Free Will versus Randomness

Posted on October 16, 2018 by Robert Ringer


From the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricanes Michael and Florence, we are constantly reminded of just how much of life is random.  No matter how many natural disasters we study, we can never answer the question of why random events — both good and bad — occur.

Some people believe that such events stem from karma.  But even if that were true, no one has ever been able to explain why good things often happen to seemingly bad people and bad things often happen to seemingly good people.

I use the word seemingly because no one is really in a position to judge who is “bad” and who is “good.”  For that matter, no one has the moral authority to even define what constitutes bad and good.

In the same vein, many people believe that God dispenses rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, which is really just another version of karma.  The problem is that, from our secular perspective, it doesn’t seem as though God always rewards good people and punishes those who are bad.

Of course, it’s just intellectual conjecture anyway, because a human being has no way of knowing why God does what He does.  Further, we don’t know if there is an afterlife and, if so, if that’s when God metes out the really serious punishments and rewards.

At the other end of the randomness spectrum is atheism.  Atheists tend to believe that we live in a random universe, though they may also believe that humans have a great deal of control over their own destinies.  On closer inspection, however, we find that the term random in conjunction with atheism is really a misnomer.  It would be more appropriate to refer to it as “atheistic predestination.”

By atheistic predestination, I am referring to the belief that everything that has happened, and will happen, throughout history was precisely determined approximately 13.8 billion years ago by the nature of the so-called Big Bang.   In other words, at the first instant of that unfathomable cosmic blast, every atom was sent flying on an eternal voyage that was predetermined by the intricacies of the explosion itself.

If that be the case, and if there is no Supreme Being to intervene, then nothing can be changed by anybody or anything.  Every detail of every event has already been set on an unalterable course.  It is the ultimate fatalistic view of the universe, because no one is in control and human beings are at the mercy of the randomness that was set in motion eons ago by a cosmic explosion.

If those who embrace this theory are correct, then even when you think you’re making a conscious decision, it’s really an illusion.  For example, if you say, “But I can make a conscious decision right now to pick up this salt shaker,” not only is your free will to make such a decision an illusion, but so, too, is your belief that you think you are acting out of free will.  In other words, your decision to pick up the salt shaker at a particular moment in time was predetermined nearly 14 billion years ago.

In any event, atheistic predestination appears to us to be random, because we have no way of knowing, in advance, all of the predetermined results of the Big Bang.  Likewise, even if God is at the controls, the fact remains that His workings appear to be random to us, because we don’t know what He has in store for us at any given point in time.  Thus, it’s only the cause of random events that is in question.

What will always be unknown is how much of life is random.  Even if God is at the controls, we don’t know which things he chooses to intervene in and which things he chooses to let play out on their own.

For those of us who believe that man has a great deal of control over his destiny — and, as noted, there are atheists as well as religionists who do — it’s tough to get an intellectual grip on the phenomenon of randomness.  About the only thing we can say for certain is that randomness will always be with us.  So, the question becomes, how best to handle randomness?

My view is that, as with most things in life, simplicity is the best approach.  When positive random events occur, embrace them quickly and nurture them to the fullest extent possible.  Whether it’s winning the lottery or meeting your spouse through seemingly pure chance, be prepared and make a conscious effort to handle your good fortune with care.

On the other hand, when random negative events trip up your best-laid plans, keep your composure and calmly work through them.  As Voltaire expressed it, “Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them.  The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.”

In other words, think of randomness as just another facet of life, and don’t allow any random event to put your life on hold.  In practical terms, this means living in the moment (not for the moment) — or what is commonly referred to as “mindfulness.”

Above all, look at the positive side of randomness:  It’s the world’s greatest teacher of humility.  It takes a great deal of ignorance to display arrogance when it is blatantly obvious that so much of life is beyond our control.

By all means, do everything in your power to guide your destiny, but don’t be so naïve as to believe that you have total control over how things will turn out.  You don’t, but the good news is that you have free will and thus have control over how you will react to random events.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

42 responses to “Free Will versus Randomness”

  1. noah300g says:

    The rain falls upon the just and the unjust. We live in a fallen world since sin first entered into it. We have free will, to do good or evil, and we are exposed to both happening to us. Make the most of the good, and oppose the evil.

    • Robby Bonfire says:

      Interesting how people like you, who buy into the sin, guilt, shame, unworthyness and hellfire programming they were brainwashed to believe in childhood, love to put that trash on others who may be a lot more self-respecting and psychologically healthy, in the way they live their life.

    • Robby Bonfire says:

      Interesting how people like you, who are mired in the sin, guilt, shame, unworthyness, and torture of hellfire indoctrination of your childhood, so freely put your inferiority complex belief system upon the rest of us who choose to live from a healthy and wholesome psychological and spiritual frame of reference. This is exactly why our world today is so chaotic – militants and totalitarians by the millions run amok.

