Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Species Lost in Both Space and Time


It’s difficult to find the exact boundary between the Australopithecines, the genus of upright animals thought to be ancestral to the genus Homo, and the first true humans. But if we assume something like Homo habilis is the first truly distinct member of our genus, we must try to picture the life of these earliest humans on the African savanna some 2 million to 2.5 million years ago. How dauntingly huge the world must have seemed to them! Probably moving in nomadic groups, the earliest of our kind gathered food from an environment over which protracted walking was required. Who knows the true range of their wanderings? They trudged across the surface of their apparently huge home at ordinary walking speed,  perhaps 3-4 miles per hour. (Even running as fast as they could, were they able to reach anything like sapiens running speeds, perhaps 27-28 miles per hour in short bursts?) Their world must have appeared to be endless, if the exertion required to traverse its surface was any indication. (Of course, if they possessed any concept of the totality of the world, they probably saw the area of their own migration as its full extent.)  A more advanced type of human (either a descendant of habilis, or an entirely independent offshoot from a common ancestor, depending on the hypothesis accepted) known as erectus, began the human diaspora out of Africa, perhaps as early as 1.5 million years ago. (It is now thought that erectus did not survive as a going concern in Asia, and that a later African sapiens group became the progenitors of modern humanity.) Their migration may simply have been a matter of moving base camp a few hundred or a few thousand feet a year, depending on the circumstances, or it may have been a migration punctuated by long journeys stimulated by desperation or unusual conditions. But whatever the actual timetable of a particular group’s journey, the expansion ultimately took on a truly epic nature. Think of what physical barriers these travelers must have encountered. We have no written record of their experiences, but their travels must have been characterized by long periods of dull, seemingly endless plodding punctuated by huge challenges and harrowing dangers. And these dangers were not being met by humans of great size and tremendous strength. The height of the average member of the genus Homo, as we will examine in greater detail elsewhere, has averaged somewhere around five feet (about 1.5 meters), with males generally taller than females. A small mountain of 300-400 meters in height would be formidable to such a being; a mountain in the Alps would be huge; and a mountain in the Himalayas would seem unspeakably gigantic. Our ancestors roaming the eastern hemisphere encountered such giants, and surely must have felt dwarfed by them.

In these encounters with the world, undoubtedly many travelers lost their lives along the way. And among the survivors, an idea was deeply impressed upon their consciousnesses: the world is enormous.

As Homo sapiens evolved, spread, and founded a wide variety of new cultures, each group undoubtedly had its own conception of the world’s extent, again, a conception generally limited to the area in which their tribal hunter-gatherer group roamed. Once larger numbers of permanent settlements than had existed in the pre-agricultural world had been founded, and literacy became commonplace, humans (or at least that minority which was educated) began to gain some understanding of the actual geography of the region where their group lived. Until recent centuries, such knowledge was sketchy and speculative at best. When humans began venturing out on epic sea journeys, from the Phoenicians in the early 12th century BCE to the Chinese and Western Europeans beginning in the fifteenth century CE, the sense of the Earth’s hugeness was reinforced, as was the impression of the difficulty in crossing the Earth’s surface. (It was not unusual, for example, for a pilgrimage from the German states to Jerusalem to take the better part of a year, owing to a variety of difficulties.)

Regarding the size of the Universe, the height of the heavens themselves, our ancestors had no real conception. In early Mesopotamia, those who stood at the top of ziggurats were thought to be appreciably closer to the stars. Archimedes, perhaps the most brilliant mind of the Greco-Roman Classical era, calculated that the Universe was, in our terms, about 12 trillion miles in diameter—what we would call 2 light years. And with the notable exception of Aristarchus of Samos, most educated people believed that the cosmos rotated around us. Aristotle built his cosmology on this assumption. The great astronomer Ptolemy deeply influenced both the Hellenistic Greek world and later the educated Arabic-speaking world through his epic work, and both official Christianity and Islam assumed its absolute accuracy.

But there were observations that troubled many adherents of geocentrism. The orbits of planets, particularly Mars, seemed “eccentric”. A weird, elaborate system of “epicycles” was invented to try to clear up the growing numbers of observations that could not be made to fit into an Earth-centered Universe.
Beginning with the work of Copernicus in the 16th century CE, the picture of a geocentric cosmos began to be superseded by a new conception of the heavens. As astronomers began to broaden the scope of their investigations in the centuries that followed, facilitated by new and more powerful technologies, the size of the physical Universe seemed to “grow”.

In the last century or so a revolution has taken place in the human understanding of our planet’s physical relationship to the Universe. Between 1917 and 1932 the most massive expansion of our conception of the Universe’s size that has yet taken place occurred. With the discovery during this period that the Universe was expanding, that it contained enormous numbers of other galaxies, and was very, very old (from the human perspective), all of our previous conceptions of the cosmic order were systematically overthrown. And with the overthrow of our conceptions of the Universe came another, unexpected result, one which many people have yet to confront: the overthrow of the centrality of the human race in physical reality. This development is momentous, perhaps as momentous as anything humans have ever discovered about the world, and yet its full impact has yet to be felt.



