Schlemiels, schlimazels, probability and free will

“The brain is a machine that remembers the past in order to predict the future.” — Dean Buonomano [1]


Schlemiel and schlimazel are two Yiddish words known to many only by their mention in the theme song to the old television show Laverne and Shirley. In the classic definition, the schlemiel is the bungler who is always spilling soup on someone else. Less known is the schlimazel, who is the unfortunate soul on the receiving end of the spilled soup. He is the perpetual victim of the schlemiel’s ineptness. I have been both schlemiel and schlimazel at different times in my life.

“Schlemiel-ness” is also an interesting thought experiment on the subject of choice/free will/volition. Because I am very near-sighted, the peripheral view out of the corner of my glasses might indicate two coffee cups just off to my side. One of these I see clearly, but it is not really where it appears to be due to the distortion at the edge of my lenses. The second cup is an out-of-focus image just outside of my lens that is, on the other hand, the real coffee cup in its real position. More than once I have reached for that cup, intending to pick it up, but missing it with my hand and knocking it over, a classic schlemiel move. My lenses are literally bending my perception of “space-time” but my brain apparently has not adjusted correctly to the sensory inputs.

The probability of coffee-drinking and coffee-spilling

What does this have to do with free will? Well, I might say that my conscious mind is directing my arm to reach for the coffee, but if I were “fully conscious” and more aware of my history I would likely remember to look more directly at the cup before reaching for it. Instead, my semi-conscious mind, under some biological motivation that most coffee drinkers will recognize, is often “deciding on its own” that I need a caffeine hit, and it then initiates the arm maneuver, with little conscious “choice” happening in the process.

And that semi-conscious brain is likely executing that particular arm maneuver based on some probabilistic guess as to where that coffee is, based on the net of a continuous flood of sensory inputs from sight to smell to heat perception. Most of the time it guesses correctly, but sometimes it does not, especially if there are conflicting sensory input data like my distorted, lens-corrected vision.

Schlemiels neither intend nor choose to spill the soup, I would suggest. And most of the time they do not. Rather, some combination of eye-hand-foot coordination, long-term memory and sensory perception is always making probabilistic judgements for all of us, and the “wrong guess” probability for schlemiels is perhaps higher than for you non-spillers out there.

But practice does indeed “make perfect.” Even the best food servers have likely dumped a dinner on someone at some point, but most of the time they do not, because “learning the job” is essentially “improving the odds.” The success, or lack of success for that matter, of each soup-carrying event feeds back into our brains’ memory, to be “included in the mix” of probability evaluation the next time around.

I wrote in a prior post about the example of a baseball batter in this regard. I like this example because even the best hitters manage to “be successful” only a probabilistic one-third of the time, despite years of practice and brain feedback. Under this theory of volition, we are always “swinging at pitches” whenever we are exercising conscious or semi-conscious volition.

Driving a car is another example of this. If you have ever arrived at a destination but were so “lost in thought” that you can’t remember how you got there, your brain was relying on the accumulated past probabilities of your driving experience to get you safely there. In effect, you were conscious enough, but the part of your brain “watching yourself think” was either turned off or was not preserving memories of that watching.

The Bayesian definition of “free will”

“Schlemiel-ness” is the exception that proves rule in what neuroscientist Karl Friston and others have characterized as the “Bayesian” behavior of the mammalian brain, named for the statistical method that combines past knowledge (the “prior”) with new sensory input data to “tweak” the body’s response, say that arm movement toward the coffee cup. Either a successful or a “schlemiel move” will change the “posterior probability” and feed that back into your long-term memory for next time.

Bayes Theorem

My short-version summary of “free will” in this context is this: What you perceive as “free will” is perhaps you “watching yourself” react to a situation based on “past probabilities” and the new sensory information at hand. Most of the time, this turns out the way that makes sense and your brain registers, “I chose to do that!” Or sometimes you knock over the coffee cup and say, “I didn’t intend to do that!”

In either case, your action and reaction have “tweaked the results” for the next time your brain decides it needs a caffeine hit. Hopefully, the odds of a successful cup-to-mouth maneuver are better the next time.

The probability of being a schlimazel

The probability of being a schlimazel is a bit different. Here we get closer to basic uniform randomness, where you are more like the winner of an unfortunate lottery. If the schlemiel is going to spill the soup in a crowded dining room, there are good odds that someone is occupying space-time in the vicinity of the spill, and that someone just might be you.

But the schlimazel also has a Bayesian brain, and after one or more unfortunate incidents of spilled soup or coffee, that brain may begin to develop the ability to see a schlemiel coming, and like the gazelle learning how to navigate away from the lion, it takes evasive action, conscious or not.

A very sad version of schlimazel-ness occurs whenever there is a tragic airplane crash. We almost always read a “miracle” story of one person just missing his or her connection, and another, more heart-wrenching story of someone who was not supposed to be on that flight, but unfortunately was. If you have spent any time around airports these days, you can figure out that the probability of either of these stories happening is close to 100%. Almost every flight I have been on in recent years has seen seats awarded at the last minute to stand-by passengers when some ticketed passengers are no-shows, often through no fault of their own.

On a lighter note, Groundhog Day, the great 1993 Harold Ramis film, is a story of Bayesian “tweaking of the probabilities” through repetition. Bill Murray plays both a schlemiel and a schlimazel, waking up every February 2 to the exact same events, almost. His life’s lesson is learned in figuring out which parts of the future he can, and which he cannot, alter. After numerous (sometimes literal) false steps, he learns to avoid both a deep water puddle and a pesky insurance salesman, and eventually, Murray bends Fate’s arrow toward true love.

I like to think of the Biblical innkeeper in Luke’s Nativity story as a schlimazel as well. Rather than the “heavy” of the story as portrayed in many children’s Christmas pageants, cruelly denying a room to the parents of Jesus, I see him as the unfortunate person at the wrong place at the wrong time. [2] Two people and a donkey show up on his hotel’s doorstep one very busy night without reservations. The suspiciously-young girl on the donkey looks to be ten months pregnant and the older guy with her says, “Funny story – it’s not my kid.”

The innkeeper has no obligation to provide shelter, but because he is a nice guy (in my version) he chooses to let them bed down in the barn. And then all night long there is this procession of strange people tromping through his hotel parking lot. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir wake up the other guests with their singing, a bunch of sheep herders smell up the place, and a little kid, for some reason, beats a drum. [3]


Here is that Laverne and Shirley theme song from 1976, with the schlemiel and schlimazel lyrics.


Notes:

  1. Buonomano, Dean. Your Brain Is a Time Machine: the Neuroscience and Physics of Time. W W Norton, 2018.
  2. Luke 2:1-20.
  3. I have yet to find the scripture reference for this last one, but we hear that “Pah-rum-pa-pum-pum” song incessantly every Christmas season, so it must be in there somewhere.

Prior Dice  More in the queue…

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