Probability is teleological

Probability is teleological and can describe natural things to the extent they are also. Here’s the argument:

Surprising things are chance events in the sense opposed to teleology.

Probability calculations seek to drive out surprise.

So probability calculations seek to advance the teleological and drive out the chance that is opposed to this.

You flip the fair coin a hundred times. You expect about 50-50 heads-tails with a margin of error of 5. Failure to get this is surprising in the sense we want to focus on. This allows logically for the following responses:

1.) You suspect the coin isn’t fair.

2.) You wonder if your model of probability is adequate.

3.) You treat the event as an outlier that rarely happens and that would wash out with a larger sample size or running the trial a few more times.

Notice that as long as #1 and #2 are ruled out #3 is all that’s left, but if we fail to disprove #3 we have to either retool #2 or add some epicycles to it, since we can’t develop a theory that assumes we are systematically deceived about what we’re observing, as a systematic belief in #1 would require. In other words, since we have to drop #1 as a long-term theoretical solution, all probability is a standoff between #2 and #3, with the one driving out the other.

#3 is chance in the sense that is opposed to teleology. This is why Aristotle defined chance as essentially rare, since by definition if it happens more than rarely it is taken as a fact that refutes your theory. Your model is built to predict outcomes, and this allows for prediction failure only in the case of outlier phenomena. Notice that when we call the #3 events rare this does not mean the same thing as “improbable”. All sorts of improbable events (like getting four of a kind, say) can be predicted by a theory. #3 events are improbable in the sense of being entirely outside the model that established both what will count as probable and improbable. The chance event, strictly speaking, has no probability whatsoever. While it is improbable in some sense (equivocal) of the term, in the technical sense we want to target now it is a-probable. And so we hit on a harmony between Aristotle’s account of chance as rare and TOF’s and Brigg’s antiphon-axioms that there is no probability outside the model and randomness is never a cause. Probability theory can never absolutely rule out chance, but it is (a) entirely outside the model and (b) lacks the sort of necessary connection that is the sine qua non of cause-effect relations. The reason why there is no probability outside the model is that, without the model, we have no way to distinguish #3 events, which are essential to any account of probability to distinguish.

In other words, while there is certainly some (equivocal) sense of chance or randomness that probability theory deals with, it is intrinsic to the theory that it exclude and seek to drive out chance in sense #3. But this is the only sense of “chance” or “randomness” that is teleology excludes.  It is only in this sense of chance that expectation of outcomes is frustrated, i.e. when the order between conditions and outcomes becomes necessarily frustrated and so intrinsically rules out teleology. Since it is just this sort of thing that probability seeks to minimize, marginalize and rule out, probability theory is intrinsically teleological. Q.E.D.




  1. B M Moritz said,

    March 27, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    “TOF’s and Brigg’s antiphon-axioms that there is no probability outside the model and randomness is never a cause. ” – Can you please give me some background?

    • March 27, 2017 at 8:21 pm

      No probability outside the model

      This is the more common of the two. People tend to use probability claims like axioms, as though one could just start a conversation with “miracles are always more improbable than the laws of nature” or “It’s very unlikely that fine-tuned systems arose by chance” or “It’s improbable that this is the best possible world” etc. The point of “no probability outside the model” is that all of these claims are not axioms but conclusions arising from assumptions of what will count as probable and why, and it is usually far more interesting to ask the person to tell you how they came to those conclusions than to let them get away with assuming from the get-go that things are probable, improbable, etc. I’m confident that the axiom gets used in other ways too.

      Randomness is never a cause

      TOF and I explain this in different ways. For me it means that “chance” properly speaking does happen, but it is outside of any model, even if we mean a very informal model like your everyday expectation of what to expect in the world. TOF tends to say that chance doesn’t happen, but we both agree that when “chance” is said of events in a system it is just a placeholder name for “whatever causes stuff”. Real chance is never systematic – there is nothing to say about it other than some individual act happened, but not enough to cause any changes in our models of what to expect from the world. If it were anything other than a one-off non-prediction we would change our model of the world.

  2. tj said,

    March 31, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    You describe an event that lack probability, or rather, is outside of probability as chance. My question is what event can exist outside of probability? I can think of no example that would fit into this criteria. If I am missing something, please help me to see what I am missing.

    • March 31, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      In the post I am talking about chance events properly speaking. These don’t have actual probability because they are not anticipated by your model of the world. A’s example was digging a well and finding a treasure. As soon as you go out digging with some probability of finding a cache of money (whether the probability is is great or small) you are no longer just digging a well but treasure hunting. If you go out merely to dig the well, in finding the money there is something totally outside the framework of what you were taking as probable or improbable that day. That’s chance.

      • tj said,

        March 31, 2017 at 7:23 pm

        Oh! Thank you so much. The clarifies quite a bit. So then chance only occurs in the context of an individual’s framework or expected outcome. Which basically means chance can only occur because human’s are limited, correct? In other words, if I had perfect knowledge like that of a god, chance could not exist. Am I understanding what you wrote? :3

      • March 31, 2017 at 7:35 pm

        You got it exactly right. I’m making all those claims. But chance can also occur in the non-cognitive world to the extent that matter can on very rare occasions fail to move to some goal when the circumstances for it doing so are just right.

  3. March 31, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    […] Chastek, Probability is teleological, Just […]

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