What are the chances that you exist? That is, you personally.
I’ve heard this question posited many times.
I think Richard Dawkins mentioned it in one of his books, or maybe in an interview, and I’ve recently seen it on the back cover of the new book by Dr Alice Roberts titled “The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being“, (the book that gets my prize for the wittiest book title of the year, being based, in case you don’t know, on the book title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera).
The question is usually asked in something along the lines of: what are the chances that your mother and father would meet? Maybe your mother turned left instead of right at a street corner and bumped into the man who was later to become your father. What are the chances of that?
And what are the chances that your grandparents met, and that their parents met, and that their parents met before them?
The chances are surely vanishingly minute.
Yes they are.
Your existence is statistically almost infinitely unlikely.
(Hence the title of Alice Robert’s book, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being.)
However, as incredibly unlikely statistically your own personal existence is, it isn’t actually incredible in the sense of being beyond credibility.
As far as I can work out, the statistic concerning the likelihood of one’s own existence is a trivial or mundane statistic – in that it may be true but it has little significance.
Here’s an analogy to show what I mean.
I’m going to type a list of thirty random numbers.
There it is.
Now, what are the chances of that row of numbers being those particular digits in that particular order?
The chances are one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
(A simpler example of the same principal is that the chances of writing any specific list of digits that’s only two digits long is one in a hundred – the combinations being from 00 to 99, or in other words a hundred possible combinations.)
You probably don’t think that it’s incredible that I’ve just written down a list of numbers that has only a one in a million million million (etc) chance of existing. I had to write down a list of thirty digits after all, and every list of thirty digits has the same incredibly low chance of being written. But one of them is inevitably going to be written.
It’s the same with people.
The chances of you existing may be almost vanishingly unlikely, but if it wasn’t you who existed it’d be someone else, in the same way that if it wasn’t that list of thirty digits it’d be a different one. (Your mother may have turned right at the street corner instead of left and bumped into a different man who would father a child who wasn’t you, while your father (who now wasn’t bumped into) continued on his journey to a work appointment at which he would meet his future wife).
We’ve got to end up with someone rather than no-one. It just doesn’t have to be you.
Or if it doesn’t have to be someone it has to be something. Maybe a descendant of the dinosaurs (because the asteroid missed), or more likely something that we can’t even envisage because there are just so many possibilities – just as there are so many possibilities when it comes to writing random thirty digit lists of numbers.
We haven’t even considered random million digit lists of numbers yet. Let’s not bother – just because something’s vanishingly unlikely doesn’t make it special.