Introducing: Heads or Tails

Raymond Yeung joins sociecity with the “Heads or Tails” column. His first whack reflects on the very idea of a coin toss, on randomness, and on how the very simple act of decision-making ties into our everyday lives.

Raymond Yeung: Heads or Tails

As this is the first Heads or Tails column, I thought it interesting to reflect on the very idea of a coin toss, on randomness and how this very simple act of decision-making ties into our everyday lives.

Many mathematicians and great thinkers have found ways of explaining randomness, yet to this day it is a subject generally lacking the level of attention and understanding it deserves.

From a personal perspective, the reason why randomness is so important to me can be attributed to the many failings I have experienced, and how I was taught to accept a deterministic worldview.

From pre-school to the war room, randomness ultimately determines the outcome of one’s decision.

Yet, it’s had to accept. Most of us like to think that we are presented with choices, and that our free will is what determines our future, but how were those choices given to us in the first place? Who — or rather, what – determines the choices that any of us have? While some turn to religion for that answer, perhaps the real truth lies in mathematics.

The Coin Toss

The coin toss has come to be a standard, a way to determine the outcome dilemma with fairness, but is it ever fair? Coin tosses are only a matter of probability. If enough trials were conducted a pattern can be observed; the ever so slight weight difference between heads or tails will ultimately determine the probable outcome of a toss. So is randomness just a way of convincing oneself of fairness, of convincing oneself that these concepts which are too grand or too minute for our minds to ponder can be used to base fairness upon?

At one point or another, a great majority of people on Earth have supported some type of sports enterprise, professional or otherwise. In Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk the merit of the coach is closely looked at, with the merit of the team often being attributed to the coach, and solely to his tactics. Individual players are seen as mere pawns in a more complex game of attack and defend; failure is equally weighted on the shoulders of the coach. But there can be many variables in a game of this or any kind, from the temperature of the game floor, to players’ psychology, all the way down to the coin toss. Each of these variables determines who gets possession of the game piece.

In business, too, from hiring to making sound company decisions, randomness is never far away. CEOs are coaches of the business enterprises who are often the sole recipients to all the praise and blame in what is often a lucky/unlucky or timely/untimely decision. While coaching tactics and pressure are only small part of the unpredictable yet probabilistic reality, many consider them important in judging success or failure.

This predominant way of thinking that we are in control cannot be attributed to any single person; we are all helplessly taught to think this way.

The very languages we use train us to look at the world and express what we see from a limited, singular, self-centered perspective.

Our very being calls for us to accept the idea that free will is the master and that chance is a servant of this free will, often ignoring possibilities that are hidden away by our pride.

This way of thinking has contributed to a growing sentiment of entitlement and highly exaggerated expectations as to what should be expected of life. Everything we experience has some kind of beginning and some kind of foreseeable end, even if it is abstract. Most of us would like to apply this deterministic world-view to our own lives, thinking that if one follows the footsteps of a happy or successful person then he or she can become happy and or successful as well.

This might sound rather silly, but the fact is that very few people take random chance seriously. On a grander scale, the world is full of probabilistic mechanisms and our ability to fully understand them will help determine probabilistic success or failure. It may sound as though we are helpless pawns of cosmic consequence, but let this not be an attack on humanity’s free will, more so than a way of thinking to encourage better use of our abilities to interpret probability and chance.

In the end, probability and chance are two sides of the same coin, and our perception of these concepts will ultimately determine our paths.

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