Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Arbitrary vs. Random

I bring up this point to a lot of people, and a lot of people find it confusing. Are random and arbitrary synonymous or aren't they? I admit I'm not always entirely sure how to describe the difference between the two words, but since I insist people use them appropriately I should probably offer an explanation.

Let's start by defining them both. Arbitrary, according to answers.com, describes things that are "1. Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle" or "2. Based on or subject to individual judgment or preference." Random, on the other hand, applies to things "1. Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective" or "2. Mathematics & Statistics. Of or relating to a type of circumstance or event that is described by a probability distribution." I'll limit the discussion, at first anyway, to the two most widely used definitions.

What we can gather from these definitions and what we know about the words is that they're both used to describe a selection process. Decisions can be made arbitrarily or they can be made randomly. How, then, do they differ? It comes down to the outcome really - an arbitrary decision is one that doesn't matter either way. The outcome of repeatedly making a decision about something whose outcome doesn't matter can, and oftentimes does, lead to the same decision being made over and over. A good example is asking people to select a "random" number between 1 and 10, inclusive. It's been demonstrated that, usually, 7 or 3 will be chosen more frequently than most of the other numbers given a large enough pool of participants. The reason for this is that people perceive these numbers as being random: they're prime numbers, they aren't even, they aren't right in the middle, and they aren't extremes. All of that makes them very appealing as "random" choices. In reality, a random selection gives each possible option equal weight. That is the basis for a random selection as opposed to an arbitrary one. What follows is, given a large enough pool of samples, every number between 1 and 10 should, statistically, be selected as much as any other number (give or take a bit). A human's bias in the selection process is what removes the randomness.

Going back to the definitions, one might argue that an arbitrary choice can also be random because there is no "necessity, reason, or principle" behind random selection. In fact, there is. It's all in the rhetoric here, which can make it seem tricky. I would counter that argument by reminding the person that random selection necessarily gives all options equal weight. Another argument that might come up is that random numbers have "no specific pattern, purpose, or objective" and that neither do arbitrary ones, which are chosen on a whim. That argument I counter by saying that arbitrary selections do, in fact, have a pattern as I mentioned in the example above with the numbers 3 and 7. Note that there is still room for debate here (there always is), so if you can think of a good argument let me know.

So what about randomly running into a friend at the store? Or all the random people who showed up to the party? Most of the time, random isn't used to describe a selection process at all. Instead it's used in place of more appropriate words such as coincidental, assorted, or unexpected - none of which are random. However, I have to concede that this is the nature of language: if a word or phrase goes into widespread use it can become part of the language. This is still considered slang or colloquial, though, and should be treated as such.

To summarize, for those who need to explain this to others: Arbitrary describes a decision-making process in which the choice simply doesn't matter or is made on a whim. Random, on the other hand, describes a decision-making process as well, but one in which every possible option is given equal weight.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Real vs. Perceived Identity

The issue of real vs. perceived identity came up in a conversation I was having today. When I talk about identity here I don't quite mean it in the normal sense of the word. The way I'm using it here makes it almost synonymous with understanding. Hopefully you identify with what I'm saying :). Getting back, I've got a definition for perceived identity - your identity to another person based on the way they perceive you - but I'm not sure I've got anything for real identity. The first idea that comes to mind is a person's view of themselves. After all, they've got a complete picture, right? I don't know if this works just because of all the personal biases involved - it would take a very humble or very objective person to give themselves a fair evaluation of character. Does that bias matter? My next inclination is to say that real identity would be another person's view if they knew everything there was to know about the person being identified - but that seems wrong too. That person is bound to have their own set of biases and, though they might not have any personal interest vested in this other person, they're sure to relate or disagree with certain things which will skew things a bit. Ideally, this identity would be the same regardless of who's view it was given they had all the information they needed. Maybe real identity, then, is just an abstract idea to talk about but something we might never achieve. I can deal with that I suppose. Perceived identity is much more practical if we assume that that's the case since it's the only thing we can actually measure or use. Of course everyone will perceive things differently but at least now we've got something to work with and opinions to compare. Another intersting idea to mention is that we might be able to say whether a particular perceived identity is or is not someone's real identity. Or maybe we'll just be able to say whether it isn't but never that it is? It certainly isn't, or it might be? Hmmm. I think, as usual, this takes us back to what exactly we mean when we say "identity." Since I think that might undermine the idea behind this entire post, I'll save that for another day. Thoughts?

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