As I’ve done before I’m using one of my essays to set up for another essay. It makes a later essay easier. What I want to talk about is worth some paragraphs on its own.
The 19th Century saw the discovery of some unsettling truths about … well, everything, really. If there is an intellectual theme of the 19th Century it’s that everything has an unsettling side. In the 20th Century craziness broke loose. The 19th Century, though, saw great reasons to doubt that we knew what we knew.
But one of the unsettling truths grew out of mathematical physics. We start out studying physics the way Galileo or Newton might have, with falling balls. Ones that don’t suffer from air resistance. Then we move up to more complicated problems, like balls on a spring. Or two balls bouncing off each other. Maybe one ball, called a “planet”, orbiting another, called a “sun”. Maybe a ball on a lever swinging back and forth. We try a couple simple problems with three balls and find out that’s just too hard. We have to track so much information about the balls, about their positions and momentums, that we can’t solve any problems anymore. Oh, we can do the simplest ones, but we’re helpless against the interesting ones.
And then we discovered something. By “we” I mean people like James Clerk Maxwell and Josiah Willard Gibbs. And that is that we can know important stuff about how millions and billions and even vaster numbers of things move around. Maxwell could work out how the enormously many chunks of rock and ice that make up Saturn’s rings move. Gibbs could work out how the trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of particles of gas in a room move. We can’t work out how four particles move. How is it we can work out how a godzillion particles move?
We do it by letting go. We stop looking for that precision and exactitude and knowledge down to infinitely many decimal points. Even though we think that’s what mathematicians and physicists should have. What we do instead is consider the things we would like to know. Where something is. What its momentum is. What side of a coin is showing after a toss. What card was taken off the top of the deck. What tile was drawn out of the Scrabble bag.
There are possible results for each of these things we would like to know. Perhaps some of them are quite likely. Perhaps some of them are unlikely. We track how likely each of these outcomes are. This is called the distribution of the values. This can be simple. The distribution for a fairly tossed coin is “heads, 1/2; tails, 1/2”. The distribution for a fairly tossed six-sided die is “1/6 chance of 1; 1/6 chance of 2; 1/6 chance of 3” and so on. It can be more complicated. The distribution for a fairly tossed pair of six-sided die starts out “1/36 chance of 2; 2/36 chance of 3; 3/36 chance of 4” and so on. If we’re measuring something that doesn’t come in nice discrete chunks we have to talk about ranges: the chance that a 30-year-old male weighs between 180 and 185 pounds, or between 185 and 190 pounds. The chance that a particle in the rings of Saturn is moving between 20 and 21 kilometers per second, or between 21 and 22 kilometers per second, and so on.
We may be unable to describe how a system evolves exactly. But often we’re able to describe how the distribution of its possible values evolves. And the laws by which probability work conspire to work for us here. We can get quite precise predictions for how a whole bunch of things behave even without ever knowing what any thing is doing.
That’s unsettling to start with. It’s made worse by one of the 19th Century’s late discoveries, that of chaos. That a system can be perfectly deterministic. That you might know what every part of it is doing as precisely as you care to measure. And you’re still unable to predict its long-term behavior. That’s unshakeable too, although statistical techniques will give you an idea of how likely different behaviors are. You can learn the distribution of what is likely, what is unlikely, and how often the outright impossible will happen.
Distributions follow rules. Of course they do. They’re basically the rules you’d imagine from looking at and thinking about something with a range of values. Something like a chart of how many students got what grades in a class, or how tall the people in a group are, or so on. Each possible outcome turns up some fraction of the time. That fraction’s never less than zero nor greater than 1. Add up all the fractions representing all the times every possible outcome happens and the sum is exactly 1. Something happens, even if we never know just what. But we know how often each outcome will.
There is something amazing to consider here. We can know and track everything there is to know about a physical problem. But we will be unable to do anything with it, except for the most basic and simple problems. We can choose to relax, to accept that the world is unknown and unknowable in detail. And this makes imaginable all sorts of problems that should be beyond our power. Once we’ve given up on this precision we get precise, exact information about what could happen. We can choose to see it as a moral about the benefits and costs and risks of how tightly we control a situation. It’s a surprising lesson to learn from one’s training in mathematics.