What are the Odds?
There is a reasonable probability that a reader of this piece has an aunt named Sue that justifies her behavior using astrological signs: “Oh my, what a Leo thing for me to do!”
There is also a reasonable probability that we either know someone or are that person that states: “Oh, Sue, you silly goose, astrological signs are absolutely false and illogical!” Sue, at least historically, is more correct.
If we take reality as our collective understanding, Sue’s superstition was our reality for thousands of years. Of course there were nay-sayers, but on average most people did believe that a black cat crossing your path meant bad luck. Even today, many believe that if they do so-and-so their favorite sports team will win or they will give birth to a baby girl. The past, present, and future had and still probably has an aura of mystery created by the hand(s) of (the) god(s).
Over time, the concept of probability developed, which seemed to build a frame around this aura, giving it at least some semblance of shape and form. Those of us that claim astrology to be illogical and false would justify our claim by stating, “Your behavior was caused by a combination of neuro-chemical interactions which are inherently governed by statistical interactions, you lackadaisical Lilly!” Keeping up with your trend of alliterations, of course.
However, if we are really honest with ourselves, probability shares similarities with the claim that events are governed by the all-mighty Zeus. It is perhaps giving the justification for the situation a different name. While currently impossible, if we could get enough information about Sue and her neurochemistry, we could possibly say: “Sue, the probability that you would make an insensitive comment at dinner was 65%, actually. It had nothing with you being a supposed Leo.” But is this satisfying? Scientifically, at least, it is the more sound approach to take than witchcraft and tarot reading.
All of this points to what seems to be a big problem, we don’t know why we act the way we do or why things happen this or that way. We can put a number how likely it is for things to occur, but 100% determinism of reality is out of our reach. And, while there is of course a non-zero probability of one day being able to fully understand and control reality, living with statistical uncertainty is in the cards for all of us.
Instead of being nervous or anxious over this, I tentatively suggest that the concept should only act to humble us. It is not a problem to be solved.
At the time of this writing, a global pandemic is cascading over a warming Earth with oceans full of plastic. We could not predict the emergence of this pandemic, nor could we predict that using fossil fuels to power our society would warm the Earth so drastically, nor could we predict that using plastic as an inexpensive substitute for metals and ceramics would cause such damage to our oceans. Discerning what the next catastrophe will be and when is perhaps best rationalized using a simple coin toss, or, maybe crudely, counting the number of Leo’s and adding them up to provide a threshold for impending mayhem. It is time to cede our absolute certainty of outcome and action from result. Perhaps God truly does play dice with the universe.