Life: a glorious improbability on a colossal scale

Our subjective judgement of what is possible, probable and certain is dependent on how long we live. We humans typically live to about 80 years of age (on average). Thus, our entire subjective experience (subjective = how things appear to us. Objective = what things are in themselves independent of how they appear to us) our entire subjective experience of probability is shaped by our lifespan. It is shaped by how long humans live in general.

Let me explain. Because we only live for about eighty years on average, the likelihood of us, as individuals, being run over by a car on the road is very slim. Most of us will never get run over by a car (fingers crossed). This is because in a life-span of 80 years we will cross the road ‘x’ number of times. Because ‘x’ is so small, so the risk of dying on the road is also very small. But what if ‘x’ is larger? i.e. what if we crossed the road a ‘Y’ number of times? ‘Y’ being a number several orders of magnitude greater than ‘x’. Under what circumstances would ‘Y’ be so large? Under what circumstances would you cross the road many many more times?

Answer: If you lived much much longer.

Imagine an alien race for whom the average life-span is a million years. Imagine that this alien race has roads. Also imagine that there are alien cars on these roads. Do you think the people of this long-living hypothetical civilization would cross roads? Of course not!

Why not?

Because, If they did, after a few thousand years, most of them would have died in road accidents! How many times do you have to cross a road before it becomes more or less certain that you will get run over and die. Such million year long living aliens would never cross roads. It would be too risky. They would not take such silly risks. Nor would they for that matter sun bathe, or eat fatty foods, or fly in aeroplanes, or go for a swim, or smoke. In fact they would be risk averse. Their subjective judgment of what is probable and possible in a life-span would be very different to ours. We live for 80 or so odd years, whereas they live for a million. This makes all the difference.

We humans cross roads because we only live for 80 years or so. Thus the probability of us dying in road accidents is very very small.

But there is a reason I am discussing this. And a very telling reason too. Our whole subjective apparatus that allows us to calculate probabilities and feeds into our judgment of what is probable over vast expanses of time, over vast stretches of space, over many planetary solar systems, in a galaxy of billions and billions of stars, in a multiverse of many universes; this subjective judgment of ours is wrong by huge error margins. When it comes to what we think is probable over such expanses of time – we will always be staggeringly wrong. On smaller scales of shorter distances and time – our subjective judgement is fairly accurate. The reason it is accurate is because this is the middle earth we live and have evolved in.

If our judgement was wrong for events occurring in our 80 year life spans – i.e. if we were unable to make an accurate judgement of whether something was risky or not we’d probably not live long. We’d more likely die of accidents. But when it comes to larger numbers; when it comes to immensely long geological epochs and interstellar distances – we have no clue. Our risk calculating brains let us down. Because we don’t live for such long times and our brains don’t need to make risk assessments for such long time spans. This explains things like why people are afraid of flying, why 60% of American teens literally believe they will be famous one day, why people drive, why people are impressed with coincidences and why people don’t believe in evolution. It also explains why people get married and fall in love – thinking they have found the ‘one’.

If we had a more intuitive grasp of probability and risk theory, we’d live and behave differently.

Life – our existing – our living, is a statistical improbability on a colossal scale. Life’s emergence is hugely improbable. But it requires no miracles. It requires no sleight of mind nor sleight of hand. It requires no spark of divinity. It requires nothing but time. Time – time and time! And worlds – worlds – and worlds!

You are staggeringly improbable. So am I. So is that flower. So is that turgid bee hovering above it. So it is with our wonderful brains, and our wonderful eyes, and our fleshy ears, and our pointy bulbous noses and our disarming smiles. It’s all so wonderful. And it’s all so fucking improbable. Yet given plenty of time, and given plenty of worlds, it’s more or less…inevitable.

Let me tell you a secret. If you understand this, than more of life should make sense!


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