Our small size in relation to the Earth turned out to be deceptive; it didn’t give us a picture of our world’s true place. In the larger context of the physical universe, the Earth is almost unimaginably miniscule.
We can begin by considering the Earth in relation to objects in our own solar system. The Earth, large as it is to us, is tiny compared to Jupiter, which has a volume more than 1,300 times that of our planet. (The perpetual storm in Jupiter’s atmosphere, the Great Red Spot, is in itself three times the surface area of the Earth.) The size of our neighborhood star, the Sun, is even more overwhelming. The Sun, some 864,000  miles in diameter could hold our entire planet over 1,300,000 times. A single arc of gas erupting from the Sun’s surface would utterly engulf our planet were it within range of us. The diameter of the planetary orbits in the Solar System our Sun rules over (counting the dwarf planet Pluto) is more than 7.5 billion miles as compared to around 7,900 miles for our little world—a ratio of more than 949,000:1. But that’s just the start of the measure of our cosmic insignificance.
The Sun is merely a star of average size. There are, not terribly far from us in the Galaxy (relatively speaking), many stars of such immensity that they dwarf our Sun. Alnilam is 27,000,000 miles in diameter, capable of holding our Sun 30,500 times and the Earth almost 39.7 billion times. Menkar, a red giant, is 48,000,000 miles in diameter, more than 170,000 times the volume of our Sun and 221 billion times the volume of the Earth. Betelgeuse, a dying supergiant, is 433,000,000 miles in diameter, some 125 million times the volume of our Sun and more than 1.6 trillion times the volume of the Earth. And VY Canis Majoris, the largest star in the Milky Way, has a diameter that on the low end is estimated at 1,600,000,000 miles, making it more than 6.3 billion times more voluminous than the Sun and 8.3 quadrillion (8.3 x 1015) times the volume of the Earth.
Astronomical distances and dimensions are so gigantic that they are usually measured in light years (or parsecs, which are about 3.26 light years). A light year is the distance light, the fastest known thing, travels in a vacuum in one Earth year—a distance of 5,878,499,810,000 miles. The Milky Way Galaxy, in which our Sun is so ordinary, measures anywhere from 100,000 to 120,000 light years in diameter. Therefore, the Milky Way is (to be on the low end of the estimate) 100,000 x 5.878499 trillion miles across—about 588 quadrillion miles. This is more than 74 trillion (7.4 x 1013) times the diameter of the Earth. The galaxy contains anywhere from 100 billion to 400 billion stars, depending on the number of dwarf stars that may exist. (Incidentally, astronomers locate our solar system in a partial spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy known as the Orion Spur. We are 26,000-30,000 light years from the galaxy’s center). On such a scale, our planet’s size is already negligible. But the picture gets worse.
It was not understood until the 1920s, through the brilliant work of Edwin Hubble, that the Milky Way Galaxy was far from being the only one in existence. Since Hubble’s time, we have vastly improved our observational tools, including the orbiting of space telescopes (the first one named in Hubble’s honor, fittingly enough). And the story they tell humbles us even more. There are whole clusters and walls of galaxies, all held together by gravity. NASA once estimated that there were 125 billion galaxies, and emphasized that infrared cameras, radio telescopes, and x-ray cameras might greatly increase the estimate. More recent estimates, based on Hubble data, run from one to two trillion total galaxies.
The distances between us and the closest full-fledged galaxies are staggering. One of the nearest galaxies, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, is 75,000 light years away. This means a beam of light that started traveling from our galaxy at a speed of over 670,000,000 miles per hour 75,000 years ago, before any humans were in the Americas, is just arriving at Sagittarius now. The Small Magellanic Cloud, another “close” neighbor, is 210,000 light-years away. A beam of light that started from our galaxy to the SMC at about the time that modern Homo sapiens were first evolving is just arriving there now. And the nearest spiral galaxy to us, Andromeda, is so far away that a beam of light that left our galaxy when humans were no more than a handful of Homo habilis types living in eastern Africa 2,000,000 years ago, is just arriving there now.
Other galaxies are not just tremendously distant. Some of the galaxies in our Universe are mind-bogglingly huge as well.  In 1990, Science News announced the following:
By carefully recording the faint light surrounding a bright galaxy at the center of a dense cluster, a team of astronomers has uncovered evidence for perhaps the largest and most luminous galaxy known. This gigantic agglomeration of stars, which sits at the center of a rich galaxy cluster called Abell 2029, extends 6 million light-years in diameter (more than 60 times the width of the Milky Way) and emits more than a quarter of all the light produced by the entire cluster.
Such an object has a diameter 4.7 billion times the diameter of our Solar System’s planetary orbits. This would be as if our solar system were eight one-hundredths of an inch across and the giant galaxy in question were roughly the diameter of North America from the Arctic Circle to Colombia. By my calculations, this enormous galaxy in Abell 2029, if seen as a circle, would be more than 22 quintillion (2.2 x 1019)  times the area of a circle represented by our solar system.
And when the Earth is finally compared to the entire physical Universe, the human species all but vanishes completely. The Earth’s polar diameter of about 7,900 miles must be compared to the estimated 156 billion light years diameter of the Universe. (We should recall that space can expand faster than the speed of light.) The number of miles represented by a light year, multiplied by 156,000,000,000 yields a staggering result:  the estimated Universe is, compared to the Earth’s diameter of 7,900 miles, more than 116 quintillion, or to be precise, 116,081,768,400,000,000,000 (1.16081768400000000000 x 1020) times larger in diameter.
Atoms range in size from 1 x 10-10 to 5 x 10-10  of a meter in diameter. The Earth is 1.2713 x 107 meters in diameter at the poles. Therefore, the Earth is about 127.13 quadrillion times (1.2713 x 1017) the diameter of the smallest atom. In other words, the Earth is smaller in relationship to the Universe than the smallest atom is in relation to the Earth by a factor of about 1,000.


The creation myth believed until recently by most humans in the Western world seemed to posit a Universe no more than a few thousand years old. Interpreters of the Book of Genesis, for example, have often come up with a figure of 6,000 years for the age of the cosmos, with humans appearing within the first week of the Universe’s existence. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists generally agree with this assessment.

