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Personal Luck: Why Premodern China—Probably— Did Not Develop Probalistic Thinking

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Chapter Summary

Looking through Li Yans History of Calculation in China, and other works on the history of premodern Chinese mathematics, one is impressed by the virtual absence of anything explicitly relating to the theory of probability. Premodern China had an abundance of the availability of repeating patterns that can be expressed numerically (stochastically determined oracles, dice-casting and analogous phenomena from gaming) but since this abundance was not in itself a sufficient cause for the emergence of a calculus of probabilities sharpens the questions that must be asked about China, and also suggests the inadequacies of exclusively external-factor analyses of the rise of probabilistic thinking in Europe. Perhaps, in the last analysis, there was a lingering belief in China that there was no inherent equiprobability of outcomes, and personal luck ruled; and given that this was so, that calculating probabilities correctly was impossible, and so not worth bothering with.

Keywords: cubic dice; personal luck; premodern China; probabilistic thinking; tortoise-shell oracles



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