Regular Network Norwich columnist James Knight wishes you a happy new year with a philosophical look at the chances of you being alive in 2013.
Happy New Year to you all! If you are reading this at the beginning of 2013, then you are one of 7 billion people that is astronomically lucky to be alive today.
It is quite common for biologists and religious people to make calculations of the odds of your being born, but it is a largely faulty endeavour because such models only ever focus on a few of the variables, and they fail to take into consideration that many of the contingent facts are post hoc and not amenable to straightforward probability calculations. So, in trying to tell us the incredibly small chance of any individual being born, they choose a method that underestimates the real chances by a factor much larger than the figures they give us. That's like a multi-billionaire trying to show off his wealth by emptying the moneybox by his bedside table.
But that said, it is at least true that despite the flaws in the oft-presented probability models, you had an alarmingly fortuitous journey to being born. Even if we calculate solely on the direct male line with the figure of your one lucky sperm with the unique set of DNA that makes up your father’s genes you inherited amongst 250 million sperm per intercourse, then going back a mere 40,000 generations you only had a 1 in 1.8 x 10403167* chance of making it here.
Now that you have made it here to 2013 after 40,000 generations of 1 x 250 million chances of being the lucky sperm, consider something else – the reality you create by being human is an astoundingly brilliant illusion that requires a human mind to experience it. Here’s why; The following things can be said to exist: table, moon, freedom of choice, chair, love, jealousy, the play Hamlet, a dream about the play Hamlet, the sun, gravity, atoms, fear, admiration, generosity, and a hurricane.
If asked to put them into two distinct groups, most would do the following:
Group 1: table, moon, chair, the play Hamlet, the sun, gravity, atoms, a hurricane.
Group 2: freedom of choice, love, jealousy, a dream about the play Hamlet, fear, admiration and generosity.
The demarcation is usually centred around separating things that exist conceptually or as products of mental cognita (group 2) from things that exist in physical form in the external reality out there (group 1) – not dissimilar to how Kant separated noumena and phenomena.
But I think this is a hugely (and implicitly human) limited view of reality, naturally resulting from our evolution of very limited parts through natural selection. Natural selection built us to survive and understand a world of hunting and gathering – we are not well equipped to understand the full depths and complexities of reality.
To understand reality more proficiently is to understand the following. Both of the above groups represent not too dissimilar objects in that the whole of reality with which humans interface is, in fact, a brilliant illusion constructed by the human mind. That reality is different for every other kind of animal, and maybe without minds to perceive external reality, Mother Nature would be nothing more than mathematics thoughts in the mind of God, as per Berkeley’s Idealism.
Either way, the existence of, say, table, moon and chair in the form perceived by humans is no more or less real than the existence of freedom of choice, love and jealousy – in that both sets of objects of study are as they are because of how the human mind interfaces with reality. It’s a secret not many people know – but outside of human perceptions, the world doesn’t really have atoms, motion, heat, colour, water, rocks, dust and things of that kind. Yes of course these things existed before humans (and other living things) came along, but they do not exist as you know them, outside or apart from how you know them – they exist only in non-reified mathematical form, and they are probably existent in the form of some kind of mathematical patterning that is able to bring to bear the physical substrate you and I know as the material world.
As you begin 2013, have a little smile as you consider that at the beginning of the universe there was a vanishingly small chance of your ever being here – and also that having made it here, the whole of reality with which you interface is, in fact, a brilliant illusion constructed by virtue of the fact that that is how humans perceive reality and make conceptions within it. If that’s not a reason to marvel at being alive, I don’t know what is.
Christians, like me, sense that the universe has been specially created – and that the fingerprints of that creation can be seen in the mathematical constraints imposed on the laws of physics. I also sense that the laws of mathematics are over and above the physical reality of the universe, and as such they are inextricably linked to the personality of God. This suggests to me that the creative brilliance we see in the mathematical constraints of the universe could well be a signpost pointing to the creative mind of God. Perhaps the vanishingly small chance of your being born is only what we see on the surface and that, in fact, underneath that probability wave is a grand narrative in which God had you in mind even before the universe was created.
* That’s 403,167 zeros
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.
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