In The Kojiki, which includes the Japanese creation story, the age of the Universe is said to be at least “millions and millions” of years, although the ancient Japanese had nothing but supposition on which to rest this estimate. In Chinese mythology, one source puts the age of the Universe at 18,000 years. Hindu cosmologists speak in terms of enormous time periods. One Hindu belief asserts that the Universe is more than 314 trillion years old, for example. But all of the enormous time periods postulated in Hinduism are specifically linked to the age of the various manifestations of God, and in all Hindu hypotheses about the creation of the Universe, humans are present right from the start. We must assume, additionally, that the Hindu estimates, like those of the Japanese, are based on supposition and imagination, and not on any empirically-based observations.

All cultures have creation myths, but they seem to share one common theme: humans are of greater or lesser importance in them, but one of the central purposes of the act of creation by God or the gods or the infinite, if not the central purpose, is the creation of humans, and humans appear either immediately at the beginning of the Universe or not terribly long after it comes into being.  All creation myths share another commonality, as well: they have all been shredded to pieces and superseded by the discoveries of modern science.

Recent findings from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) space project indicate a universe 13,700,000,000 years old. The earliest member of the genus HomoHomo habilis, is thought to have emerged no earlier than 2,500,000 years ago. Even with the discovery of a find called Touma├»' (not a member of Homo) in Chad, we can say that the hominid line emerged no earlier than 7,000,000 years ago. Therefore, the genus Homo has occupied approximately less than two one-hundredths of one per cent of the total existence of the Universe (more precisely about .01825% of the Universe’s age). To use a  slight variation on how Carl Sagan once put it, if the entire age of the Universe could be reduced to one year, the genus Homo did not emerge until around 10:30 pm on 31 December. In this scale, the oldest member of sapiens, perhaps 200,000 years old, emerged at about 11:52 pm on that fateful last day. The earliest agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, about 11,000 years before the present, began about 25 seconds ago, the earliest written records, about 5,000 years old, emerged about 11 seconds ago, and all of human history since the year 1500 has, in this Universe shrunken temporally to one year, taken place over the last 1.15 seconds. The life span of a centenarian on this scale is reduced, therefore, to about one-fifth of a second. The life span of a person of typical life expectancy in the advanced countries would be about one-seventh of a second.
Some people might prefer to think of these issues by picturing an enormous timeline. So let’s consider this. Let’s say you have a timeline that stretches out 1,000,000 meters in length—1000 kilometers, or about  621.3 miles. Each year since the Big Bang would be about 0.07299 millimeters on such a scale. On this scale, we would have to travel 664,293 meters—almost two-thirds of the total length of the line—to reach the beginning of the Earth. We would have to travel almost 999,818 meters on that timeline to reach the first member of the genus Homo. We would have to travel 999,985 meters to reach the first sapiens,  999,999.2 meters to reach the earliest civilization, and 999,999.6 meters to reach the earliest writing. The last 500 years of human history would take up about the last 36.495 millimeters of the timeline, more than 999,999.96 meters from the start, the lifetime of a centenarian would be 7.299 millimeters from the end of our one million meter line, and the lifespan of a typical human in the advanced nations (about 75 years) would take us less than 5.5 millimeters from the end of a line 1,000,000 meters in length.
We are an amazingly recent occurrence in this iteration of the Universe. Even in comparison to the Earth, a mere 4.6 billion years in age, we are insignificant. Imagine if the Earth were a sentient, conscious being. Further imagine that it had the powers of observation and evaluation. Can you imagine how fleeting the life of a seventy year old person would be to such a being, a being almost 66,000,000 times older? It would be as if our 70 year-old simply appeared out of nowhere and disappeared almost instantaneously. The rhythms of the Earth are unimaginably slow in comparison to the frantic pace of our lives. The Earth’s memory would include geologic eras measured in tens or hundreds of millions of years. It would contain the earliest glimmerings of life, the upheavals and splitting apart of whole continents, the births, lives, and deaths of countless entire species. The recession of the last ice age, some 14,000 years ago, would be a recent memory, comparatively speaking, to such a being. It would be the equivalent of a memory our 70 year-old would have of something that happened 45 minutes ago!
We are newborns; we are very, very young children of space-time and energy-matter. We were not created at the start; we were not created near the start; we weren’t even created near the middle. We are the latecomers. It took eons of time to produce us, and our reign on this tiny world has been vanishingly brief. We have only just begun our journey, and there is no guarantee that it will last much longer than it already has.

So what does this all mean? It means that all human-centered views of the Universe are nonsense, utterly indefensible on every level. It means that our myths were simply quaint efforts to explain reality, based on the superstitions and limited observations of the ancient world. These myths perhaps possess some literary or historical value, but they possess no scientific value whatsoever. Our utter physical and temporal insignificance call into question all anthropocentric views of the Universe’s origin and various physical features. To contend that the Universe was created for the benefit of a set of beings who occupy a world as ludicrously small as ours, is to stretch credulity to the breaking point. We thought we were the center of creation. We’re not. We thought the object of the Universe’s existence was to produce us. In all probability, it wasn’t. Perhaps, in an unspoken way, we thought if our world disappeared it would matter to the Universe, or at least be noticed. It wouldn’t.  Most humans, even though they know that the Earth is very small and that humanity is very young, still tend to embrace some variation of the view that everything was made for us. It is time, in my humble opinion, for us to disabuse ourselves of this notion. The individual human life is virtually nothing in the scale and age of the Universe in which it evolved. This is a hard truth from which we can no longer turn, and it carries implications that must be confronted if any kind of human dignity and worth are to be salvaged from the wreckage of our broken dreams and shattered mythologies.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Search: The Existential Dilemma of the Human Being


In the face of reality’s complexity, especially the complexity represented by the existence of other people, there are certain essential questions which I believe that all humans confront (if they live long enough and are mentally lucid) whether they realize it or not. Taken together, the search for answers to these questions forms what I call the existential dilemma of the human being. These are the questions which must be answered if a human wants to make sense of the world and survive within it. This dilemma may not be consciously articulated, but I am convinced that it is at least felt, and is perhaps the source of the vague unease many humans feel at odd times in their lives. I am convinced that many humans embrace religious convictions because religion seems to end this search. Other humans seek resolution of these issues from sources outside of religion, chiefly philosophy. And many people come to believe that there are no definitive answers to any of these questions. (That lack of answers carries its own consequences, as we will see.)

