Sunday, January 27, 2019

Second thoughts on statistics and chaos

I argued in the last post, Mythology, old and new, that modern times call for a new god of uncertainty; I felt that neither Tyche nor Dionysus quite fit the bill. After Susan Tonkin’s private feedback, I’ve become less certain. (Her help with this whole series has been invaluable.)

Perhaps numerical uncertainty is just one facet of the growth in quantification that started with the Enlightenment, gained steam with rise of numerical sciences in the nineteenth century, was validated by the operations research of WWII, and culminated in the apotheosis of the Whiz Kids, MBAs, and Wall Street quants. (See also the American obsession with quantifying sport; Moneyball, anyone?) Given our adoration of quantification, we have de facto deified Numbers – though I’m not sure we’ve mythologized it yet.

Quantified uncertainty, on this view, is just our attempt to domesticate chaos using numbers: statistics is to Chaos as a housecat is to a tiger. We’re using quantification to keep disorder at bay.

Though perhaps less threatening in the developed world, the gaping void of orderless confusion (cf. the etymology of “chaos”) is still with us, and well personified by the ancient gods. Dionysus (according to Alain Daniélou as cited in Wikipedia) represented the chaotic, dangerous and unexpected – everything which escapes human reason and which can only be attributed to the unforeseeable action of the gods. His subversive character (reminiscent of Loki) is reflected in images that show him as a beardless, sensuous, naked or half-naked androgynous youth, and literature that describes him as womanly or "man-womanish." This is disorder from the patriarchy’s point of view, and it’s no wonder that Dionysus and his cults were associated with women.

Norse mythology also had figures that “continually sought to undermine that order, to drag the cosmos back to primordial chaos” (McCoy, The Viking Spirit, Ch. 3). They complemented the powers that held together the proper order of the cosmos and enabled it to flourish, like Odin and Frey. As McCoy puts it, “In the same way that human civilization depends on the resources gleaned from the wilderness, the gods’ cosmos depended on the giants and their world. Paradoxically, these forces of entropy and decay made the cosmos possible and guaranteed its survival – as long as the gods could keep them in check.” These are the “giants,” though as McCoy points out, their name (jötunn, plural jötnar) has nothing to do with size; it derives from the Proto-Germanic *etunaz, “devourer”; their other name þurs (plural þursar), comes from the Proto-Germanic *þurisaz, “powerful and injurious one.”

My talk of hyper-rationality on the one hand and irrationality and chaos on the other could just be rehearsing Nietzsche & Co. As Wikipedia puts it: “Apollo is the god of the sun, of rational thinking and order, and appeals to logic, prudence and purity. Dionysus is the god of wine and dance, of irrationality and chaos, and appeals to emotions and instincts.” Quantified disorder lies partakes of both Apollo’s rationality, and Dionysus’s anarchy. Nietzsche argued that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian impulses form the dramatic arts, which has been lost since the ancient Greek tragedians. It’s curious to think of quantified disorder under the rubric of tragedy…

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