A Perspective on Our Improbable Existence

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*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.

Motivation

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=(1/2)^100,000
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.


= (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?


= (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. 


= (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.

Concluding Remarks 

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.

Best explorations

Part II

-Ryan
9; 4/11/2020

Why Myth?

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One method of exploration I would like to try here is presentation of a quote and a reflection. This of course is just my narrow interpretation of some idea, but perhaps it can be inspiring enough to provoke thought or incite further investigation.

“The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly releases to whatever may come to pass in him.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

If you are unfamiliar with The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I have to start by recommending the book. It would not qualify as an easy read, but I think most would have no trouble understanding the bulk of the ideas presented. In this work, Joseph Campbell presents the archetypal myth through its many different constellations. He highlights the seemingly unmistakable similarities found in stories originating from all stretches of civilization. The ubiquity of the over-arching principles leads one to the possibility of autochthonous generation of a story common to all human kind. As if the need to tell this story is somehow programmed in our DNA. I would lean towards the idea that these commonalities are found in a psychological realm, the collective unconscious, but either way, the story seems attached to our existence. In fact, I would say it is the story of our existence.

A beautiful aspect of our nature is the ability to attribute mental states to things around us, known as a theory of mind. This is the phenomena that allows us to be captivated with movies, books, and generally any social situation. It is the risk-free version of living different lives. This is the ability to infer another person’s emotions, drives, and potential actions, simply based on some limited set of information. Mind you, this all is taking place in some sort of psychological space. No physical interaction with matter is required. We are allowed to set up and run infinitely varied simulations of reality from the comfort of our own psyche.

What if the archetypal myth is the through line of beneficial psychological simulation? What if understanding this story allows us to become more suited for survival? What if this story instills in us the very adaptability that has given Homo sapiens such an advantage up to this point? If true, it is clear there would be a survival benefit to these ideas, and those species who where unable to develop such stories would be at a sizable disadvantage. I would like to bring your attention back to the fact that we see some version of this myth arise repeatedly throughout the world, and in many circumstances with no connection to previous incarnations of the story. The story seems to force its way out of us, coming into existence colored with the particular culture and time of its emergence.

When we read a book, watch a movie or series, what are we actually doing? Do we not suspend disbelief and place ourselves at the center of the situation being portrayed? The camera crew we know to be behind the shot never touches our consciousness, and we simply immerse ourselves in the situation being constructed. Does true art not make us feel as if we are actually there, in the moment? This sounds a lot like what Joseph Campbell said in his quote at the top of the page. Those moments when we are there, in the scene, we give up “all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears,” in order to take a different perspective. And when we take another perspective, we get a glimpse into another world. A different set of feelings, fears, drives, skills, and shortcomings. A brief exposure to something beyond ourselves.

The last sentence of the quote certainly summons my bias for stoic philosophy. It is very much the idea of Amor fati, literally “love of fate.” Some may dismiss Amor fati as a quality of the easily manipulated pushover. And it there is no logical flaw with that interpretation. However, that view is too myopic and fails to take into account the strength that can be found in this belief. There is power in the idea that things happen for you and not to you. You are forced to construct a future with whatever circumstances are thrown your way, and there is no regard to the distribution of equality of those circumstances. Your circumstances are what make your hero myth unique, and no one will ever be able to claim your individual story.

There are certainly more directions to go with this one. I will undoubtedly expand on the supreme importance of moving beyond our sense of self (more perspectives!) and the idea of Amor fati. Part of this experiment is to direct my mind on an idea without forcing any particular conclusion. When I picked this quote, this was not the direction I thought I would follow. So here is to exploring different lines of thought, building creativity, and following the intuitions.

Best explorations,

-Ryan

3; 4/4/2020