    • lee says:

      I am the lord and there is none else, there is no god beside me: i girded thee, though thou hast not known me: that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me.i am the lord and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: i make peace and create evil: i the lord do all this things. Isaiah 45: 5-7.

    • Robby Bonfire says:

      I thought Jesus Christ DIED for our sins?. That being the case, our sins are expunged, right? So why, other than from a masochistic complex, carry forward all the baggage Jesus made us free to let go of?

      Can you love yourself and others, a little bit, or would that be too pleasurable and indulgent?

  2. kauai_mike says:

    The biggest problem is those who behave as though they do have control over events and lives of others (regardless their reasoning) – and – those who accept they do. Life moves in herds with most just following along …

  3. sixxfingers says:

    Atheistic predetermination is a huge pant load. I firmly believe in the Afterlife because it is God's promise. Whether we spend eternity in Heaven or Hades is our choice.

    • lee says:

      For many are called, but few are chosen. Matthew 22: 14

    • lee says:

      For he saith to moses, i will have mercy on whom i will have mercy, and i Will have compassion on whom i will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.for the scripture saith unto pharaoh, even for this same purpose have i raised thee up, that i might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Romans 9: 15-18.

  4. J. Paul says:

    Whether you believe it or not, there is an "afterlife"! God's word, the Bible states it this way:
    Hebrews 9:27 King James Version (KJV)
    27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:
    If this is true, then there must be a divine plan. What may seem to us as random, has been known by God from the beginning. Isaiah 46:10 King James Version (KJV) states: (God says through Isaiah)
    10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:
    But, if you don't believe the Bible, then all of this is foolishness.

    • lee says:

      For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of god knoweth no man, but the spirit of we have received not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of god: that we might know the things that are freely given to us of god. Which things also we speak not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the holy ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of god: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. 1 Corinthians 2: 11-15 kjv.

  5. TheLookOut says:

    Thanks RJR for the bountiful food for thought.

  6. IHeartDagny says:

    Life is a test. That's it. The test is how well you are going to live and what your legacy is going to be. YOU determine if you are going to pass the test or not.

    If you determine you're going to be happy and productive, you WILL be happy and productive. If you determine you are going to go through life unhappy, unproductive, and blaming others, or "random events" (which happen to EVERYBODY, by the way) for this state, you are going to be a miserable SOB. AND, your miserableness will NOT endear you to anyone around you.

    It is no more difficult than that.

    The afterlife, if it exists, is predetermined. You can't do anything about it one way or the other. You cannot know for sure if there is one. So, it would be best to hedge your bets and be the best person you are able to be. And, PASS that TEST.

    • Richard Lee Van Der says:

      As usual, I like your comment(s). I started my "spiritual quest" by rejecting Methodist Christianity that I was first subjected to when young. Then I tried RCism. And then I majored in (Western Philosophy, B.A.). And then spent 15 years as an atheist by choice, and agnostic necessarily. And then I had a totally subjective "Personal Epiphany" that led me to "esoteric spirituality". NO DEF OF ALL THAT HERE. By now I have REDEFINED the God Concept, and find that people still struggle with their thinking BECAUSE they continue to assume the Christian God Concept. Move from that, and one has a chance to think about what IS, or better, what MIGHT BE. i choose to believe in "after" or continuation of Life after Death of rhe Physical Body based in part on Spiritual Mediums who enable those who've "died" to speak, even in the very voice they had when (physically) embodied. And much else. But, not everyone is mentally equipped to quest as I and some others have. BUT, any level of "spirituality", I believe, is better than nihilism. And/But, yes, what IS is! And, after death we will find out, or not. I will look forward to new IHeart commentaries. Thank you.

    • lee says:

      Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the father, but of the world.And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of god abideth for ever. 1 john: 15-17.

  7. Terry Dee says:

    It’s interesting why Robert has allowed himself to be misled by such a term as randomness, is he also expecting us to endorse Chaos Theory. Such meaningless terms are little more than sound bites that appear to be designed to stimulate endless inconclusive debate.
    Since there is no such “thing” as randomness, it is after all an abstract term for unexplained events, why does he debate the matter and try to define it in finite terms. Fundamentalist explanations aside, science endorses quantum theory where events, at the sub atomic level, are influenced and changed by the person viewing or even thinking about an event. Paradoxically, all speculation concerning randomness is pretty meaningless, as it becomes both a subjective and objective experience with infinite variations.
    There is only “now” no past or future. I know many would argue or dispute this statement, however, all of the great sages, spiritual teachers and many great scientists would endorse it. The now is a concept that is eternal and infinite, along with all other God like superlatives you may care to think of. The nearest explanation we mere mortals can come up with is cause and effect. We humans are not intellectually or spiritually advanced enough to unravel the nuances of our dualistic universe.
    I have come to learn that acceptance of “what is” along with the acceptance that all things ( events ) are designed for our evolutionary transcendence; whatever that entails. The alternative appears to be endless debate trying to justify time worn theories along with new age speculations. A bit like the proverbial snake trying to consume its own tail.

