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The Search for Certainty - On the Clash of Science and Philosophy of Probability April 2009

The Search for Certainty - On the Clash of Science and Philosophy of Probability April 2009

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Published by Pucea Luciana

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Published by: Pucea Luciana on Oct 19, 2011
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08/17/2013

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The question of the probability that there was or there is life on Mars is of
great practical importance. If the reader is surprised by my claim, he should
think about the enormous amount of money—billions of dollars—spent by
several nations over the course of many years on spacecraft designed to
search for life on the surface of Mars. A good way to present the prob-
abilistic and philosophical challenge related to life on Mars is to pose the
following question: Why is it rational to send life-seeking spaceship to Mars
but not to Venus?

The frequency theory of probability suggests that we should look for
a long sequence of “identical” events that incorporates life on Mars, and
another sequence for Venus. A natural idea would be to look at a long
sequence of planets “like” Mars and see what percentage of them ever sup-
ported life. There are several problems with this idea. The first is somewhat
philosophical, but it cannot be ignored from the scientific point of view ei-
ther. Which planets are “similar” to Mars? Should we consider all planets
that have the same size and the same distance from their star? Or should
we insist that they also have a similar atmosphere and a similar chemistry
of the rocks on the surface? If we specify too many similarities then our
“sequence” will consist of a single planet in the universe—Mars. A much
more practical problem is that at this time, we cannot observe even a small
sample of planets “similar” to Mars and verify whether they support life.
Even if the “long run frequency of life on planets like Mars” is a well de-
fined concept, it is of no help to scientists and politicians trying to decide
whether they should spend money on life-seeking spacecraft.
The subjective theory does not offer much in terms of practical advice
either. This theory stresses the need of being consistent. The problem
is that life is a phenomenon that is very hard to understand. It is not
unthinkable that some scientists believe that some form of life can exist on
Venus, but not on Mars. Their views may be unpopular but I do not see
how we could declare such views as unquestionably irrational. As far as
I can tell, it is consistent to believe that there was life on Mars but not
on Venus, and it is also consistent to believe that there was life on Venus
but not on Mars. De Finetti’s position is (see the quote in Sec. 2.4.3) that
sending life-seeking spacecraft to Mars but not to Venus is just a current fad
and it cannot be scientifically justified any more than sending life-seeking
spacecraft to Venus but not to Mars.
Laws (L1)-(L5) can be used to justify not sending life-seeking spacecraft

March 24, 2009 12:3

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The Science of Probability

63

to Venus in the following way. Multiple observations of and experiments
with different life forms on Earth show that life known on Earth can survive
only in a certain range of conditions. The spectrum of environments that
can support life is enormous, from ocean depths to deserts, but there seem
to be limits. The environment on Venus is more or less similar to (“sym-
metric with”) some environments created artificially in laboratories. Since
no life survived in laboratory experiments in similarly harsh conditions, we
believe that life does not exist on Venus. We use an approximate symmetry
to make a prediction that there is no life on Venus. The argument uses laws
(L4) and (L5).

The question of life on Mars illustrates well the “negative” use of (L5).
What we seem to know about the past environment on Mars suggests that
there might have been times in the past when the environment on Mars
was similar to (“symmetric with”) environments known on Earth or created
artificially in laboratories, in which life was sustained. Hence, we cannot
conclude that the probability of life on Mars is very small. That does not
mean that the probability is large. The only thing that we can say is that
we cannot make the prediction that signs of life on Mars will never be
found. Hence, it is not irrational to send life-seeking spaceship to Mars.
It is not irrational to stop sending life-seeking spaceship to Mars either.
In a situation when neither an event nor its complement have very small
probabilities, no action can be ruled out as irrational and the decision is a
truly subjective choice.
The last assertion needs a clarification. Decision makers often attach
significance not to the outcome of a single observation or experiment but
only to the aggregate of these. For example, shops are typically not in-
terested in the profit made on a single transaction but in the aggregate
profit over a period of time, say, a year. A decision maker has to choose an
aggregate of decisions that is significant for him. One could argue that one
should consider the biggest aggregate possible but that would mean that we
would have to consider all our personal decisions in our lifetime as a single
decision problem. This may be the theoretically optimal decision strategy
but it is hardly practical. Thus most decision makers consider “natural”
aggregates of decisions. An aggregate make consist of a single decision with
significant consequences. My suggestion that both sending of life-seeking
space probes to Mars and not sending them are both rational decisions, is
made under assumption that this action is considered in isolation. In fact,
politicians are likely to consider many spending decisions as an aggregate
and so one could try to make a prediction about the cumulative effect of

March 24, 2009 12:3

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64

The Search for Certainty

all such decisions. The decision to send spacecraft to Mars may be rational
or not if it is considered a part of a family of decisions.

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