The improbablity of...YOU

Discussion in 'Free Thoughts' started by aaqucnaona, Jan 9, 2012.

  1. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    The improbablity of...YOU and the beauty of life.

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    We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. Moralists and theologians place great weight upon the moment of conception, seeing it as the instant at which the soul comes into existence. If, like me, you are unmoved by such talk, you still must regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortunes. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly became trillions of times more foreseeable than it was a split second before. To be sure, the embryonic you that came into existence still had plenty of hurdles to leap. Most conceptuses end in early abortion before their mother even knew they were there, and we are all lucky not to have done so. Also, there is more to personal identity than genes, as identical twins (who separate after the moment of fertilization) show us.

    Nevertheless, the instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures. The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn't bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein: Napoleon started it all. If it weren't for him, I might not be sitting here now writing these words . . . for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of my great-great grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history. Morris tells how his ancestor's enforced change of career had various knock-on effects culminating in his own interest in natural history. But he really needn't have bothered. There's no 'might' about it. Of course he owes his very existence to Napoleon. So do I and so do you. Napoleon didn't have to shoot off James Morris's arm in order to seal young Desmond's fate, and yours and mine, too. Not just Napoleon but the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became somebody else's instead. I'm not talking about 'chaos theory', or the equally trendy 'complexity theory', but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.

    This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'. Interestingly, some physicists don't like the idea of a 'moving present', regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead. In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don't misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

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    We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random would have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation would put it at less than one in a million. Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship's ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo. But imagine that the ship's robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck. As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn't that what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn't arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn't burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we slowly apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discover it, should not subtract from its wonder.

    Of course I am playing tricks with the idea of luck, putting the cart before the horse. It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose temperature, rainfall and everything else are exactly right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, it is that other kind of life that would have evolved here. But we as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever. Here, it seems to me, lies the best answer to those petty-minded Scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science. In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. 'Sir,' Faraday replied. 'Of what use is a new-born child?' The obvious thing for Faraday (or Benjamin Franklin, or whoever it was) to have meant was that a baby might be no use for anything at present, but it has great potential for the future. I now like to think that he meant something else, too: What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how 'useful' it is - useful for staying alive, that is - we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers' money on the arts. It is one of the justifications properly offered for conserving rare species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who think that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they 'pay their way'. And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is. After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked - as I am surprisingly often - why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

    The poet Kathleen Raine, who read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, specializing in Biology, found related solace as a young woman unhappy in love and desperate for relief from heartbreak:

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    - Extract [modified] from "Unweaving the Rainbow".
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2012
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  3. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    Any thoughts?
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  5. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Staff Member

    (Insert Title Here)

    Calculating the odds of self is, indeed, an exercise in losing one's mind in the context of myself or yourself.

    It is also fundamental to myth.

    Compared to the more immediately practical issues, such as not starving to death, or dying of exposure, the endeavor to transform such metaphysical considerations into a reasonably scientific outlook has been kicked not so much to the back of the bus, but onto the sidewalk.

    This is understandable in a certain context.

    Imagine a certain difference. Imagine the broad savanna, and a single rock poking up, say, twenty feet above the ground. Imagine yourself sitting atop that rock.

    Once upon a time, you would be atop that rock because whatever was chasing you in order to eat you could not reach you there. At some point in human history, though, one could sit atop the rock, drinking water and eating berries, because one wanted to. Look at how far I can see. Look at that sunset. Look at those stars. It can change a person's perspective on life.

    In the former age, the Wright brothers would never have gotten off the ground, nor the Montgolfiers. Indeed, they likely would not have tried. In terms of basic survival, these endeavors are extraneous.

    At some point, though, humanity achieved such stability and luxury that we could attempt some extraneous endeavors. And then they became not so much a matter of anthropological luxury as a somewhat necessary part of life.

    While the philosophers and metaphysicians have done some excellent work through the years, they are to some degree still viewed as operating on the fringes of the human social endeavor. Tamagotchi pets, in this sense, are more necessary to the human endeavor than comprehending the relationship between self and Universe. After all, keychain pets are tangible, can be held in the hand and easily manipulated; they provide jobs. The question of self and Universe is intangible, and incredibly complicated. Transforming this sort of existentialist endeavor into a science involves translating philosophy and myth into something that can be quantified by mathematics, biology, psychology, and other such disciplines.

    Thus, comprehending "the improbability of you" is not something the human endeavor presently places great value on. Perhaps this is wise insofar as one might assert that conditions presently do not allow for this luxury. Perhaps it is foolish, as we have time for keychain pets, and thus probably can undertake the question of self and Universe as a reasonable societal endeavor without endangering the species.

    One could say the greatest hindrance to pursuing such answers is that nobody has successfully monetized the endeavor. Philosophy, as entertaining and enlightening as it can be, puts no food on the table; if people thought they could subsist, or even get rich, chasing after the mythic grail that is the question of self and Universe, they would.

