The Hubris of Predictability

“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”  John Stuart Mill


How do we respond to probability?  Each of us has a different level of tolerance for risk.  Would you take a chance if the probability of a successful outcome is one in three?  Perhaps it depends on the reward.  What If the odds are 50 to 1 against having the desired result that you have chosen?  In horse racing the odds are set by experts who look at how the horses performed in past races with a similar class of horses.   An inexact science at best, where on occasion longshots of 50 to 1 or more defy predictions.  Is psychiatry more capable in predicting the course of mental illnesses than the horse racing experts?  Should we not be more humble in our predictions when we take into account how humans are more complex and diverse in their cognition, emotions and motivations than horses?

When scientists witness human beings defying predictions, they may call it an error – an error in measurement or perhaps the design of their experiment.  It is an unexplained anomaly.  And this anomaly too often does not disprove the truth (opinion) of the investigator, but merely reflects the need for this confounding variable to succumb to future discovery.  It is a mystery which begs to be solved.

If you were to win mega millions in the lottery, how would you regard it: as a miracle, chance luck, God’s gift?  The lottery can accurately tell players the probability of winning – the odds are astronomical but it doesn’t prevent people from playing.

My question:  who predicts, and with what accuracy, that a person will not be able to recover from being diagnosed with serious mental illness.  What are the odds, and how do we explain away the people who do recover and transform their experience?   Absent any formula, perhaps it is best to give people the freedom to find their way and provide the assistance and guidance they find suitable as long as they are not a danger to the community.  An advertisement for the New York lottery proclaims, “If you don’t play, you can’t win.”  In providing support to people attempting to deal with emotional challenges, I think we need to give them a chance at winning (transformation) by giving them the choice of how to play.

I believe that there is danger in being absolute in our convictions of what works and what does not, while exclusively focusing on the avoidance of risk.  There is Dignity in Risk.  If we are over-protective and tranquilize pain, we are subduing the spirit and the opportunity to develop innate potential and reshape one’s life course.

In my journey of 4 plus decades working on myself and others, I have come to value how much we do not know.  I am skeptical of absolute certainty in whatever knowledge-base it is presented.  Mystery is an ally that allows us to challenge unfounded dire predictions and fuels our motivation to Never Give Up.

John Stuart Mill, whose book On Liberty written in 1869, remains the classic treatise on the rights of the individual in relation to the community.  At age 20, he experienced what was then called a nervous breakdown.  He went on to become an influential Member of Parliament. Today, On Liberty is so highly regarded that the book is given to each new president of the Liberal Party in England.  I wonder what would have happened to this remarkable early feminist and advocate of individual rights for all, if his “mental breakdown” was treated with the absolute certainty that he must be forced to use psychiatric drugs.

Two additional quotes from On Liberty:

It is given to no human being to stereotype a set of truths, and walk safely by their guidance with his mind’s eye closed.”  

“A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes–will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”