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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tiger Woods vs. one Billion Monkeys

Consider a hole of golf with Tiger Woods pitted against one billion monkeys. Besides the fact that a billion monkeys, if given enough time and typewriters, can hammer out all of the plays of Shakespeare, it stands to reason given an eternity or so that they wouldn't be all too shabby at golf either. Assuming that one billion monkeys at the 18th hole equal the efforts of one monkey making his billionth attempt at a par four, then you can be pretty sure that at least one of the little fellows will finish the hole with a score superior to Tiger.

So what are we to make of our triumphant little duffer? You can conclude that there is something special about the monkey that makes him better than Tiger, or that perhaps he merely was lucky, given of course the billion to one odds. Playing the hole again would of course prove no contest, as the little simian would regress back to the mean of his peers, which should be around 500,000 strokes per hole, at least.

Still, one can be left with the opinion that there was something to be said about the monkey's skill, in spite of the fact that there was no explaining his accomplishment outside of pure blind luck. This predilection to derive lawfulness from simple correlations or patterns represents the problem of induction. Induction is defined as the imputation of lawfulness from a limited or token number of phenomenal patterns. And it is also at root, illogical. Thus, to follow the argument of the philosopher David Hume, noticing that the sun rises day after day leads one to imputes a lawfulness (i.e. the sun will rise each dawn forever) to the state of affairs that does not logically follow from that observation. It just takes one example of the sun not rising for such a law to be refuted, something that such a 'law' cannot guarantee.

But logic has never stopped one type of monkey, namely homo-sapiens, from seeing lawfulness in all sorts of correlations. From tea leaves to the movements of the planets, there is always some type of correlation between physical events and behavior that can ascend to the realm of law. Nowadays, we've progressed from the days of reading goat entrails, and have new correlations that map the order of our personal worlds. This psycho-logical (actually an oxymoron) way of looking at things give us new laws of behavior, all of course that follow from simple correlations. Psychologists love correlation, which like scripture can be interpreted for their own, often devilish purposes. Indeed, correlations are embedded in the very way psychologists do science, as they statistically correlate one set of observations with another to find with the assurance of a court astrologer the psychological laws that like the stars, rule our behavior. But simple correlations and the rules they engender are merely ways of explaining things on the cheap, and as with anything that comes cheap, you get what you pay for. Indeed, with such an easy currency of 'knowing', no one really gets to know anything, as the cacophony of psychological laws, from the psychoanalytic to the evolutionary attest.

For any aspect of behavior, a true explanation must look at all the things in the shadows, the events that vault from mere uni-dimensional correlation to reflect the true multi-dimensional mechanics of the world. Thus a problem of behavior must be examined from all vantages. A true psychological explanation therefore imputes order or lawfulness from an examination of all the phenomenal patterns of the world, from the qualia of experience (pain, pleasure), to behavioral (what we do), cognitive (what we think), neurological and biological events. By considering all the possibilities, there is no extraneous possibility that can intrude, and make a sunless dawn. But this requires a bit of modesty, a healthy dose of self criticism, and an awareness that the truth most likely lurks not in our hubris, but in the shadows. Characteristics which alas are in short supply when one reads the rambling and transient certitudes of psychology.

For more on this cautionary tale of the power of what we don't know, consider the Black Swan.

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