## 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 day I learnt to stop worrying and learnt to protect myself

For at least six years, from early 2006 to early 2012 I “suffered” from what medical practitioners term as “anxiety”. It was “co-morbid” with my depression, and I think it was there from much before 2006. I would frequently think about random events, and and wonder what would happen if things happened in a certain way. I would think of “negative black swan” events, events with low probability but which would have a significant negative impact on my life.

While considering various possibilities and preparing for them is a good thing, the way I handled them were anything but good. Somewhere in my system was wired the thought that simply worrying about an event would prevent it from happening. I once got fired from one job. Every day during my next two jobs, I would worry if I would get fired. If I got an uncharitable email from my boss, I would worry if he would fire me. If my blackberry failed to sync one morning I would worry that it was because I had already been fired. Needless to say, I got fired from both these jobs also, for varying reasons.

I used to be a risk-taker. And it so happened that for a prolonged period in my life, a lot of risks paid off. And then for another rather prolonged period, none of them did (Mandelbrot beautifully calls this phenomenon the Joseph effect). The initial period of successful risk-taking probably led me to take more risk than was prudent. The latter period of failure led me to cut down on risks to an unsustainable level. I would be paranoid about any risks I had left myself exposed to. This however doesn’t mean that the risks didn’t materialize.

It was in January of last year that I started medication for my anxiety and depression. For a few days there was no effect. Then, suddenly I seemed to hit a point of inflexion and my anxious days were far behind. While I do credit Venlafaxine Hexachloride I think one event in this period did more than anything else to get me out of my anxiety.

I was riding my Royal Enfield Classic 500 across the country roads of Rajasthan, as part of the Royal Enfield Tour of Rajasthan. The first five days of the tour had gone rather well. Riding across the rather well-made Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) roads set across beautiful landscapes had already helped clear out my mind a fair bit. It gave me the time and space to think without getting distracted. I would make up stories as I rode, and at the end of each day I would write a 500 word essay in my diary. All the riding gear meant that the wind never really got into my hair or my face, but the experience was stunning nevertheless. For a long time in life, I wanted to “be accelerated”. Ride at well-at-a-faster-rate, pulling no stops. And so I rode. On the way to Jaisalmer on a rather empty highway, I even hit 120 kmph, which I had never imagined I would hit on my bike. And I rode fearlessly, the acceleration meaning that my mind didn’t have much space for negative thoughts. Things were already so much better. Until I hit a cow.

Sometimes I rationalize saying I hadn’t consumed my daily quota of Venlafaxine Hexachloride that morning. Sometimes I rationalize that I was doing three things at the same time – one more than the number of activities I can normally successfully carry out simultaneously. There are times when I replay the scene in my head and wonder how things would have been had I done things differently. And I sometimes wonder why the first time I ever suffered a fracture had to happen in the middle of nowhere far off from home.

It had been a wonderful morning. We had left the camp at Sam early, stopping for fuel at Jaisalmer, and then at this wonderful dhaba at Devikot, where we had the most awesome samosa-bajjis (massive chilis were first coated with a layer of potato curry – the one they put in samosa – and then in batter and deep fried). For the first time that day I had the camera out of its bag, hanging around my neck. I would frequently stop to take photos, of black camels and fields and flowers and patterns in the cloud. The last photo I took was of Manjunath (from my tour group) riding past a herd of black camels.

I function best when I do two things at a time. That morning I got over confident and did three. I was riding on a road 10 feet wide at 80 kilometres per hour. I was singing – though I’ve forgotten what I was singing. And I was thinking about something. My processor went nuts. While things were steady state on the road there was no problem. There was a problem, however, when I saw a bit too late that there was a massive herd of massive cows blocking my path further down the road.

There was no time to brake. I instead decided to overtake the herd by moving to the right extreme of the road (the cows were all walking on the road in the same direction as me). To my misfortune, one of the cows decided to move right at the same time, and I hit her flush in the backside. The next thing I remember is of me lying sprawled on the side of the road about five metres from where my bike was fallen. There was no sign of the cow. The bike was oozing petrol but I wasn’t able to get up to lift it up – presently others in my tour group who were a few hundred metres behind reached the scene and picked up my bike. And I don’t know what state of mind I was in but my first thought after I picked myself up was to check on my camera!

The camera wasn’t alright – it required significant repairs after I got back home, but I was! I had broken my fifth metacarpal, which I later realized was a consequence of the impact of the bike hitting the cow. There were some gashes on my bicep where the protective padding of my riding jacket had pressed against my skin. I still have a problem with a ligament in my left thumb, again a consequence of the impact. And that was it.

I had had an accident while traveling at 80 kmph. I had fallen a few metres away from the point of impact (I don’t know if I did a somersault while I fell, though). I fell flush on my shoulder with my head hitting the ground shortly. It was a rather hard fall on the side of the road where the ground was uneven. And there was absolutely no injury because of the fall (all the injury was due to impact)!

It was the protection. No amount of worry would have prevented that accident. Perhaps I was a bit more careless than I should have been but that is no reason for there not being an accident. When you are riding on a two wheeler at a reasonable pace on country roads, irrespective of how careful you are there is always a chance that you may fall. The probability of a fall can never go to zero.

What I had done instead was to protect myself from the consequences of the fall. Each and every piece of protective equipment I wore that day took some impact – helmet, riding jacket, riding gloves, knee guard, shoes.. Without any one of these pieces, there is a chance I might have ended up with serious injury. There was a cost I paid – both monetary and by means of discomfort caused by wearing such heavy gear – but it had paid off.

Black swans exist. However, worrying about them will not ease them. Those events cannot be prevented. What you need to do, however, is to hedge against the consequences of those events. There was always a finite possibility that I would fall. All I did was to protect myself against the consequences of that!

Despite contrary advice from the doctor, I decided to ride on and finish the tour, struggling to wear my riding glove over my swollen right hand – stopping midway would have had a significant adverse impact on my mental state which had just begun to improve. I’ve stopped worrying after that. Yes, there are times when I see a chance of some negative black swan event happening. I don’t worry about that any more, though. I only think of how I can hedge against its consequences.