Pavlovian vs. Statistics

I would like to discuss the conversation between Dr. Pointsman and Roger Mexico about the statistical probability of war.  Between the two exist two different mindsets about the bombings.  Pointsman is a notorious Pavlovian, someone who believes things can be trained and outcomes can be accurately predicted, or as Pynchon puts it either 1 or 0.  Mexico is statistician, who lives in-between 1 and 0, or probability.  The two are discussing the frequency of the bombings and the locations.  Pointsman believes that from past bombings that there can be a safe place to go into, but Mexico insists that this is the “Monte Carlo Fallacy.”  This fallacy is the Gamblers fallacy that previous events can affect future events.  This is a common fallacy, if playing roulette and it lands on red six times in a row, the board is surely due for a black, but in fact each spin is completely independent, the odds remain the same.  As Mexico puts it, “No link. No memory. No conditioning.”  Pointsman later says how unfair it is, to which Mexico replies “It’s eminently fair.”  This stark contrast between these two ways of thinking is an embodiment of the novel as a whole.  Both sides of this argument merit discussion.  Mexico suggests that the bombings follow a Poisson distribution, well known in the statistics community as a bell shaped curve, another rainbow shape, but attaches with that no real hope or desire to change his view.  Mexico can be considered a “realist,” stating that everyone has an equal chance of getting hit, seeing life as representing the truly random state of nature.  Pointsman cannot reconcile with this,  “What if Mexico’s whole generation have turned out like this? Will Postwar be nothing but “events,” newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?”  Here lies the main argument for Pointsman, he needs to believe that everything can be manipulated and controlled.  Everything needs to be linked for Pointsman, there needs to be explanation and order, things cannot simply be random.  Two different people, two completely different trains of thought.  This clash can be more aptly described as the fight between nihilism and belief, and Pynchon seems to be asking us to choose.  He gives us the insight of Pointsman, the thoughts and feeling, and the spoken words of Mexico.  Certainly something can be said for this unique perspective about both their arguments.  With Pointsman’s thoughts, we get his feelings and concerns, his beliefs and his worries, a human touch to a humanizing world view that views everything as connected.  Mexico is the opposite, we only hear his words, cold and calculated, yet somehow oddly relieving, that everyone is the same and everyone has an equal chance of getting hit by a giant bomb.  This is very similar to Heart of Darkness, in that Marlow was very nihilistic from his journey and his experiences, yet he encounters Kurtz, a firm believer in something greater than what was in front of him.  The two could have not been more different when they first met.  However, in Kurtz’s famous death scene, he sees the nihilism underlying the nature of his being.  Mexico is a classic nihilist, which is why he is able to “play, so at ease, with these symbols of randomness and fright?”  He understands that everyone is equal, and he accepts the fate that life is full of random events.  Pynchon presents both of these arguments with out favoritism.  Both are presented in the nature for which they stand, one with thought and feeling and belief, and one that is calculating and cold that understands the unpredictability of life.  What is at stake in this disagreement between Pointsman and Mexico?  I would venture to say it is the fight between nihilism and belief. Given the gravity of the events surrounding the argument between Mexico and Pointsman, I believe the stakes are high.  For Pointsman, accepting Mexico’s point of view means accepting  “the end of history.”  This means that nothing in the past matters, understanding history has no significant importance for Mexico, therefore it would be pointless to be studied.  For Mexico, accepting Pointsman means accepting that everyone is not equal, that there is a significant importance of past events and how they influence future events, there is a pattern.  How should the future be treated, in relation to past events and attempted to be manipulated, or understood as random events with no correlation.  Without being much more than a seventh of the book, it is certainly hard to tell which way Pynchon is leaning, but the stakes have been laid out and are clearly understood.

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2 Responses to Pavlovian vs. Statistics

  1. elizabeth829 says:

    I really like the train of thought you’ve presented here. Halfway through reading your response I started to make the comparison between Heart of Darkness and Gravity’s Rainbow so I was pretty glad that you brought it up. One point I’d like to elaborate on is about how Pointsman’s point of view would mean that everyone is not equal and that some people have a greater chance of surviving than others. Perhaps this has something to do with the us v. them ideology that we spoke briefly about in class? Pointsman’s logic that there has to be some people capable of rising above and saving themselves may come from the idea that there is always an “us,” in history, those who are going to be destroyed by the bombs, and a “them,” the “chosen” ones who will survive. Whereas perhaps Mexico’s realism allows him to understand that the us v. them mentality is entirely made up in the minds of humans and that it doesn’t come into account when we’re talking about mindless weapons. Or, we could say that the “us” in this case is everyone in London, and the “them” would be the people dropping the bombs, sending the missiles, winning the war, etc.

  2. patriciafox17 says:

    I enjoyed your “gravity of the situation” pun, intentional or not. Indeed, the bombings themselves make the stakes quite high between Mexico and Pointsman; the longer they disagree, or at least fail to reach a definitive consensus, the more people that will be killed by the Germans. I agree with your thought that a difference between nihilism and belief could create a ticking time bomb of a stalemate between the two trying to move forward. However, when I read your statement, “Given the gravity of the events surrounding the argument between Mexico and Pointsman, I believe the stakes are high,” I immediately had a flashback to the idea of history exerting its own gravitational pull that we cannot escape that came up in Tuesday’s class (2/25). That inescapable gravitational pull of history surrounding the bombings is also a reason for high stakes. I’ll argue that every event that has already happened impacts future ones, whether we want it to or not. Scientifically, our brains are technically creating new synaptic connections every single day that we are conscious. We cannot prevent affectation on the neurological level after experiences; we are constantly changing and are being changed. That said, I might take a guess that Pynchon is saying that history ought not to be forgotten and, furthermore, can never be forgotten no matter how hard we may try because it will forever repeat itself. Even if for some reason history would be completely ignored or fail to be passed down to later generations, it would simply continue on its eternal circular never-ending path, as represented by the circular nature of a rainbow: gravity’s rainbow. So, I suppose at this point I might side more with Pointsman’s overall view that events and people are more interconnected than we may think, although randomness certainly plays a critical role. Connecting your statement back to the novel’s title might be a stretch, but I thought I’d give it a go!

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