## Religion and Probability

If only people were better at mathematics in general and probability in particular, we may not have had religion

Last month I was showing my mother-in-law the video of the meteor that fell in Russia causing much havoc, and soon the conversation drifted to why the meteor fell where it did. “It is simple mathematics that the meteor fell in Russia”, I declared, trying to show off my knowledge of geography and probability, arguing that Russia’s large landmass made it the most probable country for the meteor to fall in. My mother-in-law, however, wasn’t convinced. “It’s all god’s choice”, she said.

Recently I realized the fallacy in my argument. While it was probabilistically most likely that the meteor would fall in Russia than in any other country, there was no good scientific reason to explain why it fell at the exact place it did. It could have just as likely fallen in any other place. It was just a matter of chance that it fell where it did.

Falling meteors are not the only events in life that happen with a certain degree of randomness. There are way too many things that are beyond our control which happen when they happen and the way they happen for no good reason. And the kicker is that it all just doesn’t average out. Think about the meteor itself for example. A meteor falling is such a rare event that it is unlikely to happen (at least with this kind of impact) again in most people’s lifetimes. This can be quite confounding for most people.

Every time I’ve studied probability (be it in school or engineering college or business school), I’ve noticed that most people have much trouble understanding it. I might be generalizing based on my cohort but I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that probability is not the easiest of subjects to grasp for most people. Which is a real tragedy given the amount of randomness that is a fixture in everyone’s lives.

Because of the randomness inherent in everyone’s lives, and because most of these random events don’t really average out in people’s lifetimes, people find the need to call upon an external entity to explain these events. And once the existence of one such entity is established, it is only natural to attribute every random event to the actions of this entity.

And then there is the oldest mistake in statistics – assuming that if two events happen simultaneously or one after another, one of the events is the cause for the other. (I’m writing this post while watching football) Back in 2008-09, the last time Liverpool FC presented a good challenge for the English Premier League, I noticed a pattern over a month where Liverpool won all the games that I happened to watch live (on TV) and either drew or lost the others. Being rather superstitious, I immediately came to the conclusion that my watching a game actually led to a Liverpool victory. And every time that didn’t happen (that 2-2 draw at Hull comes to mind) I would try to rationalize that by attributing it to a factor I had hitherto left out of “my model” (like I was seated on the wrong chair or that my phone was ringing when a goal went in or something).

So you have a number of events which happen the way they happen randomly, and for no particular reason. Then, you have pairs of events that for random reasons happen in conjunction with one another, and the human mind that doesn’t like un-explainable events quickly draws a conclusion that one led to the other. And then when the pattern breaks, the model gets extended in random directions.

Randomness leads you to believe in an external entity who is possibly choreographing the world. When enough of you believe in one such entity, you come up with a name for the entity, for example “God”. Then people come up with their own ways of appeasing this “God”, in the hope that it will lead to “God” choreographing events in their favour. Certain ways of appeasement happen simultaneously with events favourable to the people who appeased. These ways of appeasement are then recognized as legitimate methods to appease “God”. And everyone starts following them.

Of course, the experiment is not repeatable – for the results were purely random. So people carry out activities to appease “God” and yet experience events that are unfavourable to them. This is where model extension kicks in. Over time, certain ways of model extension have proved to be more convincing than others, the most common one (at least in India) being ‘”God” is doing this to me because he/she wants to test me”. Sometimes these model extensions also fail to convince. However, the person has so much faith in the model (it has after all been handed over to him/her by his/her ancestors, and a wrong model could definitely not have propagated?) that he/she is not willing to question the model, and tries instead to further extend it in another random direction.

In different parts of the world, different methods of appeasement to “God” happened in conjunction with events favourable to the appeasers, and so this led to different religions. Some people whose appeasements were correlated with favourable events had greater political power (or negotiation skills) than others, so the methods of appeasement favoured by the former grew dominant in that particular society. Over time, mostly due to political and military superiority, some of these methods of appeasement grew disproportionately, and others lost their way. And we had what are now known as “major religions”. I don’t need to continue this story.

So going back, it all once again boils down to the median man’s poor understanding of concepts of probability and randomness, and the desire to explain all possible events. Had human understanding of probability and randomness been superior, it is possible that religion didn’t exist at all!

## On age and experience and respecting elders

A lot of commentary about the financial crisis of 2008 spoke about there not being anyone around who had experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s. The American Economy was largely stable till the end of the 1970s, they had argued, because the memory of the Depression was fresh in the minds of most policy-makers, and they made sure not to repeat similar mistakes. With that cohort retiring, and dying, however, in the 1990s and 2000s there emerged a bunch of policy makers with absolutely no recollection of the depression (in the 1990s, most policy makers would have been born in the 1940s or later). And so they did not hedge themselves and the economy against the kind of risks that had brought America down to its knees in the 1930s.

Now, think back to a society which was far less networked than ours is, and there was little writing (“no writing” would take us too far back in time, but think of a time when it was fairly expensive to write and store written material). This meant, that there were no books, and little to understand and experience apart from what one directly experienced. For example, one would never know what a storm is if one had never directly experienced it. One wouldn’t know how to light a fire if one had never seen a fire being lit. You get the drift. Back in those days when societies were hardly networked and there wasn’t much writing, there was only one way in which one could have learnt things – by having experienced it.

I suspect that this whole concept of elders having to be unconditionally respected had its advent in one such age. Back then, the older you were, the more you had experienced (naturally!), and hence the more you knew! There was no other way in which one could accumulate knowledge or understanding. In places like India, even education didn’t help, for “education” back in those days consisted of little more than learning the scriptures by rote, and didn’t teach much in terms of real knowledge. So taking the advice of elders naturally meant taking the advice of someone who knew more. It is natural to assume that these people who knew more than the ones around were respected.

With the advent of books, and later (post Gutenburg) the advent of cheap books, all this began to change. It became possible for people to know without having experienced. It became possible for people to get more networked, and the direct impact of both of these was that it became possible to know more without having really experienced it. In this day of highly networked societies and wikipedia, it is even possible to know everything about something without even pretending to have experienced it (attend some high school seminars and you’ll know what I’m talking about). There is no connection at all now between age and how much you know.

Culture, however, doesn’t adapt itself so quickly. It didn’t help that “elders”, whose position as the “most knowledgeable” was being threatened thanks to writing and networking, were also the people in power. In any case, the real reason of respect for elders had probably been lost, so it was easier for them to extend their reign. And so it continues to extend.

Older people nowadays fail to recognize that younger people might know more than them, and get offended if the younger people tend to argue with them. Yes, experience is still a great teacher, but the correlation between experience and knowledge has long since been broken. As the pupils sang at the beginning of the Vishnuvardhan starrer Guru Shishyaru (the teacher and the pupils), “doDDavarellaa jaaNaralla, chikkavarellaa kONaralla, gurugaLu hELida maatugaLantoo endoo nijavallaa” (elders are not wise, youngsters are not buffaloes, what the teacher says is never true).

PS: As I was writing this, it struck me that this whole “respect for elders” paradigm is more prevalent in societies (such as India) where education was largely religious. Societies where education was more secular don’t seem to have this paradigm.