Friday, November 18, 2011

The probability of your existence: Basically zero

At some point after first learning about the birds and the bees as a child (possibly after watching the opening credits of Look Who's Talking or thinking too hard about the implications of Back to the Future), it occurred to me that I could have easily been someone else. Had my parents not happened to meet when they did, and happened to conceive at the moment they did, with a specific pair of egg and sperm, I wouldn't be here. Apart from being a minor existential crisis, this realization made me feel incredibly lucky. Out of an infinite number of possible people, I was one of those who got a chance at life.

I recently came across a lovely (if statistically questionable) visual demonstration of one person's attempt to approximate the odds that each of us came into the world and exist as we are today. It incorporates probabilities ranging from our parents' first encounter to our unbroken line of ancestors to the emergence of the first single celled organism, concluding with the following analogy: The probably that we as unique individuals came to be is equivalent to "the probability of 2 million people getting together each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided die. They each roll the dice, and they all come up with the exact same number - for example, 550, 343, 279, 001. The odds that you exist at all are basically zero."

From a psychological perspective, this realization may induce a sense of awe. In a seminal paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as an emotion that is characterized by vastness (perceiving something that is much larger than the self, physically or psychologically) and by a need for accommodation (a struggle to comprehend something that does not easily fit into existing ways of seeing the world). The double rainbow guy of youtube fame, for example, is clearly in a state of awe (and probably also on drugs).

Awe can be elicited by interpersonal experiences, such as being in the presence of a powerful leader, or having an encounter with God or the supernatural, by physical experiences, such as witnessing a beautiful sunset or a natural disaster, or by cognitive experiences, such as trying to comprehend a grand theory (or an idea as seemingly simple as one's own existence). Research on awe suggests that it involves both a feeling of personal smallness and a sense of connectedness with something larger than the self. Awe-prone individuals (those who tend to have their minds blown more often than most) were found to define themselves as belonging to more universal categories (e.g., "an inhabitant of the earth").

In addition to feeling awe-struck by the near impossibility of your existence, you may also feel another emotion that has attracted the attention of psychologists in recent years - gratitude. Reflecting on near misses can increase happiness and appreciation, as Amie discusses in a previous post. So with Thanksgiving approaching, why not include on your list of things to be grateful for the fact that, against all odds, you and your loved ones made it into the world in the first place.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297-314 DOI: 10.1080/02699930302297


  1. I recently attended a dharma talk on the topic "Joy of Being." They brought up this exact topic by picturing a single 3" wooden ring floating somewhere in the ocean. The probability that one would become, would be the likelihood of a turtle that rises to the surface of the ocean only once every hundred years happening to poke its unassuming head through the ring. Though, those numbers seem like the ocean is on another much larger planet. Like the gratitude you mentioned, the lesson provided three ways to practice this increase of joy, one by thinking of someone close, a friend who is successful, and reveling in their success. A second was thinking of someone you may dislike and wishing them more success. The third, wishing a person you despise happiness. Does this allow us to be more grateful, to have less jealousy? Perhaps this realization that we are part of a universe can get scientific and view it all as one organism with many parts that require different nourishment yet feed the whole or is that even scientific. Do we need to be aware of too much that we lose the awe? Great articles btw, always lots to chew on.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Anonymous! As for your question towards the end, my view is that curiosity - and scientific inquiry - should fuel awe rather than diminish it.

  3. Well, is time related to this argument? If not, I hope you don't mind a late reply ;). I asked myself this exact question "The probability of your existence", popped it into google and found your blog.

    Now the realization of either our own existence or deities is the question, or the answer? Which is what I related the probability question to.. We have a rather pathetic intelligence, and pathetic I mean the second adjective on define google that its : 2.Miserably inadequate.

    Miserably inadequate because life is simple, yet we perceive that there are highly complex answers to life that simply do not exist in our own minds. Intelligence is useless if its not used, and life is pointless, or is there a point other than to enjoy it?

    We know that certain things are bad, and other things are good, I think we find a realization to life as we mature, and then we see the true nature of life and the universe. The probability that, one day, everyone will share a joy of greatness in life, I hope is more than zero.

    Yet does that mean we will agree on everything? :)