Can You Accept the Randomness of Life?
Our brains abhor randomness, seek patterns and crave control.
Posted Nov 21, 2019
“To swim against the current of human intuition is a difficult task. ... the human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause and can, therefore, have a hard time accepting the influence of unrelated or random factors. ... Random processes are fundamental in nature and are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, yet most people do not understand them or think much about them.”
—Leonard Mlodinow, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.”1
Elise O'Kane, a flight attendant with United Airlines, had wanted to work her usual trip from Boston to Los Angeles in September 2001.2 But when signing up for flights in August for September, she accidentally entered an incorrect code into the airline's computer system and was assigned to the wrong schedule. She managed to swap flights with other attendants for all her trips, except Flight 175 on September 11th. She tried again to request that flight on the computer system the night before. But the system froze, and by the time it finally processed her request she’d missed the airline's deadline by one minute, so her request for Flight 175 was denied. She resigned herself to flying to Denver instead of Los Angeles.
Elise’s Denver-bound plane left Logan Airport between American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower, and United's Flight 175, which struck the South Tower.
When her colleagues found out that she was not on board, they showered her with tears and hugs, telling her repeatedly, "God has a plan for you," and "You were meant to be here."
After taking the time to consider what such a meaningful plan might be, she eventually entered a career as a nurse, feeling a “need to give back and fulfill myself.”2
The sheer banality of chance
Mark DeMarco, an emergency-service officer with the New York Police Department, had a different take on his own survival in the World Trade Center: “Why did we get out? ... If I had made a right instead of a left, if I had been five minutes or two minutes slower, if I had gone to a different team. There were so many variables ... It was luck, nothing more than luck.”3
Not so lucky were the 2,977 victims who died in the terrorist attacks that day. Many of them shouldn’t or wouldn’t have died that day but for arbitrary choices or trivial turns of events that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Writing about stories like this and how trivial decisions spared people’s lives or sealed their fates, Garrett Graff, author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, wrote: “After reading and hearing thousands of these stories, I am overwhelmed by the unfair randomness of the day—epochal circumstances and fatal or life-saving decisions so ordinarily meaningless that it’s simultaneously easy to see either the supernatural guiding hand of a higher power or the sheer banality of chance.”3
Needless to say, there was nothing random about the actions of the terrorists who plotted and perpetrated the attacks—they were acting entirely purposefully. What were random were the fates of individual victims.
In my psychiatric practice, which includes both general psychiatry and consultations to a regional cancer center, I have counseled many such people, whose experiences with illness or calamitous life events have left them struggling to come to terms with the randomness of life.
Our brains seek pattern and purpose
Our brains are pattern-seeking and agency-detecting. These traits evolved to detect cause and effect. They helped our distant ancestors interpret the actions of predators and prey, and cooperate as social animals. We expect specific causes and purposes for significant events. The problem is that we detect patterns and agency so instinctively that we do it excessively, thinking we see cause and purpose where there is just randomness.
It is very common for people to believe that “everything happens for a reason” and that things are “meant to be.” We are more likely to believe that significant events were “fated” than to attribute them to chance.
We are also naturally egotistical and self-referential: It’s all about me.
Interestingly, mental disorders often amplify or distort all these normal cognitive processes. Psychosis and mania magnify ad absurdum the general human tendency to over-identify patterns and to perceive deliberate intention in random events, especially in self-referential ways. In those states, people have difficulty dismissing unremarkable events as merely random or coincidental—everything seems loaded with paranoid or grandiose meaning and personal significance.
Confusing correlation with causation
Another thing our brains are terrible at is distinguishing causation from mere correlation. Correlation may reflect unrelated or independent causes or random factors. Just because event B followed action A does not necessarily mean that A was the cause of B. Therein lies the folly (or the success, for those profiting from it) of the multi-billion dollar alternative health industry. As well as a whole gamut of age-old superstitions and pseudoscience. Anecdotes are not data.4
Control and order
We also have a great need to feel in control and to maintain order in our environment. The human need for order and control are obvious factors contributing to our aversion to accepting life and the world as fundamentally random, and to our human propensity to believe that the universe is governed by a higher power with a higher purpose.
Our brains naturally want to see patterns and order, but the world often doesn’t work that way.