In my opinion, the major existential questions humans want answers to are the following::

1.         What am I?
2.         Who am I?
3.         What is the world and how did it come to be?
4.         Why do humans exist?
5.         What is my place in the world?
6          How should I live my life?
7.         Can I know myself?
8.         Can I know others?
9.         Can others know me?
10.       Who can I trust, and to what degree?
11.       How can I protect myself and my loved ones from the world?
12.       Is there a larger purpose to life than mere survival, and if so, what is it?
13.       What is right and what is wrong?
14.       What is true and what is false?
15.       Why is there suffering?
16.       Why do evil and injustice exist?        
17.       Is life worth living?
18.       Is there such a thing as meaning, and if so, is it discoverable?
19.       What happens when people die?

Naturally, most people don’t consciously dwell on such matters very often, if at all. For the vast majority of us the demands of everyday life are such that there is very little mental or physical energy left for such “idle speculation”. And yet, I suspect that these are the questions, even if unspoken or not contemplated, around which humans build their lives and about which they are most concerned.  In my view, whether they know it or not, I believe most humans both want and need answers to these questions, ones that will help them reject a conclusion that for most people is utterly intolerable, namely, that existence is absurd and nothing ultimately means anything—including our own lives.
Existential Questions: Who Am I? What Am I? What is the world and how did it come to be? Why do humans exist?

Upon birth, we must suppose that an infant faces a physical reality which is totally incomprehensible to him or her. Instinctive reactions, born of evolution’s long history, govern a baby’s behavior. As the neurons of the brain interweave themselves and make connections (while pruning back others), the earliest self-awareness an infant/toddler has begins to emerge. An “I” is beginning to take shape, the sense of being an object differentiated from other objects, a feeling of being connected by the senses to the outside world. So the initial existential question we face is, in my view, What am I? Children tend to quickly learn some variation of an answer to this question: I am a baby, I am baby boy or baby girl, I am something which belongs to mommy or daddy, I am someone who has needs. Young children just learning to speak are often excited to see other very young children, and will often exclaim, “Baby!”, upon seeing them. This recognition of others is a crucial part of personality formation and categorization. There are big people; there are little people. The earliest memories, usually from around the age of 3, indicate (in my view) a stage in the development of the self, and a new step toward defining the “What am I” question.

All throughout life, as roles are acquired and membership in various groups is understood, and assimilated into a person’s consciousness, the answers to What am I grow increasingly elaborate and complex. All sorts of categories now seem applicable: member of a family, member of a neighborhood, member of a school, member of a town, member of a nation, and so on. The answers to the question “What am I” form crucial aspects of an individual’s identity. By identity, I mean the association of the “I”, the self, with various definitions which seem to be congruent with experience. “What am I” continues to be asked (either consciously or unconsciously) all through life. Answers can include, “a child”, “a teenager”, “an adult”, “an employee”, “an old person”, and, if there is sufficient lucidity near the end of one’s life, “a dying person”. In a sense, What am I is the ultimate, primal, permanent question of life, one that follows us from birth all the way to the moment of death.

Who am I? is a variation on What am I?. The various definitions associated with the self, combined with an individual’s unique experiences and genetic predispositions, form a biographical narrative in a human brain (assuming the person in question is of adequate intelligence). This narrative is strengthened by the possession of a name, a ready identifier which becomes indelibly linked to us.  We say, in various ways, “I am [name]. I have a story that is mine alone. I have my own set of characteristics and ways of seeing the world. No one else is me. I live inside of myself, and I know my story better than anyone. Things have happened to me. I have done things. I have thought and felt things. I will be me for the rest of my life.” An individual human might change the definition of Who am I several times over a lifetime. And some people never quite get a handle on it. The answers to the question, Who am I can be vague, somewhat shapeless, indefinite, and malleable, as a human’s life unfolds and follows often unexpected paths. Answers to this fundamental existential question can change under the pressures of new circumstances, dramatic personal events (especially crises), and new, age-related perspectives.

As a person more and more coherently defines himself or herself as a kind of living being existing in a definite kind of world, questions tend to arise about the nature of that world and how humans came to be in it. The overwhelming majority of humans are taught answers to these questions by the adults in their culture, adults who have absorbed cultural traditions that are centuries or even millennia old. The dominant mythology of a given society is usually learned at a young age, and it can be remarkably difficult to dislodge from a person’s consciousness. The root of this difficulty, many times, is the fact that this mythology has been imparted by respected and beloved elders. Further, this mythology is generally learned when the brain is at or near its peak ability to learn. Mythology is also tenacious because of its strong emotional components, especially ones which exalt the group of which a child is a part. Cognitive dissonance can occur when cherished mythology is exposed to empirically-based scrutiny, and the mythology’s contradictions, illogical aspects, and  general explanatory flaws are exposed.

