“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?”

― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

The other day I was reading a fascinating piece about large deviations theory. Its a branch of mathematics that deals with describing probabilities of extremely rare events. As an illustration the author mentioned the incredible odds against (almost infinitesimally small) us being here alive right now. This is a topic many have touched on in the past but few have given it as much thought as Richard Dawkins.

I was interested in whether or not anyone had actually attempted a calculation of those odds. I looked and asked around a bit but did not get very far. However I did notice a general trend in how people approached the problem. To generalize it seemed that most were content that it is “enough to understand how infinitesimally small the odds of our existence are right now.” Moreover in almost any discussion of this topic some variation on how “lucky” we are to be here now was invoked. See first sentence of Dawkins quote above for example. Without exception the implication was that this was good luck and not bad. The more I thought on that particular point the more troubled I became. Are we really that lucky to be here and should that be considered good fortune or bad?

It is an important distinction to make. The Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz may not have been as enthusiastic about how lucky he was to be alive right then. Many others no doubt have a similar attitude about their supposed good fortune in being alive. Luck is at least part a moral question or judgement. I was originally asking about chances/odds probabilities, things that have nothing moral to say unless God exists and manipulates them as blessings/curses to favor or punish us. Why did every discussion of the question of the rarity of being alive invoke luck as a justification? In my quest for clarification of what I believed to be an objectively rational and calculable problem I was told how unimportant such a thing really was. “Just be happy that you are so lucky to be alive to ask that question” was a not uncommon response.


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Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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