Dating : Love, Probably

h2>Dating : Love, Probably

Fabien Tehrani

In Essays in Love, Alain de Botton sits next to a woman on a plane, a woman who eventually becomes his lover. Afterwards they, “mythologized [their] aircraft encounter into the goddess Aphrodite’s design, Act One, Scene One of that primordial narrative, the love story.” The chances of this meeting were fairly slim he concludes, a conclusion he reaches by employing tools from probability theory. He calculates the probability of the two lovers sitting next to each other by taking the probability that they would both take the same flight that day (their flight was one of six flights offered between Paris and London that day, so 1/6) and multiplying by the probability of their two randomly assigned seats being next to each other (1/164.955) to reach the result of one in a thousand (1/989.727 to be exact). This sort of thinking he admits, “attributed to events a narrative logic they could not inherently have possessed.” What, precisely, is the flaw in this narrative logic? The calculation is correctly carried out, yet the thinking remains flawed. If the myth is false, then is there nothing magical about love? Is it just the result of random chance meetings?

Probability theory was initially developed specifically to understand games of chance. In 1564 Gerolamo Cardano wrote the first book on probability analyzing dice games and other games of chance. Games of chance are ideally suited to calculating probabilities: the data set is well understood (number of cards or dice, their relative values, the order of events, determination of winners) and the games are discrete and independent (the game ends and a new one begins, the dice has no memory of the previous game, the deck is reshuffled). Life, fortunately, is different, so the methods created for analyzing very orderly games don’t translate smoothly.

In the real world, time, as much as we try to delineate and differentiate it using days, seasons, years, etc…, is, in a larger sense, not punctuated; there is no reshuffling of the deck. It might seem that sleeping is analogous to the shuffling of the deck, can we then treat each day as a hand or roll of the dice. No. When and where you wake is completely dependent on your actions from the previous night. A world that is discrete and independent, a world like a game of cards, would be like the movie Groundhog Day. Every morning, Bill Murray’s character wakes up on February 2nd in the same bed and at the same time, independent of where and when he fell asleep the previous night, the entire starts from scratch. He electrocutes himself, he wakes up at 6 a.m., he goes out and sees the same people he saw the morning previous. Eventually, the rules of the day become known to him. The real world is decidedly more random. The probability of events in real life depend upon the events that preceded them. For determining the chances of the two lovers meeting, de Botton stops at two fate-influencing factors governing their meeting. Aren’t there more events that could have precluded their meeting? Shouldn’t he have included the chances of being late and missing the flight entirely. Since they were both flying for work, shouldn’t the probability of the two being employed in jobs that would require them to be traveling on the same day be included as well? What of the formative events of their lives that created two humans of compatible personalities? He starts calculating based upon the details of the flight (perhaps because they are calculable), but the farther back in time he goes, the more information he allows into the analysis, the more and more unlikely their meeting becomes (this is provable: all probabilities are between 0 and 1, the probability of two events independent events occurring is the multiplication of their individual probabilities, a number multiplied by a number between 0 and 1 will result in a smaller number). So, we might surmise that the chances of their meeting becomes even more special, not a thousand to one event, but an infinity to one event.

As we let in more information, the chances of their meeting seems even more rare, even more special and it is; it is as a result of an infinite intervening factors, the culling of an infinite number of could-be realities from the Big Bang on, but it is not unique. It’s specialness arises from the fact that we have chosen to undergo this probabilistic analysis on this specific event, but we could have undergone the same type of analysis on any complex, real-world event. The size, shape, color and consistency of my morning bowel movement is equally affected by as much complexity, including by the very fact that I exist to make it. In a certain sense, that turd encompasses all of the details of my life until its creation. Time has no reason to prefer any one moment over any other. Every moment is equally unlikely, equally special, which is to say that no moment is special at all. We shouldn’t feel lucky to have created a certain bowel movement and we don’t, but, when we fall in love, we do feel lucky. We seek to determine how ‘special’ the event is precisely because it makes us feel so special, preferred by the universe. This is the kind of error that we run into when we undergo post-hoc (after the fact) explanations — the narrative fallacy — what de Botton is referring to when he writes of the “narrative logic [the events] could not have inherently possessed.” When we look at the probabilities while we are in love, we mythologize, we tell ourselves how special, how lucky we are to have found this person because the chances of us meeting the person is so low (a 1,000 to 1!), the meet-cute story becomes a story we repeat and refine, finding meaning in inconsequential details then telling the story all over again at the wedding. However, when we are out of love, when we are heartbroken, those same odds now serve to dissuade us of the chances of it ever happening again (a 1,000 to one!). I don’t argue against the first conclusion. We should feel lucky to have found love, but if we aren’t in love, we shouldn’t look at the long odds and despair: what de Botton calculated is the probability of sitting on the flight next to that particular person, not the chances of falling in love with anyone, a distinction .

Back to bowel movements: when we wake up in the morning, we do not have a goal of creating a specific turd (except for a friend in college who sought to recreate the alphabet in turd form; taking pictures of the toilet bowl after successful attempts and showing them to his friends, much to our dismay). We just want to have a bowel movement (not the bowel movement), a probability that, depending on each of our specific regularity, is quite high. Now, unlike the daily turd, falling in love on any particular day might be quite small, but if we take a period of time, let’s say three years, our chances of falling in love are much higher. For example if we take the probability of meeting the person we fall in love with on any particular day as de Botton’s 1,000 to 1 (.1%) and find the probability of falling in love at least once during an arbitrary 3 year period, the result would be 66% (1-(.999¹⁰⁹⁵)), not a sure thing, but more likely than not and way more likely than our daily probability. These numbers are made up and the actual probability of falling in love is unknowable because life is just too complex, but we can still draw conclusions by seeing how sensitive they are to changes in the underlying probabilities. If, instead of using a 3 year period, we use a five year period, the probability of falling in love is 87%, for a 10 year period, 97%. So, in the long run, our chances improve greatly. Should we just passively wait for love to occur to us? Probably not. If we were to double our daily probability of falling in love to 500 to 1, the probability of falling in love over a 3 year period becomes 88.8% instead of 66%. So, if our aim is to fall in love, improving our daily probabilities can have a great effect. In essence, we must manifest love.

It might be helpful to think of love as existing five-dimensionally. The first four dimensions are the same as in physics. We meet somebody at a specific place (the first 3 dimensions, seats 15A and 15B in de Botton’s case) and at a specific time (the fourth). The fifth dimension could be lumped into time, but it exists separately from the mere day, time and year in which we meet our lovers. It might be generally called context. It includes all of our past relationships, our always evolving evaluation of those relationships, our psychological state, our comfort with ourselves, our knowledge of what we need from a partner, as well as some other things I’m probably forgetting. I’m not trying to be comprehensive, I don’t want to reduce love to a checklist, just to say that there are aspects of love that are within our locus of control. We don’t fall in love, we glide into it. Too often we disregard this fifth dimension. We go out for drinks, swipe through apps, speed date, i.e. do things to improve our chances in the first four dimensions, but if we disregard the fifth, if we don’t know what’s attractive about ourselves and what we need from the other, if we don’t create an psychological environment to foster a loving relationship, then we’ve precluded ourselves from even the possibility of loving that person even if we should be able to meet them. In short, we’ve dealt ourselves a losing hand.

What do you think?

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