The questions of what the world is, how it came to be, and how humans came to be form the core of a human’s mental picture of himself in relation to the Universe, and his relationship to a hypothesized Divine Creator (or creative force) who is ultimately believed to be responsible for bringing that Universe, and by extension the human himself, into existence. The answers embraced by a human to this set of questions tell us, in many ways, a person’s opinion of herself and the others with whom she lives. Many humans prefer answers to these questions that tend to reaffirm their sense of being important in the scheme of things. It is this comforting belief in human centrality that is most brutally challenged by the facts of our utter spatial and temporal insignificance.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

61 Propositions

1. All of our propositions, including naturally all of the ones I am presently positing, are based on a point of view which is unalterably human. All of our definitions and our understanding are predicated on the anatomy and physiology of the human nervous system and the way in which that system typically creates the experience of consciousness. (Even the term “nervous system” is in itself a human mental construct.) Therefore, every attempt to use language to describe our experience is inherently limited.

2. The human frame of reference is inescapable and no examination of our condition can be anything except “subjective” (however that term may be defined). It is logically impossible for humans to stand outside human definitions, perceptions, interpretations of perceptions, or human mental constructs. The human perspective is the only one of which we are capable, and we cannot climb out of it in any way.

3. This study, therefore, will inevitably be a victim of its own assumptions. Its author cannot escape the limits of his own perspective, nor can any potential reader.

4.  Emergence is a fundamental quality of reality. Chaos resolves into a level of order, which resolves into a higher level of order, and so on.

5.   Either mathematical probability or another in a series of periodic events triggered the beginning of the Universe. From the physical forces there emerged the particles out of which everything physical is composed. From physical reality chemical reality, biological reality, socio-cultural reality, and historical reality arose in turn.

6.  Humans are therefore an intrinsic part of the Universe. They are composed of the same materials out of  which other common physical bodies are composed. They are subject to all the fundamental rules of the Universe, and in fact reflect in themselves all of the Universe’s basic features.

7.  The human species evolved from the larger web of life, and all human traits ultimately have their origins in this fact.

8.  The human nervous system’s evolution, especially the evolution of the central nervous system, is the key to understanding the way in which humans perceive the world around them.

9.  There is a free-standing “real” reality that exists outside of us and then there is the reality we perceive from our human standpoint. Humans do not perceive reality in and of itself. They perceive a version of reality through a nervous system that evolved in such a way that human survival chances were enhanced.

10.  The brain and “mind” in all probability evolved in a synergistic fashion, as intelligence facilitated the survival of the brains that possessed it. Consciousness and all other aspects of  human perception exist only within the physical confines of the brain (although the brain may—may—be able to transmit electrical signals directly to other brains by means as yet not understood.)

11.  The human is a species of animal, not something apart from the broader web of  living things. Humans are physical objects, subject to the laws and processes of biology, chemistry, and physics. Humans do not have bodies—they are bodies.

12.   Human reality is related to the “real” reality and, in ways perhaps forever  beyond our understanding, reflects it in some way. Mathematics may be the closest we get to directly contacting this reality.

13.  Both solipsism (the idea that everything exists only in my own consciousness) and idealism (the idea that things don’t exist independently of our perception of them) are  fundamental errors, perhaps even definitions of insanity. We will assume that all humans are real and that the forest exists even when no one is watching it.

14. Organic evolution did not have as its “goal” the creation of the human species. The evolution of humans was (from our standpoint) a fortuitous event but it was not preordained. As Stephen Gould said, if we “rewound the tape” and started the process all over, there is no guarantee that anything like us would come to exist.

15. Human history is the attempt to describe the story of our species, a species which has evolved in a particular way. This evolutionary process has brought about beings with a distinct way of perceiving the universe around them. Human history is therefore the story of what humans have experienced and done within the framework of their consciousness.

16. We may therefore argue that the world the humans have built around themselves   is nothing more or less than a reflection of the internal functions of their brains. Those functions in turn reflect the evolutionary history of the brain itself. Consciousness could therefore be thought of as an amalgam of instinctive, emotional, and intellectual impulses and capacities, although distinct boundaries between these capacities may not exist.

17. In relation to this, therefore, human behavior is a mixture of “primitive” autonomic processes, need satisfaction, emotional expression, and intellectual processes, reflecting the long evolution of the animal, mammalian, primate, and hominid brains in succession, although not in a seamless or sharply  chronological manner.

18.  Human behavior is a synergistic interaction between genetic inheritance and life  experience, an interaction that is relentless and ceaseless, in an infinitely complex shifting mosaic.

19. Human behavior, therefore, has exceedingly complex origins. The actions the human animal takes and the way the human animal perceives the world defy simple description (with the exception of instinctive self-defense or protective reactions, such as withdrawing one’s hand from a hot surface). The evolution of  high level consciousness in the human therefore makes him/her the most          complicated living thing on the planet. This complexity means that humans are  capable of the widest range of possible actions and responses of any living thing, and are therefore the least predictable living thing.

20.  The human brain has not evolved to give humans complete understanding of the world around them. It has evolved, rather, to help them survive within it—a far different mission. Survival skills and knowledge are much more strongly developed than the capacity for philosophical certitude.

21.  No one fully comprehends his/her own motives or impulses. No one completely  understands why he/she is doing what he/she is doing. There are degrees of  understanding, ranging from reasonably good to totally absent.

22.  Humans enter the world at birth not only completely helpless physically but also completely without comprehension of what is happening to them, and probably without any mental sense of being a self whatsoever. The process of growing up involves, therefore, not only physical maturation and an increasing ability to care for one’s self, but also an attempt, whether conscious or not, to make some kind of sense of the world in which the individual ego finds itself immersed.

