Making Sense of a Random Universe

(Image by Josef Juchem from Pixabay)

“Random,” we say, one eyebrow raised, claiming the slang for anything odd, stray, out of sync. But when big things—like the universe—are defined that way, I feel a sort of vertigo. A literal Adam, Eve, and serpent might stretch credulity, but that deep, resonant off-stage voice giving them instructions? That means we are meant to be here. Somebody intended us, with an attitude that was conscious, deliberate, committed, creative (just what we mean when we tell one another to “be more intentional” about our lives). Subtract that voice, acknowledge that we could just as easily not be here, and cooler life forms could exist somewhere else, or not at all, and I will nod coolly, but my stomach will do flip-flops.

Take the asteroid—the one that landed with a thud sixty-six million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. Had that not happened, we would not be here. We arrived at random.

What does that even mean, though? I google “What causes randomness?” and receive this oracular answer: “Randomness is one of the properties of uncertainty. Uncertainty is intrinsic to our universe.”

In other words, we will be tossed on the waves no matter what, a fact I cannot seem to hold onto. I have that same unmoored feeling when I read COVID-19 obituaries. It is ghoulish, but I need to know: How old was this brilliant, funny, warm human being I so would have liked to meet? If the answer is ninety-six, I relax. But for lives lost young or midway through, I get that stricken feeling of coming upon a car crash and seeing a stretcher.

This is not simple, selfless mourning. No, the ghoulish part comes next: I do a reflexive scan, hunting for vulnerabilities. Maybe a spouse sobs about a history of heart disease, or donations are to go to the American Diabetes Association. Something, anything, to reassure me that the death was not as random as it seemed. Cause-and-effect are easier to cope with. They tell us the world is at least a tiny bit predictable, and they cut away shock’s roughest edges.

I have tried to rationalize other tragedies, too. Once I even decided that brain tumors strike the kindest, most sensitive, most loving people, because everyone I know who has gotten a brain tumor has fit those criteria. That, itself, is no doubt a random coincidence. Yet there is consolation in it.

Coincidence can be interpreted, even spun. Back in 1777, Horace Walpole announced that “what is called chance is the instrument of Providence.” Théophile Gautier called chance God’s pseudonym, and Doris Lessing supposedly said that “coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous”—though the quote is often hopefully (or impishly) misattributed to Albert Einstein. The legendary editor Sol Stein put it this way: “If you think something is a coincidence, you don’t know how God works. Pay attention. He doesn’t have time to give you private lessons.”

I am grinning as I type that—and wishing I believed him. But sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Synchronicity tempts us onto a weak branch, and we stretch as far as we can, hoping to pluck the golden apple that promises us that life’s odd little overlaps and tricks of timing mean something. I used to love the shiver of déjà vu, taking it to mean I was on the right track. I have friends who, faced with a big decision, will look for a sign, a portent as sure as Caesar’s wife’s dreams.

We all hunger, one way or another, for pattern, import, reassurance. Yet “random things occur to us all the time,” says Dr. Mark Rank, Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University.

“Half the time, we’re not really aware of it, or we don’t realize the importance at the moment. It’s only in hindsight that we say, ‘If that hadn’t happened…’”

If I hadn’t developed a crush on a Jungian poet who was utterly uninterested in me, I would never have been fed up enough to agree to a double blind date just to fix up another couple … and met my future husband.

When Rank conducted long interviews for his book Chasing the American Dream, he realized what a huge role randomness plays in where we end up. “A chance meeting, a missed appointment, a forgotten telephone call”—again and again, people told him about the flukes that had made all the difference in their lives’ unfolding.

Now Rank is working on another book, The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives. He wants to explore “the twists and turns history takes. There are powerful currents that push us forward—race, gender, class, these all have predictive power in terms of outcomes. But within those currents, there are ripples that are random.”

Those ripples can be tough to spot, though. For social scientists, “there’s hardly anything written on this,” Rank says, “because you can’t model it.” For the rest of us, our lives are framed so tightly by routine, we forget how much randomness plays within those boundaries.

Also, we don’t want to see. “In this country, we’ve been steeped in rugged individualism, where we are in control,” Rank says. “Chance runs counter to that.”

“It leaves us helpless,” I say slowly.

“You do have some agency,” Rank corrects me, “in how you react.” He waits a beat. “What if Hitler had been accepted to art school?”

Another wave of vertigo.

“What’s happened over the last fifty years in this country,” Rank remarks, “is that people are more and more at risk of economic problems.” His timing is exquisite: I have been refusing to look at our retirement savings for a month now. “A lot of that risk at one point was absorbed by employers or the government,” he continues, “and it’s now being put on the backs of individuals.”

Pensions, for example, are now 401(k)s, so they are tied to a wildly volatile, erratic stock market—plus, they are up to us to fund. And the interest rates that used to allow people a nice, small, guaranteed return on a savings account or a CD are now fractions of a percent.

“It used to be, if you worked at GM, you were set,” Rank says. “Now we are facing all this economic risk, and our safety programs have been shredded, and we are beginning to realize just how much randomness and chance are at work.”

It no longer even makes sense to talk of people who have good or bad luck with investments. Talk of luck contradicts real randomness, because if someone has good or bad luck, there is a pattern to be traced, a way to predict.

And so we float, unable to lay tragedy’s blame on anyone, even a creator. Some have interpreted the COVID-19 pandemic as the act of an angry God; others have flashed back with their own anger, pointing out that they did nothing to deserve this. More than 120,000 deaths is a lot of collateral damage to make a point.

Are we so determined to rationalize our lives that we continue to be thrown by random events, even though randomness is written into the code of the universe? Or is randomness just a series of freaky exceptions that pop up to throw us off kilter? The author Kristopher Jansma wrote a New York Times op-ed about the twists of fate that have shaped his life, saying it was fascinating to see “how we adjust our own narratives to absorb this randomness.”

We infuse deliberate intention where there is none. We relax into a “fate” that could easily have been otherwise. Yet the sanest response might be that slangy acceptance, with a slow shake of the head: “Random.”