Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

by on July 22, 2014

Noah Smith today

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

1

Anderson 07.22.14 at 7:42 pm

Severian sounds like a much more sophisticated Bayesian than Noah Smith, whoever he is (surely some kind of fictional character).

2

MPAVictoria 07.22.14 at 8:11 pm

Is this kind of like the rock that keeps away tigers?

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

3

John Quiggin 07.22.14 at 8:14 pm

As Severian and Anderson imply, Noah is being a bad Bayesian here. A signal that has only one possible (observable) value has no information content.

4

Henry 07.22.14 at 8:16 pm

I’ve had vague aspirations to write a post about this bit for a decade or so (not that it’s incredibly revelatory – hence vagueness of aspirations – but it is fun). Also a nice demonstration of the logic of selection bias.

5

John Quiggin 07.22.14 at 8:16 pm

This is another version of the anthropic fallacy

6

P O'Neill 07.22.14 at 8:48 pm

Now if a Bayesian was updating probabilities on airliners being blown out of the sky, he’d probably be more informed about the issue than Noah Smith.

7

Sasha Clarkson 07.22.14 at 9:01 pm

Proposition H: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me …. etc” Sorry, I’m not religious, but the King James Bible expresses it so much more eloquently! :)

The Bayes’ rule delusion is just the unjustified confidence of the Russian roulette survivor: if there are enough subjects, some will survive.

8

Brett Bellmore 07.22.14 at 9:07 pm

“As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase.”

The problem here is that there are competing hypothesis which can explain the observations, and the probability must be shared among them. A long string of threats failing to kill you might rationally incline you to believe that something is protecting you, but would not reveal what it was, without additional data.

9

Ze Kraggash 07.22.14 at 9:14 pm

He could easily test the hypothesis by jumping off a tall building.

10

Sometimes I worry about a variation of Proposition H: that the many-worlds interpretation is true, and I’m living in one of the possible worlds where nothing ever manages to kill me, and I’ll end up like Tithonus.

11

Joshua W. Burton 07.22.14 at 9:35 pm

There is a belief, at least as old as Homer, that dolphins are benevolent and push distressed swimmers closer to shore . . . .

12

Anderson 07.22.14 at 9:38 pm

9: Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

See, they anticipated that one.

13

12: Just because God says a few nice things about moral hazard doesn’t mean he won’t vote for the bail-out when the time comes.

14

Lee A. Arnold 07.22.14 at 9:50 pm

Well you all know where the mechanical application of rules will get you:

15

ZM 07.22.14 at 9:54 pm

“How such primitive minds come to believe in their charms”

That is not very polite or respectful. Apparently the character was a horrible cold hearted torturer and mercenary. Best not to agree with such a character.

Anyway, this topic is reminiscent of the argument about how one can know about others knowing about the death of Captain Cook/Lono in Hawaii.

16

Sandwichman 07.22.14 at 9:58 pm

So far, so goo

17

Joshua W. Burton 07.22.14 at 10:06 pm

unhelpful @10: John Quiggin is correct above that Bayes’s theorem has nothing to say about survivorship fallacies. When playing Russian roulette, you may sum over five expected outcomes or over six, as you prefer. But in nonfatal games, the quantum mechanic is in slightly better shape than the classical believer in empiricism. When we define “likely” as a sum over past trials, and then blindly apply it to a sum over future counterfactuals, we are standing on a metaphysical foundation that cannot possibly be supported by past experience; the very notion that we can learn from experience is in the dock. In a deterministic world, “likely” as a sum over counterfactuals is not even coherent: what does “likely” mean, if only one outcome happens?

The Everett (QM) Bayesian has no such problem. He (metaphysically) lives in a superposition of wavefunctions, and has a unified theory of both historic and contingent probability: namely, that they are both given by the square of the wavefunction amplitude. He’s “likely” to see what’s mostly happened before, because most of his wavefunction ends up there, and he’s got a prospective calculation to prove it. Contrariwise, he cares where most of his wavefunction ends up, because that’s how he got here himself, and again he can do the retrospective calculation, using the same machinery, to prove it. His metaphysics are still prior to his empiricism, but at least they treat all empirical inputs (past and future) the same way.

