*note to any statisticians out there, the probabilities calculated below are more intended for metaphorical purposes, so if the math is not completely correct, please forgive.
I was walking outside, down a path that I had traveled more than 100 times. Suddenly, an epiphany. One of those curious thoughts or realizations that fundamentally alter the way you view the world, or I should say, they way you perceive your experience. I saw a tree, then I saw its trunk, its bark, its texture, its border, its repeating structure, its carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and electrons. Aligned in cosmic symmetry, the only way it could possibly be. The journey of those particular molecules had undoubtedly been incredible. For they, like everything, had escaped the beginning (Big Bang, or God’s creation, or the original splitting of opposites, or whatever metaphor you like) and managed to aggregate into a beautifully complex arrangement on Earth, 13.8 BILLION years later.
Our Briefest History
Let’s start with our own improbable journey. The series of unique events that have surmised to the very ethereal moment you are currently perceiving. This is the infinite now, and all the other platitudes you hear espoused by your preferred mystic, yogi, or spiritual compass. We all have equally intricate and unlikely pasts, and if you can begin to appreciate your own, you have a chance at appreciating it all.
Say that a generation consists of 25 years, for no more than the sake of simplicity and the requirement to make a designation. Let us take 2.5 million years ago as a benchmark for the emergence of the genus Homo, which is almost arbitrary for our purposes, but a useful point of reference. I do not suppose that it is much of a stretch to contend that these first creatures of Homo and their progeny reproduced in generally the same way we understand Homo sapien reproduction today. Requirements of this reproduction would be something similar to the selection pressures articulated in the theories attributed to Darwin. The endless competition of matter altering machines, in the quest of maintaining and propagating genetic material into the future.
Proving The Impossible
2.5 million years divided by 25 years per generation. This crude estimate gives us 100,000 generations. Your existence here today amounts to your ancestors winning the most complex and dynamic game 100,000 times in a row. We will use the math of sequential probabilities to illustrate this colossal accomplishment. Take the example of flipping a coin and it landing on a preferred outcome. By our perceptions, we can confidently state that the chances of landing on tails is 1/2, or 50%. So if landing on tails is our defined “winning” state, and if we want to win twice in a row, the probability is simply (1/2)*(1/2). This results in a 1/4, or 25%, of us “winning” twice in a row. What follows is a simple extension of this idea. The probability, P, of winning n times in in row, where n is any number of observed coin tosses, is P=(1/2)^n. So let’s examine the probability of “winning” our coin toss 100,000 times in a row.
P = …. 0?
Do yourself the revealing experiment of typing this overly simple equation into a basic Internet calculator (https://www.desmos.com/scientific). Most of you will likely found the result displayed to be 0. Now this is not mathematically exact, but this really hints at the point I am trying to make. Doing ANYTHING 100,000 times in a row is unfathomably difficult. Let’s try to massage the numbers in our equation into giving us a non zero probability. In our equation we only have one variable to adjust, that is the probably of the singular event occurring. Let’s say that the probability of “winning” the game of life is higher than 50%. Let’s say the likelihood of your ancestors, going back to the beginning of Homo, had a 90% chance to survive long enough to achieve the minimum requirements to complete one generation. To have sex, successful conception, and successful birth.
P = (0.9)^100,000
P = …0?
Again the internet calculator jumps to the conclusion of 0 probability. What about 99% chance of “winning” life 100,000 times in a row?
P = (0.99)^100,000
P = …0?
Yep, still 0. Still impossible. So is there a number, a singular event probability, that we can assign that results in a non zero outcome with our simple calculator? Of course there is, if something is zero at one point and non zero at another point, then there is some point at which it must change into its non zero entity. In order to get closer to our non zero probability, we have to increase the individual event probability. The easiest thing to do is just add another digit and allow it to assume maximum probability of occurrence.
P = (0.999)^100,000
P = 3.54 x 10^(-44)
We finally get an answer. The singular event probability of 99.9% results in a total probability with 43 zeros before its first non zero integer. Which for all purposes relating to human perception is still zero. You can play a game to see where this particular calculator actually becomes non zero. This is fairly straightforward through the mathematical procedure of bisection. You know a probability of 0.99 results in zero and a probability of 0.999 results in a non zero number. The extension of decimal places allows you to get ever more precise, but you can limit yourself four digits post decimal to illustrate the phenomena. Start by decreasing the last digit, AKA decreasing the probability of the winning event occurring. If you get a non zero number, decrease the digit again. You can do this to find the smallest three digit, singular probability, that results in a non zero number. Note the drastic probability change simply by decreasing the probability from 0.999 to 0.998.
This is just an extremely long winded way to show how IMPOSSIBLE our existence is. But we are here…somehow. Our very presence is a masterpiece of the highest order. There has been incalculable amounts of suffering before you and there were certainly be more in the future, but if you are able to take a step back and look at the panorama of human existence, it should leave you breathless. There is no doubt our ancestors have been through multiple iterations of hell to bring us to this point. Maybe this perspective can help us cultivate gratitude and appreciation. Let us briefly smile, and try our best to make the most of it.
If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale translators).
Thanks for reading.