Tychomancy—meaning “the divination of chances”—presents a set of rules for inferring the physical probabilities of outcomes from the causal or dynamic properties of the systems that produce them. Probabilities revealed by the rules are wide-ranging: they include the probability of getting a 5 on a die roll, the probability distributions found in statistical physics, and the probabilities that underlie many prima facie judgments about fitness in evolutionary biology.
Michael Strevens makes three claims about the rules. First, they are reliable. Second, they are known, though not fully consciously, to all human beings: they constitute a key part of the physical intuition that allows us to navigate around the world safely in the absence of formal scientific knowledge. Third, they have played a crucial but unrecognized role in several major scientific innovations.
A large part of Tychomancy is devoted to this historical role for probability inference rules. Strevens first analyzes James Clerk Maxwell’s extraordinary, apparently a priori, deduction of the molecular velocity distribution in gases, which launched statistical physics. Maxwell did not derive his distribution from logic alone, Strevens proposes, but rather from probabilistic knowledge common to all human beings, even infants as young as six months old. Strevens then turns to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the statistics of measurement, and the creation of models of complex systems, contending in each case that these elements of science could not have emerged when or how they did without the ability to “eyeball” the values of physical probabilities.
It seems almost magical how we infer facts about objective probabilities from symmetries and other physical properties of systems. Physicists such as Maxwell have done it with stunning success; so too evolutionary biologists since Darwin, ecologists, climate scientists, astronomers, and other scientists. Strevens argues that such reasoning comes so easily to us that even babies can do it, and we don’t notice when we do it ourselves. In this remarkable and engaging book, he plays with great aplomb the roles of such scientists—as well as the role of historian of science, of cognitive psychologist, and especially of philosopher. At a time when it is fashionable to pay lip service to ‘interdisciplinarity,’ this book is the genuine article. Channel your inner tychomaniac, and read this book!
- 280 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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