What is the Ontological Status of Randomness?

A question sent to us:

What is the ontological status of randomness? It seems to me that if God is omniscient, then randomness in the sense of unknowable/uncaused is ruled out. A non-teleological view of nature as espoused/practiced in methodological naturalism assumes randomness is real.I would appreciate your thoughts.

1 Like

Except on some scientific details, I largely agree with WLC on this. See what he writes here:

I also explain more of the technical details here: Perry Marshall: What is Random?.

The ontological status of randomness is unknown.

1 Like

That’s right. It seems to be one of those fundamental questions that lies solidly outside science’s ability to adjudicate.

I don’t know if that’s true. It would probably be more correct to say that even if science was able to answer the question “why this way instead of another?”, whatever answer you get just opens up for another one. There might be an infinite regress of questions that science can actually answer, it’s just going to keep scientists employed for an eternity.

I’m open to changing the precise wording and already had before you posted. I can’t imagine how science could ever give us an ultimate answer here.

I don’t even know what an ultimate answer is. I doubt there can even be such a thing. Could you imagine an answer, even in principle, where I could not just ask “why that way instead of another?”.

Yes I can imagine an answer.

There is no ontological randomness because of hyperdetermination.

That is an example of an answer. How one would demonstrate this with science? I have no idea and would be shocked if it wasn’t fundamentally imposible for science to rule this out.

1 Like

You’re not being all that clear here. You state that you can’t imagine how science could ever give us an “ultimate answer”.

I respond that I don’t know what an “ultimate” answer is, but I doubt that there could be such a thing even in principle (by which I mean scientific or otherwise). The problem is that you can always just ask about the answer, why is it that way?

I’m assuming here that you meant an “ultimate” answer is one that somehow prevents or answers any further inquiry. Did I misundertand what you meant by “ultimate”?

There is no ontological because of hyper determination.

I don’t understand what that means “there is no ontological because of hyperdetermination”. Did you mean to say there is no “true” randomness because the world is hyperdeterministic, or something like that?

An “ultimate” answer? I’m still not clear on what you meant by that.

Yes. I missed the word random there.

Okay, so now your question is how science could rule out that there is no ontological randomness because the world is hyperdeterministic? Isn’t that “merely” a problem of discovering and understanding the nature of what causes and controls apparently unpredictable events? I don’t see how that couldn’t be discovered at least in principle.

From the question:

I don’t think this is true. Methodological naturalism would say that something looks like it is random, but refrains from making any truth claims about the ultimate randomness of a system.

It is also very difficult to define the problem. We often talk about the roll of the dice being random, but with enough knowledge of starting conditions and physical models you could predict the outcome of a roll as it leaves the roller’s hand. At the same time, we can’t predict the outcome of single quantum events although we do have some understanding of the conditions that cause them. For example, we can’t predict where a single photon will land in the double slit experiment, but we do understand why those paths are taken. For these reasons, how do we incorporate terms like unknowable and uncaused into a conversation of randomness?

1 Like

Though I suppose you meant, if we keep discovering apparent randomness, how could we ever scientifically rule out that it isn’t merely appearing random, but has some deeper deterministic structure? I agree with you there, we could never rule that out.

But I should add I dislike the phrase “outside of science”, because it can be taken to imply there is some other area of investigation that it’s “inside”, where the deeper causes could be “discovered”. As if, if we can’t empirically rule out a deeper explanation for apparent randomness, we could just believe there is or isn’t one on faith, or scriptural revelation? There’s just no good reason to think there is any such other area of investigation. Something being “outside” of what science can investigate isn’t an excuse to start thinking you can just make up answers that sound good to you.


I think I would add that we should careful consider exactly what we mean by Randomness. Water molecules move about randomly, but we are not surprised to see water flowing downhill in a predictable way. Randomness should not be equated to “chaos”; some random events are more likely than others; certain random events are inevitable.

I found this recent article titled “The Ontology of Randomness”, but it is perhaps more technical and less philosophical than the OP question.

Horne, J. (2019). The Ontology of Randomness. In Advanced Methodologies and Technologies in Network Architecture, Mobile Computing, and Data Analytics (pp. 427-439). IGI Global.

This topic was automatically closed 7 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.