July 2008

James Campbell Martin

nonfiction

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

People have a problem: a lot of things in our world happen for no particular reason, but it is hard for us to understand that or to accept it. Leonard Mlodinow -- possibly the only physics Ph.D. who has also written for MacGyver -- draws an example of this from Hollywood. There, a studio head is often blamed or praised for whatever happens while he's the boss, even when this makes no more sense than blaming him for an earthquake that happens under his feet.

There are two kinds of books one could write about this problem. The first would show us how much randomness there really is in the world, by exploring the field of mathematics called probability. The second would explore why it is and how it is that humans think they see cause and effect instead. Mlodinow has written a book of the first kind that really wants to be a book of the second kind.

Here's how that second kind of book might go: We know that "'Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well,'" as Mlodinow quotes a Harvard mathematics professor. We aren't sure why that is, but the going theory is that it was cheaper (in evolutionary terms) for humans to see cause and effect too readily -- sure, we are wrong sometimes, or maybe a lot of times, but the energy we save is worth it. But the question this provokes is emotional and even spiritual: what would it mean to accept that we live in a world where so many of the most important outcomes of our lives are under our control only a little bit, or not at all? And what kind of intellectual or spiritual exercises could help us learn to see that with equanimity?

Mlodinow doesn't have much to say here. He tells us not to give up, since a string of failures could just be the result of chance, "Or as the IBM pioneer Thomas Watson said, 'If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.'" But how does that help us when we so powerfully want to give up? And he thinks that just learning some probability will help us recognize the role of chance more easily (much like psychoanalysts feel that gaining insight about one's neuroses, in itself, helps to cure them). I'm sure there's some truth to that, but I suspect that people have a strong emotional pull toward a cause-and-effect universe, alongside (or interwoven with) the cognitive pull. We want control; we want understanding. This is one reason we think the rich must be gifted or virtuous, and the poor must be stupid or lazy (an example Mlodinow gives) -- how terrifying if these outcomes were largely random! What would it really mean to see the universe naked? Can we accept that we are in some ways mis-designed for the world we inhabit, and resolve to consciously live at odds with some of the undertows of our own nature? It is just this sort of resolve that thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Peter Singer (drawing from a field called evolutionary psychology) believe is essential to our moral progress.

This second kind of book would be very speculative, and perhaps as a scientist Mlodinow wants to hew to what he can be confident he understands. But I think there is a personal voice and perhaps a personal story that never quite make it above the surface of this book, and that's a shame. Mlodinow writes in a breezy and lightly cynical style (a style that may confuse some less-mathematical readers when Mlodinow takes for granted that we will get which details are relevant to an equation and which are just decoration). But I think I felt a real desire to speak from the heart. As a scientist, Mlodinow has a rare ability to explain from the inside what the study of randomness has meant for his life as a human being. I hope he will do so in another book.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
Pantheon
ISBN: 0375424040
272 Pages