Back to the myth of probability

A recent article (New Scientist 3rd of October – Definitely Not Maybe) by David Deutsch, a researcher in fundamental aspects of quantum information at Oxford University, opined that Probability “is as much use for explaining how the world really works as the flat-Earth theory”.  This article surprised me since I had written about the same thing in this blog, using the same language and arguments, some three years ago and here was someone (with a lot more academic credibility!) saying the same thing.  It particularly surprised me since I had been revisiting it when talking to people recently and the synchronicity was particularly strong.

The second surprising thing about the article was that we were both using our conclusion about probability to examine the theory of multiple worlds.  However, whilst someone thinking the same way as me is clearly someone who should be listened to with great respect (just ask my son and daughter for their concurrence on this point!), what was curious was that we had come to opposite conclusions about parallel universes.  In his argument, Indeterminism – the idea that events happen by chance not from deterministic causal events – “is an absurdity introduced to disprove the multiple universes implied by Quantum Physics”.  However, he posits that by accepting the multiple universes implied by Quantum Physics, a deterministic, non-probabilistic world view can be upheld, whereas to deny multiple universes implies either a probabilistic world or an indeterministic one.

I agree with his final conclusion that:

“It is easy to accept that probability is part of the world, just as it’s easy to imagine Earth as flat when in your garden. But this is no guide to what the world is really like, and what the laws of nature actually are.”

Yet, I do not concur about the theory of multiple universes and it seems to me that the arguments lead towards the conclusion that our understanding of what is happening at a quantum level is flawed rather than the notion that there are multiple universes – an explanation that seems to me to be the one that is “an absurdity introduced to prove” our current limited “personal garden” understanding of quantum physics.

So let me step back a bit.  What is invalid about probability?  The core of my argument (and Deutsch’s) is that probability is a human construct which we have confused with reality.  Like many models of reality it has its advantages, but it fails when we assume that is actually the way reality works.  In probability theory, if something is repeated an infinite number of times then it will conform to certain “laws” if the conditions are equitable.  Yet in reality nothing can be repeated infinite times and so we can only deduce that something is, for instance, 99% probable.  In order to operate our models we have to assume that saying something is 99% probable is equivalent to saying that it will happen.  However, as Deutsch points out, saying that the weather was 99% likely to be sunny yesterday does not meant that it was sunny yesterday.  You can attest from your own experience that events do not 60%, 50% or 40% happen; they either happen or they do not.  We are so ingrained in thinking that the world is a result of our choices and that events happen a certain way but could have happened another way that we forget that all this takes place in our imagination and requires another human construct – time – in order to make any sense.  Chrissy Philp’s presentation on time ( ably shows how time does not exist other than as a human construct.  The level of approximation inherent in probability means that we become blind to the normative aspect and begin to think that probability is real.

This all sounds very abstract but, for me, it has profound practical implications and goes to the heart of the question as to whether we have free will or to what extent we have free-will.  But before I going on to these, I want first to deal with why I think that the flaws in probability lead to the conclusion that multiple universes do not exist and why that is important.  David Deutsch’s analogy for probability is that it is like flat-Earth theory; it works well when considering your garden but is disastrous if planning how to avoid an asteroid strike on the earth.  Taking this analogy further, I think it worth considering quantum theory on this level.  Flat-Earth theory can operate as a view of the world when you have not travelled far enough outside your back garden to be able to establish that the world has no ends off which you could fall.  In the past we did not have the understanding or technology to circumnavigate the world and establish that if we journeyed long and far enough we would end up back in the same place again.  Now that we have the technology to leave the Earth and view it from space, any individual can prove to themselves that the Earth is a sphere.  I actually think Deutsch’s analogy is a good one for thinking about Quantum Physics.  The technology we have at our disposal and the limits of our senses make it impossible to accurately see or determine what is happening at a quantum level.  We are speculating, in the same way that philosophers of old might have speculated about what happened at the end of the world if the world were flat.  Modern research suggests that flat-Earthism died out among scholars around the 3rd Century BC in Europe but took longer to do so in other cultures, indeed there is still a flat-Earth society today, so even with evidence it takes us time to relinquish our world views.  We know that our current model of quantum physics presents us with problems, such as the fact that it does not tie up with the theory of relativity at levels beyond the quantum but it is our best guess so far (the current thinking seems to be that relativity may also have to change).  To suggest it is more than a guess is dangerous – as per the quote “if you think you understand quantum theory… don’t understand quantum theory” attributed to Richard Feynman by Richard Dawkins in his book God Delusion.