18

Joshua W. Burton 07.22.14 at 10:11 pm

There’s a technical term for people who “sum over five” in Russian roulette, by the way. But it’s a choice, not a philosophical proposition — and I am pro-choice.

19

JakeB 07.22.14 at 10:15 pm

Actually, ZM, “cold-hearted” would not be the right term for Severian if you want to judge him according to our times. “Badly damaged” would be much closer.

20

Henry 07.22.14 at 10:48 pm

Sometimes I worry about a variation of Proposition H: that the many-worlds interpretation is true, and I’m living in one of the possible worlds where nothing ever manages to kill me, and I’ll end up like Tithonus.

For another SF referent, Robert Wilson’s short story, “Division by Zero,” in his collection, The Perseids, is on just this theme. Robert Heinlein also has another (less good imo – not one of his vintage pieces) story in Assignment in Eternity on this.

21

Henry 07.22.14 at 10:50 pm

“How such primitive minds come to believe in their charms”

That is not very polite or respectful. Apparently the character was a horrible cold hearted torturer and mercenary. Best not to agree with such a character.

My working assumption has always been that Wolfe is transposing some of his own wartime experiences into this section (which would mean that the ‘primitive minds’ are a transposed version of how his fellow soldiers, and perhaps he himself, thought in such situations).

22

Patrick 07.22.14 at 11:46 pm

Noah Smith isn’t wrong. The people not grasping math are the ones uncomfortable with the idea of a low number continuously increasing yet remaining negligible.

23

ZM 07.23.14 at 12:04 am

Re: Jake b, and Henry ‘are a transposed version of how his fellow soldiers…’

This article The Education of a Torturer investigates how soldiers etc are picked and turned into torturers by their masters

24

temp 07.23.14 at 1:20 am

As Severian and Anderson imply, Noah is being a bad Bayesian here. A signal that has only one possible (observable) value has no information content.

So surviving one round of Russian roulette tells you nothing about the probability the next one is loaded? That seems wrong.

25

Scott 07.23.14 at 1:24 am

ZM

Bear in mind that Severian believes in the efficacy of a charm which on at least once occasion not merely saved his life, but actually resurrected him from the dead. The character trait on exhibit here isn’t callousness: Severian is distinguishing between True Religion and superstion.

26

jdkbrown 07.23.14 at 1:26 am

“A signal that has only one possible (observable) value has no information content.”

This can’t possibly be the problem with the reasoning, since a third-person variant (H: God won’t let NS die) in which both values of the signal are observable poses the same issue.

27

Tom Hurka 07.23.14 at 2:09 am

Smith says the probability you assign to proposition H should increase but will always remain extremely low. Severian describes people who think the probability of their being invincible is very high. BIG difference.

28

ZM 07.23.14 at 2:16 am

“Severian is distinguishing between True Religion and superstion.”

So you mean he is a cold hearted Francis Bacon type of torturer rather than an Abu Graib one?

29

Noah Smith 07.23.14 at 3:01 am

Dr. Quiggin –

Being the veteran of many physics cocktail-hour arguments about the anthropic principle, I anticipated your objection, and in my post I noted that you could modify H very slightly to allow someone to observe himself being mortally wounded.

If you like, you can apply my argument to “becoming a paraplegic” instead of “being violently killed”…

– N

30

ZM 07.23.14 at 3:17 am

Francis Bacon is probably quite a good likeness for this type of character actually – developer of the Baconian method of inquiry, master of torture, promoter of colonisation, practitioner of intrigue, writer of utopian science fiction set in the new world, and great influence on his secretary Hobbes to such an extent as people are not sure who coined knowledge is power first.

He was also involved in trying to organise a proto- royal society organisation named after the biblical figure Solomon. The Blazing World published with Observations on Experimental Philosophy in 1666 gives some indication of the constellation of the Baconian epistemology and the harm it imposed on, in this case, animals.

31

ZM 07.23.14 at 3:18 am

Not constellation – contestation sorry. They were written by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

32

mud man 07.23.14 at 4:19 am

If God has a task for you to do, logical to suppose he would take care of you while you do it. Once it’s done … well, he doesn’t have a task for you any more, does he?

