Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Randomness Isn’t Random

Einstein's distaste for randomness, and his association of determinism with divinity, goes back to the Enlightenment conception of the universe as a gigantic piece of clockwork that only had to be set in motion initially by the Builder. Many of the founders of quantum mechanics were interested in possible links between physics and Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought, but every educated person has a different concept of religion and philosophy. Bertrand Russell remarked, "Sir Arthur Eddington deduces religion from the fact that atoms do not obey the laws of mathematics. Sir James Jeans deduces it from the fact that they do."

Russell's witticism, which implies incorrectly that mathematics cannot describe randomness, reminds us how important it is not to oversimplify this question of randomness. You should not simply surmise, "Well, it's all random, anything can happen." For one thing, certain things simply cannot happen, either in classical physics or quantum physics. The conservation laws of mass, energy, momentum, and angular momentum are still valid, so for instance processes that create energy out of nothing are not just unlikely according to quantum physics, they are impossible.

A useful analogy can be made with the role of randomness in evolution. Darwin was not the first biologist to suggest that species changed over long periods of time. His two new fundamental ideas were that (1) the changes arose through random genetic variation, and (2) changes that enhanced the organism's ability to survive and reproduce would be preserved, while maladaptive changes would be eliminated by natural selection. Doubters of evolution often consider only the first point, about the randomness of natural variation, but not the second point, about the systematic action of natural selection. They make statements such as, "the development of a complex organism like Homo sapiens via random chance would be like a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and spontaneously assembling a jumbo jet out of the scrap metal." The flaw in this type of reasoning is that it ignores the deterministic constraints on the results of random processes. For an atom to violate conservation of energy is no more likely than the conquest of the world by chimpanzees next year.

Discussion Questions

A Economists often behave like wannabe physicists, probably because it seems prestigious to make numerical calculations instead of talking about human relationships and organizations like other social scientists. Their striving to make economics work like Newtonian physics extends to a parallel use of mechanical metaphors, as in the concept of a market's supply and demand acting like a self-adjusting machine, and the idealization of people as economic automatons who consistently strive to maximize their own wealth. What evidence is there for randomness rather than mechanical determinism in economics?

Last Update: 2009-06-21