Tag Archives: stochastic

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Philosophers and scientists have long contemplated the concept of ‘free will’, and whether the choices we make in life are pre-determined and whether they are influenced by external factors. The extent or very existence of self-determinism has been brought to the fore with the recent riots and the ensuing debates about causes, justification and individual culpability. This particular case has been brilliantly interrogated elsewhere, and so needs no further elaboration here.

The complex argument of the nature of free will has been advanced in the modern era, through the use of¬†brain imaging technology. For instance, recent studies have shown that some choices can be predicted from a subject’s brain activity a few seconds before the response occurs, suggesting that the ‘decision’ has been made before the person is even aware of it.

From Bode et al. (2011). PLoS One (http://goo.gl/vkmNG)

Whilst on a different time-scale, this brought to my mind the concept of nominative determinism, the premise of which is that the name that someone is given can causally influence their career or personality. This theory has support through analysis that suggests particular names are disproportionately over-represented in certain professions (Dennis/Denise amongst dentists, Lawrences amongst lawyers) and in certain cities (Louis in St. Louis).

Quite why I didn’t become a matador, I don’t know.

And what would this all mean for our little son, Reuben? Well if he is ‘implicitly egotistical’ and his name goes on to influence his life choices, perhaps he will have a taste for heavy metal-influenced rock music, move to less-than-buzzy Idaho or Nebraska, or play football in Russia.

Or perhaps not. While all this can be used to form nice little stories – I have attended a wedding overseen by a registrar named Love and been served by a bank clerk named Cash* – there may be some muddle in attributing causative effects, in that many cited examples could simply be cherry-picked coincidences (aptronyms**) or a result of pre-meditated bias. The cited example in the Wikipedia entry for nominative determinism, of Splatt & Weedon on urinary frequency, is certainly chucklesome, but given that over 20 million entries exist in the biomedical research database PubMed, it seems highly probable that such spurious connections will arise.

If a million things happen a day, then one-in-a-million events are bound to happen – it would be the absence of these that would be strange. This holds true for ostensibly exceptional cases, where one’s intuitive astonishment is brought crashingly back within reason by some deductive logic.

It seems plausible that these sorts of factors influence people’s thinking about fate and destiny. For instance, a highly improbable¬† occurrence, such as winning the lottery or bumping into an old friend half-way across the world, may lead the affected person to attribute this to a pre-destined map or a higher guiding power.

This probabilistic process was neatly illustrated by Sir Michael Marmot in The Joy of Stats (@17 mins 30 sec), where it was explained that when one adds up all the seemingly random, one-off car accidents across the population, the overall numbers remain predictably constant from year-to-year. Similarly, it is possible to toss ten heads or back six winning horses in a row, if you do it often enough or include a large enough cohort of participants, as demonstrated by Derren Brown.

This confirmation bias can lead to instances where certain associations are selectively used to assert that an event was fated. But what of the millions of significant dates, chance encounters, random events, etc. that pass without spooky connections?

Tim Minchin’s brilliant comedic dissection of the destiny of romance.

A stochastic nature to our lives brings about a rather optimistic outlook. Although uncertainty can sometimes be a little daunting, it would be depressing to think that our career, love-life, social interactions are mapped out or directed by a supernatural force. Furthermore, the brain imaging studies I mentioned above can predict responses only on the seconds scale and only around 60% of the time, leaving open the question of extent of indeterminism in our decision-making.

It would be wonderful to think that our son has an almost boundless array of opportunities ahead of him, and that we are an integral part in encouraging an intrepid spirit.

Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future. Charles F. Kettering

* Some wonderful examples come out of a simple Google Images search. Anthony Weiner, anyone?

** The example I noted as a postgraduate student was of Prof GM Poppy, who has a line of research in to genetically modified (GM) plants. Quite whether Everard Koch is affected by nominative determinism, however, is unclear.