Calibrating our sense of the future.

The below started out as a comment on The Speculist, but as the comment grew I thought it’d make a good blog post.

In a post there, Phil Bowermaster states:

what is it reasonable to expect will happen?

Anything and everything that can happen.

To which I replied:

I could walk outside and get struck by lightening. If I threw a deck of cards in the air they could land in suit order. I could win the lottery.

I don’t expect any of those things to happen.

His response:

Well, you’ve got me there. Of course, I didn’t say that it’s reasonable to expect that everything that can happen will happen to everyone — some people do get struck by lighning and others win the lottery, after all.

(See the comments on his post to see all of his response, but the above seems to summarize his position.)

His original statement didn’t specifically say it, but his statement automatically means what he says he didnt say.  If you say that it’s reasonable to expect that anything that can happen, will happen, you are automatically including something like lightening striking everyone!  There is no natural law preventing lightening from striking everyone.  It’s just lower on the spectrum of probabilities.

In order of probability:

  1. Lightening striking someone.
  2. Lightening striking someone within 100 miles of me.
  3. Lightening striking me.
  4. Lightening striking me and 5 people I know.
  5. Lightening striking me and everyone in my town.
  6. Ad infinitum…

Personally, I would put the Reasonable-To-Expect line between 1 and 2, maybe 2 and 3.

The crux of my point is this:  It seems like Phil is drawing an arbitrary line in the spectrum of probabilities and saying anything above this line will happen.  The problem with that is that it does not actually help us predict anything.  Anything that doesn’t happen you can just say, “Well, I didn’t mean anything with that low of a probability.”

This leads me to guess at what Phil is actually trying to say.  My guess is that his actual point is that there are many things that, while possible, some (many?) people don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them with no solid reason for thinking that.  If this is indeed his point, I agree.  However, I don’t think his statements lead to this conclusion.  After all, the Reasonable-To-Expect is a minuscule subset of the Possible.  Because of this, merely stating that something is possible says little about it’s probability of happening.

Phil goes on to state:

“What is it reasonable to expect will happen?An astoundingly large subset of anything and everything that can happen.

Astoundingly large in what sense? As mentioned above, and demonstrated by the above series, the Reasonable-To-Expect is an infinitesimal subset of the Possible.  After all, as far as we know the universe has a limited life span.

Don’t get my point wrong. I am totally a fan of the idea that what people think is reasonable to expect has no bearing on what actually is reasonable to expect.  This is why so many people are incredulous when you talk to them about most of the transhumanist ideas.

I’m just pointing out that misstating the case or being imprecise is not likely to win any converts.  I’m not trying to bash you, Phil, I just found the subject matter to be interesting!

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