Entranced by causality
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.