Whether or not the universe is ‘random’ is a debate that is as controversial in philosophy as it is science. Much of the debate stems from the term ‘random’ itself. From a scientific perspective, random can take on two meanings. In one interpretation, random means that certain events do not have a cause for their existence. In the other interpretation, random means that certain systems are chaotic rather than orderly. In consideration of these interpretations, the following illustrates that— from a scientific perspective—the universe is indeed random.
To begin with the latter meaning of random, according to wave-mechanics, the state that a particle occupies is uncertain. Particles inhabit a state that is described by a mathematical function called the wave-function. The wave-function describes the different possibilities that a particle can occupy. When the momentum of a particle is measured, uncertainty is transferred into its position. By the same token, when the position of a particle is measured, uncertainty is transferred into its momentum. The clash between momentum and position gives rise to the famous mathematical equation ‘Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.’
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle illustrates that the behavior of particles is uncertain. But what about the universe in its entirety? In particular, is the universe itself random? Given that the universe consists of quantum mechanical objects, the universe can be regarded as a quantum mechanical system. This being the case, the same wave-function used to describe the randomness of particles can be applied to the entire universe. Provided the universe is not greater than the sum of its parts, the cosmos can be regarded as random.
In another interpretation, randomness means that certain events do not have a cause for their existence. So does everything that begins to exist have a cause? Again, the quirkiness of quantum mechanics provides answers. Specifically, in quantum mechanics, pairs of positive and negative particles seemingly pop in and out of existence for no reason whatsoever. These sporadic events are known as ‘quantum fluctuations’.
Some have argued that these particles do have a cause for their existence because they occur in a false vacuum dictated by the principles of quantum mechanics. The problem is that this reasoning conflates causes with necessary conditions. For example, a convenient store is a necessary condition to allow person A to buy gas. But it would be a fallacy to argue that because the convenient store is necessary to purchase gas, then the convenient store causes person A to buy gas. The same could be said for the principles that dictate the false vacuum. Most interpretations of quantum mechanics are indeed causeless. Some people have suggested that the birth of the universe was a quantum fluctuation. If this is the case, then the universe as a whole can be regarded as a causeless event.
As has been illustrated, we have sufficient scientific evidence—as embodied in the quirky nature of quantum mechanics—that the universe is random. First, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principles illustrates that the entire state of a particle cannot be known. Second, quantum fluctuations illustrate events in the universe are ‘uncaused.’ Thus, the universe can be regarded, as economists love to say, ‘the ultimate free lunch.’