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Randomness and Life
One of the most profound books to be published recently is Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff. Superficially, this is a book about how Konnikova, a Ph.D. in social psychology from Columbia University, learned how to play Texas Holdem and became an international poker champion.
But then superficially, The Brothers Karamazov is a courtroom thriller about whether an innocent man will be convicted of murder.
Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical treatise about the ability of faith, intellect, hedonism and willful perversity to overcome the suffering that God has placed in the world. It is told in the form of a gripping story.
The Biggest Bluff is a philosophical treatise about the ability of human rationality and calculation to overcome the random events that are an intrinsic part of the universe. It too is told in the form of a gripping story.
I would no more give away Konnikova’s arguments in The Biggest Bluff any more than I would spoil the plot of Brothers Karamazov.
Read both of those books.
Read The Biggest Bluff first. It is shorter, more entertaining and more attuned to the world-understanding of twenty-first century thinkers. Plus, you don’t have to be Russian Orthodox to believe in its conclusions.
I fully agree with Maria Konnikova’s arguments. I particularly agree with the statement with which she closes the book.
(Don’t ruin the book for yourself. Read everything in order. There are plot twists that are fundamental to her exposition.)
I am going to offer my own take on Konnikova’s fundamental question. My words are different. Our spirits are parallel.
Konnikova wants to understand how human rationality can cope with the vast amount of randomness in the universe. Poker is a metaphor for this. The players cannot control the shuffling of the cards. They can play the probabilities to the best of their ability. They can study the behavior of other players. They can study the behavior of themselves. The best players will always win more than would be statistically expected by chance. However, no player is immune from the lucky draw and no player is immune from the bad break. Get a lot of full houses and you will win. The full houses win more when your opponent is dealt the nut flush and is feeling confident. No amount of rationality can make this happen. You try to learn the odds that your two pair will pull the card for your set. When you have the nut flush, you watch your opponent for signs that their full house came in. When you see from the tell that your opponent’s card hit, you fold your hand and cut your losses.
Most of the book is written as an epic battle of rationality versus chance. That is an excellent description of poker. It is not a particularly accurate picture of life. Konnikova is fully aware of this; she drops a number of subtle hints that she is already on to a greater understanding of the issue. (One of those hints is quite explicit.)
Randomness is not the reason that human rationality fails.
Social scientists agonize about randomness. They use statistical analysis and significant tests to remove randomness from their analysis. Their methods are useful in neutralizing the effects of sampling errors in the selection of groups of people to study. These hardly deal with errors in the profound manner that Konnikova is discussing.
There are other causes of human error that operate even in a completely determinative universe.
Technically, nothing in this world is random – outside of particle physics. Randomness is an integral component of quantum mechanics – a branch of physics that claims that no one can know the precise location of electrons within an atom. There are features of the operation of matter and energy that are indeterminate.
But most of the phenomena we care about in life are fully governed by Newtonian classicism. Simple rules of mass and force apply with precise knowable outcomes.
There is for example, nothing even remotely random about the throw of dice. If you know the weight of the dice, the exact positions of the dice and the hand throughout the throw, the exact force and angle that are applied by the throwing hand, the amount of resistance in the air and on the surface, you should be able to predict with perfect accuracy what two numbers will appear on the tops of the dice after they are thrown and come to a stop. The same applies to the dropping of a roulette ball, or for Konnikova, the location and ordering of cards after a deck is shuffled.
These forces appear random to us because we do not know all of the micro-locations of the cards or the dice and do not know the amount of force that was applied to each one. Even if we had access to all of that information, few of us could do the calculations that would allow us to predict the outcome of the shuffle without a computer. We certainly could not do that at a poker table in the time interval between the shuffle and the moment we are expected to make our bets.
Random is a synonym for Mystic.
Both Random and Mystic mean Not Understood.
When you were a child, if your grandfather reached into your ear and pulled out a quarter, this was truly magical and mystic. Being five years old, you understood nothing about sleight of hand.
If one studies something enough, it can in theory become understood. You understand something very well if you can predict its behavior in the future. Predictive power is the mark of pretty good understanding. I say “pretty good” because you may only know 40% or 80% of what is going on – and you might still be blindsided by something you hadn’t taken into account.
So, what keeps us from being perfectly rational?
1. We have imperfect information because we have not done our homework. Information is not free. We have to work to get it. No one has the time or energy to get all the information that is technically available. When you buy a stock, do you study the financial prospects of every single firm on the planet, along with every relevant economic and technological trend that could affect all of those businesses?
2. We have imperfect information because some information is concealed from us. Your boyfriend did not tell you that he has been seeing Greta again. You can’t perceive the changes that are occurring in the cells of the caudate lobe of your liver which mean you are eight months away from liver cancer. We assume the world has three dimensions plus time. If there were to be fifth or sixth dimensions, we would know nothing about them because we can’t perceive them.
3. We have imperfect information because we have experienced only a limited percentage of the range of phenomena that exist in the world. Growing up in suburban Boston, you think everywhere is just like New England. The Dallas suburbs come as a surprise. Lae, New Guinea, comes as a bigger shock. The Earth has never experienced a quivingenial shock in which carbon turns into helium. (“Quivingenial” is a word I just made up for this essay. So, is carbon turning into helium). We don’t even have a word for “quivingenial” because such a thing has never happened before. The first time that happens – everyone is going to have to learn about quinvingenial phenomena that we are experiencing for the first time. We will have to make sense of them.
4. Our brains have limits on the information we can store and the calculation we can do. At some point we just break down with information overload. This is why people use standard diagnostic trees and routine protocols for dealing with everyday matters. We can’t think about absolutely everything that we experience, so we use shortcuts on things that occur repetitively and which seem to be pretty similar. We hang up on telephone solicitors because most of them are fraudulent and useless. We listen to the newscasters we like and don’t watch the ones we don’t like. Backgammon players do not do a full mental rollout on every single roll they play; they only go into the tank on situations that seem unusual or highly consequential. They lose their equity on normal looking rolls that are not.
* * *
The framing of my argument is different from that of Konnikova.
The spirit of my argument is not.
In poker, no matter how smart you are, sometimes the cards are going to get you. Those beatings will be both unexpected and savage.
In the world, no matter how smart you are, some phenomena are going to get you. Those beatings will be both unexpected and savage.
Konnikova took heroic measures to overcome what she could not understand. Her own innate and great intellectual power, the assiduous use of an array of formidably gifted mentors, exhaustive study, exhaustive observation and practice, practice, practice made her the best she could possibly be.
We use the brains we have. We make use of whatever mentors we have access to. We study when we can. We pay attention when we remember to do so. We practice when we get around to it. Our results are worse than they would otherwise be.
But Maria Konnikova could still be got.
So, can we.