Further thoughts on the laws of probability and their impact on our approach to life

Having had a series of stimulating email exchanges with my friend Ali since my last blog on probability, I am venturing out again, despite the possibility of a fatal ambush from him!  What it has prompted to think about further is what the impact is of the concern I raised about probability.  I have also had time to refine my thinking about probability and tested it out with a client who is paid for his expertise in Economic statistical modelling.  He admitted he could find no flaw in my reasoning – carefully staying neutral on whether he actually agreed with me or not!  What I am concerned with is the fact that the laws of probability state that when you have a choice or roll a die, there is a definite and indisputable level of chance that a particular outcome will occur.  So, as per my last blog, if you roll a die, you have a one in six chance that you will roll a particular number, eg. six.  Now, this is not stated as an approximation or even as being probable.  It is stated as absolute fact.  It is so much part of our paradigm of thinking that we do not even question this, it seems so self-evident that we have a one in six chance, it would seem perverse to question it.  However, as Edward De Bono has pointed out, creative thinking comes not from thinking logically from your existing premises to arrive at a new conclusion or insight, but rather from thinking asymmetrically, ie. changing the perspective or paradigm from which you are thinking.  This ability to “switch” our perspective we describe as “insight” – in that it is to do with seeing something (internally) in a different way.  More recently this has been associated with the parietal lobe in experiments on the brain.  This is the section of the brain that my friend Chrissy’s model associates with Mars.  I have long considered Mars (or Aries) to be the seat of creativity.  The reason for this is again connected to Edward de Bono’s work.

De Bono suggested that our modern thinking tools are dictated by the Greeks and in particular by Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.  In his view they created our first thinking tool – critical thinking.  The purpose of this tool was to eliminate everything that was not the truth and thereby ascertain what was the truth.  De Bono felt that whilst critical thinking (Black Hat thinking according to his model) was valuable it had a flaw which was that it was not creative and that, whilst it could establish what was not the truth, it was not very effective at establishing what was the truth or generating new insights or understanding.  He described this type of thinking as logical negative thinking.  What he observed was that in any exploration of a subject, exploration and insights would rise to a certain point until individuals became attached to their position, at which point they would lock into their viewpoint and the person who was the most competitive and had the greatest ability to employ Black Hat thinking would generally win.  This did not necessarily mean their idea or position was any more valuable but simply that they were better at picking holes in other peoples, either because they had more motivation (competitive drive) or were better at logical negative thinking (what is generally measured as IQ).  In many cases, he observed, the result of this approach was a stalemate if the opponents were sufficiently good Black Hat thinkers and sufficiently competitive.  Thus for the Greeks, dialectical thinking, based on knocking down the other person’s argument, became prevalent and is still part of our political and judicial systems to this day.  Thus most of us realise that in law courts, the focus of lawyers is less on finding the truth and more on beating each others arguments, similarly in the parliaments, there is often little genuine exploration of the truth and more focus on opposing and trying to pick holes in each others points of view.  With this in mind, De Bono invented a word – po.  A po was a “provocative operation”.  It’s purpose was to block or prevent the current assumptions and paradigm of thinking from applying.  Thus a provocation operation might be to suggest something which was manifestly ridiculous but might lead to new insights (Green Hat or creative thinking).  One of the examples of this was to explore the idea of putting the cockpit on the bottom of a plane instead of the top.  Immediately our mind grabs for the Black Hat to point out that this is an absurd idea and it is dismissed.  However, if we suspend our Black Hat thinking and instead use what De Bono called Yellow Hat thinking – exploring an idea by looking for the logical positive – the benefits, value and feasibility of an idea, we arrive at a very different place.  Suspending the problems, difficulties and objections to the cockpit being on the bottom of a plane, we come up with the fact that it would be easier for the pilots to see the runway unobscured by the nose of the plane.  It would also mean that the pilots could see the wheels of the plane as they make contact with the runway.  Suddenly, our assumptions, based on the familiar practice of placing the pilots on top of the plane begins to shift and our mind opens to exploring the genuine advantages of placing the cockpit elsewhere on a plane.  We are in open-minded exploration which will no doubt lead to new insights and ideas.  We might then apply black hat thinking again to our new ideas to make sure we understand the difficulties or problems we might encounter with them.