He could easily test the hypothesis by jumping off a tall building.

If your job was to jump off a building, it would be a good thing to do, but it wouldn’t necessarily call for intervention of angels. “Pick up your cross and follow”, as it were.

33

John Quiggin 07.23.14 at 4:56 am

@Noah I missed the mortally wounded bit. But I don’t think it does all the work you want it to. Certainly in the immediate aftermath of a death-cheating experience you can raise the posterior probability of invincibility (a little). But, you can’t update repeatedly in this fashion, because you can’t be mortally wounded twice.

Of course, this doesn’t invalidate your final point that lots of people (most notably teenagers) reason this way.

34

John Quiggin 07.23.14 at 4:58 am

Not sure about the paraplegic case, but clearly less dramatic instances work fine. If you suffer repeated hard impacts and never get a bruise or scratch you can give substantial weight to the possibility that you have super-tough skin.

35

J Thomas 07.23.14 at 6:47 am

So surviving one round of Russian roulette tells you nothing about the probability the next one is loaded? That seems wrong.

If it’s a revolver with 6 shots, and you don’t spin the cylinder between shots, then surviving one round tells you nothing about the next round. Unless the round you survived was the sixth-oldest.

If you do spin the cylinder, then surviving one round shows you there is at least one that’s unloaded, and you can work out the math for the odds on successive survivals. The chance that there’s only one unloaded one and you get it each time goes down fast. The chance that there is one loaded one and you miss it each time goes down slower.

Anyway, consider the plot of Catch-22. If you started the war with a bunch of others and now there are few of them left and no end in sight to the war, and a lot of guys who haven’t been in it as long as you have died, the natural Bayesian approach is to figure that everybody who’s reasonably competent has about the same chance of survival, and you have been lucky so far just by the luck of the draw. If the average soldier lasts less than a year, then your chance of lasting another year is not good. People find this unpleasant to think about.

Far easier to believe that there’s something special about you so the statistics about the others doesn’t apply to you.

So if at some point you have a choice — everybody agrees that you have done your part, you don’t owe it to them to keep fighting, so you can go home to a million-dollar job with good food and four beautiful girlfriends and everybody thinks you’re a hero, or you can keep fighting, at that point it makes sense to do reasonable Bayesian thinking.

But if instead you have a choice — keep fighting, or abandon your surviving buddies and try to sneak home through enemy territory and occupied territory with heavy security and if they ever catch you, you will be hanged, take up a new identity from scratch and never call attention to yourself in any way and feel ashamed for life — then it might feel a lot better to pretend you’re special.

36

Chris Bertram 07.23.14 at 7:11 am

Puts me in mind of La Haine: “C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui tombe d’un immeuble de cinquante étages. Le mec, au fur et à mesure de sa chute se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer : jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien.
Mais l’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.”

37

Sasha Clarkson 07.23.14 at 8:57 am

“So surviving one round of Russian roulette tells you nothing about the probability the next one is loaded? That seems wrong.”

My understanding is that there’s a fixed chance that one chamber is loaded. If you spin the barrel between shots, you can think of it as being like throwing a die. Say the probability that a chamber is loaded is 1/6: then surviving any one round tells you nothing about your chances of surviving the next*: surviving n rounds has a probability of (5/6)^n, which will always be a finite possibility. Although you have just been lucky, the experience may convince you that you’re special. Bad drivers and smokers often think this way.

*though I am reminded of the old joke: “if your parents didn’t have any children, it’s highly unlikely that you will either …”

38

Sasha Clarkson 07.23.14 at 9:21 am

Formally, the Russian roulette version of Noah’s proposition H could be considered as a hypothesis test. H0 is that you are not special and you die. H1 is that you are special and that your survival is due to divine intervention and not to chance. In the above example, the random chance of surviving 20 shots is (5/6)^20 = 0.026 (3dp), about 1 in 40. So the alternative hypothesis of supernatural protection* is supported with a probability of 97.4%.

* or that the bullet is dud etc.

