Is the Universe Random?

A few thoughts on unpredictability in an increasingly predictable world...

Posted by iamtrask on June 19, 2017

TLDR: I've recently wondered about whether the Universe is truly random, and I thought I'd write down a few thoughts on the subject. As a heads up, this post is more about sharing a personal journey I'm on than teaching a skill or tool (unlike many other blogposts). Feel free to chat with me about these ideas on Twitter as I'm still working through them myself and I'd love to hear your perspective.

I typically tweet out new blogposts when they're complete @iamtrask. Thank you for your time and attention, and I hope you enjoy the post.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines randomness as "a lack of pattern or predictability in events". I like this definition as it reveals that "randomness" is more about the predictive ability of the observer than about an event itself. Consider the following consequence of this definition:

Consequence: Two people can accurately describe the same event as having different degrees of randomness.

Consider when two meterologists are trying to predict the probability that it will rain today. One person (we will call them the "Ignorant Meterologist") is only allowed a record of how often it has rained in the region between the years 1900 and 2000. The second person (the "Smart Meterologist") is also allowed this information, but this second individual is also allowed to know today's date. These two individuals would consider the likelihood of rain to be very different. The Ignorant Meterologist would simply say, "it rains 40% of the time in the region, thus there is a 40% chance of rain today.". What else can he/she say? Given the information provided, the degree of randomness is very high. However, the "Smart Meterologist" is more informed. He/she might be able to say "it is the dry season, thus there is only a 5% chance of rain today".

If we asked each of these meterologists to continue to make predictions over time. They would each make predictions with different degrees of randomness (one higher and one lower) in accordance with the availability of information. However, the event is no more or less random in and of itself. It's only more or less random in relation to an invidual and other available predictive information.

Perhaps this makes you feel that randomness is no longer real, that it is only in the eye of the beholder. However, I believe that the context of Machine Learning provides a much more precise definition of randomness. In this context, one can think of randomness as a measure of compatability between 3 datasets: "input", "target", and "model".

Input: is data that is readily known. It is what we're going to try to use to predict something else. All potential "causes" are contained within the input.

Target: is the data that we wish to predict. This is the thing that we say is either random or not random.

Model: this "dataset" is simply a set of instructions for transforming the input into the target. When a human is making a prediction, this is the human's intelligence. In a computer, it's a large series of 1s and 0s which operate gates and represent a particular transformation.

Thus, we can view randomness as merely a degree of compatability between these three datasets. If there is a high degree of compatability (input -> model -> target is very reliable), then there is a low degree of randomness.

Now that we've identified what I believe to be the most practical and commonly used definition of randomness, I'd like to introduce the bigger version of randomness, which we'll call Randomness (with a capital R). This Randomness refers to whether, given infinite knowledge and intelligence, a future event could be predicted before it happens (a "model" dataset could exist for that event). This Randomness also implies whether or not something is caused by another thing. If it is NOT caused but simply IS of its own accord, it is (capital "R") Random.

Is the Universe Random?

The simple answer is that, from our perspective, it has a degree of randomness that is rapidly decreasing. We are consistently able to predict future events with greater accuracy. Furthermore, predicting outcomes given our interaction allows us a certain degree of control over the future (because we can choose interactions which we predict will lead to the desired outcome). This plays out in the advancement of every sector: agriculture, healthcare, finance (bigtime), politics, etc. However, because we cannot predict the Universe entirely, it is somewhat random. (lowercase "r")

Whether the Universe is uppercase "R" Random is a different question entirely. We can, however, make some progress on this question:

Claim 1: Causality exists

In short, we can predict things with far better than random accuracy. Thus, some things tend to cause other things. We might even be able to say that some things absolutely cause other things unless effected by some unpredictable randomness, but we don't even need this bold of a claim. Simply stated, much of the Universe is probably causal because we can predict events with better than random accuracy. To claim otherwise would be extremely unlikely and would imply that the entirety of human innovation and intelligence throughout history leading to prosperity and survival was simply a coincidence. It's possible, but very unlikely. We'll go ahead and accept the notion that causality exists in the Universe.

Claim 2: The Universe is not entirely Random.

For all things in the Universe that are not Random but are instead caused, randomness (lowercase) in their behavior is a result of either random or Random objects exerting upon it. Thus, asking whether the Universe is Random is about asking whether or not there exists a Random object within it. It is not about asking whether every object is inherently random, because cause and effect can transfer the unpredictable behavior of a Random object across the Universe via things that are merely random.

Claim 3: Because we can observe cause and effect relationships, the Universe is, at most, a mixture of Random and causal objects, and at least, exclusively made of causal objects.

This brings us to the root of our question. When we repeatedly ask "and what caused that?" over and over again, where do we end up? Well, there are 4 possible states of the Universe (finite/finite space/time)

  • Finite Time + Finite Space If time is finite, there was a beginning. If there was a beginning, there was a TON of Randomness which began the Universe. Thus, Randomness at least has existed within the Universe (although whether it still exists is less certain).
  • Finite Time + Infinite Space (see above)
  • Infinite Time + Finite Space Laws of entropy determine that if this was our Universe, you wouldn't be reading this blogpost as all the energy in the Universe would have disipated to equilibrium an infinite number of years ago. I suppose there are counter arguments to this, but I don't personally find them particularly strong. We have a rather large amount of empirical evidence that energy tends to dissipate (perhaps more empirical evidence for this than for any other claim in the Universe?).
  • Infinite Time + Infinite Space This state is interesting because there's theoretically an infinite amount of energy (inside the infinite space) alongside an infinite amount of time for it to disipate. Thus, while I don't have solid footing to say that this Universe does not exist, I think we can make a reasonble case for (capital R) Randomness in this Universe. Specifically, because the state of the Universe at any given time "t" is, itself, infinite, there are an infinite number of potential causes for an event. Thus, every event is Random because there are an infinite number of potential causes for any event. It may be asymtotically predicatable given proximity to some causal events playing a more dominant role, but in the limit every event is Random.

Conclusion: Randomness with a capital R either exists or has existed before in the Universe because all 3 plausible configurations of the Universe necessitate events that have no cause, and an event with no cause cannot be predicted and is therefore Random.