Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Dice don't play God

For centuries humans have been interpreting random events as the direction of some spiritual being.  From consulting the oracle, the I Ching, astrology, Cleromancy we've used randomisation machines like astralagi, dice and cards to give ourselves advice or sanction certain types of behaviour.  On the surface, this is such a strange thing to do.  Why did we do it?  What did we do before then?  What do we currently do?

I can understand the role randomisation machines performed in games of chance and gambling.  They represented an ideal of fairness (I say an ideal because I'm aware that randomisation machines could be loaded and indeed were.)  That is to say, they were made machines which weren't sensitive to the desires or deceits of any player.  Their behaviour could be relied on.  They provided as objective reference point around which players could gamble.  Perhaps this aspect of their behaviour - being beyond human control - was what  allowed people to make the leap to attributing the generating impulse to some higher spiritual being.  The randomisation machine is an trans-human referee.  I'm also reminded of Comte's description of early attempts by humans to understand their world beginning with the theological, passing through the metaphysical, then ending up at the positive.

Well, certainly all of the practices of middle-Eastern and European cultures since the invention of agriculture are still going on in one form or another today in some cultures, often in a dramatically diluted form.  Think of Nancy and Ronnie Reagan and Carroll Righer the astrologer.  Or indeed the daily astrology pages of many national newspapers.  In astrology the movement of planets also serve this trans-human purpose, though the machine in question certainly wasn't random.  Perhaps early humans' use of the planetary movements isn't too unlike our own use of pseudo-random number generators - essentially deterministic machines which exhibit behaviours which certainly seem random enough to people.  You can have a pseudo-random number generator with a short repeat cycle (Linear congruential) or one with a larger repeat cycle - the Mersenne Twister was only invented as recently as 1997.  Strange to think that the inventors of the twister and the developers of astrology could very well have been aiming at a similar kind of  reference machine.

The impulse to allow randomisation machines to control our destiny is clearly still strong, and has survived the religious interpretation, evidenced by the cult classic, 'The Dice Man'.