39

J Thomas 07.23.14 at 10:26 am

H0 is that you are not special and you die. H1 is that you are special and that your survival is due to divine intervention and not to chance. In the above example, the random chance of surviving 20 shots is (5/6)^20 = 0.026 (3dp), about 1 in 40. So the alternative hypothesis of supernatural protection* is supported with a probability of 97.4%.

If 39 others spun it until they died and the bullet was replaced, chances are the bullet is not a dud.

But now it’s an open question whether you are special. If nobody was special we’d get about 1 in 40 surviving, and we have that. If we had 2 in 40 survive, then maybe one of them is special but we don’t know which one.

But with Bayesian analysis we can consider other data. Maybe before you started playing russian roulette, God had already spoken to you and told you that you were special, that he had important plans for you and you would not die until the right time. That certainly makes you special. You might give it an 80% chance it was really God talking to you, and a 20% chance you are having auditory hallucinations, based on how convincing God was when he talked to you. Then the fact that you were the one who survived when 40 mundanes died, tends to confirm that it was God instead of a hallucination.

40

Sasha Clarkson 07.23.14 at 11:19 am

JT @39

“But now it’s an open question whether you are special. If nobody was special we’d get about 1 in 40 surviving, and we have that. If we had 2 in 40 survive, then maybe one of them is special but we don’t know which one.”

Very maybe :) – with 40 people in the trial, this could be modelled (approximately) by a Poisson distribution with a mean of 1. In this case the probability of 2 or more surviving is about a quarter.

Your really interesting question is how convincing “God” seems to be when talking to you. Oliver Cromwell always agonised and sought to do what he felt/hoped was God’s bidding, and regarded the result of battles as God’s judgement. In particular, Cromwell regarded the Battle Of Naseby as an expression of divine will for the settling of the kingdom. Charles’ refusal to accept this and further intrigues sealed his fate.

So, if you manage to found an empire or new religion, God may have been speaking to you. If you end up in the graveyard or the asylum, then either your perceived God was a delusion, or He/She?It was deliberately deceiving you.

41

ZM 07.23.14 at 12:15 pm

I think this method of trialling people about their faith has been done before, back around Francis Bacon’s day, often on ‘superstitious’ women :(

42

Noah Smith 07.23.14 at 12:22 pm

John –

I think you’re assuming that people are colloquially “rational” in that they define complex, “realistic” hypotheses. The hypothesis I’m suggesting is highly artificial and weird. I think even teenagers don’t subscribe to ideas like that.

– N

43

Soru 07.23.14 at 12:51 pm

Kind of related, in one of Bank’s Culture books there is a political pundit who is right on every controversy that comes up over the course of several centuries.

The Minds, aware of the possibility that they might be completely wrong about how everything fundamentally works, pay serious attention to her opinion.

But she doesn’t show up in later books in the series. So presumably she was just the kind of statistical anomaly you would expect given a population size of mega trillions.

Of course, someone who was wrong on every controversy would be equally useful.

44

Ze Kraggash 07.23.14 at 1:20 pm

Wasn’t there a Spanish fantasy film about this sort of things, with von Sydow? Definitely better than the one with Willis…

45

Widmerpool 07.23.14 at 2:11 pm

Soru @43. But see Tom Friedman, always uselessly wrong.

46

bianca steele 07.23.14 at 3:07 pm

@38 It follows logically that in a sufficiently large population, a few of them will be specially favored by God (because if the Russian Roulette experiment were tried, a few would survive)

47

bianca steele 07.23.14 at 3:11 pm

Combine with @8, perhaps, and you get a rather good argument for polytheism.

48

Jesús Couto Fandiño 07.23.14 at 3:50 pm

#44 Intacto

49

Dr. Hilarius 07.23.14 at 5:52 pm

Byron the Bulb lives on.

50

Shatterface 07.23.14 at 6:56 pm

#48 Worth watching as a double bill with the US film The Cooler

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cooler

51

Shatterface 07.23.14 at 7:03 pm

Given that most religions seem to revere martyrs more than the living I’m not sure survival is evidence of God’s will.

