The Nature of the Universe - Not Random, But Undirected?

  • Today I saw the phrase "not random, but undirected" and think it is probably a good high-level summary of the Epicurean position in physics, given that the properties of the elemental particles give rise to their motions, while at the same time the concept of "the swerve" is also operational, but that none of this is "random" in the sense of "chaotic" or "subject to fortune." The key is in the definitions of these words, but the issue is that Epicurus was concerned to explain the observed regularity of the universe while still preserving a mechanism for free will, and it helps to have ways to capture this attack on both religion and radical skepticism in a single phrase.

    This subforum and thread are set up to discuss that. I have googled for the phrase without finding this precise formulation very often (if at all) but here is a clip from an article that is very close - discussing animal behavior. The book is "Animal Behavior" by Michael D. Breed and Janice Moore; this context of animals is no doubt not a perfect analogy, but there are other examples relating to "undirected graphs" and other aspects of mathematics which are probably better, but I don't have those at hand.

    I also think this is probably closely related to the matters discussed in "Chance and Natural Law in Epicureanism" by AA Long.

    For the time being, this is more a placeholder than an assertion of a conclusion...

  • I agree that the "key is in the definitions of these words".

    Quantum uncertainty / the swerve is random in the sense of how "random" is used across specialized disciplines in science and technology.

    I avoid "chaotic" because its usage is more controversial but those who use it do so casually as synonym for "random" or in non-linear physics as synonym for "undirected" as visualized in the excerpt.

    For me, "not random, but undirected" is not a good high-level summary of the Epicurean position in physics.

  • What would you suggest in its place Martin? Especially keeping in mind that the context is not really specialized physics but general understandability for a layman.

  • Here is a definition of "random" from As you indicate, Martin, the three standard definitions, especially the first one, is probably in whole or part acceptable (but .."pattern?")

    . It is the "slang" definitions that are the problem for ordinary people, I think, and in developing this discussion I am thinking that this "slang" meaning is increasingly overtaking the standard definitions in normal discussion. And in these senses, the slang version of "random" contains ( I think ) much the same objectionable content as you and I (and apparently Epicurus too) agree is indicated by "chaotic."

  • I see no point in a generalization like that. We need to go into specifics when applying these adjectives.

    E.g., in the described behaviour of animals, "undirected" is distinct from "random".

    In popular publications on non-linear physics for laymen, too, "chaotic" has the meaning of "undirected" as above.

    When our pleasure depends on a whimsical king, "subject to fortune" sounds adequate.

  • I see no point in a generalization like that.

    That's largely the point of this thread, to discuss things like that. My concern is that - at least in specific cultural contexts - the argument for supernatural religion is buttressed by covering words such as "random" with unacceptable connotations of "chance" that also seem improbable (and rightly so, because what we see is produced by the nature of the elements, not by supernatural outside forces which arbitrarily and capriciously inject new elements that are totally unpredictable). Regular / Normal non-physicist people need a frame of reference that rejects supernatural intervention without indicating that version of "chance."

  • Except for "suspiciously out of place", the slang usage listed above is close enough to "random" in science and technology to not cause contradictions or misundestandings when applying Epicurus' / Popper's view on how communication works.

  • Actually words like "arbitrary" or "capricious" might be better than "random." Not arbitrary, but undirected.

    All this is a very good start to this thread.

  • In this case, the frame of reference should be the usage in statistics. Basic statistics is part of the school curriculum in math and should thereby be a part of common understanding. It is not required that everybody still knows how to do the calculations after graduation but the understanding should remain.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “The Nature of the Universe As Not Random, But Undirected” to “The Nature of the Universe - Not Random, But Undirected?”.