    Presently, the people who do hope to subsist or prosper by that endeavor are generally counted among artists and dreamers.

    Someday, this will change, as long as we don't blow ourselves up, or otherwise meet extinction before that happens.

    Meanwhile, humans will continue to play with their keychain pets, because that's more important to them.


    Kohler, Chris. "April 5, 1998: Tamagotchi Distracts Driver, Kills Cyclist". This Day in Tech. April 5, 2010. January 9, 2012.
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2012
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  7. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    Amazing tiassa - I have put you on my list of amazing sciforumers - the cream of the crowd - the people I can look to for good conversation, people who can inspire me to be like them.

    It's sad that for a majority of the world's population, most of their lives will be spend trying to make ends meet - pretty much trying to not die rather than be able to live. It is in this light that I think I agree with the constrast post I quote on my atheism previlege thread - its the previleged that get to think and know and understand, we are luck not only to be, but to be who we are. Perhaps science isnt the thing for humans, even though it sure is for humanity. I wonder if [from this perspective] theists despise atheists no so much because they disagree but because they threaten to break the spell, ruin the one belief on which they stumble through life - that there is a loving caring supernatural superpowered friend all for you - something a lot of atheists dont need or care for. Of course there are theists who are in the intellectual elite, who believe and do what they do completely out of passion for it, but the life of an average human is far from the perfect ideal we would want or is possible today.

    However, while the attempt to get an intellectual grip with the scientific knowledge, especially in deep fields of study is not a priority for most humans, I maintain that the fastest way to "get there" would be to teach the normal, average people the beauty and wonder of the world around us - thats a good start to a dedicated study of the universe as we know it. This is why, I think, the Life series by Attenbrough has been so successful. Looking at a beautiful bird of paradise, marvelling at the speed of a pistol shrip - these things put us in perspective and get us ever closer to a utopia where all labour is mechanised, all activities are humanised and everyone is an expert, an elite in his chosen field of human endeavour, pushing all of us ever forward towards a better future.
  8. pink:noise Banned Banned

    But... but... by contemplating the improbability of self—and lamenting over it by apologizing for it by feeling advantaged for it in the midst of the lowly disadvantaged—must be akin to annulling oneself in a supposed noise of existence. Feels awfully drab.

    I'd rather take it a step further and contemplate the probability of myself—the inevitable proposition that had to be configured.
  9. Ghostintheshell Registered Member

    With the endless probabilities available in the universe at large, does that not make any one of these probabilities infinitely probable?

    Many people simply aren't interested in philosophy for the reasons you have already mentioned - it serves no survival purpose (physical i mean), it doesn't put food on the table etc. It's not a tangible thing for people to hold in their hands or even look at.

    I kind of fell out with an ex-flatmates girlfriend once because she said something along the lines of "i dont think they should teach philosophy at school because it's pointless. It serves no purpose and i think it's the most boring thing in the world." I couldnt understand how anyone could REALLY think like this. I'm almost entirely absorbed by any aspect of life that i don't understand, and i thought that one of the traits that make us most "human" is curiosity. If you wiped someones brain clean of all knowledge, all experience; i think that the only thing left would be curiosity.

    I understand how you marvell at the nature of the world around us given all the other ways it COULD have happened, but seeing as we are all where we are now, i dont see luck as having anything to do with it; it simply couldnt have resulted any other way. That is to say, it could have, but it didnt - so it couldnt have... if you see what i mean.

    These questions you speak of will be answered, but not until more basic survival needs are taken care of first. I truly believe that it is these questions that elicit the general feeling of hopelessness and confusion that leads to misery and depression in such a huge number of western people; despite the fact that they have a roof over their heads etc.

    We are at a current stage in human evolution where we have certainly switched from evolution on a purely biological level to evolution of the mind, as we can now out-think biology. But this too is a transitionary stage and i reckon that in however many years time people will look back on these current times as a kind of dark ages. People with the want and potential to figure out such things but without the ability to do it yet. But thats just me i think.
  10. domesticated om Stickler for details Valued Senior Member

    Can someone post a brief synopsis of what he just posted? Preferably a bulleted list enumerating the key points.
  11. Ghostintheshell Registered Member

    @domesticated - its only five paragraphs long.
  12. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

    The torment of precautions often exceeds the dangers to be avoided. It is sometimes better to abandon one's self to destiny.

    Napoleon Bonaparte
  13. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    Destiny is that which happens. Whether it was going to, is a whole another matter altogether...

    - ME!
  14. Watcher Just another old creaker Registered Senior Member

    Imagine performing an experiment where someone takes a really strong dose of a psychedelic chemical, preferably one that has a high affinity for the serotonin receptors in their brain. Then they consider these questions again, in the context of their modified perception. I suppose the point is that sometimes the really hard questions require the questioner to use every tool at his disposal.
  15. river

    in the Psychic world there is the YOU

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