52

Sasha Clarkson 07.23.14 at 7:27 pm

Bianca@46

As you say, a few will survive – but this is chance, not divine will – unless the only ones who survive are those who, before the experiment, think their deity is looking after them!

So far, there is no scientific evidence of divine intervention to save lives

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/12082681/ns/health-heart_health/t/power-prayer-flunks-unusual-test/

53

Matt 07.23.14 at 8:45 pm

Henry mentioned Robert Charles Wilson’s short story “Divided by Infinity” about someone who discovers that quantum immortality is real after improbably avoiding or surviving death many times.

What’s driving me crazy is that I know I’ve read another short story about quantum immortality, where someone tests the hypothesis with a suicide attempt but the attempt succeeds. The person who commits suicide isn’t the narrator, so really we can’t be sure about the quantum immortality hypothesis… There was nothing science fictional actually evidenced in the story, only people acting on a belief about quantum immortality. You wouldn’t even call it SF if it hadn’t been published by a SF author alongside other SF stories. Does anyone recall the story I’m talking about? My Googling fails me.

54

John 07.23.14 at 8:52 pm

Noah’s logic is flawed. First of all, we are dealing here with subjective probabilities. In reality, P(H) =0, so the analysis fails. But even if we accept the use of subjective probabilities, all he has shown is that the subjective probability P(E|H) > P(H). He has not shown that P(E|H) increases with each successive non-death. In fact, he makes the classic “gambler’s fallacy” mistake. He assumes that past events (i.e. not dying in a number of dangerous occasions) affect the probability of future events. This is like saying that because a fair coin toss came up as five heads in the past, the probability of heads is higher on the subsequent toss.

55

bianca steele 07.23.14 at 9:59 pm

Sasha @ 52
I was only taking what you said literally. Did you not mean it? (On a third or fourth reading, maybe I misunderstood what you meant by “of.”)

I really do see no reason why someone couldn’t interpret “chosen by God” in a way that doesn’t require breaking the laws of statistics (though I don’t think it’s the most natural way). As a general rule, Russian roulette is fatal, yet two or three out of a hundred lived. Why them? Once you’re permitting causes that can’t be observed and that have (by definition) no observable effect, you can do whatever you want. Maybe they must have cheated, maybe their God saved them, maybe they possess some as-yet unknown immunity to six-shooters.

56

Sasha Clarkson 07.23.14 at 10:46 pm

Hi Bianca

“Once you’re permitting causes that can’t be observed and that have (by definition) no observable effect, you can do whatever you want.”

Absolutely! :D

I was being slightly ironic in my construction of the alternative hypothesis. :D

57

temp 07.24.14 at 12:01 am

Ok, the Russian roulette example is unnecessarily complicated for my purpose. Suppose there are two guns, A and B. You know one of the two is loaded (and 100% fatal) but have no information as to which. You shoot yourself with A and nothing happens. Does this tell you anything about the probability B is loaded?

58

Scott 07.24.14 at 12:39 am

Matt

You may be remembering “How we pass the time in Hell.”

59

Matt 07.24.14 at 2:36 am

I finally found the story I was thinking of: it was “Everlasting” by Alastair Reynolds.

60

Peter T 07.24.14 at 4:03 am

Tangential to the post. Russian roulette is played by those who don’t really care whether the next chamber has the bullet or not. Likewise soldiers often fight without regard for the odds of death – it is loss of hope for the cause, not loss of life, that loses battles. “I’m special” is just what the survivors tell themselves afterwards.

61

bad Jim 07.24.14 at 4:21 am

Never play Russian roulette with a semi-automatic.

62

maidhc 07.24.14 at 8:53 am

There’s a related scam where you offer to sell people tips for betting on football games. You provide tips equally divided between the teams for each game. After each game the number of customers drops by half, but the remaining customers will pay more because they are increasingly convinced you are a genius. Eventually the customer base is too small to be worthwhile. Then you close up shop and start over under a new name, with the additional benefit of a mailing list of people who will pay for football tips.

63

Tom Scudder 07.24.14 at 2:19 pm

53 – I was going to mention “Divided by Infinity” – at least I can add value (assuming the spam filter lets this post) by pointing out that it’s available for free online.