    • Richard Lee Van Der says:

      To live IN THE NOW, the only time there is, IS best, or, all that is possible. But, there IS the remembered past, and the hoped for future. One concept I like is that by OVERCOMING we GROW or EVOLVE the Self. Or, we BECOME. And by way of RIGHT CHOICES, we authenticate our Being, our Self. Personally, I find it productive "to quest", "to think", to attempt to think and reason the best we can for, to repeat, the evolution of our Self. RE "inconclusive". Or maybe "open-ended". Conclusions RE the Big Questions "may be" non-productive. Open-endedness may deepen our thinking in regard to any given subject, or, that is the intention or hope.

  8. Jerry says:

    We do have free will and thus the ability to control our reactions to events, yet it takes enormeous energy and concentration to remember that. Most of the times we just forget about it and as a results our reactions are not controlled, but instead are sheer reflexes and impulses. This goes for all of us. I even think that 99 percent of the people never control their reactions to events.

  9. Jay says:

    Robert, This article will fit nicely in your all time top ten!
    It is a bases loaded grand slam of a ball hit into the unpredictable universe.

  10. karllembke says:

    The notion that everything was predetermined from the instant everything was set moving in the Big Bang is basically Laplace's notion of a clockwork universe — if you knew the exact state of the universe at any instant, you could determine what the state was at any time in the past, or future.

    However, it turns out that, thanks to quantum mechnaics, it's no longer possible, even in principle, to tell the exact result of any interaction of two or more particles. This means that even if we're looking at a clockwork system, sooner or later prediction and reality will drift away from each other in an unpredictable way.

  11. martin karp says:

    As I understand it, according to Kabbalah, the reason why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people is past behavior playing forward. For instance, if you are rightious today and bad things are happening, perhaps you may have not been so rightious in the past. And vise versa, good behavior in the past rewards you today even though you are a scoundrel now. Therefore we should try to improve ourselves and stay the course.

  12. Gary says:

    Predestination is religion. " Atheist predestination" is an oxymoron. Good god, what are you smoking?

  13. Carl-Edward says:

    When I was an undergraduate, an acquaintance asked a friend and me: 'If you don't believe in god, what do you believe in?' I replied: 'Reason.' My (somewhat idealistic) friend replied: 'People.'

    There you are.

    All religion is superstition, and there is no point engaging in mental gymnastics to: 'prove' otherwise.

    • Rick G. says:

      Try pushing that pitch on the terrified people going down on the sinking Titanic. I'm sure that would have gone over like a lead balloon.

      Putting your faith in people? You're kidding me. People are the last thing you put your faith in. Duh-uhh! Just read the chapter on People Hurdle in RJR's Looking Out for Number One. And now on to bigger and better more worthwhile things to talk about in life.

      • Carl-Edward says:

        Death comes to us all, and superstition proved no use to your chums on the Titanic.

        I did not write that I believed in people. If you had read my comment with any degree of attention, you would have seen that it was my friend (and I described him as somewhat idealistic) who said that he believed in people. I replied to the question with one word: reason.

        I have read: Looking Out For Number One. Common sense – for those who do not possess it.

        Mr. Ringer was at one time a disciple of Ayn Rand's. I would recommend her to you.

    • Paul Herring says:

      Much religion is superstition, Carl. But not "all" of it is. Bible-based religion rewards its readers with a satisfying answer as to why things in our world are as they are. More importantly, it gives us hope of a truly worthwhile future, while even now delivering the most sound principles – a track to run on if you like – in life.

  14. Rip Read says:

    All of that RR! About a year ago I ordered a daily Google news alert, for "all" references to the term "it came out of nowhere". It has been mind blowing to see the use/overuse of the term throughout all levels of all societies, globally…relating to any and every type of "event". EVERYTHING is a "random event" that, seemingly, just "comes out of nowhere". Based on extensive review…it's really not true…turns out, most things actually come from "somewhere". The forest fire, hurricane, out of control car…all of it, pretty much came from somewhere!

    • martin karp says:

      Very true. That is the position Kabbalah takes. Why do "things" happen? Because we don't know people's past decisions and actions whether positive or negative.

