Meaning and randomness
“If the various formations had had some meaning, if, for example, there had been concealed signs and messages for us which it was important we decode correctly, unceasing attention to what was happening would have been inescapable and understandable. But this was not the case of course, the various cloud shapes and hues meant nothing, what they looked like at any given juncture was based on chance, so if there was anything the clouds suggested it was meaninglessness in its purest form.”
— My Struggle Volume One, Karl Ove Knausgaard, p. 388.
“Moreover a swollen sea often gives warning of winds to come, when suddenly and from its depths it begins to swell, and rocks, white and foamy with snowy brine, strive to reply to Neptune with gloom-inducing voices or when a shrill whistle arising from a lofty mountain peak grows stronger, repulsed by the barrier of crags.”
— Cicero, On Divination, Book One.
In modern times, chance or randomness is invoked for two purposes: one, to permit calculation of uncertainty, or, two, to evoke meaninglessness. These two purposes have nothing essentially to do with one another. Statistical reasoning does not depend on the meaning of chance events, only their long-run regularity or etiological independence from other events. And meaninglessness has never required a mathematical basis. But the two purposes share a common root, and perhaps are mutually supportive, via the statistical analogy, that places aleatoric gambling devices at the center of all inductive reasoning.
What, in the precise shape of a cloud or shape of an ocean’s wave, is random? Despite the usefulness of studying them with aleatoric models , the analogy between clouds or waves and aleatoric devices is tenuous. Perhaps one can imagine that a particular cloud is a single sample taken out of the long run from a chaotic and ergodic system, or imagine a population of clouds on days and locations considered “equivalent” by definition. But doing so functions less to tell us much about what we see, than to form a post hoc justification of statistical methods that are our only formal recourse in the absence of deterministic mechanisms or deductive reasoning.
And, because of the inherent vacuousness of dice rolls and coin flips, the statistical analogy comes at a cost. When the inexplicable is taken by default to be random, and randomness is understood by analogy with aleatoric devices, meaninglessness can steal into otherwise marvelous phenomena where it has no inherent place. When we look at the precise shape and details of a particular cloud or a wave, we see the inexplicable, but we should be free to choose the form taken by this inexplicability. Aleatoric devices need not be our only metaphor for the unknowable. Neither should it be necessary to imagine a divine power sending potentially legible messages. Instead, perhaps we can keep divination and statistics in their cages, and strive to see the infinite variety of the world as simultaneously inscrutable and full of meaning. To help with this, we might need new metaphors.
 Berlinghieri, Renato, Brian L. Trippe, David R. Burt, Ryan Giordano, Kaushik Srinivasan, Tamay Özgökmen, Junfei Xia, and Tamara Broderick. “Gaussian processes at the Helm (holtz): A more fluid model for ocean currents.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2302.10364 (2023).