64

ogmb 07.24.14 at 10:25 pm

Step 1. If you believe in God, and God exists, you go to Heaven (u = +1). If you don’t believe in God, and God exists, you go to Hell (u = ‒1). If you believe in God, or don’t believe in God, and God doesn’t exist, you go the Big Void (u = 0). For all values of p > 0, believing in God produces strictly greater expected utility than not believing in God.

Step 2. There must be a way to profit from this.

Step 3. Organized religion.

65

JW Mason 07.24.14 at 10:30 pm

John Donne takes the frequentist side:

Let no man, no woman, no devil offer a Ne forte, (perchance we may die) much less a Nequaquam, (Surely we shall not die) except he be provided of an answer to this question, except he can give an instance against this general, except he can produce that man’s name, and history, that hath lived, and shall not see death. We are all conceived in close prison; in our mothers’ wombs, we are close prisoners all; when we are born, we are born but to the liberty of the house; prisoners still, though within larger walls: and then all our life is but a going out to the place of execution, to death. Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate, and Tyburn? between the prison, and the place of execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake; but pass on with such dreams, and imaginations as these, I may live as well, as another, and why should I die, rather than another?

66

JW Mason 07.24.14 at 10:52 pm

in one of Bank’s Culture books there is a political pundit who is right on every controversy that comes up over the course of several centuries.

Like Jack DuChamp in Jonathan Franzen’s The 27th City:

If you checked the results of all the state, local and national elections of the thirty years Jack had been voting, and if you read the voting histories of all St. Louis residents, and if you hunted for the closest correlation, Jack’s was it. With an instinctive jerk he’d yanked the Kennedy lever in 1960. After a last-minute struggle with himself he’d gone Republican in the very close ’84 Senatorial. Bond issues, special propositions, referenda, Crestwood city-council votes — in every case his ballot turned out to be the list of winners. He knew his record was good. … What he didn’t realize was that it was perfect.

(In the special election that is the climax of the novel, he doesn’t bother to vote.)

Does anyone read The 27th City? I think it’s way better than the stuff Franzen is famous for — it might be his only good book.

67

JW Mason 07.24.14 at 10:58 pm

I should add that I see nothing wrong generically with the reasoning described in Noah’s post. Each of us is unusual in certain ways. We have to study our own experiences to learn how.

68

roy belmont 07.24.14 at 11:04 pm

ZM at 12:15 pm:
I’ve got this anecdote about Kepler having to break off something astronomically important to go home and defend his mother, who was on trial for being a witch. But I’m to lazy/busy right now to track it down.

It’s always been Byron’s humility that’s inspired me the most.
All that light, all those years, and he just keeps shining on.

69

JW Mason 07.24.14 at 11:11 pm

What’s driving me crazy is that I know I’ve read another short story about quantum immortality, where someone tests the hypothesis with a suicide attempt but the attempt succeeds.

Larry Niven’s All the Myriad Ways?

70

ZM 07.25.14 at 1:47 am

JW Mason,
I read 27th City – i think at the time I read them I thought Strong Motion the better of the pre-Corrections books. I read an interview with Franzen where he said he thought it had been overlooked. Post-Corrections I think Freedom made a return to a stronger focus on the intersections and conflict covered if I remember rightly more in the first two novels than the third – sci-tech/administrative systems; nature/land use; corruption; individuals and family. Possibly though the system/individual conflict was greater in the first two novels – the conflict burst out in freedom but it had a fairly ambiguous ending to my reading given it started with a quote from the Winter’s Tale – the family reconciliation at the end didn’t really connect to a wider civic reconciliation like you can assume for the earlier works of political romance in English (eg. Sir Orfeo)?

