A Philosopher's Blog

Of Dice & Chance

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 9, 2017

d20Imagine, if you will, a twenty-sided die (or a d20 as it is known to gamers) being rolled. In the ideal the die has a 1 in 20 chance of rolling a 20 (or any particular number). It is natural to think of the die as being a sort of locus of chance, a random number generator whose roll cannot be predicted. While this is an appealing view of dice, there is a rather interesting question about what such random chance amounts to.

One way to look at the matter, using the example of a d20, is that if the die is rolled 20 times, then one of those rolls will be a 20. Obviously enough, this is not true—as any gamer will tell you, the number of 20s rolled while rolling 20 times varies a great deal. This can, of course, be explained by the fact that d20s are imperfect and hence tend to roll some numbers more than others. There are also the influences of the roller, the surface on which the d20 lands and so on. As such, a d20 will not be a perfect random number generator. But, imagine if there could be a perfect d20 rolled under perfect conditions. What would occur?

One possibility is that each number would come up within the 20 rolls, albeit at random. As such, every 20 rolls would guarantee a 20 (and only one 20), thus accounting for the 1 in 20 chance of rolling a 20. This, however, seems problematic. There is the obvious question of what would ensure that each of the twenty numbers were rolled once (and only once). Then again, that this would occur is only marginally weirder than the idea of chance itself.

It is, of course, well-established that a small number of random events (such as rolling a d20 only twenty times) will deviate from what probability dictates. It is also well-established that as the number of rolls increases, the closer the outcomes will match the expected results (assuming the d20 is not loaded). This general principle is known as the law of large numbers. As such, getting three 20s or no 20s in a series of 20 rolls would not be surprising, but as the number of rolls increases, the closer the results will be to the expected 1 in 20 outcome for each number. As such, the 1 in 20 odds of getting a 20 with a d20 does not mean that 20 rolls will ensure one and only one 20, it means that with enough rolls about 1 in 20 of all the rolls will be 20s. This, does not, of course, really say much about how chance works—beyond noting that chance seems to play out “properly” over large numbers.

One interesting way to look at this is to say that if there were an infinite number of d20 rolls, then 5% of the infinite number of rolls would be 20s. One might, of course, wonder what 5% of infinity would be—would it not be infinite as well? Since infinity is such a mess, a rather more manageable approach would be to use the largest finite number (which presumably has its own problems) and note that 5% of that number of d20 rolls would be 20s.

Another approach would be to say that the 1 in 20 chance means that if all 1 in 20 chance events were formed into sets of 20, sets could be made from all the events that would have one occurrence each of the 1 in 20 events. Using dice as the example, if all the d20 rolls in the universe were known and collected into sets of numbers, they could be dived up into sets of twenty with each number in each set. So, while my 20 rolls would not guarantee a 20, there would be one 20 out of every 20 rolls in the universe. There is still, of course, the question of how this would work. One possibility is that random events are not random and this ensures the proper distribution of events—in this case, dice rolls.

It could also be claimed that chance is a bare fact, that a perfect d20 rolled in perfect conditions would have a 1 in 20 chance of producing a specific number. On this view, the law of large numbers might fail—while unlikely, if chance were a real random thing, it would not be impossible for results to be radically different than predicted. That is, there could be an infinite number of rolls of a perfect d20 with no 20 being rolled. One could even imagine that since a 1 can be rolled on any roll, someone could roll an infinite number of consecutive 1s. Intuitively this seems impossible—it is natural to think that in an infinity every possibility must occur (and perhaps do so perfectly in accord with the probability). But, this would only be a necessity if chance worked a certain way, perhaps that for every 20 rolls in the universe there must be one of each result. Then again, infinity is a magical number, so perhaps this guarantee is part of the magic.

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God, a Yacht and Bitches

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2011
Aliosha VII Yacht

Image via Wikipedia

Stephen Colbert recently raised an important theological and philosophical question, namely,”Could God create a yacht so big that he could not fill it with bitches?” This sort of question, obviously enough, parallels some of the classic questions about the nature of God’s omnipotence, such as “can God create a rock that He cannot lift?”

The specific question of whether or not God can create such a yacht would seem to involve considering the specifics of the scenario, such as the size limits of yachts (would a ship of a certain size be too big to be classified as a yacht?) and bitches as well as what would count as being full of bitches (does this mean that the bitches are comfortably occupying the vessel or stacked and stuffed in all the spaces?). However, these complications can be set aside (along with the offensive term “bitches”) in favor of a more general sort of question: can God create a container that He cannot fill?

On the face of it, this would seem to create what appears to be a paradox. If God is omnipotent, then it would seem to follow that He could create a container (such as a yacht) of any size-even one that would be so big that He could not fill it (even given an infinite supply of created bitches). However, His omnipotence would also seem to entail that He could fill any container, no matter how big. After all, He could just create enough things to fill the container.

One potential way out of this problem is to play games with the notion of infinity. Presumably the largest container that God could create would be infinite in size. Presumably the largest number and volume of things (such as bitches) that God could create would also be infinite. Leibniz, in his Theodicy,  writes “and infinity, that is to say, the accumulation of an infinite number of substances, is, properly speaking, not a whole any more than the infinite number itself, whereof one cannot say whether it is even or uneven.” Stealing from Leibniz, perhaps it could be said that when talking about an infinite yacht and an infinite number of bitches it would not be possible to say whether it is full or not. Of course, this seems vaguely (or not so vaguely) unsatisfying.

Perhaps a better approach would be to look at the matter a bit differently. The problem arises from taking the ability to create something so big that He cannot fill it as a positive ability of God. As such, if God did not have that ability, then He would be lacking. But, of course, if he could not fill the object, then he would also be lacking.

However, the idea of an ability to create an object so big that He cannot fill it seems to involve an absurdity. After all, if God could create a hollow object of X size and Y interior volume, then it would seem that He could simply create an object marginally smaller than X with a volume of Y. Thus, the question is actually asking “could God create an object and not be able to create a smaller object (or objects) that would fill the larger object” and the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, objects have volumes and sizes, but so big that it cannot be filled does not seem to be a legitimate property that God could just give to an object. Rather, this property is a relational property between the object and all other things that exist or could exist. Thus, the supposition that God can create objects entails that He can fill any object He creates.

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