The essence of life is a statistical improbability on a colossal scale

This is a post I wrote a while back. It is one of my favourites and one I feel is so important that it deserves another hearing. It deserves to be revisited. And perhaps even elaborated. Compared to my usual fare you might find it cold, logical, clinical and devoid of any feeling! But do not despair. You are about to receive a lesson in the highest kind of thinking the human brain is capable of! Vast swathes of existence can be explained through few concepts and ideas – and all from the comfort of your armchair.

So grab a seat. Grab a coffee. Or grab a whiskey. Put on your thinking cap. Sit back, and join me…on an extraordinary journey. To the limits!

You know I started of as a scientist and in many ways I am still at heart – a scientist. I know of no other field that explains so much with so little – especially when it comes down to the deepest questions and profundities of existence, science is our best tool.

So let’s begin:

Our brains are amazing. They are excellent at reading and recognising faces. They are excellent at making nuanced conclusions about people’s intentions in complex social situations: is he friendly, is he telling the truth, can I trust him, there’s something off centre about her…etc etc. Our brains are excellent at such thinking because we are social animals and to succeed, to procreate and have children, you have to be socially savvy and know where threats may lie or where opportunities may hide. So our brains evolved to be successful and make good decisions in a social environment.

But there is a certain class of thinking, where are brains fall flat, and frankly get it wrong. Spectacularly, mind-bogglingly wrong! So wrong that one wonders: how could we be so stupid? And that class of thinking I am talking about is the realm of making statistical judgement calls. I.e statistical thinking of what is possible, probable and improbable. This is where our brains fall flat on their face!

Let me elaborate:

Our subjective judgement of what is possible, probable and certain is dependent on how long we live. We humans typically live to about 70 years of age (on average). Thus, our entire subjective (subjective = how things appear to us. Objective = what things are in themselves independent of how they appear to us) 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 seventy years 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 70 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? Answer: If we 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 alien race would cross roads? Of course not!

Why not?

Because, If they did, after a few thousand years, most of them would have perished 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? Such million year living aliens would never cross roads. They would not take such silly risks. Nor would they for that matter sunbathe, or eat fatty foods, or fly in aeroplanes, or go for a swim, or smoke. Their subjective judgment of what is probable and possible would be very different to ours. We live for 70 years whereas they live for a million. This makes all the difference.

We humans cross roads because we only live for seventy 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 syatems, 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 70 year life spans – i.e. if we couldn’t make an accurate judgement of whether something was risky 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, interstellar distances – we have no clue. Because we don’t live for such long times and our brains don’t need to make risk assessments for such long times.

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 worlds – worlds – 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,

Well at-least once anyway. And we are not equipped to see it.

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