Henry,
‘which would mean that the ‘primitive minds’ are a transposed version of how his fellow soldiers, and perhaps he himself, thought in such situations’
I was interested in this point – as to whether/if the author identifies with the torturer or the ‘primitive minds’. From this article it looks to me like he identifies at least on some level with the torturer and the systems of control that produces torturers:
GW “I identify with all my main characters….”
GW “It’s very easy to say how terrible it is to beat a man with a whip, or lock him up for 30 years of his life, or to execute him. These are indeed awful things. But when you are actually in authority, you find out that sometimes it’s absolutely necessary for you to take certain distasteful actions.”
http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/wolfe46interview.htm

71

Limericky Dicky 07.25.14 at 4:13 pm

The reason why Noah seems a sophist: he isolates this one hypothesis. For Ideal Bayesians, a billion equations are tracked, not just magical prophecies.

Likewise, Pascal fails on the major premise sustaining his Wager. If Old Nick rewards his fiendish hordes, the Satanist starts to look sager.

But stats will not do in reality: physicality mandates frugality. The Best Explanation of our information thus beats doomed attempts at totality.

72

Limericky Dicky 07.25.14 at 4:14 pm

The reason why Noah seems a sophist is he isolates this one hypothesis. For Ideal Bayesians, a billion equations are tracked, not just magical prophecies.

Likewise, Pascal fails on the major premise sustaining his Wager. If Old Nick rewards his fiendish hordes, the Satanist starts to look sager.

But stats will not do in reality: physicality mandates frugality. The Best Explanation of our information thus beats doomed attempts at totality.

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Limericky Dicky 07.25.14 at 4:18 pm

(Delete the first – it’s not intended. I’d be grateful, not offended. If it goes thenthis can too – sorry to make work for you.)

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J Thomas 07.25.14 at 5:44 pm

This is like saying that because a fair coin toss came up as five heads in the past, the probability of heads is higher on the subsequent toss.

If you know it’s a fair coin, then you know that after it comes up five heads in a row it will still be a fair coin in the future. Nothing can happen to it to change it into an unfair coin, because it’s a fair coin and it will always be a fair coin.

If you have no idea ahead of time whether it’s a fair coin or not, then looking at the actual outcomes is your best indicator of how fair it is. A decidedly imperfect indicator, but it’s all you have.

If you do have a prior belief how fair it is, and you know how intense that belief is, then you can calculate how much that belief should be affected by later data. The prior belief might come from previous observations of that coin, or it might come from observations of many other coins of the same type from the same mint, with data about how fair they were and the distribution of fairness among them. Or it might come from observations of other coins of other types from other mints. In each case you have to decide how much you think the observed data applies to the new case.

It’s very difficult to be entirely objective about any of this, but people must struggle along the best they can.

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TM 07.25.14 at 9:24 pm

I don’t know of anybody believing in Proposition H. Many people believe they will be rewarded in an afterlife; some deliberately commit suicidal acts that they believe promote a good cause, and many more are willing to risk their lives for what they believe are good causes. Most of these people don’t imagine themselves invulnerable (there is still superstition of the sort that people carry medallions or charms but they also know that others who carried the same charms have died).

Another superstition is, I believe, far more relevant:

Proposition HH: “Humanity has nothing to fear from resource limits or environmental crises such as Global Warming because human ingenuity will overcome any obstacle and always find a solution.” Of course, belief in proposition HH is justified by past experience – we will continue surviving because we survived in the past.

It’s not difficult to come up with a long list of well-educated, seemingly rational thinkers who subscribe to this particular superstition. In fact its power can hardly be overestimated.

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TM 07.25.14 at 9:24 pm

Huh? Comment moderation?

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floopmeister 07.26.14 at 11:54 am

Someone once tried to convince Diogoras of Melos of the existence of the gods by pointing out all the offerings (votive pictures) left by grateful sailors who had survived storms after praying to the gods. Diagoras replied that “there are nowhere any pictures of those who have been shipwrecked and drowned at sea.”

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bad Jim 07.27.14 at 9:36 am

It’s probably not worthwhile to warn people against playing leapfrog with unicorns.

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Patrick C 07.29.14 at 3:17 pm

Poorly Chosen Prior.

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Patrick C 07.29.14 at 3:29 pm

On second thought. Isn’t this just a case of an unfalsifiable hypothesis? If you do die, it might just be because you’ve accomplished god’s purpose. Not because your hypothesis was false.

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