Reason and Random

by Mordecai Plaut

Nowadays, it is often argued that the thesis that the world as we know it originated in chance and chaos alone, spontaneously, is compatible with reason. It is not unreasonable, we are told, to suppose that in an infinite universe, changing all the time, even a rational sequence is generated. It is not impossible, and perhaps not even improbable. In the long run, even order should appear in chaos. Perhaps six monkeys would type all the books in the British Museum eventually. We will call this position, that order may come from chaos, the Random Hypothesis.

We intend to show that the compatibility is only superficial. Deep down, the Random Hypothesis is opposed to reason. It was traditional to say that it is repugnant to reason to assert that the evident organization of the world arose by chance. While that assertion may not sound unreasonable to the modern ear, we intend to show that it is opposed to the very essence of reason.

From the viewpoint of information theory there is a difference between random and nonrandom. (1) A nonrandom sequence has less information than the size of the sequence since its information can be compressed into a description of how to form it. A random sequence, on the other hand, cannot be reproduced from anything shorter than a full listing of itself. Thus the random sequence has as much information as its size.

However, this definition gives only the ability to discriminate among existing things, to determine which are random and which are not. It does not answer the question of origin.

Given a sequence, the definition of randomness from information theory is adequate to classify it as random or not, but it cannot be used to determine if the sequence originated in a random or nonrandom event. This suggests that, although the discovery and elaboration of the laws of nature make it clear that the world as we know it is definitely not a random process as information theory defines it, its origin is still left as an open question. While we do not claim to offer a complete resolution of the question, we will suggest that some answers are in deep conflict with what a reasonable man would expect.

First it is important to understand the different levels on which there may be conflict. In some cases, the conflict may be only between peripheral aspects of things. In other cases, the conflict may be deep and essential, given the natures of opposing sides.

As examples we can use ideas and nations. Two concepts might have gotten along, but perhaps the contexts in which they are put bring them into conflict. Similarly two nations may have excellent relations until they both happen to need a particular resource.

On the other level, sometimes there are ideas which are opposed in their essence. They are antithetical; each cannot suffer the other to exist. Two nations may also decide that the world isn't big enough for both of them.

The history of the Jewish people provides illustration for both of these possibilities. Many times Jews were threatened because of beliefs that they held. They were offered safety and even rewards if they would abandon their position. Although the beliefs which were at issue were deeply held and bitterly contested on both sides, this sort of conflict would still be considered superficial relative to other threats which were leveled against Jews qua Jews. A few times, even as recently as sixty years ago, Jews were attacked without any quarter and without any offer of escape. It was clear that the persecutors were unwilling to tolerate -- or even allow -- Jews to persist. They searched them out and sacrificed themselves to destroy Jews. In such a case it is clear that it is not some accidental Jewish trait or even a belief but rather the essence of the Jew itself -- "Jewishness" -- which was under attack.

It is possible to speak of an even more basic conflict than this. A more basic conflict cannot really exist, but the idea of such a conflict is describable. The deepest conflict is when something is opposed to itself. Clearly if something is at odds with itself it cannot long persist. One side or the other will win out, and it will soon self-destruct. Such a conflict is called a contradiction. The condition that a contradiction cannot be, defines the limit of the possible. Anything that is not a contradiction is logically possible. Pure logic is the elaboration of this principle of contradiction. It studies the limits of what is possible.

To find out about what is actual, we have to return to reason. It is reason that studies reality, analyzes it (describes it), and prescribes it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, reason is "that intellectual power or faculty which is ordinarily employed in adapting thought or action to some end; the guiding principle of the human mind in the process of thinking." The central idea is that of planning, "adapting . . . to some end."

We call people reasonable if we see that their actions are the result of planning, and are directed towards a goal. If someone's actions are disconnected one from the other, if they seem to be going nowhere and coming from nowhere, then we say that there is something wrong. That person is not being reasonable, or is being unreasonable. In some cases, we could call such a one mad.

To try to make this more intuitive, let us consider what we would think if we saw someone we knew in the process of selling all his property. Certainly that would make us suspicious. However, if we found out that he thought he had a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity and was trying to put in as much as possible, then we might be reassured. At least, we would say, he was acting reasonably given his expectations about that opportunity. In this context, "reasonably" clearly means that his actions are according to a plan which follows from his beliefs.

To sum this up, we would say that the essential idea of reason, that which makes it reasonable to use reason, is the fact that things can and do follow from other things. If the states of affairs in the world were all disconnected, with one having nothing to do with what preceded it or followed it, and if the states of the world were unrelated to the prior thoughts that we have, then there would be little motivation to plan. It is essential to the validity of reason that reasoned thought lead to reasonable actions which in turn lead to reasonable states of affairs in the world. If the things which are, are not influenced by what was, then there is no way to argue, and even no basis to assert, that there is any reason to reason.

Try to imagine, if you will, the following scene: entering a house, you see a tastefully arranged and beautifully furnished, coordinated living room decor. Everything goes perfectly with everything else: color, materials, texture, etc. One piece particularly strikes your fancy as you await your host in an armchair. Thinking that it might also fit well in your own home, hoping that it is not too expensive, after your host comes in and you exchange pleasantries you ask him where he got that particular piece.

With apparent sincerity he replies: "Lovely, isn't it? I agree it is a marvelous piece. Unfortunately I cannot tell you where to get another. This one is merely a fortuitous random arrangement of molecules that I happened upon one day -- down to the manufacturer's label."

Would you take this man seriously? I think not. I suspect that, as Leibniz put it, "no sane man would."

However, one who asserts that the universe is merely a "fortuitous" result of blind chance is asserting that everything in the world, including these words, your thoughts, and all the everyday objects that are before you, in short, everything, is the result of blind chance. On this view, all our living room furniture is a product of chance.

There are two ways in which an adherent of the Random Hypothesis could react to this argument. He might reply that the order that is so clearly manifest in the world as we experience it is merely a pocket of localized order within the broader chaos. In some "mysterious" way the world arose, but that does not mean that that is a common or likely occurrence. Thus, although he would reject our poker-faced friend's claim on probabilistic grounds, he would maintain that the concept of probability does not apply to the formation of the universe, which was a singular event.

Continues . . .

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