The Unsolved Riddle of Prediction

I have been promising to talk about prediction, and today I will.

First, however, I will bring you up to date on last week’s discussion, about Canadian “over-sagas” as I then called them. Terminology is evolving. Since “saga” is an Old Norse word, I decided for consistency to use the term”yfirsaga”, pronounced very much like “over-saga” except with an Old Norse twang. The English translation, I think, would be “over-epic” or, more weakly, “over-story”. I would recommend an Old Norse form of plural if I knew what was correct. As things stand, I will use “yfirsagas”.

Without going into details, I am now convinced that Canada certainly has four yfirsagas, and probably five. The three I identified last week I am now calling the Aboriginal Yfirsaga, the Colonial Yfirsaga, and the Urbanial Yfirsaga. I have since added the Political Yfirsaga, and am beginning to think that a Social Yfirsaga is in there too, doing its thing with the others. I hope that nobody thinks of any more, although of course each of these has many lesser sagas in its train. We enjoy an abundance of sagas, or at least we should enjoy it. Pluralism is both a wonderful gift and a pain in the neck. Another Both-And.

Social Injustice of course permeates them all, although perhaps the hunt for Social Justice appears most conspicuously in the last two, the Political and the Social. That’s an interesting question, however, begging for further cogitation. Arching over all is the question of how to tell them, because understanding that they exist is one thing, telling them properly quite another.

Since I am determined not to abandon my promise to talk about prediction and its role, or lack thereof, in pursuit of Social Justice, I am going to let the yfirsagas dangle for  the nonce, in order to muddle along that way.

We have no facts about the future. Our facts about the present are, for purely practical reasons, almost entirely anecdotal. We have access to some facts about the past, all fragmented, incomplete, and inconclusive, but not a complete set. This drives us crazy, because we really want to know what is going to happen. Alas, we do not know, and cannot know. All we can do is estimate probabilities. We can live with that, if we keep our wits about us. When we start treating estimates of probabilities as if they were calculations of certainties, however, we have lost touch with reality, and that is a form of insanity.

In other words, we do not have the gift of perfect foresight, except towards the simplest possible questions, such as whether the sun will rise, or we will each die one day, and even those are conditional on continuation of certain natural laws. We do have imaginations, however, which enable us to estimate probabilities shrewdly, although not precisely, and to govern our behaviour accordingly. For example, when I drive to town I implicitly estimate the probability that I will arrive safely. I know, because both statistics and factual anecdotes tell me, that my safe arrival is not certain. They also tell me that the probability of safe arrival is very high. I imagine what will happen to that probability if I drive very fast while drunk, passing on corners while texting. I imagine what will happen if I drive at a moderate speed, sober, in the right lane, keeping my eyes on the road. I realize then that the probabilities are under my control, and according to my own predilections about risk to myself and others, I make my decision whether to go. This exercise in imagination and estimation we make all the time, so frequently that we have “hard-wired” it into our brains and don’t even think about it.

When we are required to make decisions where we do not have frequent experience or where the considerations are complex, we find ourselves in difficulties, because the necessary analysis becomes difficult, time-consuming, and uncertain. We start cutting corners, either simplifying our perception of the situation, or selecting one part of it and ignoring others, or delegating the decision to someone else. Thus, in the political sphere, we have the “It’s The Economy, stupid!” approach, or “It’s Climate Change!” or “It’s Social Justice!” or “It’s Capitalism!” (for or against), or “It’s Socialism!” (ditto). We adopt these approaches, or listen to them uncritically, to save us from having to deal with the complicated reality that in the society we have created it’s all of them, and many more besides.

To cut a long story short, being myself of the Social Justice persuasion and realizing the complexities, I make such a fuss over Stephen Leacock’s emphasis on the fusion of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. Knowledge is essential, and the more the better, but it cannot be treated as sufficient when we know that so much  is unknowable. We need Imagination to work with knowledge to estimate probabilities and assess consequences, especially in circumstances we have never met before, or where the things we have tried don’t seem to be working. We need Compassion to bias our thinking in ethical ways, to protect us from the temptations of barbarism. We need Humour, by which I do not mean mockery, to keep our sense of perspective as we muddle our way along. We need to learn the art of Doublethink, for effective recognition of the undeniable fact that the kind of life we yearn for is full of inherent contradictions, and that to hold conflicting views is sanity, not hypocrisy. We need to learn more about Both-And as a useful, even sometimes brilliant, form of practical measure. Shades of grey do very well sometimes, but black and white together offer the brightest hope for a humane kind of pluralism.

The most powerful integrative tools we have are stories. They are the power tools of these complex social arts and crafts. We need to know how to use them properly in pursuit of Social Justice. We need to know how to recognize when they are not being used properly for destructive or anti-social purposes. We need to know how to use them to clarify and focus our minds amidst all the distracting clutter and noise.

That’s why the yfirsagas are important. If we learn to tell them and hear them properly, they will offer us shape and context for all the other judgements we simply must make together if we are to avoid the path of insanity and diminishment. Things are getting a little weird, and may even have spun out of control,—temporarily, we trust,—in other places, some nearby or closely related. But not everywhere, not here, not yet.

 

 

 

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