On Suicide, the Meaning of Reality, and Hanging Curveballs

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

– Albert Camus

“Achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with.”

– Adam Savage

“The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination.”

– Peaceful Warrior

The philosopher Albert Camus said that the only real question that we have to ponder is whether or not we should kill ourselves. He came to the conclusion that the answer should be no, but that isn’t to say we should not ask the question.

If you are reading this I assume that you, like Camus, have not chosen suicide. And so other—if less important—questions arise. One of these is What is luck? or more specifically: There is randomness everywhere. As far as we can tell, nothing is 100% guaranteed to happen. What then determines whether one event should or should not take place?

More than in any other arena (no pun intended) randomness is exhibited in sports. Randomness is a batter hitting a curveball for a line drive that just so happens to be right at the shortstop who catches it for an out. It is random that the pitcher threw a curveball rather than a fastball. It is random that the batter swung at the pitch rather than not swinging, that he hit the pitch rather than missing it, that hitting the ball resulted in a line drive rather than a fly ball, that the shortstop happened to be standing in precisely the right spot, and that he did not drop the ball. So many factors could change the entire situation.

Do we, as observers, have the ability to collect enough information surrounding this situation that we can predict, in advance, the outcome of each pitch? Certainly at the current juncture we do not. And it appears doubtful (though not 100% guaranteed) that we ever will reach that point, even if we can factor in variables such as what the hitter had eaten for breakfast that morning.

Presently, all we can say is that based on observation over the last decade, there is about a 70% chance that a batted ball will result in an out. This, of course, means there is a 30% chance the ball will find grass and result in a hit. The shortstop who knows that the batter tends to hit balls up the middle, and thus positions himself in its likely path, might tilt the odds. But tilt them as he may they will never reach 100% one way or the other. So why does the ball do what it does? Luck. Chance. Randomness. A weighted cosmic coin flip. These are all, of course, the same thing.

In the spring each year, Baseball Prospectus takes every stat there is about baseball and puts them into a simulation of the upcoming season. Then they run it a bunch of times. The results are a series of percentages that each team has to win their division, make the playoffs, and win the World Series. What this actually means is that if the season were played 100 times, assuming everything to be identical at the start—the same players with the same talent on every team—the outcome would always be unique from every other time the season was played. Due to the large amount of randomness involved in the sport, every simulated season will be different than every other simulated season.

There has been a statistical analysis explosion over the last few decades. New stats are developed and analyzed. New studies are conducted daily. Each of these is a mini-simulation. An attempt to learn which players have contributed the most to their teams and which ones will continue to do so in the future. As more is discovered about which stats are good indicators of future performance, the simulations will be adjusted and become more accurate. The end-goal, it seems, would be to build a computer simulation capable of predicting, with perfect accuracy, the outcome of every pitch.

But, of course, we find that this has a catch. For if we build a perfect computer simulation and watch it play through a season like some video game that is indistinguishable from reality. It will tell us, in advance, the result of every pitch. Why then should we continue to play the game? For we have become the baseball gods and already know the outcome.

That we would ever come to this seems incredibly unlikely, for the outcome of a series of random events is unpredictable by definition. If we could simulate randomness, it would cease to be randomness. So then, what is reality, if not another simulation? Carried out to its furthest potential, we could not only simulate the events of a baseball field, but every atom of the universe. This would make us not only baseball gods, but gods in a much truer sense of the word. For who is to say our simulations are less meaningful than our reality?

What would occur if we found our simulations could predict our reality? Knowing, in advance, everything that will happen to us would strip all enjoyment from our lives. Unless we come to the same conclusion that Camus came to. That even while we know we will never be able to know if there is inherent meaning behind our existence, we should embrace our existence regardless and carry on with a passion for life.

We should embrace life (and baseball) knowing how marvelous it is to not know. And yet we should never stop studying anything, baseball statistics included. Never stop trying to become gods. For it is the pursuit, the season, the journey, the climb up the mountain that is the meaning of our lives.