Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Whoever You Are, You Are Mind-Bogglingly Lucky

The probability of you or me existing is, to any reasonable – or even unreasonable – degree, essentially zero. Yet we are here, as real as anything that has ever subsisted and fortunate enough to live in the most exciting time of technological and scientific advancement that the world – and possibly the universe – has ever seen. The number of people that could be here in my place grossly outnumbers the sand grains of the Sahara many times over. Furthermore, the probability of humanity ever evolving in the first place is a trillion fold less likely even than that. To try and comprehend such odds is physically unattainable, as is trying to grasp most things about the universe. I’d just like to show you why we should rejoice every second we have upon this earth.

Imagine if simply one other of your father’s one hundred million sperm fused with your mother’s egg the moment you were conceived. A different array of genes would have arisen in the future child and therefore, by definition, you would never have existed. This person would be sleeping in my bed, possibly with my name, living with my family. What would he or she have been like? Consider again how unlikely it was for your parents to have met in the first place. As much as we want to think it was fate, any rational mind can see it was almost entirely pure chance that they met in the first place.

I would like you to do a difficult thing: extrapolate these odds over billions of generations, over four billion years. Each generation faces the same atrociously poor odds of any given two individuals mating. If, at any point, events conspired differently, a different course of action would have been set in motion, culminating in an entirely distinct body from me gaining consciousness upon the planet – in my place. Every generation faces a staggering challenge to simply survive. Yet, despite the slim chance of survival that each faced, every single one of our ancestors lived long enough to reproduce. If any of them had chosen a different mating partner, the array of genes that gives rise to me would never have arisen. I would not be here, and you almost certainly would not too, for essentially every single one of my ancestors is yours, too. Evolution may have gone down such a different path that humanity, even, may not have arisen. Extrapolating further, think of how unlikely it was for life to arise: a few replicating molecules eventually are sculpted into entities we know as ‘living’. How unlikely it is for this planet to even exist, let alone have precisely the right position, temperature and gravitational field (to say the least) to support life. If any one of these events conspired differently, a molecule here or there, and we would not exist. No tears would be shed; for the thought of our lives ever taking shape would have entered nobody’s heads.

I am paraphrasing: the reality and true odds against our existence are far, far lower than I have presented here. Some people see this as strong evidence in favour of a god. The fact that, despite these unimaginably poor odds, we are indeed here suggests that there is an all-powerful entity with us in mind, surely?

Imagine the national lottery, where everybody without a winning ticket was secretly shot dead. The only survivors are the ones who have winning tickets. They may all converse, confident that the balls were fixed precisely to favour them, for they never come across anyone without a winning ticket. Eventually, with a large enough sample, there will be somebody who wins the lottery ten times in a row. This person may be utterly convinced that the whole scenario has been fixed to favour him; otherwise how could he have survived for so long? The reality is much more logical. The only people who are able to contemplate it are precisely those who have won the lottery. The millions of losers do not have a voice, and so the only people speaking are the lucky ones. This is analogous to our situation in life: if I were not here, it would be somebody else, equally as stunned. But as it is, that person was never conceived of and it is I, in my ordinariness, who is able to contemplate my good fortune.

I am frequently utterly overwhelmed at the astonishing nature of our cosmos. How lucky I am – not only to exist, but also to actually be able to comprehend such facts – utterly staggers me. I want to scream “Thank you!” to somebody, but, as an atheist, I realise there is nobody to thank. Subsequently, the realisation that I have arisen by the blind forces of gravity, electromagnetism and natural selection, and that they are all I have to thank, genuinely overpowers my mind to the point of needing a rest. If you ever think you fully comprehend your own presence on Earth, then I can assure you that you do not. We are the winners of the most monumental lottery ever undertaken. We need to realise this and rejoice every second we are conscious. We owe it to those trillions and trillions of silent, unborn people who unfortunately did not obtain a winning ticket. Who are we to complain about petty issues when we look at reality in this way?

I feel that, when I die, there is no greater tribute I can pay to this world than for the atoms in my body – which had only temporarily taken residence in my tissues – to fall back into the soil they came from. On the day I die, a molecule that may have played a key role in the formation of my memories could, just hours later, be recycled into the secretary juices of a parasitic anaerobic bacterium. This is a beautiful reality, I assure you. No fear of an afterlife, no dread as to the opinion of an all-knowing individual constantly reading my thoughts. Just utter exhilaration to able to open my eyes, be conscious and realise – for the briefest of moments – why I am actually here. I recommend it.

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