"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 25, 2018

Probability–The Ultimate Irony In An Age Of True Believers

Randall Cummings spent more of his weekly paycheck than he should have in Las Vegas.  He was by no means a compulsive gambler – he could never have been and would have lost everything within a few weeks since he played only roulette and craps. Although with some understanding of probability, a gambler can limit his losses and play longer at poker and blackjack, other games like roulette and craps rely on pure chance.  A player will always have a fifty-fifty chance of landing on the black (minus the house’s edge) and 2.6 percent chance of winning on any given number.  A craps player has a one-in-six chance of rolling a seven. but a less than three percent chance of rolling a two.  Despite the mythology of ‘getting hot’, the odds are immutable over time.  While a player may continue to hit his number, he will always and inevitably be ruled by the mathematical odds.

See the source image

Randall was not out to hit the jackpot, defy the odds, and beat the house.  He simply liked being in a place of chance.  There was something elegant about games of pure chance and their fixed laws of probability.  No one was above them.  No one could beat the odds.  No one could win.  Yet everyone played.  They knew that the odds were stacked against them, yet they persisted.  They would ‘get lucky’, a hot streak would find them, and they would – more than in any other endeavor – beat immutable odds. 

These were the same people who believed that everything is subject to effort.   A canny employee can game the office by manipulating weakness, exploiting loopholes in procedure and regulation, picking the right moments, and using patience, guile, and a silver tongue.  A savvy man can win women through charm, attentiveness, and understanding.  Children learn how to play their parents, athletes learn how to deke and deceive.  Salesmen can increase their revenues through carefully-worded promises, borderline claims, and persistence.  While probability rules them all, the exercise of human will and intelligence can improve the odds.  Not so with roulette and craps.

Image result for images roulette wheel

At an even more fundamental level, human choice can influence genetic disposition.  Intelligent, well-educated, highly-socialized, and wealthy adult children, sons and daughters of equally intelligent and accomplished parents and descendants of a uniform lineage of achievers are likely to have children like them.  The odds of bits and scraps of a rogue third cousin’s DNA are highly reduced.  While one can never be absolutely sure of birth outcomes, careful mating can improve the odds of success.

From a longer, broader perspective, however, probability is always a factor.  Given the  impossibly complex combinations and permutations possible within the human genome, itself a combination and permutation of every male and female ancestor who contributed to it, anything can happen.  The highest pedigree can never guarantee longevity.   The savviest office manipulator will likely get his comeuppance – the arrival of an equally devious competitor, a boss who plays by no rules and defies presumption and categorization.  A stupid mistake in calculation.  A misstep can itself be calculated. 

As a dutiful Catholic, son of devout Catholics, Randall was instructed in the mysteries of the Church – the complex nature of the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ; the Resurrection, the transubstantiation of Holy Communion, salvation, redemption, and forgiveness.   What Father Brophy and the Sisters of Charity taught were immutable, God-given principles of faith.  There was no question about Christ’s ascension into heaven nor his power to forgive.  There was no limit to God’s power nor his vengeance and retribution.  Catholic principles were the only principles and the ones that accurately reflected the world – a sinful, disobedient, and arrogantly ignorant world which needed Christ’s ministry.  Ever since the First Century, the words of Jesus have had resonance and meaning.  For those who believed in him, there was no alternate reality, no odds, and no choice other than him.  For Randall’s parents, Christ’s way was the way, the only way.

Image result for images the holy trinity

Even that doctrinal purity, that spiritual certainty, that belief in the existence of God and his kingdom, could never match the absolute certainty of the odds.  Even the most pious are given to to doubts – and who could not?  The story of Christ to a non-believer is a fabulist myth and nothing more.  The virgin birth, the persecution, and the resurrection are common themes in secular epics.  Religious principles and accounts are shared across cultures, and worship, although diverse, is at heart common.  Is there a God? Probably, but not certainly.

Unless as Bishop Berkeley suggested, a tree falling in the forest might have no sound unless there is someone there to hear it – and in so stating gave phenomenology a new, surprisingly modern dimension of relativity – then the chances of rolled dice coming up seven are absolute.  There can be no perceptual relativity; no Ring and the Book, Kurosawa, or Durrell suggestions that reality is only composite and subjective.  Unless God or the alien intelligence which has thought the world into being and dreams its existence change their mind,  the chances will always be one in six.

Which is why the Mirage, the Bellagio, and Caesar’s Palace were as good as churches for Randall who had given up his religious faith decades ago.  ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe’, said Einstein; but of course he does. Everything is governed by odds, probability, and chance.  By the very fact that sevens will only come up only and always 16.666 percent of the time was a doctrine, a principle, a fact more incontrovertible than any other.  Of course Einstein meant that God could only create a logical universe, one which behaved according to observable laws.  Gravity would always hold things in place.  Light would only travel so fast.  One and one would always equal two. 

Image result for images the bellagio casino

Max Planck and Heisenberg changed all that.  What could be more un-Godlike than quantum physics according to which one can only gauge the probability of a particle being in a particular place and time?  Even laws of relativity suggesting uncertainty were absolute, or so Einstein thought; but the new physics have thrown doubt into every theorem.  Their laws might only be probable; and worse, their exact probability cannot be calculated.

The age of ‘big data’ has suggested that any human enterprise can be subjected to probabilistic analysis.  Baseball shifts, for example, are a simple example of such analysis.  The more data that are collected about a human activity – any human activity – the more one is able to predict its outcome.  Not with certainty, but probability.   More and more, activities thought to be purely subjective can now be analyzed objectively.  Eventually, taking into consideration DNA, the calculus of environmental factors, and the calculable chances of intervening variables, most actions will be predictable.

Image result for images baseball shifts

The process is asymptotic – the more data that are collected, organized, and applied, the more the probability of any particular outcome will approach the absolute odds of rolling the dice.  It is this asymptotic rule – that the odds of any one thing happening will never be as certain as sevens or snake eyes – which keeps hope alive for the most hopeful who feel that absolute odds will deny God’s special, unique grace.  If his universe – the one he created – is nothing more than a probabilistic one, then one does make of the doctrine of grace?

All of which questions the nature of true, secular belief.  Climate change may or may not be happening; and if it is, its effects are only probable.  There are too many intervening factors, too little data, too incomplete algorithms to conclude or act with certainty.  Wars are likely to continue ad infinitum because they have always existed in the past.  The probability of nuclear war rises and falls according to temporal variables, but its overall probability remains high.  Those who insist that the world can become a more peaceful place refuse to look at history.  The chances that society will become more equal, less stratified, and less unfavorably organized have not studied early human, pre-human, and animal behavior.  The chances of a truly homogeneous society increase or decrease at different times, but the overall probability, while not as fixed as the dice, remains stable.

There was always something definably classic and esthetic about the roll of the dice.  Not only was the casino the only place to observe pure probability; it was its temple. 

Atheism has become a religion.  It has a secular theology, a liturgy, prescribed and proscribed beliefs, and an important social context.  Atheists don’t just ignore the possibility of God, the actively, uniformly and collectively deny it.  ‘Probabilism’ – the ‘faith’ of Randall Cummings – had nothing to do with either established religion or atheism.  It was as logical and imperturbable as the exercises of Aquinas without his belief.  As secular and determined as those of Kant, Hume, and Descartes without needing outcomes or meaning. 

Las Vegas may seem an odd place to worship; but to assume that would be to misunderstand Randall Cummings.  He was in awe of the roll of the dice and of a probabilistic, roll-of-the-dice universe, nothing more.  He had had his secular epiphany there and thereafter there was never a question of returning.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.