Random events, a pigeon and superstition

I talk a lot about randomness. The first post on my blog was about randomness. I am intrigued by the randomness. Why? Because I refuse to believe in god! If god cannot give me the answers, then perhaps it is the randomness of events that might give me the solace, or so I think!

Is tossing a coin a random event? We think it is. It is for this randomness that we toss a coin to decide things like the first to play in a game. But is it truly random?

Tossing a coin is a mechanical process. It is a physics and hence can always be modeled mathematically. The output as a head or tail can be determined to accuracy if one knows the initial position of the coin, the velocity of the throw, the direction of the throw, the wind direction, exact gravitational acceleration, mass of the coin, centre of gravity of the coin, angular momentum etc. Yes, one can always predict the outcome of the tossing of a coin, if one knows the details of these parameters and many others which are not known to me but are crucial to the outcome.

But why do we consider even a simple tossing of a coin as a random event even when we can formulate a mathematical model to know the output? It is because there are so many factors that affect its outcome, that considering all the factors in each and every toss of a coin is a near impossibility! And we assume that it is a random event, we assume that randomness has played its trick to the outcome of the coin!!

What about events that happen to a person in the real world? Well, there are infinite such factors governing the outcome of human beings as compared to the countable factors for a lifeless coin. The one major problem that we face is our consciousness!  We have a consciousness much broader than any other animal.

Scientists love to observe a simplified model of a complex system.  Hence, to observe the effect of a medicine they use lab rats!

Psychologist B.F.Skinner was no different at that aspect.  He chose a pigeon for an experiment.  He knew that there are lots of factors that affect the behavior and hence the outcome of an animal. To eliminate such factors, he placed the pigeon in a box. The box was attached to a mechanism which delivers the food at a regular interval.  The regular interval of food was the only factor directed at the pigeon.

The behavior of the pigeon to just one factor was amazing!  The pigeon started associating the outcome of food with the action they had been performing at that time of the outcome.  To give an instance,  one bird started to turn anti clockwise assuming that this behavior would give them the food.

This is called as the pigeon superstition. Of course,  the pigeon model used is the simplest of the models and the delivery of the outcome was set at a regular interval.

Suppose we replace the bird with a human being,  an educated human being,  and start giving him food at an irregular interval!  If the person in the experiment is hungry to the extent of death, my guess would be that he would also start performing actions which to him delivers food.

Suppose we replace an educated but an atheistic person, instead, inside the box. What would he do to get the food delivered?  Would he just wait for the mercy of the irregular intervals of time at which the food is supplied?  An educated person with a background of arts or science with an experience of technological gadgets would just wait upon the whimsical nature of the food delivery mechanism? What would he do? ( No he cannot see the mechanism of food delivery from inside the box! I know you would come up with smart answers, but let's just assume that he cannot do anything smart!)

What would he do?

Perhaps we can have a scientist who would name his actions thereafter as the Atheist superstition.

Superstitions are there to exist.  It is the superstition which eventually gave birth to religion and God! But, superstition is there to exist, in spite of education,  in spite of technological advancement, in spite of mathematical models of coin tossing.

Superstition is there to exist unless we do accept the randomness of events as it is, unless we embrace the absurdity of events as it is!


  1. Your final verdict put me quite at ease. I have embraced absurdity and hence I love happily without superstitions. Nothing surprises me anymore because I have embraced the essential randomness that is at work in life.

    An example from personal life may make it clearer. I had a very happy job in Delhi. I had planned to retire at the ripe age of 60 from that job. But totally unexpectedly and extremely randomly came a godman who bought up my school and dismissed the staff and students summarily and cleverly. My world turned upside down. Without rhyme or reason. I could never have expected such callousness from a religious person and his chelas. The evil that these people displayed was kaleidoscopic. It took me six months to overcome the depression it landed me in. I could never regain my trust in people after that.

    Superstition is also a trust. My trust has been destroyed. I embrace the absurdity of all.

    1. There was a poem in our course at school. Perhaps you would know the exact name of the poem, which I had forgotten by now. There, the man was shown to be a rational being. But when his wife had got bitten by the scorpion, he much against his principles, got succumbed to the superstition of finding the scorpion that bit his wife.

      Adversity in human life makes a person weak or strong. Embracing absurdity requires extreme courage and strength. The easier way out is to hide under the warm comfort of God and Godmen!

      I have a huge respect for you because of the ways you have chosen to deal with your sudden adversity. I think your short stories are a way to deal with and make sense of such randomness.

    2. Nissim Ezekiel's Night of the Scorpion. Yes, that's a good example. Such faith makes life easier. I'm incapable of it. Such was my life.

    3. I just read the poem again. I wonder what made me give the poem an alternate ending. Thanks for the name. Now I see how the poet presented his entire village as religious and superstitious who were up against one rational and a sceptic.


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