Reliability, Predictability, and Paul the Octopus
Paul the Octopus has recently become very famous after his predictions for Germany and Spain during the World Cup 2010 came right. The 100% accuracy tag distinguishes him from any other diviner who had attempted a prediction during the World Cup. There were responses and reactions from various people including sportsmen, statesmen, and mathematicians. Whatever, the use of Paul has demonstrated once again that mankind's search for an extra-temporal, psychic foresight has not quelled through the historical calendar returning a decade over this millennium. The question before us is can such predictions as those of Paul be counted on as reliable (in other words, can they be seriously taken as true)?
The mathematicians have plumped for chance. It's all a matter of probability, they say (BBC News). However, the argument of chance in itself is weak. The mathematics of chance will calculate that the probability of Paul being right seven times out of seven is 1/128. But, the conclusion is not a necessary one. It does not dictate anything and so amounts to nothing. It itself is a matter of chance that the conclusion of such calculations comes right, after all.
Of course, there are certain reasons why Paul would have chosen the flag of the winning team each time. Can a creature without the vertebrae make intelligent choices? The media, however, doesn't fail to apply to it titles such as "diviner", "psychic", and "clairvoyant". However, we may have to look to the zoologist and the psychologist to come forward and investigate the reasons of those choices; and, of course, they have come with some explanations ("Potential biases", Wiki. A few more controlled experiments can help give some scientific answer.
But, some would ask, weren't animals and birds used in historic past for ascertaining the future? What reasons do we have to not believe in their intuitive powers? Even today, the howling of a dog is considered as an omen of death in the neighborhood in several places. Someone may even state a case of a death ten times out of ten whenever a dog howled. In such cases, further, there is no need of establishing a necessary relation between the howling and the death, since the howling is not at all supposed to cause the death - it only predicts it. However, if the howling is not followed by death in, even, a few cases, we have reasons to believe that the howling is not very reliable; in which case, it may also be understood that such foresight or knowledge or just omen of the future is not absolute and determinative. On the other hand, even if the howling is followed by death in all the cases, the conclusion is not reliable since the premise "If the dog howls, there will be death" is still open to falsifiability. We haven't established any reason why that statement may not go wrong someday. It's not conclusive and so not reliable.
The question, "Can animals possess psychic powers", is now to be considered. Philosophical scientists have different answers. Those who believe in the Block Universe theory, for instance, (also known as Eternalism) believe that events don't transpire; they are already there (Wiki). This would only be one step before determining how information between events can travel, and if that's established (which seems a bit impossible since nothing is supposed to travel faster than light), then the possibility of accurate prediction of events may not be so easily ruled out. And, then, the issue of memory (past, present, and future) also comes to play. The Presentists, however, will not accept such a hypothesis. To them, only the present exists, the past and the future are unreal, and so intuition of them is impossible. Presentism is more a common-sense view, because almost anyone would believe that things "happen"; they are not already there. They were, they are, and they may or may not be. If this were not the case, then the only choice would be determinism. To say that events are already there would be tantamount to saying that what is cannot be changed, in which case man has no free choice (not even Paul the Octopus). But, if everything is determined, then Truth would not be an independent category, since it would also be determined; in which, case we have no way to ascertain what is truth and what is false. Therefore, if we are to preserve any sense of "truth-possibility" and an answer to this question "Is Paul the Octopus reliable," we would have to opt for a free and open universe; in which case, psychic prediction can be ruled out.
So, we conclude that the view that the Octopus or any other diviner is not reliable is the only view which would make sense of the world, of time, of truth, and our own experience of freedom and choice.
© Domenic Marbaniang, July 2010