The Clash of Probability and Possibility

Probability StatisticsIt is very certain that, when it is not in our power to determine what is true, we ought to act according to what is most probable.
-René Descartes

Republicans are winning races across the country.  Those results are encouraging, but they also demonstrate that we are in the middle of a clash between possibility and probability. I would argue that most of our life’s decisions are based on the reality of probability.  When we examine the unchallenged results of this election, however, we will find that this country has slid into the fantasy realm of possibility.

A Typical Day Driven By Probability

Let us look at how a typical American named Mike goes through the day.  Mike works in construction and needs to be at work every day by 7 in the morning.  Although somewhat used to the early hour, Mike is still human and would love to grab some more sleep.  However, our construction worker realizes that if he misses work there is a high probability that he would be fired – so he rises to meet the new day.  He lives 30 miles from work and decides to drive (as he always does) because there is an extremely low probability that something will happen to him on the way.

Mike’s probability-driven decisions do not end there.  At work, he puts on a safety harness to go to the third floor that has not yet been finished.  He does so because the probability of a fall is high enough to warrant the device.  At lunch he wisely skips the food truck, knowing from experience the high probability of wrestling with indigestion.  He makes choices of tools and techniques based on the probability of success with each one.  He clocks out on time (knowing the probable circumstances of leaving too early) and drives home.  Once at his house, he must decide if he has to mow the lawn today – based on the probability of rain tomorrow.  Does he need to pay bills based upon the probable delivery date, or can he wait another day.  Mike finishes off his day by going to bed early, knowing the probable consequences of staying up too late on a work night.

At no time did Mike base his decisions on possibility.  As philosophers point out, everything is possible.  People of faith rest on the idea that in God nothing is impossible.  The problem with possibility is that it puts us in the realm of the infinite and unknown.  Probability allows us to take this infinite and craft it into reality.  Mike could state the case that there is a possibility that his driven and demanding boss would overlook his tardiness at work, promote him to supervisor as a result of his non-conformity, and throw a congratulatory dinner for his lack of effort.  Mike, though, is wise enough to know that this outcome is highly improbable – so he better get out of bed.

Probability Brings Possibility into the Realm of Reality

Our lives are directed and ruled by the measurement of probability against possibility.  Car insurance is based on how close the probability of the driver getting into an accident matches up with the possibility of such an occurrence.  House insurance looks at the probability and possibility of certain events, and decides the rate accordingly.  Life insurance bought at an early age is very inexpensive, because while the possibility of death is always present the probability is low enough to be an affordable risk to the underwriter. As age goes up, probability and possibility start matching and the rates increase.  In the end, probability always has a higher weight for consideration because, unlike the infinite realm of possibility, it helps us measure and predict reality.

At Dispute: Are These Results Probable – Not Possible

This clash of possibility and probability are at the forefront of this contested presidential election.  As ballots are “found”, we are being told that the vast amount of them (in many cases all of them) are cast for Joe Biden.  Additionally, we are told that many of those ballots are cast only for the former VP, with none of the down-ticket races (House, Senate, local positions) filled out at all.  When challenged, the response always focuses on the possible.  That response is completely valid.  It is possible that all 100,000 ballots found in one county (and there are many more incidents) all go for Joe Biden.  It is possible all of those who filled out ballots with only one item ticked – the presidential race – are not interested at all in any other race.  It is also possible for a roomful of monkeys randomly bashing on typewriters to come up with the complete text of Hamlet.  Yet these scenarios are neither highly – or even remotely – probable.   In this nation of diversity, are we truly to believe that not one of these disputed ballots, not a single one, was cast for the sitting President?  Do individuals cast their votes only for one person in a race?  I am sure some do.  Is it possible the hundreds of thousands of votes that are cast this way are genuine?  Anything is possible.  Is it probable?  Not even remotely.

Thankfully, we live in a Republic that slows down the fantasies of possibility that often drives a Democracy long enough to check in with reality and the laws of probability.  President Trump need to continue to dispute these ballots.  His re-election is on the line, of course.  More importantly, the validity and veracity of our voting system is at stake.

Lets take the time to get it right.

Image by mcmurryjulie from Pixabay

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