I’m picking a number between 1-10. What is the probability of you guessing it correctly?
It doesn’t exist. No probability exists.
“C’mon, Briggs. It’s one outta ten. Don’t play games.”
Well, the whole setup is a game. But ignoring that, no. It’s not “one outta ten”. It’s not anything.
“What BS. It’s ten percent. Anybody can see that. What kind of statistician are you, anyway?”
Well, I’m the Statistician to the Stars!, so I have that going for me. Still, I insist. There is no probability.
“Do I really have to do this? Look, you coulda picked 1, you coulda picked 2, and so on up to 10. That’s 10 choices. That makes one outta ten.”
Nope. Tell you what. Have a go a guessing and I’ll prove that you’re wrong.
“Funny man. Okay, I read most people pick 7, so I’ll say 7.”
“This is getting tedious. 1? 2? 3? 4? 5?”
“8? 9? 10?”
None of those.
“Bull! It has to be. You’re reminding me why I stopped reading you.”
My number was 6.3.
“What!? Hold on. You didn’t say anything about fractions. Always cheating.”
You’re misinformed. I’ll repeat what I said: I’m picking a number between 1-10. Last I checked. 6.3 is between 1-10. You didn’t get it, and you got the probability wrong, too.
“I see what you did there. You’re trying to say that all probability is conditional, and if you don’t specify the conditions, you can’t have a probability.”
“And part of those conditions was the meaning of the words ‘I’m picking a number between 1-10.'”
“I assumed an integer as one of my premises, and you defined it as any number. Meaning the words and grammar of any probability problem matter.”
They always do.
“Funny man. Hang on. You said 6.3, so I assume you could have picked any number, any real number. Right?”
“But there’s an infinite number of those numbers! If that’s what you meant, then there’s no probability of you picking. How could you even pick if you had to first select from an uncountable number of numbers?”
Good question. I can’t, not if I’m presented with an uncountable number from which I have to select one. I don’t even know how to define “picking one” when the number of numbers is so huge I don’t even know how to comprehend them all, except by the fiction of pointing to a symbol.
“Ha! Hoist meet petard.”
“Wait, though. You did pick one.”
“Meaning you had to have some mechanism for picking. Meaning you couldn’t have been picking from some hugely impossible uncountable number, but from some smaller set.”
“There’s no way I could have known what that set was, or the mechanism of picking was.”
“Best I could do was to suppose your behavior was similar to other people’s. I could’ve used that as a premise, and then deduced a probability from that.”
That’s it, all right. Which is what you did when you guessed 7.
“But you, you have to be different. Funny man. So you have to pick a non-integer, just to be a funny man.”
My jokes are world famous.
“Yeah, sure. But there was no way I could’ve guessed exactly what you were going to do. And even if I did, I’d have no way of knowing how many digits you were going to throw out.”
“Which means there was no way I could really deduce a quantitative probability—not unless I accepted premises which were too concrete.”
That’s because not all probability is quantifiable. That’s what the man said in this award-eligible book. That not everything has a number is a hard equation to swallow for some, growing up as they do, devoted to scientism. Still, it’s true. The only proof there is that everything has a number is hope.
As in so many things, Thomas Berger has the best thing to say about our obsession with numbers. Here’s Jack Crabb, returning to the company of whites after having lived with plains Indians for many years (start of Chapter 8).
That’s the kind of thing you find out when you go back to civilization: what date it is and time of day, how many mile from Fort Leavenworth and how much the sutlers is getting for tobacco there, how many beers Flanagan drunk and how many times Hoffmann did it with a harlot. Numbers, numbers, I had forgot how important they was.
As important as they are, they are not the most important things. Quality triumphs over quantity.