The desire for purpose and meaning, and the fear of nihilism
We need and seek purpose and meaning in our lives. For many people, the idea that randomness rules our lives is counter-intuitive, unappealing and frightening. Moreover, randomness feels purposeless, meaningless and amoral to many people—it feels nihilistic.
“We’re engaged in a cultural struggle with a secular elite that believes life is random and has no moral meaning.”
—Newt Gingrich, December 20115
Perplexed by spontaneous, unguided complexity
The idea that the universe and all the amazing complexity within it is fundamentally random also feels implausible to most people. To most people throughout history, it has seemed self-evident that our world is purposefully designed and controlled by some form of an intentional higher power. Many well-educated people have found it hard to keep up with science's difficult-to-grasp and rapidly expanding knowledge, and as a result, are still utterly perplexed as to how spontaneous, self-organizing processes could explain our highly complex world.
Even a small but significant minority of high-level scientists are still religious or spiritually inclined. Such scientists may point to what they consider enigmas that seem unexplainable by science, such as why the laws of physics appear fine-tuned for the purpose of enabling life to evolve (an enigma for which there are now several speculative but plausible natural explanations).
Science tells us that our world is fundamentally random
Despite our intuitions, science tells us that the universe is fundamentally random. This does not mean that there is no order to the universe. Rather, what science is telling us is that the whole universe and everything in it, including life on Earth in all its incredible complexity, is the product of an entirely spontaneous and unguided process. Random processes can actually give rise to non-random processes: natural selection, the process driving biological evolution, is actually a non-random process, though it is completely unguided. And certainly, once intentional living agents have evolved through such processes, especially conscious agents like us, then the intentional actions of those agents are not random.
Not only the universe, life, and consciousness but also purpose, meaning, and morality, could, in fact, have emerged and evolved spontaneously and unguided. There is persuasive evidence that these qualities evolved naturally and without mystery, biologically and culturally, in humans as conscious, goal-directed social animals.6
Inability to recognize and accept randomness harms us
In my clinical psychiatric practice, I regularly get to see the harm that people suffer due to their difficulty recognizing the outsized role that randomness plays in their lives. People blame themselves excessively for problems that are really the result of bad luck—bad genes, a bad past environment, or unlucky present circumstances. People also hold others responsible for things that really were beyond their control. And they experience anguish or feelings of abandonment when they feel that their God has inflicted cruel suffering and adversity upon them, leaving them bewildered as to what the intended purpose and meaning of it all could possibly be.
Life can feel especially senseless to someone whose belief in a purposeful, benevolent universe has been shattered by mercilessly unfair adversity. And those who, thanks to some arbitrary factor, have survived a terrible disaster or atrocity that so many others have not, may experience crushing survivor guilt.
Coming to terms with randomness can be liberating and empowering
Although coming to terms with randomness is initially frightening, it can ultimately be liberating and empowering. It can liberate us from our irrational fears and our unfounded self-blame. And shifting the emphasis to humans having to rely only on ourselves and each other empowers us and motivates us to live with a sense of interdependent purpose.
This secular humanist perspective thus emphasizes the precious precariousness of human life. It focuses us on the imperative of social responsibility and engagement, to keep advancing the collective human project of making our world safer and better for us all. Far from being nihilistic, the scientific worldview of a fundamentally random, unguided, spontaneous universe can be awe-inspiring, and foundational to building a more compassionate society.
1. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).
2. Madison Park, “Small choices, saved lives: Near misses of 9/11,” CNN, September 5, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/09/03/near.death.decisions/index.html.
3. Garrett M. Graff, “On 9/11, Luck Meant Everything,” The Atlantic, September 10, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/september-11-blind-luck-decided-who-lived-or-died/597688/.
[CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-6]
4. Steven Pinker, “One thing to change: Anecdotes aren’t data,” The Harvard Gazette, June 21, 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/06/focal-point-harvard-professor-steven-pinker-says-the-truth-lies-in-the-data/.
5. Konrad Yakabuski, “Gingrich Seeks Absolution in Iowa Caucuses,” Globe and Mail, December 16, 2011, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/gingrich-seeks-absolution-in-iowa-caucuses/article4248349/.
6. Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).