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.