What De Bono recognised was that it is the mind’s ability to think asynchronously which allows us to make breakthroughs and that this required a provocative operation to shock us into moving away from our current habit of thinking.  The I-Ching calls this Shock (a hexagram which correlates on Chrissy Philp’s model with Mars).  Critical thinking is valuable because it prevents us from falling prey to all sorts of distorted and unfounded thinking and it foresees the problems and difficulties associated with an idea.  On the other hand it is also dangerous because it cannot break away from the premises of our current assumptions to open-mindedly explore a new angle.  This brings me to De Bono’s Red Hat.  De Bono identified another mode of thinking and he called this Red Hat thinking, this type of thinking was gut feeling or intuition.  De Bono was astute in noting that much Red Hat thinking posed as Black Hat thinking.  For intelligent people saying that they do not like an idea – which might imply emotions like jealousy, close mindedness or competition – is not comfortable so they dress up their Red Hat thinking with apparently Black Hat arguments.  Yet, the purpose of their Black Hat thinking is not to genuinely raise problems or difficulties but simply to try and destroy the idea because they do not like it or it does not fit with their view.  To counter all of these problems De Bono invented the Six Thinking Hats in order, primarily, to get people thinking in parallel rather than in opposition.  Thus when a new idea is presented, everyone thinks together about the logical positive – the benefits, the value etc. as well as declaring their gut feelings, adding new ideas to it (green hat thinking) etc.  This bypasses the stifling of new insights and ideas created by oppositional thinking and allows for greater open-mindedness and new perspectives.

De Bono also noted that our tradition of thinking since the Greeks has been predominantly Black Hat.  If you think about Universities, you can see that traditionally one studies Literary Criticism, Art Criticism etc. There is no emphasis on creating art, literature, etc. in the traditional academic institutions.  Thus the most intelligent people tend to be those most skilled at deconstructing the ideas of others rather than creating.  Creative people tended to avoid universities or fail at some point along the academic system.  Interestingly this is beginning to change but in the UK it is the former polytechnics who are leading the way in offering creative courses.

So why have I devoted so much time to detailing De Bono’s insights on creative thinking?  The answer is no doubt obvious to anyone with psychological insight.  It is that I am putting in place a defensive justification for my ideas which is constructed in such a way as to render anyone who tries to criticise my ideas as petty or unenlightened and probably both.  Indeed even to venture criticism of this defence is to fall into the trap of being seen as petty and competitive.  Sadly, I suspect there are probably such clever players of this particular game that they will still outwit this defence so I will give up at this stage and get on with explaining my idea.

My idea is to create a po to examine probability as my perspective from another paradigm – that of the I-Ching and my own learning about Life – suggests that Life does not operate on random chance and I therefore want to provocatively throw the assumptions behind the world view of life as random, meaningless chance into the air.  I also think I have good grounds for doing so (one thing I have never lacked is the arrogance to challenge prevailing views long crafted and researched by experts who know a zillion times as much as I do about a given subject.  I like to think of it as an endearing quality, strangely others seem to think of it in quite different terms and are often incadescent with offence at my perceived insolence and temerity.  I have still to fathom why, when I am being so irreverently provocative about people’s deeply cherised beliefs, some people seem to react so badly – it is a mystery!

So here we go.  Probability states that it is a fact that when rolling a die you have a one in six chance that you will throw any particular number.  Yet, while this is self-evidently true, so was the fact that the earth is flat.  I think that this law of probability might be an assumption, ie. it might not be true.  To prove these laws, people would look to research and in particular statistics.  But I do not think that statistics back up this fact, far from it.  In small amounts of throws, statistics suggest that the distribution of numbers will not come close to conforming to this distribution (one in six chance of any number).  There might only be a 10% confidence level that this will be the case.  Even with multiple throws that take you to a 99% confidence level, it still means that 1% of times the data will fall outside this distribution.  It is only at a hypothetical infinity that it conforms perfectly to this distribution of a one in six chance for each number.  So in practice, you do not have a one in six chance, nothing so certain or precise.  It could vary enormously, capriciously and unpredictably so (ok, ok, so I am attributing human qualities to non-human objects, but this is a po, so I am allowed to – ha! ha! and also who made the assumption that dice and the rolling of them do not have human consciouness involved?).  It reminds me of the conflict between Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.  The quantum world does not appear to conform to the Einstein’s theory and yet the Einstein’s theory works very effectively for everything beyond the quantum world.  Thus despite the strange happenings at the quantum level, when you aggregate all of them at a sufficiently large level, it all seems to conform to our expectations – which I am grateful for or I wouldn’t be able to write this article.  If this is true also of rolling die then it would mean that in large quantities of dice rolls a familiar pattern of distribution tends to get stronger but beware if you think this tells you what is going on at a singular level or in a small set of data.  From my perspective, it strikes me that life has plenty of wiggle room to avoid our pre-concieved notion of a world based on uniform, knowable and predictable rules of chance where all outcomes are equally probable over time.

Why is all this of any relevance to our daily lives?  For me it is relevant because I think it is informing our view of the world and causing us to fall into some dangerous traps.  One main one I see is the fear of missing the boat.  This fear dominates bright, ambitious, professional people and particularly has begun to predominate when it comes to sales.  People in professional services firms see themselves as competing for a limited market of clients.  The logical argument, based on this paradigm of chance, is that the more people you meet and make contacts with the greater the chance that you will make a sale and get clients.  This has led to the phenomenon of “networking”, the idea being, the greater the number of people I network with the greater my chance of being successful.  Since the world according to this paradigm is random and without design or meaning, then this probability approach prevails.  Yet, this approach leads to a paranoia, deeply prevalent, of missing the boat.  Since the number of potential contacts (and clients) is limited then if someone out there is meeting more people and has a larger network, they are likely to get more of the clients and I will get less.  Oh no, oh no, I had better push harder and meet more people, keep up, keep up they are going to overtake you….!

