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Life’s a Game: Two worldviews for uncertainty and risk

Submitted by Phillip Kent
25 May 2013

I’ve been re-watching a very impressive lecture by Mary Beard, from the Darwin College (Cambridge) 2010 Lectures on Risk

It’s also available in a written version: Beard, M. (2011). Risk and the humanities: alea iacta est. In Skinns, L., Scott, M., and Cox, T., editors, Risk (Darwin College Lectures 2010), pages 85-108. Cambridge University Press. [citeulike]

Beard shows how ancient Roman society was obsessed by gaming (with dice, or knuckle bones). The conventional view on this is that the Romans were essentially fatalists, drowning their bad feelings about disease, death, and life’s challenges in alcohol and games. Beard argues otherwise – the games are not an escape from (or passive acceptance of) reality, but a tool with which to challenge reality:

If we are the inhabitants of ‘risk society’, the ancients – I want to argue – were the inhabitants of ‘aleatory society’… that it was not merely that various aspects of Roman life were like a game of dice (for that would not be far different from the passive model of danger I have just sketched), but rather that Romans used the imagery of dicing actively to parade (and so, in a sense, manage) uncertainty. They constructed other areas of hazard in their lives on the model of dicing, so that the luck of the board game became a way of seeing, classifying and understanding what in our terms might be thought of as risk. (page 92)

I love this idea. It connects to some work I’m developing with DesignScience on experiencing simulations of risk in reality in order to manage reality.

The mathematicians Davis and Hersh argue a related point in “Descartes Dream” (1986) [citeulike], which has an essay on “The Stochastized World: A matter of style?”:

The stochastization of the world so permeates our thinking and our behaviour that it can be said to be one of the characteristic features of modern life. Our insurance companies, our pension and social security plans, are postulated on notions of randomness. Polling, sampling, election predictions and scholastic testing are based on stochastic notions, and these are vast enterprises. (page 19)

The stochastic view has so engulfed us that we would feel absolutely unprotected and naked to the world if we were compelled to come out from behind our averages. Probability is a net that supports us and a cage that confines us. (page 31)

The point is that probability has been used as a tool by experts to put up supports and comforts around all of us as a society (insurance, pensions, expert analyses of life risks…). Thus we inhabit what they call the stochastized worldview. Yet this worldview has fundamental limitations in how we can deal with both personal and social situations of decision-making and uncertainty. The alternative worldview, where we come out from behind the comforting cage of probability, looks a lot like the Roman’s aleatory society.

I am not sure: it isn’t that probability is the basis for one worldview and not the other – in fact the mathematics is needed in both. The difference is philosophical – about how you relate the ‘mathematical model’ (tool) to reality, and what you do with the tool.

  • Uncertainty