Can People Behave Randomly? Are Humans Deterministic? Do Free Will and Fate Exist?
Human behavior can be random to some extent, but most behavior is based on prior input, and thus is “deterministic” (meaning not totally random). This means most human behavior is theoretically predictable, but not with 100% accuracy, and certainly not in practice. Whether or not we can say “people can behave randomly”, has a lot to do with what we mean by random.
What Do We Mean By Random? (Introduction)
Before we go into detail on terms like randomness, determinism, fate, and free will, lets quickly define three ways to look at randomness and human behavior (all of which are explained in depth below):
- Using a strict definition of “random”, almost nothing humans do is truly random (it is all based on prior input and therefore theoretically predictable). Our “soft-and-hardwiring” (instinctual and learned behavior) determines how we will react to a given situation, and this makes human behavior theoretically deterministic.
- Taking a less strict definition of “random”, a number of studies have shown some degree of indeterminism in human behavior (behavior cannot be predicted exactly, and thus humans have some degree of free-will).
- If we see our own behavior as “quantum-like” (probabilistic), then we can by analogy say “nothing is fully determined until it occurs” (like the dual slit experiment), and instead things exists within a state possibilities. This is how quantum physics and quantum computers work, and we are most certainly made from quantum particles. This concepts supports the idea that reality is a mix of determinism and indeterminism. See the observer effect for more on the quantum nature of determinism and see quantum computers and determinism for that discussion.
Semantics aside, many philosophers and scientists argue that free-will exists and fate isn’t written in stone. Most conclude that there has to be some room for “randomness” and some element of non-determinism, especially when we consider less strict definitions of random. We explore all the related lines of thinking below but first lets clarify some terms.
Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24. The conversation surrounding determinism and the conversation surrounding free-will is closely related. In simple non-technical terms they both ask the same simple to state question “can humans be random?”
TIP: If it wasn’t clear already, the concepts on this page are a mix between metaphysics, mathematics, and physics. See a definition of metaphysics for a clarification. By definition metaphysics implies we are philosophizing about that which we don’t know for sure. Thus, aspects of this page are philosophical and not purely scientific (specifically any conclusion about absolute determinism or indeterminism; especially those made by the videos we have curated).
What is Random? What is Determinism?
Now that we have an introduction dealt with, lets take a close look at what random and determinism mean:
- Random means unpredictable, or not determinable (non-deterministic).
- Non-random means predictable, or determinable (deterministic).
Are Humans Deterministic?
- Humans are mostly deterministic, meaning most of what we do is based on our programing (hardwired and softwired bias). Our expected behaviors can be backwards engineered to a large degree when enough factors are known.
- Computers are completely deterministic machines, everything they do is based on an ordered set of rules. If you know the algorithm, you can predict the result with efficiency.
Computers generate pseudo random numbers (fake random numbers). They are random for most purposes, but because an algorithm is used, they are pseudo random and deterministic. In this same way, one can make the argument that human behavior can’t be “truly random,” as there is always determinable programing. With that in mind, the concept of free-will goes beyond this technicality.
Uncertainty and Determinism
Humans aren’t deterministic in the same way a computer is, we use what can be very loosely called “quantum processing,” which can loosely be described as processing that relies on “uncertainty” but in reality is a complex electro-chemical process we don’t fully understand. Or at least, those who support the idea that there is free-will make similar versions of this over-simplified argument.
In essence, a human doesn’t have to take the next logical step in a process like a computer, it’s not that this sort of thing is completely non-deterministic, but it does hint that we have free will, and to some extent can be random.
What is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? – Chad Orzel.
The Neuroscience of Free-Will: Neuroplasticity and Determinism
When discussing the science of free-will and randomness we have to consider what neuroscience has to say. Some studies suggest “free will is an illusion” (a trick of the mind), but others point to our neurology as proof that free-will is real. The question is obviously still up for debate, but those details aside, there is an aspect of the neuroscience-backed free-will discussion that isn’t up for debate, and that is neuroplasticity.
Humans can affect their “programming” through neuroplasticity, meaning that our thoughts and experiences shape the way we think, and thus will shape our subconscious reactions to things. A lot of our hardwiring and soft-wiring is based on efficiency and memory, and that wiring is what “determines” how we react to situations. This means we are less deterministic over longer time spans, and with more factors considered.
Hard Determinism, Non-determinism, Libertarianism, and Compatibilism
The free-will and fate of humans can be thought of like a mix of determinism and non-determinism, and of free-will and fate. We don’t know exactly how it works, but it would likely lay somewhere in the center of the four extremes shown in the model below. These are hard determinism (nothing is random), hard indeterminism (everything is random), libertarianism (everything is random, and we have control), and compatibilism (nothing is random, and we have control).
