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Probability Before Pascal

“Probabilism” is also an older term, associated with Catholicism, and having to with the liklihood of some act as being sinful, or not. In one variant interpretation of it, it was a numerical average of the number of opinions of religious authorities, for or against. In other formulations, it was sufficient to find just one scholar who supported a given position; this eventually lead to the crisis of “Laxism” in the Catholic Church, as you could usually find some opinion that supported your desired course of action. Laxism was ultimately rejected, but you can see a modern variant of it, continuing to this day in Islam, where any Mullah can decree a fatwah for just about any action, never mind that as a whole, the collection is self-contradictory.

All this is explored in a marvelous book, “The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal”, James Franklin . It starts in Ancient Egypt and Judaic traditions, and moves on to the concept of a “Half-Proof” in Medieval times, namely, that in a criminal case, you needed two witnesses to testify. The foundations of this other concept of “probability” were so strongly laid, that they live on in our modern justice system, with terms such as “probable cause”, “preponderance of evidence” and the like.

The book is a review of the history of probability, liklihood and evidence, up to the very first steps where it was formalized as a mathematical discipline. It’s greatest revelation (to me) is that Western society, especially Law, is founded on strong ideas developed by the Scholastics (and others) of Medieval times. The cross-over is that law is the rationalization and codification of intuitive moral precepts (thus, it’s anchoring in religion). It’s not science, as we know it; its the attempt to apply rationality and evidence to intuitive ideas about crime and well-being.

There’s also Ian Hacking’s

Peter's picture

There’s also Ian Hacking’s The Emergence of Probability which covers some of the same ground. I remember it being a mostly good read, although Hacking’s one of those authors who has certain tics - I often found myself saying, “oh, that’s just another Hackingism” at some sticky point and moved on. It’s been quite a while so I can’t remember what I thought those tics were…

This is a bad ontology, for

This is a bad ontology, for any imaginable purpose, but it is not false.

But isn’t it a good ontology for the purpose of demonstrating a bad ontology? :-)

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