23. Human consciousness evolved in group settings, and it requires interaction with other humans in a culture to manifest itself. No child’s consciousness can develop without some form of language-based interaction.

24. Humans generally like to have an effect on the environment around them. Humans generally like the experience of having caused something to happen, at least at first. Children quickly learn that doing certain things causes other things to occur. The adult impulse to change the world or affect history in some way may         simply be an elaboration of our child-like delight in causing something to happen.

25.  Human males and females evolved in order to reproduce and care for offspring. They did not evolve to understand each other’s complex and distinct way of processing reality. The male and female outlook and perspective are equally valid and equally part of the definition of what it means to experience the world as a human. There are degrees of maleness and femaleness in all humans, regardless of sex, and therefore even the terms male perspective and female perspective have to be qualified. There seem to be some genuine and fundamental differences between the male and female brain that affect behavior and the general perception of the nature of the world. Cultural factors also deeply shape gender definitions.

26.  Every human who has ever lived has experienced the world in a unique way. No two human biographies are identical. We are able to relate to each other, at least somewhat, because there are enough common experiences we share to permit a minimal level of understanding.

27.  Basic human sensations (such as the perception of red, the feeling of physical pleasure, and other somatic events) cannot be described in such a way as to be meaningful to someone who has never experienced them. They are irreducibly fundamental. I have to have actually seen a red object in order for me to understand what you say when you describe something as “red”.

28.  Language is inherently limited as a communication device. The idea of “perfect” communication is a hopeless ideal. What communication exists is based on the existence of enough experiential common ground to permit it. Language is an       imprecise tool. No one means exactly the same thing by the use of a particular word as someone else, because the mental associations attached to that word in the brain of its user are unique.

29. The awareness that death is inevitable has probably been the major driving force behind most of the world’s religions and philosophies, as well as a major force in human artistic expressions.

30.  The genus Homo has existed only for a brief period relative to the known   universe’s existence—perhaps 2.5 million years out of a period of about 13,700,000,000 years, less than two-tenths of one percent of the Universe’s existence. This was discovered only recently in the history of the genus.

31. The home of the human species is extraordinarily miniscule in the physical context of the Universe, occupying a space so tiny that if the Universe were   reduced in size to an object the size of the Earth, the Earth itself in turn would be reduced to a size less than that of a single atom. This is also a recent discovery.

32.  Humans are therefore temporally and spatially insignificant. Outside of the human community, human history means absolutely nothing (so far) and has had no effect whatsoever on the larger Universe. This could change as humans reach out and explore small areas of the Universe (or perhaps seed the Universe with self-            replicating devices).

33.  Human philosophies and religions were basically all created before the knowledge of humanity’s temporal and spatial insignificance was understood. The fact of human insignificance is not yet widely comprehended, or even accepted as true.

34.  There is no reliable scientific way of ascertaining whether there is a god of any kind. There is no philosophically sound way of either conclusively proving or  disproving god’s existence. Therefore, metaphysical explanations of human history will largely be absent from this study.

35.  Human memory is particularly unreliable because it did not evolve to provide a photographic account of reality. The development of information storage systems external to the human brain reflects an understanding of this limitation.

36.  Human consciousness emerged before humans realized what it was (or even where it was located). Only gradually have humans understood the significance of  the anatomy and physiology of their own brains.

37.  Human consciousness creates what we call human psychology, something we only dimly and incompletely understand. Humans therefore do not have a full understanding of why they do what they do or feel what they feel.

38.  The superior level of human intelligence relative to other animals accounts for the dominance of our species over all others and the spread of our species across the surface of the planet.

39.  Humans have, up until relatively recently, been forced to make a living out of  whatever the immediate environment provided them in the way of resources.

40.  Because humans adapted to a wide variety of ecological niches, a correspondingly wide variety of ways of life emerged.

41.  Because language—the use and manipulation of symbols to represent ideas and convey descriptions of the world—emerged as a property of human consciousness (in a synergistic, self-reinforcing manner), human culture was able to emerge. Language is therefore the basis of culture. Culture may be thought of as a way of life consisting of the material objects created by a group and the ideas, customs, traditions, beliefs, and methods of doing things the group passes from one biological generation to the next.

42. Since many, many sounds can be used to represent the same kinds of objects and ideas, many human languages emerged. The greater the physical isolation of  human groups from other human groups, and the less such groups linguistically interacted with others, the more unique the group’s language tended to be.

43. Human society emerged out of the physical inadequacies of our ancestors in relation to the environmental dangers surrounding them. The individual human was generally no match for the kind of predatory animals, harsh climatic fluctuations, challenging topographical conditions, and hard-to-extract resources of the areas in which the early humans evolved. Only by living in groups and cooperating in teams could humans make a go of it.

44.  Human morality emerged out of the need of humans to create rules by which the   group could survive and flourish. There may also be some very deep biological roots to such concepts as “fairness”. There is no need to infer a supernatural origin for moral behavior, although such an origin is not automatically ruled out.

45.  Human groups tended to develop, as a survival skill, “us versus them”  orientations to those outside of the group. The use of violence, something rooted deep in animal evolution, to ward off such outsiders or steal their means of  survival, is very ancient, very useful, and the root cause of interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup violence. Some violence appears to have no   instrumental purpose at all, and is merely the expression of disturbed mentalities.

46.  The use of tools—objects from outside of the human body used to accomplish work—was absolutely essential to the survival and flourishing of human groups. Tool making encouraged, in a reciprocating manner, dexterity, eye-hand coordination, abstract conceptualization, and other physical-mental skills. Those who had the best brains made the best tools. Tool use facilitated survival, which in turn gave a genetic advantage to those who made them. Even better brains  produced even better tools, and so on. Therefore, human tool making and human evolution affected each other in a synergistic way.

