Probability

Last week, while fog bound yet again in Guernsey Airport departures lounge, I was having the inevitable conversation with a friend about the amount of wasted time we spend sitting in airports. This led me to think, again, about the amount of time I spend simply traveling. Going from A to B is not, I think, something humans are either good at or genetically designed to do. We become stressed, ill tempered and frustrated, eat unsuitable food and sit around without exercise. It is extremely bad for us. Travel does something awful to your sense of humanity too. Normally, I am the sort of person who mostly tries to help other people. When I am in Just Fucking Get There mode, however, everything changes. It’s not that I don’t intend to be helpful, but if I am charging along on a straight line trying to make the next train connection, or an earlier, I simply don’t see anything else. The blinkers go on and I turn into the Teleological Human.

I don’t think this is just me. Travel focuses your brain on achieving speed in a straight line. You could say that this is chase or flee mode. I excuse my behaviour with the observation that it is no wonder that our instinct is to switch everything else off.

What tortures us when our brains behave like this is the need to achieve certainty. Every travel plan is an attempt to control chaos, and of course many travel plans are disrupted by contingent events. We never know if we will arrive. We are dicing with probability.

Calculating probability is on the face of it simple. Expressed as a percentage, it is the number of possible target events divided by the number possible outcomes, times 100. So the probably of throwing a 1 on a dice is 1/6×100, or 16.67%. The probability of dying is obviously harder to calculate. You need a lot of data, and much of it is pretty variable. If you are a 58 year old man who has never smoked you can calculate a rough probability that you will die of lung cancer by dividing the number of people like you who die of lung cancer by the total number of people like you, but obviously the accuracy will be poor because of the very vague way I have defined ‘people like you’. Insurance companies make these calculations all the time though, using far more sophisticated data sets, in order to calculate risks and charges to customers. And of course bookies make their money by setting odds in the same way. As data becomes more and more sophisticated they are able to profit by calculating bets on increasingly minute and arcane events. The probability of arriving when you travel is one of those calculations you can’t make, which is why travel is so stressful. You simply have no idea of the number of journeys like yours made against the number of successful journeys completed unless you have access to many years of weather and travel data. If you travel a lot, you probably have some feel for the percentage. I’d put mine at around 75 but I am a natural pessimist when it comes to time keeping. What you can’t escape from though, is the fact that probability says that anything can happen. As an actuary friend of mine once pointed out to me with some satisfaction, everything you do has a probability attached to it, even if the data sets are indeed unknown and it is therefore impossible to work out. Probability is a practical mathematical law behind the whole of human existence, even if it is mostly obscured by ignorance and the unavailability of data.

This is a tantalizing fact. Everything is knowable in terms of probability. But of course, that means nothing is knowable. Maths looks useful, but at the one time it could actually help us it tells us nothing. Everything is simply to some degree probable, and can happen.

This fact presents one of the key dilemmas in storytelling. Why do you make one thing happen, and not another? As with rolling a dice, different outcomes may have more or less equal probability. Why do we choose one outcome against another?

You can see this question posed openly by modern writers. Kate Atkinson’s book Life After Life demonstrates as a tour de force that many outcomes to a story are equally plausible. You could then say that fiction is the exploration of probability. It is divided from reality only because it gives an account of what might happen, rather than an account of what does happen. But then again, in terms of probability, even the things that do happen are governed by the same mathematical laws. In this sense, fiction is not fiction at all, but an account of existence, and fiction is itself a fiction.

This is interesting, but it doesn’t answer my question. Why do fictions take a definitive course at all? Should every fiction propose an alternative version of itself?

My answer to this is that they do. Post modern criticism has been expert at pointing out the multiple layers of textuality and semantic play in even the simplest-seeming work. The more interesting question is not how authors present versions of events but how they account for what is true within those texts. We have to step back rom the multiplicity of action to understand that that is simply the nature of action. There is always another version, an alternative truth. What is true is the fact that we experience and have to deal with multiple realities, with probability. It is not actually a big deal that anything can happen. We are used to this. It is our condition. We live in a calculably incalculable universe. What matters is not the calculation (unless we deal in insurance or run books), but what we make of that. I keep coming back to Hamlet. This is exactly what he learns. Or rather, it is what we learn, because what we have watched and heard by the end tells us that the world is exactly the same as a play, a fiction played out by actors. We have witnessed a possibility and now we face others. Far from revealing layers of meaning, Hamlets shows us that what matters is not what we say but what we do, or rather perhaps what we don’t do. We what mean or think is irrelevant. Anyone can think of killing a king, for instance. Thats not mad at all. But to do it, thats madness. What we do determines what we say, so when we speak we cannot tell the truth. We betray our motives. We give away our intentions. We do not have the power to speak the truth, or rather, we don’t have speech with that sort of power. Events are contingent probabilities and so are beyond verbal reasoning, rational prediction or governance. We have no power over them, spoken or otherwise. It is therefore essential not to join in. It is critical to pause. We have to stop. The madness only stops when we stop too. Silence is the only restorative. And that’s what we feel at the end of the play. Thank God it’s all over.

So Hamlet only regains control when he rests, and Shakespeare when he ends. He has simply been carried along by events. All along, we know Hamlet is not really the kind of person who murders people and drives his girlfriend to suicide, just as I am not really the kind of person who ignores old ladies on trains. On an utterly trivial level, this brings me back to my problem with travel. If we are so obsessed with arrival and getting there we actually cease to exist as human beings. No, really, its that bad. Unless we pause.

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