“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.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
That’s a quote from Richard Dawkins, from his book “Unweaving the Rainbow.” I very much appreciate Dawkins’s work, and, indeed, find myself using it in my day job. I apply remix theory to production models of medieval literature, which involves some work based on his idea of memetics (…you’ll note I didn’t call it my paying job.). The quote — or part of it — was featured this week on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe this week.
On what doesn’t at first seem to be a related note, one of my favourite musicians/performance artists/public personae died yesterday. There’s much that can be said of David Bowie and his myriad personae — he was born David Jones, but also performed as Ziggy Stardust and Thomas Jerome Newton (aka. the Thin White Duke) — but what I’m concerned with is, rather, a consolatory quote that was making the rounds, about the world being around for four and a half billion years and us being lucky enough to exist during the same bit of that that Bowie did.
Both of these quotes got me thinking about the phrase “lucky to be alive,” and whether or not we can really be said to be such.
Now, I’m not going to say life isn’t wonderful. If anything, I think perhaps I love life too much, and want nothing more than to continue living for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. I want to see where we go as a species. If I have the money when I’m dying (and the precious time and circumstances to see it coming) I’d like nothing better than to be frozen in the (incredibly marginal) hopes of seeing more of the great show. But am I lucky to have been born at all?
Luck is about odds. Anyone who studies probability and statistics can tell you that there’s one equation that’s more important than any other. In fact, probability boils down to a single (sometimes devilishly hard to calculate) ratio: favourable outcomes over possible outcomes. If I want a coin to come up heads, there’s one favourable outcome (heads) and two possible outcomes (heads and tails) so the odds are 1:2. If I want to roll a six on a single six-sided die in a single roll, there’s one favourable outcome (six) and six total outcomes (one through six) so the odds are 1:6.
To win the $1.3billion+ Powerball jackpot tomorrow, you need to choose the right five of sixty-nine white balls (whose odds change with each successive ball drawn, of course) and the right one of twenty-six powerballs, which leads to odds of precisely 1:292,201,338.
But what are your odds of being born?
It’s all about how you define your possible and favourable outcomes, you see.
The quote about being alive at the same time as David Bowie relies on the (erroneous) idea that your favourable and possible outcomes are measured in years, in which case the number would be the number of years Bowie was alive (69) over the number to total Earth years (roughly 4,540,000,000), or something very roughly like 1:65,800,000.
Dawkins’s quote relies on the idea that the set of possible outcomes is “the set of possible people.” If this made perfect sense, I’d suggest that yes, we are indeed immensely, immensely lucky. Even if we’re only talking humans, the number of every possible person includes every possible sexual encounter, every possible interaction of human gametes that could lead to a viable pregnancy. Given that there are roughly 250 million sperm in a single teaspoon of semen, well — “infinitesimal” doesn’t begin to describe the odds of you, specifically you, being born at any point in human history.
But when you start to think about it, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. In the case of the first, humans as we know them have only been around for about six million years, so it doesn’t make much sense to count the other 4.53 billion years (I’m rounding), regardless of the rest of the variables (which themselves are legion). In the case of the second, the other potential humans were never born, so they cannot be said to have ever been either lucky or unlucky.
Because that’s the thing: only humans (that we know of) have luck. Only things that can experience and judge experience can have luck.
Luck necessitates favourable outcomes. Favourable outcomes can only exist if there’s someone to consider them favourable. If you’re never born, you can’t consider that an unfavourable outcome.
It sounds like tautology, and it kind of is, but it’s the same reason why it’s unremarkable that all the stars have aligned to place us — a sapient, observant, experiencing species — on one of the incredibly few places in the universe that can support the development of a sapient, observant, experiencing species. It’s called the anthropic principle: we are not lucky to be here, we have the idea of luck because we are here to have it. “Conditions that are observed in the universe must allow the observer to exist.” The set of possible outcomes (places an observer can observe from) precisely matches the set of favourable outcomes (places the observer is observing from). The ratio is, from this point of view, 1:1.
Imagine the powerball lottery again. But instead of $1.3billion in US currency, the winner gets to be born as the sole creature in the universe capable of observing its own win. The other 292,201,337 “losers” never gain the ability to observe. They cannot be lucky or unlucky because they do not exist. In the absence of losers, can the winner still be lucky, or is s/he just the perfectly normal expected outcome?
On top of that, there’s the question of what makes you you. Would you still be you if you were born a day earlier or later? Would you still be you if you were born with two or three different genes? What about a month either way? What about two or three thousand genes? Would you still be you if your parents had made different decisions about your education, or were differently employed?
Like arguing with Plato’s Socrates, it’s all about picking your definitions.
I consider myself a privileged person. I have many, many things others do not, most of which make my life easier than others’. But as for being fortunate for being born at all? I think that’s a trickier question entirely.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.