47. Because humans, like all other animals, can physically suffer, the threat of such suffering has always been an effective tool of social control. No rational individual wants to be injured or suffer physical pain, and the knowledge of just how bad such experiences really are allows those who control the means of  violence and social authority to rule over others. Fear is a very ancient tool of           human interaction, rooted in the very animal natures of humans themselves.

48. Human sexuality has been a key variable in the unfolding of human history, as has human violence. The distance between the two is not as great as many people might imagine. Human sexual expression has covered the entire range of physical possibility, and a human’s sexual nature is a key element of his or her basic self.

49. Human beings as a group consistently overestimate their own understanding of the world and their understanding of themselves. The human brain is not evolved to either fully comprehend reality or to completely grasp the nature of the self and consciousness. This is because the human brain is a jerry-rigged, haphazardly evolved structure that developed as it did because it was useful from a       survival/reproductive standpoint.

50. The human world reflects our lack of understanding. Human history has careened forward in totally unexpected ways. They are unexpected because the human species, as a group, does not understand what is happening to it at any given moment. There are simply too many variables operating at any given time for             such an understanding to be even remotely possible. Human history is also affected by mathematical randomness and quantum indeterminacy. It may not even be possible to predict anything about the future direction of human life.

51.  Human social interaction and social relationships are fraught with difficulties because of the inadequacies of human communication, the existential loneliness of the human being, and the fathomless vagaries of human psychology, itself the          product of our haphazardly evolved brains.

52.  Life and reality are ruled by a set of interrelated processes, most of which are usually hidden to human perception.

53. As a result of our convoluted history and fundamental ignorance, the vast majority of humans have lived lives that by contemporary standards in the Western world would be considered abysmal and miserable.

54. The vast majority of human beings believe there is a supernatural plane of reality,   a belief which is deeply rooted in the evolutionary processes by which their brains developed. These beliefs are massively shaped by cultural inheritances as well.
55. As a result of variations in human brains and individual human life experiences, there is no action, no matter how debased or atrocious, that has not been taken by at least someone, somewhere, at some time.

56. The average life is spent in the carrying out of routine tasks.

57. The average life is undramatic and ordinary. The day to day life of the human species has probably always been this way.

58. Many humans are certain that they know the truth of any given matter, when in all probability this is not the case.

59. The arts are rooted in the human attempt to explain, interpret, react to, and/or express the reality humans perceive.

60. The sciences are rooted in the human attempt to explain the rules and nature of reality by use of methods which strive as much as possible to eliminate all elements of  “subjectivity”, even though the sciences still operate within the limits of human perspective.

61. The world probably does not exist for our benefit. But who knows?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Randomness, Probability, and Coincidence

Possibility lies unseen in the fabric of reality. It is possibility, and nothing more than that, which may, in fact, be the fabric of reality. Possible Universes, possible histories, possible phenomena, and possible resolutions of every kind “wait” within it. At every juncture where a decision is being made, at every point where there is a choice of futures, in every situation where a variable is at work, at every place where chains of consequence are intersecting, at every interval where uncertainty is about to be resolved, one of the most powerful and pervasive features of possibility is about to come into play: randomness. Many researchers and observers have come to the conclusion that randomness—the presence, in any given dynamic situation, of variables that will have non-predictable effects on the situation—is a ubiquitous feature of reality. (The word stochastic is sometimes used as a synonym for random.) Randomness is studied in large part through the mathematics of probability, which many people call chance. And randomness appears to be one of the “masters” of both the Universe itself and the human life which has emerged within it. It is a constant factor in the events, great and small, that comprise a human life.

These events often seem to occur out of nowhere. Seemingly impossible or unlikely things (such as a meteorite crashing into a house) actually happen. Good “luck” or bad “luck” just seems to follow some people. People sometimes hit it big in games of chance. Seemingly hopeless situations can unexpectedly resolve themselves in a way favorable to those involved in them. People’s lives are altered by chance introductions to other people. Individuals run into people they once knew and never imagined they would see again. Tragedies strike with brutal suddenness. And the story of life often seems incomprehensible at times, even senseless, littered as it is with the unexpected and the inexplicable.

To make sense of this apparent capriciousness, most humans seem to need an explanation of some sort for the events that engulf them, and for the way in which the world seems to work. A great many of these humans believe that all events have been foreordained. This belief is sometimes called a belief in Fate. Sometimes it’s called a belief in Predestination or Determinism. But the terms all mean the same thing: events happen in a certain way because they were meant to, and there was no other way they could have happened. Most humans are loath to believe that it might be otherwise. To suggest that randomness is at work in life often elicits responses ranging from despair to outright hostility. Many humans hate randomness because they want there to be a why. Especially when things are at their worst, the only comfort many humans can take is the conviction that “all is, or will be, for the best”. To invoke the apparently arbitrary element of chance into the situation is to say there is no why. And for many, such a conclusion is intolerable. For many people, the future needs to be predictable, at least in the general sense. If it isn’t, the implications can be terrifying for them.

Many humans are fearful of randomness because it robs them of their sense of being in control of things. Even worse, the existence of randomness robs them of the hope that some Higher Power (a god, Karma, ancestral spirits, and so on) is guiding life and has an Ultimate Purpose in mind for everything, a great Plan that will ultimately “balance the Universe” and make everything come out all right, however “all right” might be understood. They cling to the idea of predestination or fate because they desperately want to believe someone or something has matters under control, especially when the brutality and chaos of life are all too evident and all too near. (The belief in fate can be so all-encompassing that it erases the sense of personal responsibility; after all, if it was fated, an individual might say, “there was nothing I could have done anyway, so it’s just as well that I didn’t do anything.”) But there seems to be no getting around it: randomness is evidently real, and it would appear to be pervasive in the true sense, permeating the physical world, and upending all human expectations.

