Rationality in the face of improbability

I recently read my favorite Wikipedia article of all time. It’s about a park ranger named Roy Cleveland Sullivan, whose claim to fame was having been hit by lightning on seven different occasions and surviving all of them. The details of these events are both tragic and a little hilarious, and raise some interesting questions about rationality.

From the article:

In spring 1972, Sullivan was working inside a ranger station in Shenandoah National Park when another strike occurred. It set his hair on fire; he tried to smother the flames with his jacket. He then rushed to the restroom, but couldn’t fit under the water tap and so used a wet towel instead. Although he never was a fearful man, after the fourth strike he began to believe that some force was trying to destroy him and he acquired a fear of death. For months, whenever he was caught in a storm while driving his truck, he would pull over and lie down on the front seat until the storm passed. He also began to believe that he would somehow attract lightning even if he stood in a crowd of people, and carried a can of water with him in case his hair was set on fire.

Put yourself in his situation and ask yourself if you might start doing the same thing after four times. Now what about if it kept happening?

On August 7, 1973, while he was out on patrol in the park, Sullivan saw a storm cloud forming and drove away quickly. But the cloud, he said later, seemed to be following him. When he finally thought he had outrun it, he decided it was safe to leave his truck. Soon after, he was struck by a lightning bolt.

The next strike, on June 5, 1976, injured his ankle. It was reported that he saw a cloud, thought that it was following him, tried to run away, but was struck anyway. His hair also caught fire.

He was struck the seventh time while fishing in a freshwater pool, which in a weird turn of events was followed by a confrontation with a bear over some trout that he had caught.

What’s more, Sullivan claimed to have been struck by lightning another time as a child, when out helping his father cut wheat in a field.

And furthermore…

Sullivan’s wife was also struck once, when a storm suddenly arrived as she was out hanging clothes in their backyard. Her husband was helping her at the time, but escaped unharmed.

Apparently his fear of lightning was a little contagious:

He was avoided by people later in life because of their fear of being hit by lightning, and this saddened him. He once recalled “For instance, I was walking with the Chief Ranger one day when lightning struck way off (in the distance). The Chief said, ‘I’ll see you later.'”

Okay, so besides from being a hilariously weird series of events, this article does raise some issues related to anthropic reasoning. Namely: what would it be rational for Roy Sullivan to believe?

I want to say that this man had really really good evidence that some angry Thor-like deity existed and was actively hunting him down. In his position, I think I’d feel like it was only rational to try to run from approaching clouds and thunderstorms (although that strategy didn’t seem to be super effective for him).

But at the same time, in a world of billions of people, it’s almost guaranteed to be the case that somebody will find themselves in circumstances just as unlikely as this. If Sullivan had one day looked up lightning strike statistics, and found that the numbers for the overall population were perfectly consistent with a naturalistic hypothesis in which lightning doesn’t target any particular individuals, how should he have responded?

And what should we believe about Roy Sullivan and lightning? Presumably we should not accept his non-naturalistic conclusions. But then what exactly is the difference between what we know and what he knows? We both have the same statistical information about the general trends in lightning strikes, and we both know that Roy Sullivan Cleveland was hit by lightning a bunch of times, so why should we come to different conclusions?

The obvious thought here is that it has something to do with anthropic reasoning. Sure, I have the same non-anthropic evidence as Roy Sullivan, but we have different anthropic evidence. Sullivan doesn’t just know the comparatively unremarkable proposition that “somebody was hit by lightning seven times and survived,” he knows the indexical proposition that “I was hit by lightning seven times and survived.” The non-Sullivans of the world don’t have access to this proposition, and maybe  this is the difference that matters.

Perhaps any population will end up having some individuals that happen to find themselves in very unusual situations, in which it becomes rational for them to come to bizarre conclusions about the world for anthropic reasons. And the bigger the population, the stranger and more rationally certain these beliefs might become.  Imagine a population big enough that it becomes not unlikely that some individual walks around commanding Thor to send bolts of lightning where they’re pointing, and then lo and behold it happens each time.

There would be many many many more individuals out there who succeeded a few times, and even more that never succeed at doing so. But for that tiny fraction that appears to manifest god-like powers, what should they believe? What should their friends and family believe? How far does the anthropic update extend? I’m not sure.

5 thoughts on “Rationality in the face of improbability

  1. What are we saying about Roy Sullivan? That he and his acquaintances have indexical evidence that he isn’t an ordinary statistical exception?

  2. Another option would be to deny the existence of special counter-evidence to naturalism, but the implication would be that we also don’t have special counter-evidence to being very special in the universe. Anthropic reasoning is trying to tell us we’re completely typical and to boldly extrapolate our experiences but that has to be balanced somehow against evidence that our experiences are not that representative, especially if those experiences are interpreted to imply a hidden layer of reality such as antagonistic spiritual beings or the sheer non-existence of alien life. Well, I’m actually not sure if this analogy holds up. Our planet isn’t necessarily in a comparable position to Roy Sullivan’s.

  3. Maybe if we can find some good disanalogies then we can separate the naturalistic anthropics from the superstitious anthropics.

  4. I’m probably about to say something very naive but:

    Any individual is gonna have events on their life that are gonna be very unlikely in general to happen, it’s easy to see it, as long as ‘anything’ counts as an event (which there’s no arbitrary distinction to say otherwise).

    It’s true that someone can provide a ‘supernatural’ explanation (let’s define it as ‘outside of the scope of known science’) for any event, regardless of how unlikely. So it’s indeed reasonable for any event to require a supernatural explanation (a priori).

    “Being stroked by lightning 7 times” (let’s call it event A) is remarkable compare to most/all of those events because of its apparent consequences, but it’s still one of many possible unlikely events that can happen (of which a set of those will happen to any person). Anthropic reasoning doesn’t discriminate hypothesis based on the importance of the consequences.

    This means that event A should be treated a priori like any of those possible events. Since none of those events are treated as being conceivably likely to have a ‘supernatural’ cause, it should be the same for A. This is independent of the observer.

    A posteriori, it’s still accounted as one of those unlikely events that happen in a large enough sample, so there’s no need to provide a ‘supernatural’ cause. This is uncontroversial, I believe.

    Is my logic broken? Could you please tell me?

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