phone working then? Coz that uses qm

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Well the randomness is distributed so not everything is as likely to happen. On a large scale you can imagine this probability distribution to be a spike in one area - so we get deterministic dynamics. The chances of you winning the lottery could be totally random. But i can predict u will lose 999/1000 times. All the protons could suddenly decay and end life, it's totally random. But also unlikely.

 

Interesting, but I think with the lottery example, there's a difference between predicting the likelihood of winning, versus knowing the true state of the process itself (i.e. whether it is random or not). To the first one you can assign a probability value (because it's math), but with the other you can't make any predictions because it's all physics and as such you would have to know whether or not physics itself is deterministic.

 

Finally i think your trying to hint at entropy by saying order can't arise from chaos. However it's a big universe so it's not so surprising that theres a chemical soup to support life.

 

But the chemical soup that supports life must be governed by the lower level dynamics of physics (i.e. quantum mechanics). And if the lower level behaves randomly, as you believe, then what you're implying is that randomness is somehow able to "perceive" itself, since our own consciousness are products of completely random events. Well, I gotta say that sounds outright impossible to me.

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It's funny you say qm has to be determined coz of classical physics but perhaps classical physics is random itself. Just you don't notice it because at this scale the probability distribution is super concentrated in 1 area.

 

If the probably distribution is super concentrated in one area (or multiple areas), then it suggests that there is a deterministic law that creates a threshold that (1) allows such a dense distribution in the first place, (2) remains stable for a long period of time, (3) and yet creates the "illusion" of pattern and ordered complexity instead of randomness. Thus your own argument is self-defeating, I think.

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If you know the odds you can quite safely predict what will happen over 1000 times. When speaking of probability you don't think of 1 outcome but 1000s.

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Ooh last one is a nice question. But there's laws that govern probability distributions in QM so it's predictable. The laws themselves can be determined, but but thier outcomes rely on probability. You gotta think about that one for a bit to see there's no contradiction.

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spider, where are you getting your half boiled "facts" about QM? What readings have you done?

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On 4/20/2017 at 3:57 AM, superman said:

Ooh last one is a nice question. But there's laws that govern probability distributions in QM so it's predictable. The laws themselves can be determined, but but thier outcomes rely on probability. You gotta think about that one for a bit to see there's no contradiction.

 

But there's a difference between predictability and randomness. They're not the same thing. Whether or not something is predictable (and how safely we can predict it) is basically a reflection of how much information is available to us. Randomness, by definition, is the opposite. Randomness reflects our lack of knowledge. We cannot see nor understand anything beyond this point (assuming that the randomness is truly random).

 

On 4/20/2017 at 0:16 PM, Haku said:

spider, where are you getting your half boiled "facts" about QM? What readings have you done?

 

Does everything I say about science have to be facts?

 

I didn't say anywhere that these are facts. I already said in the OP that the subject of randomness as it relates to QM and the universe is a philosophical issue, even among scientists, although it is related to science.

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