My experience is that this premise is false.  When I ask people where their work comes from, they invariably tell me that a large proportion comes from sources that they could not possibly have predicted nor does it always relate directly to any efforts they have made to network or contact people.  When I set up my own company, I wanted to put what I had discovered into practice, so I avoided doing any networking or selling to see whether the work and people would find me.  This allowed me to relate to people because I wanted to and liked them not because they were one of my “chances” or die rolls.  I find I can tell when I am one of someone’s die rolls and there is nothing more off-putting.  Taken to it’s extreme we all suffer from the assumptions behind this paradigm in terms of junk and spam emails, phone calls from call centres trying to sell you things you do not want etc.  Yet, we have created this world, based on our paradigm that all outcomes are based on probability which is based on chance – a meaningless, all possibilities are equally likely, universe.  Critically this is a universe where there are also no consequences to our actions.  How could there be if life is random and based on chance.  If the chances are there will be no consequences, why not do it?

My own experience refutes this notion.  My colleagues who have run around networking with literally hundreds of people have been no more successful in getting work.  I am always amazed at where my work pops up from – some is predictable, some comes from places I could never have predicted.  Yet, it remains remarkably constant and at a level that suits me and has done so for some nine years.  When I observe the experiences of my clients lives I see that the black holes they fall into are brilliantly constructed to surround them with people who reflect back to them their own personality.  I also notice, that when I think something, or I hear others say something, it regularly comes to pass (although often in a form that provokes them to examine if they really want it!).  I am not suggesting that we do not need science, but rather that we need a grand theory of everything.  Ie. we need a theory which brings together the different modes through which we understand the world – our rational mind, our intuition, our feelings, our senses, our ability to make meaning etc. etc.  I do not think that the grand unifying theory will come from our existing paradigm, indeed like most breakthroughs, I suspect it will come from a place which is wonderfully asynchronous with our current prevailing view and no doubt will act as a po to this prevailing paradigm.  I don’t suppose it will explain everything but I think, given that we are entering the Age of Aquarius it might marry together all these elements in a conceptual framework.  My own view is that we already have it but sadly this thought is so preposterous it might take us hundreds of years to accept it.


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One response to “Further thoughts on the laws of probability and their impact on our approach to life

  1. And how probable is it that when this blogger came to see me last weekend he threw three coins six times and they fell two tails and a head, two heads and a tail, two heads and a tail, two tails and a head, two heads and a tail and two heads and a tail, and these, in relation to the I Ching, make up 788788, the hexagram Shock. And how probable is it that people come to me and tell me their problem and I tell them what the I Ching will say and when they throw the coins, out of 364 possible lines in 64 hexagrams, they get the answer I have already told them they would get. They say to me how did you know? I tell them I know how ‘it’ thinks. I know how ‘what’ thinks? I haven’t got a clue. Wilhelm was a christian missionary so when he translated the I Ching he sometimes uses the word God. There is a hexagram in his interpretation that says ‘turn to God’ so, ever sassy, I asked the I Ching where God was? The answer was Union. Ah, maybe there is a collective mind, and maybe, as the ruling line of Union explains – when out hunting the king uses beaters on three sides only so that the game that does not want to be caught can escape – maybe this means we have the freedom to choose whether we hold together with this unifying energy or not. I am only speculating. On the other hand it might have been merely iterating how humanity perceives God. The other day someone came who was interested in working with astrology because he knew something about it and was sure it was good but his best friends were C of E and so up till now, in respect of their feelings, he had kept away from learning more and had generously conformed to their ideology. We asked the I Ching about his situation. He threw Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is about music. ‘The inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together … Rulers have made use of this natural taste for music they elevated and regulated it ..music was something serious and holy ..In the temple men drew near to god with music’. This was a really good description of what happens in church, but the line in the hexagram Deliverance that came with his answer told him that he had to be prepared to fight fear and ignorance. So the I Ching was not saying Enthusiasm was ‘good’ in itself – it was just describing a human institution, which is why, when I received Union when asking about God, I didn’t jump to any conclusions. I read once that every hexagram in the I Ching and every line is an important aspect of existence therefore elevating any one over another would be misunderstanding the meaning of the whole. So, this is all just to explain that while I don’t presume to understand what is going on, something ‘is’ and this something is way beyond present human understanding, and, if whatever this is decides to completely destroy the laws of probability and do something totally improbable, like allow coins to fall so intelligently that you can hold a conversation with them, I have the experience to know that it can accomplish this with ease. And I am not talking about miracles here. I simply think these particular laws are easily tweaked. Oh dear – I am an Aries the sign ruled by Mars – I do po with such incorrigible ease – but I keep the black hat to hand and put it on as often as possible so I think I shall trust the results of my present cogitations – well, trust them for now. And thank you Nick for this inspiring blog.

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