Saturday, January 21, 2006

Adjectives, Subjects & Objects

The word random has been with us a long time. According to OED etymology, it was originally a term used by soldiers to mean forcefully as opposed to carefully. If a thing was thrown forcefully, the result was unpredictable.

People today often describe a thing as random, almost as if randomness is a property of the thing. When you think about it, the meaning of random hinges on deeper philosophical puzzles, questions of physical determinism and such.

In a purely deterministic universe, everything down to tiniest particle would follow a determined course. In such a universe, the word random would express properties of observers and their abilities to make accurate predictions more than it would express an inherent property of things observed.

Another universe might be quintessentially random to its core (although I'm not sure what that exactly that would mean), and in it, the word random could truly be a property of the observed rather than the observer.

Other words getting stuck in my craw lately for similar reasons are complex and complexity. These words are being bandied about a lot as if they're universals, as if there's some absolute standard of complexity stuffed away in the basement of a French university.

Granted, it's a useful term in the relative sense, but seeing the universe as complex and making Paleyesque inferences based on such observations seems to lead to a whole lot of post hoc reasoning.

If an earthworm could think at all, I imagine it would find a bottle opener complex. Or, perhaps somewhere in the universe there's greater intelligence that finds human complexities simplistic. When we refer to a thing as complex, we may be saying more about ourselves than are about the object of wonder.


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