## 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!

## The Global Financial Crisis Revisited

When we talk about the global financial crisis, one question that pops up in lots of people’s heads is about where the money went. Since every trade involves two parties, it is argued that every loser has a corresponding winner, and that most commentary about the global financial crisis (of 2008) doesn’t talk about these winners. Everyone knows about the havoc that the crisis caused when prices went down (rather suddenly). The havoc that the crisis caused when prices initially went up (rather slowly) is less well documented.

The reason winners don’t get too much footage is that firstly, they are widely distributed, and secondly they spent away all their money. Think about a stock or a CDO or a bond being a like a parcel that you play by passing the parcel. The only thing is that every time you receive the parcel, you make a payment, and then pass on the parcel after receiving a higher payment. Finally, when the whistle blows, one person has the parcel in his hand, and it explodes in his face, ruining him. We know enough about people like this. A large number of banks lost a lot of money holding parcels when the whistle blew. Some went bust, while others had to be bailed out by governments. We know enough of this story so I don’t need to repeat here.

What is interesting is about the winners. Every person who held the parcel for a small amount of time was a winner, albeit a small winner. There were several such winners, each of whom “won” a small amount of money, and spent it (remember that the asset bubble in the early noughties was responsible for increasing consumption among common people). This spending increased demand for various goods and services produced in several countries. This increasing demand led to greater investment in the production facilities of these goods and services. Apart from that, they also increased expectations of growth in demand of these goods.

The damage the crisis did on the way up was to skew expectations of growth in different sectors, thus skewing investment (both in terms of financial and human capital). The spending caused by “small wins” for consumers put in place unreasonable expectations, and by the time it was known that this increased demand came as a result of an asset bubble, a lot of capital had been committed. And this would create imbalances in the “real economy”.

Yes, the asset bubble of the last decade did produce winners. The winners begat more winners (people whose goods and services were bought). However the skewed expectations that the wins created were to cause damage in the longer term. Unfortunately, I don’t see this story being told adequately, when the financial crisis is being talked about. After all, the losers are more spectacular.

## Horoscopes and Caesarean Births

The fundamental question is about what needs to be considered as a zero point in a person’s life – conception or delivery. I don’t want to start a debate on abortion here, but just wonder what Indian astrology considers to be the zero point of a person’s life. The answer to this question can determine the effectiveness of Indian astrology, even assuming that it is ok that it hasn’t been recalibrated for a few millenia.

Now my argument here is about the numerous instances in Indian mythology where the child’s future is written down by an astrologer even when it is in its mother’s womb. If an astrologer can tell a child’s future when it is in its mother’s womb, isn’t it an indicator that it is the position of stars at conception that matters more than the position of stars at the time of delivery?

The thing is that no one really knows when a child was conceived. Hence, the time of the child’s delivery is usually used as some sort of a proxy to determine when it was conceived. So basically astrology in its current form has a formula to calculate time of conception based on time of delivery, and so effectively what we have as astrology now is a product of two vectors – one that transposes time of birth to time of conception, and another that translates time of conception to position of stars at conception which then gives rise to the horoscope.

I suppose you can understand that there is obviously one source of error in this – regarding the determination of time of conception at the time of birth – basically no two kids born at the same moment would have been conceived at the same moment, right? So this introduces a fundamental error into Indian astrology.

And as if it were not enough, technology has (as usual) stepped in to hinder religion. The concept of Caesarean section has ended up playing complete havoc with the time-tested formulae of determining time of conception based on time of birth. The concept of Caesarean section has ensured that children need not remain in their mothers’ wombs for a “fixed quota” of time, and there is a very good chance they get released early.

So my argument is that Indian astrology as it stands now is inappropriate for people who were born through Caesarean section, since the error in determination of time of conception is extremely high. Also considering how discontinous things are – there are cases where a half an hour’s change in birth time can completely change a person’s horoscope – the impact of this error is too large to be ignored.

The most common use of astrology in recent times is that horoscope-match is considered by some as a necessary condition for matchmaking. Thinking about it, it is bad (and inaccurate) enough if one of the two parties has been born by Caesarean section. I wonder if it has any impact at all if both parties have been born by Caesarean section!

PS: Back when I was in the arranged scissors market, and my mother was around, this is the argument she would give to people who would demand to see my horoscope in the course of matchmaking. That it didn’t make sense given I was born through Caesarean section.