This gives us a frame with which to discuss randomness, but it doesn’t address the next main question, “can humans be random?”
Above is a chart comparing determinism and free will. Source: Wikipedia.org
7.1 Free Will, Determinism and Choice – University of Oxford.
TIP: Libertarianism means roughly the same thing here as it does in politics, but the term isn’t directly related.
Can Humans Be Random?
Given the above, we can say humans can’t be “totally random,” but we can be partially non-deterministic and we can make a good argument that there is free-will.
Given the right tools and “starting values” we can, over an unlimited number of guesses, predict human behavior fairly accurately, but not all the time (and this is the key). It works like this:
Everything a human does can theoretically be predicted by knowing some set of starting values. For instance, if you went to toss a coin we could predict what side the coin would land on given the laws of average if we could measure every movement your hand would make. If we knew everything that happened to you up to this point, we could theoretically predict that you were going to choose the veggie burger and not the hamburger. It wasn’t random at all; it was all determinable with a high degree of accuracy due to an existing set of values instilled in you.
Despite this, we can’t predict it 100% of the time. This is because despite humans being largely deterministic, there is still a matter of free-will and uncertainty.
What is Random? – Vsauce.
TIP: Computers can’t produce random numbers, but natural phenomena can. This helps explain why the old electro-chemical computer is so special. When computers and natural phenomena work together, we get the best of both worlds. The real magic of humans is our ability to create tools and use technologies (including language) to overcome our limits.
FACT: In statistics, the rule of large numbers says that the more times an experiment is done (like a coin flip), the more the theoretical results will come to fruition. This is the principle casinos and slot machines operate on. Humans show their determinism in the fact that they are predictable. We may have free-will, but more often the brain resorts to useful patterns and those are much more predictable than even the pseudo random numbers machines can create.
Do Humans Have Free-Will?
We all value liberty, but to some extent, our choices are made for us based on our past circumstances (many of which involved our choices). Still, we can bend, mold, and change directions and guide our fate. Will you eat that next chip? Probably, but do you have to? No! We are not computers that will always follow an ordered process… but we are limited to the options in front of us (just like a quantum wave is limited to a range of possibilities). You don’t have to eat the next chip, but you can’t transition from eating chips to flying over the alps on a magic dragon in the next frame, that is beyond what you can will.
Free Will and Determinism.
TIP: Humans have complex electro-chemical computer “wetware”, traditional electronic computers have a binary software and hardwire structure that is much more quantifiable and predictable. Its hard to see humans as absolutely predictable, but a range of possibilities is theoretically predictable (just like the locations of a photon in the electromagnetic field).
Is Fate Real?
Whether or not fate is real is largely a matter of semantics.
Our soft-wiring and hardwiring, or bias, our life situation, our chemistry, and our spacetime coordinates are very influential over the direction our lives will take, but like we have noted, they aren’t the final word.
Although our experiences shape what will happen next, and probability kicks in to make this theoretically predictable, we ultimately can use our free-will to curb our fate in the way we see fit (and is within our power). The more factors and larger time span we factor in, the more humans theoretically get to control their fate.
What is Magic?
In my opinion, magic is what happens when we use our free-will to shape the world around us (or the reality inside ourselves). The universe is built on the principles of both uncertainty and determinism, the idea that we have even a little amount of control is pretty mind-blowing.
Ultimately these questions, while we can address them with modern science and logic, are philosophical. With that in mind, I invite you to check our page on the branches of philosophy or watch the excellent video below.
FACT: Humans are mostly deterministic, but have free will. This is backed-up by science, but pondering the unknown is a type of philosophy called metaphysics. The video below walks the line between physics and metaphysics and looks at awesome Michio Kaku theories on consciousness.
What is Consciousness ? – Three Stages of Consciousness | Michio Kaku.
Can Anything Ever Be Truly Random?
There is a school of thought that says, even considering the above, nothing is truly random, and even that which seems like free-will isn’t. That even the smallest sub-atomic phenomena is predictable given the right information, and that includes human behavior.
That being said, a less philosophical school says that very small sub-atomic phenomena like radioactive decay, atomic noise, and certain quantum behavior are for all purposes random. The problem is that we can’t measure or sample this randomness very well because our measurement tools, and other technology, arguably gets in the way of accurately measuring things like quantum behavior and the inner-workings of the human brain. Even just measuring some quantum phenomenon can affect its expected outcome.
Ultimately we have to believe that the underlying principle of uncertainty that governs the quantum world (and so much else) governs us too. This means, although humans can’t be “totally random,” we can fairly confidently say we have free-will, and by extension, given a loose definition of the word, humans can be random.