Randomness by design

Noûs 25 (1):75-106 (1991)
Abstract
“Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin.”1 John von Neumann’s famous dictum points an accusing finger at all who set their ordered minds to engender disorder. Much as in times past thieves, pimps, and actors carried on their profession with an uneasy conscience, so in this day scientists who devise random number generators suffer pangs of guilt. George Marsaglia, perhaps the preeminent worker in the field, quips when he asks his colleagues, “Who among us has not sinned?” Marsaglia’s work at the Supercomputer Computations Research Institute at Florida State University is well-known. Inasmuch as Marsaglia’s design and testing of random number generators depends on computation, and inasmuch as computation is fundamentally arithmetical, Marsaglia is by von Neumann’s own account a sinner. Working as he does on a supercomputer, Marsaglia is in fact a gross sinner. This he freely admits. Writing of the best random number generators he is aware of, Marsaglia states, “they are the result of arithmetic methods and those using them must, as all sinners must, face Redemption [sic] Day. But perhaps with better understanding we can postpone it.”.
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