In the same way, I strongly suspect the concept of multiple universes (like Ptolemy’s attempt to explain the retrograde motion of the planets by attributing multiple interlocking circles to the planets’ motions or more recently the concept of time moving backwards to explain Ben Libet’s research on the brain and free will) exists to justify our current model of quantum physics because our understanding is too limited to allow us to see the full picture.  In this sense, I think that Deutsch’s assertion that probability is flawed, and that the mysteries of Quantum Physics will be solved by a deterministic model is accurate.  Like Einstein, I do not believe that God plays dice.  I also recognise that to suggest that the world is not random and probabilistic is currently a dangerous heresy and that Einstein is seen as outmoded and consigned to scientists of the past who have been superseded.  Yet, while there may have to be revisions to the theory of relativity, Einstein’s views on Indeterminism may yet prove to be more valid than we currently suppose.  David Deutsch’s use of multiple universes to get round the difficulties of the indeterministic view implicit in Quanutm Physics is clever, but is it clever rather than necessarily valid?  His points about probability seem far more convincing – to me at least (as another person speculating and of course agreeing with him!).

I suspect that, in time, this will all be unravelled by improvements in technology that allow us to understand in more detail what is happening at a quantum level, although I recognise that will probably just present us with new conundrums to solve. However, let us return to the practical implications that I put to one side as I think they are at least as relevant and may well prove another route or mode of thinking to consider this topic.  The practical implications of our current belief in parallel universes and a random, probability driven world is that meaning has been driven out of our model of the world.  A world that is random and driven by probability implies that there is no inherent meaning in our lives and that any meaning that we attribute is illusory or only for our own sakes.  This may possibly be the case (I am keeping an open mind on that). However, it is leading us to some destructive behaviour.

In Deutsch’s article he pointed out that Probability theory did not evolve as a scientific discipline but rather out of the gambling fraternity’s desire to beat the system and find foolproof ways to make or maximise the chances of making money.  Game theory has evolved out of this.  This belief sees the world in terms of probabilities and statistics.  It is a very material view of the world – the primary motive was the making of money (presumably in the belief that this would make one more happy?).  It also has inherent within it the notion that one can control the future and outcomes by playing percentages – that one can beat the system or maximise one’s opportunities and this belief seems to underpin our approach to many aspects of life.

Secondly, if multiple universes theory is true then, as people love to point out, you could be prime minister or president in another world, implying you could be more successful than you are now.  The obvious conclusion this leads to is that we can be anything we choose to be and the only thing determining that is us and the only thing standing in our way is making the right choices and maximising our chances. So we must compete to win and the harder we work, the more we push, the greater the probability that we will be one of the material winners.  Ambition and fear of missing the boat become dominating drivers.  This world view is deadening and heartless, because it denies anything spiritual or any belief in intuition or the heart.  Also, if there are multiple universes then this one we live in, is not in anyway special or meaningful, it is one of many.

Thirdly, if there is nothing numinous then you are entirely responsible for your fate and you better do everything you can or you might miss the boat and, lets face it, you in one of the parallel universes is bound to be doing better than you are in this one, which leads to dissatisfaction and more material ambition.  More importantly if there is nothing numinous then what happens to you is random and to do with percentages so virtues such as patience, kindness etc. have no value unless they allow you to manipulate others to your advantage.  It is interesting to note that almost everywhere in the world currently, any good qualities or acts are always justified with the proviso that they will provide a material reward.  Being kind to others, emotional intelligence, mindfulness are subtly justified with the notion “and you will be more successful (materially)”.  Even more spiritual or psychological approaches such as NLP are predicated on the notion that you will be more successful materially and that there is no inherent meaning or morality in life; you can be whatever you want to be.

The overall effect of this world view is to create an overwhelming pressure that we are responsible for creating our lives and the perception that we must do everything to maximise our chances.  This looks a pretty bleak outlook, and it is.  It is a game called “survival of the fittest” and finds its apotheosis in the concept of ‘the selfish gene”.

There are a number of areas of life where this world view has been particularly destructive.  I work coaching business leaders and this world view has resulted in an increasingly frenzied fear of missing the boat and the belief that there is a relationship between the number of people you meet and network with and the business you win.  The pressure and fear of missing the boat is intense and if you are not playing the game of trying to manipulate and push and network then you are clearly a failure – the notion that you can trust or have faith that work will come is meaningless in this world view.  Material measurement has become god, with profit and numbers ruling business management and league tables set up in every area to identify the winners and losers.  The mindset is that if you work extremely hard you maximise the chances that you won’t have the bad luck of being someone who can’t keep up and is rejected.

