Home > notes from the coffee shop, philosophy > The Monte Carlo Fallacy

The Monte Carlo Fallacy

I was sitting on the patio of Starbucks Friday talking with a PhD in mathematics. On my table was the book “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens (review coming as soon as I finish it). The PhD asked me that if I was an atheist how do i explain the creation of the universe, or how does Hitchens do so if I wasn’t? The question could only have come from an academic as he had the idea that even if I was a theist I could still be reading a book on atheism. I asked him to explain the question.

He was into math so his question involved pure probability. He asked me if I understood the odds against things that are, actually existing. (bear with me the only correct language to use is going to make this post a little difficult to read) For instance the odds of life on this planet actually being life require an exact set of circumstances and conditions to have happened in a specific sequence that for all intents and purposes we would say it would be impossible to recreate. However, we don’t mean “impossible” we mean so unlikely that it would never happen again.

To argue from analogy the odds of getting a King of clubs, queen of clubs, jack of clubs, 10 of clubs, and an Ace of clubs (Club royal flush) is: 311,875,200 to one.  That’s for a card game, and it is a hand one shouldn’t try and receive since it is about the most difficult hand to get (those odds also indicate getting the cards in sequence).

Back to my conversation with “Bruce:” he was giving a different interpretation of the argument of design, given that the odds against are so high can we actually believe that everything has happened without someone “fixing the deck?”

I had to make sure that “Bruce” wasn’t on the crusade against the nonbeleiver, he wasn’t and was just asking to hear what my side of the argument would be. It was nice because I hadn’t been in a purely hypothetical conversation in a long time, even those people at the Flower City Philosophy club couldn’t manage that. The title of this post refers to an informal fallacy of logic that is best explained through coin flipping (just as Plato is best explained through chairs).

The odds of something occurring don’t terminate with the number of times the game is played. If I play 311,875,199 hands of poker and never is dealt the club royal flush it doesn’t mean that the next hand I am guaranteed it. The odds don’t self terminate as someone who keeps drawing off suit under five cards will lament. The coin flip is easier to explain, ten flips of an unbiased coin. The odds are that half of the time you get heads and the other half you get tails. This doesn’t always happen but knowing the odds you begin to expect the odds. If on the ninth flip I have hit tails every time my brain begins to think that the odds are somehow tipped in heads’ favor, they aren’t they don’t change one bit.

The mathematician nodded his head with my explanation. He added the retort that this seems to almost increase the odds against things being as opposed to them not. I disagreed responding that we don’t actually know how many “false starts” existence has had but even if this is the first one, it is the same as someone drawing that flush on the first hand of poker they have ever played. While unlikely, it can happen. Odds against don’t tip the scale anymore than they already are, but this fallacy seems to cause the brain to think that they do.

“Bruce” was satisfied with the explanation. The reason that I bring it up is because this fallacy is one that I thought I had made up calling it the “Roulette Fallacy” after watching people around the wheel on my 19th b-day in Canada. It wouldn’t be till grad school that I discoverred otherwise.

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