Entranced by causality

December 28, 2011

Nassim Taleb highlighted economists’ and mankind’s ability to be fooled by randomness. Part of the reason economists and traders are likely to be fooled is because, underlying everything they do is the statistics of what is ultimately human behavior.

I’ve always had a guilty feeling about disliking statistics. When I came to graduate school in physics I almost didn’t take a course in statistical mechanics, a beautiful subject eventually taught to me in a class by T. D. Lee that turned out to be one of the best courses I ever took. I was put off by adjective ‘statistical’, which I misunderstood and therefore scorned. I believed in mechanics; I wanted explanations and I thought statistical mechanics would dodge them.

I was wrong. Statistical mechanics explains the properties of macroscopic matter from averaging over the microscopic properties of its constituents, and, vice versa, deduces the qualities of the microscopic constituents from macroscopic behavior.

The good side of my prejudice is that I don’t think I have often been fooled by randomness.  I like to come at the world assuming that everything human and physical has a dynamical cause or structure that can be discovered. Some examples I like:

  • The laws for what makes something kosher reveal a structure of belief.
  • Spinoza tried to penetrate the relationships between human passions, and tried to figure out how to use those relationships to overcome subservience to the passions.
  • Freud speculated on the causes of dreams and slips of the tongue, arguing that these occurrences are not random but rather evidence of internal mental structures.
  • And what I like about Zizek’s YouTube videos is that he’s always observing apparently random occurrences in society with a view to finding motive and meaning in them.

No single event is really random, not even evolutionary events. It’s only the distribution that’s random.

Attributing retrospective causes to numerical patterns created by human behavior is indeed close to folly.

But looking for patterns, explanations, laws, meaning and relationships in all fields — that’s science and art, and interesting.


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I enjoy if don’t always 100% understand your deep graplings with philosophy. I believe you are onto something very important here – namely that statistics tends to be a fantastic tool to study the universe with other than in the realm of human behavior. What is it exactly that humans have that make thems defy statistics?

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Statistics are a human invention to try to make sense of the world, the problem is – you can make any case you want out of “your” statistics. We are just playing out God, and learning every day how we get closer to each other, and this will not stop, as so well pointed out in Ray Kurzweil’s: Singularity!

Posted by Dchad777 | Report as abusive

Beautifully written article!

I disliked statistics (also due to prejudice) when I took it in college, but used properly it can tell us much about the world we live in, including human motivations.

Since then I have come to see it as a legitimate part of mathematics.

However, as with everything else man has invented, it is more often used to distort the truth than reveal it, which is a shame.

We have the “tools” to solve our problems, but choose not to use them.


Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

As the other commenters I also liked the article.
I think the greatest human misunderstanding is how we view our “freedom”.
As the article also suggests there are no random events, there are no “slips”, we live in a deterministic, intelligent, living system, except that due to lack of knowledge and as we do not see casualty we think we are free to roam and we try to change the system as we see fit.
This is why humans are making so many mistakes to the point of destroying themselves and the environment around them.
Instead of stubbornly going against the wall again and again, trying to reinvent everything the natural system around us invented already, we should bow our heads, study the system and ourselves and find the predetermined, perfect place for ourselves in this huge, multidimensional system. Finding our true space gives us the true freedom, because that is the place, channel where we can maximize our potential and actualize our full potential without limits.
We have the chance to find a small crack on the wall, but the small crack can lead us to infinite possibilities.

Posted by ZGHerm | Report as abusive