I also see a similar world view dominating our approach to education where exam success and league tables dominate our approach to education.  Attending a recent final stage interview for a Steiner School application to be an Academy was very shocking.  The questioning was ferocious and pointedly about exam achievement to the exclusion of all other factors.  It was a mathematical exercise about proving that the school would “add value” to children – meaning increase their grades.  Globalisation only adds to this fear of missing the boat since the number of participants for global resources has increased and so have the winners and losers.  Better make sure you and your children are “winners” and maximise their chances.  Indeed the government had better make sure that our children are trained to fill the gaps in our economy so they and we don’t get left behind and we maximise our collective chances of winning.

The third area where I have watched this play out is in working with young offenders.  For these young offenders, they reject the pressure to conform to this model and they know that their chances of winning in the system are poor from the start.  So why play at all? Also, if there is no moral consequence to our actions, they are simply random or chance, then why not play the probabilities and steal and deal in drugs and do your best not to get caught?  If you are smart, you might get away with it and then you’ve won; if you get caught then be smarter next time and play the probabilities so you are less likely to get caught.  The saddest part of this is that there is no personal growth or learning in this world view, or only how to be cleverer at playing the percentages next time.  It does not encourage moral responsibility since any belief in anything larger than ourselves is delusionary.

This leads me to the next point about the probability/random view of the world.  This concerns the belief in individual agency that accompanies it.  In her recent series Genius of the Ancient World, Bettany Hughes explored the lives and philosophies of three key individuals all born within a hundred years of each other who have shaped the world’s thinking for the last two-thousand or more years – the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius.  I wondered, watching the programmes, if the world view they ushered in has become distorted.  All three believed in human agency – that we could use our free-will to choose our approach to the phenomenon of life.  They believed that we had choice about how we approached life and they brought forward the idea that we could use our free-will to determine our actions – that we were not determined by the events around us.  This individual separation of our consciousness from the world around us had benefits; we had choice in how we responded.  However, none of them suggested that we were not subject to fate or that we could control the material world around us. Where they seemed to me to co-incide in their view was in the idea that we have agency to decide our response to the world.  This has evolved to make us now believe that we are separate from the phenomena around us (first God was abstracted) and now we believe that free-will and human agency is all there is, that there is no limit to our individual free will.  However, in believing in our free-will above all else we hold a terrible danger of hubris.

This desire to feel that we, at an individual level, are completely free and that we are in control is a strong desire, but that does not necessarily mean it is true.  In choosing our attitude or response, we are completely free (and this seems to be the message of the three) but that does not mean we have complete control over the world around us, or that it does not exist separately from our free-will.  There is a simple thought experiment to test the limits of our free-will.  Try using your free-will to change the fate of your body – see if you can use it to create a third eye or three working legs or to become cat-shaped.  If there are limits to our ability to change our own material form, what makes us think that our individual free-will is not subject to limitations?

A recent study of the global financial collapse suggested that the interlinking business networks and dependencies that created the collapse mirrored those of biological systems and that the same patterns of collapse were evident.  We can all accept that this might be the case, but the individuals who were part of those businesses would baulk at the idea that they were not making completely free and individual choices, unaffected by any larger forces or “fate”.  Yet all their individual actions conformed to a pattern inherent in other systems.  The suggestion of Buddha, Socrates and Confucius was that if we are aware of the deeper nature of life and our existence we can have agency in how we choose to respond to it – that we can be virtuous if we choose to be.  Thus, the idea of multiple-universes is attractive to our concept that it is our free-will and choice which is determining the universe – in the same way that we are concluding that our acts of observation influence the outcome of quantum events, yet that does not necessarily mean that it is true.  It might be, but until we know, it strikes me as wise to keep an open mind and be aware of what is driving our speculation.  Rejecting any notions other than the material has become a cause celebre for many scientists, including separating, and rejecting any role for, Philosophy in modern scientific thought.  Yet this rejection of any other mode of thinking or existence other than the material creates dangers for us in failing to remember that our models are just that.

On that note, I am conscious the same is true of this article and I reserve the right to be completely and utterly wrong – even as I write I am wondering if it might all be created by our imaginations.  It will be interesting finding out – whatever the outcome, large amounts of humble-pie are likely to be on the menu.  In that respect, I realise my obscurity could be a distinct advantage in a personality prone to large-scale speculation.


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