  15. larajf says:

    I loved this. Yes, we can decide the direction and how we want to go, but I do believe there is a God that occasionally intercedes if we' go completely on the wrong path. There were times when I've been thwarted with my goals and get frustrated. Now that I'm older and more mature (also known as too tired….), I realize that sometimes things happen for a reason and that "no" is really "not now" or "not this option" and that something better is about to pop up. I've been stuck in some areas of my life for quite some time, and have been trying to do some introspection to figure out if I'm pushing too hard to go in one direction when my Path is really supposed to be something else. Interesting things have been happening since I've been letting go and starting to look around.

  16. Jay says:

    If I don't know myself, I don't know the World. If I don't know the World, the World becomes a place of Fear. If the World is a place of fear, my decisions will be based on fear. If my decisions are based on fear, then I will repeat destructive (bad) behavior. God is the concept (idea) used to banish Fear from my decisions, so that I may behave constructively (good), which leads to prosperity in the long-term.

    Hence, John 14:6 (NIV) Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me".
    The 'Father' is maturity (courage over fear) and the only way to maturity is by learning the truth about ourselves (confronting our fears by examining our part in our failed interactions with other people, businesses, ideas).
    Truth is an eternal value, having it gives eternal life – which is a life that is based on eternal values.

    As a child, I would ask old people what it was like living life and being old. One man said, "If you can put the blame on your own shoulders, you'll have half a chance in this life".

    Of course, I could be completely wrong…

  17. Nasdaq7 says:

    We live in 11 dimensions according to string theory. Watch this Youtube video if you have time, it tries to describe these concepts so that most people can understand it.

  18. Gare says:

    This might be off topic but. Is anyone else bothered by the level of noise created by "backup warning beepers" emitted by trucks and vans to "save lives" of unsuspecting bystanders? I'm be forced out of my house because of them. Oh umm Larry "the alligator guy" had it right when he stated "Time is like a circle" but I would add "with randomness sprinkled in".

  19. Paul Herring says:

    Interesting post – thanks for it, Robert. Yes, certainly agree with how you explain randomness in some situations. We can definitely be ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’. It’s the way life works and I’m quoting the Bible here: “time and unexpected events overtake them all.” (Eccl 9:11)
    You stated that such events result from karma. They often do. The saying which has been around forever is also based on a Biblical principle: ‘you reap what you sow’ – karma said another way. The point at which we diverge is where you stated that “no one has ever been able to explain why good things often happen to seemingly bad people and bad things often happen to seemingly good people.” In my limited way perhaps I can explain why this is so. We could be here for as long as it takes to read one of your books, Robert, but time and space won’t permit that, so, of necessity, this will be condensed.
    The Bible is clear on the point about why things now are as they are. It says at 1 John 5:19 that “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” Other passages tell us that this “wicked one” is none other than the Devil, Satan. So it’s no surprise that our world since its beginning in Eden has gone awry. God, whose name is Jehovah, has allowed Satan to ‘rule’ through humans but has always set a time for this to end. That time isn’t far away. Why so? Because we can see that time is running out for human society. Our system isn’t working and indeed never really has worked since God has been left out of the picture in human thinking. Jehovah has even provided a name for the time when he acts to overturn human rule promoted and abetted by the Devil. At Revelation 16:16 he calls it “Armageddon”.
    Finally, you state that no one is a position to judge who is bad and who is good. No human is. Surely, our Creator, God, has that right. And he set the standard and exemplified it when he sent Jesus to earth to show men how they should conduct themselves.
    So yes, sadly, some people do bad things and seemingly prosper while others do good things and aren’t always rewarded for it. But isn’t this what we’d expect from a system orchestrated by Satan? Thanks again for this post. To many it’s intriguing and puzzling. However, for sincere Bible students there is a completely satisfying answer and it delivers both a worthwhile track to run on now and a certain hope for the future.

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  22. KPROXY says:

    So yes, sadly, some people do bad things and seemingly prosper while others do good things and aren’t always rewarded for it. But isn’t this what we’d expect from a system orchestrated by Satan? Thanks again for this post. To many it’s intriguing and puzzling. However, for sincere Bible students there is a completely satisfying answer and it delivers both a worthwhile track to run on now and a certain hope for the future.

  23. WINDOWS MAC says:

    lways rewarded for it. But isn’t this what we’d expect from a system orchestrated by Satan? Thanks again for this post. To many it’s intriguing and puzzling. However, for sincere Bib

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  25. Zach from Mich says:

    Just found this article today, very well said! As far as religion is concerned no one can "prove" or "disprove" anything, and while I believe that the Bible has much wisdom to offer just quoting from it does not provide evidence of it's claims.
    As for free will I hope that we humans with our rational powers, communication skills, technology, self-awareness and so on have reached a level of autonomy that isn't possible to particles and waves at a physical, big bang level. Also I think Jerry a few weeks ago was right, it really does take effort.

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