It is natural to ask a crucially important question: Is quantum indeterminacy the origin of randomness on the macroscopic level? The answer appears to be: in rare circumstances it can be, but since the behavior of subatomic particles is predictable at the group level, the structure and function of the macroscopic world seem to be generally consistent. Yet, given the Many Worlds hypothesis, it could be argued that on the broadest scale reality is being shaped by chance occurrences, namely, the random observation of an event which leads to the creation of an alternate history.

My own (amateur’s) hypothesis is that the classically-governed macroscopic world is composed of elements that behave in a quantum manner, but these quantum elements decohere in such a way that the consistency of the classical world is maintained. In other words, the uncertainty in the physical world is resolved in such a way, and at a “low” enough level, that it is not noticeable to humans. For example, it’s not how the beam of light goes from point A to point B, testing every possibility, it’s that it does go from point A to point B in a predictable manner. Randomness, therefore, chiefly lies in the classical domain. It is governed by the addition or multiplication of probabilities, combined with a sequence of “decisions”, many of them unconscious, that lead to definable outcomes. The one realm where quantum indeterminacy may play a role in randomness is, interestingly, the function of the human brain. Consciousness may have quantum elements because the neurotransmitters and neural structures upon which it is based may operate according to quantum rules.

I am not concerned here, by the way, with the mathematical quest to determine what a truly random number sequence is. I am concerned with randomness as it is found in ordinary human life, and, consequently, in the course of human history. In that course, as far as I can determine, every event is the inheritor, the descendent of so many other events, that tracing the line of causation quickly becomes impossible. When these events touch directly on the lives of conscious beings, these beings make a response of some sort to them—even if the response is to do nothing. Every event is the outcome of a series of yes/no, black/white, utterly binary “choices” that, laid on top of one another, yield a result that can only be called randomness. A thousand choices up a chain of events a simple decision was made—will we go this way or that way? From that choice sprouted innumerable others, each adding an unexpected turn. The sum total of those simple choices is the complex set of variables that produce the human perception of randomness.


Randomness is based on probability, or more accurately, a series of probabilities unfolding and manifesting themselves through time. Probability involves the sum total of things that can happen in a given situation—the situation’s universe of possibilities, or its sample space— and the frequency with which these possibilities actually occur. An event occurs because a whole sequence of probabilities played themselves out in the events that led up to it. In areas open to human study, probability estimates are the product of human record keeping, which is by no means infallible, of course.

Leonard Mlodinow, in his wonderful popular work The Drunkard’s Walk, explains the basic rules that govern probability. He summarizes them this way:

1. The probability that two events will both occur can never be greater than the probability that each will occur individually.1

2.   If two possible events, A and B, are independent, then the probability that both A and B will occur is equal to the product of their individual probabilities. For example, if in the life of a person there is an event that has a probability of 1 in 50 over the course of a year and an event that has a probability of 1 in 5,000 over the course of a year, if they are truly independent events, the odds that both will happen to the same person in the same year is 1/50 x 1/5,000, which is 1/250,000. 2

3.  If an event can have a number of different and distinct possible outcomes, A, B, C, and so on, then the probability that either A or B will occur is equal to the sum of the individual probabilities  of A and B, and the sum of the probabilities of all the possible outcomes (A, B, C, and so on) is 1 (that is, 100 percent.)  In other words, as Mlodinow explains, when you want to know the chances that two independent events will occur, you multiply; if you want to know the chances of either of two mutually exclusive events  occurring, you add.3 If there is a 20% chance of person A appearing somewhere (a party, for example), a 25% chance of person B appearing at the same place, and a 30% chance of person C showing up, there is a 75% chance that someone from the set ABC will show up at the appointed spot. (The odds of all three showing up, however, would be only 1.5%.) Of course, as one of my mathematically-gifted friends has pointed out, in real life the odds wouldn’t necessarily add up or multiply that cleanly. A, B, and C might know each other, for example, and that might play into their decision to attend or not attend. There are conditional probability equations that are used to calculate real-life probabilities more scientifically.

The need to calculate these real-life probabilities has spawned a sophisticated subspecialty within mathematics, and the problems it deals with reveal to us the full complexity of the probability that weaves through our lives. Mathematicians working in probability theory are attempting to put into a rigorous form the work of the first people who studied the nature of chance, many of whom wrote about such matters as odds in card games and dice throws. The chief issues in probability theory include such matters as assessing what a truly independent event is, the definition and classification of random variables, determining the independence of random variables, the properties of expectation (which deals with a great many repetitions of a given phenomenon), situations containing an infinite number of variables, and Markov chains, which deal with probabilities of transitions from one state (status) to another in a finite universe of possibilities, among others. (The mathematics of these subjects I leave to those more gifted than I.)4

In any situation in which multiple outcomes are possible, we need to determine how many possible outcomes actually exist. For example, in a coin toss where the coin is allowed to land on the ground, the coin can either be heads or tails (assuming that it will never land on its side). No other outcomes are possible, so the universe of coin-flip possibilities is extremely small and well-delineated. But what of other situations? Let’s say we have an individual who has the financial means to travel to any part of the world he or she desires. This person is going to make a decision about his or her travel plans. How many possible outcomes are in that universe? Moreover, how many variables are at play in the actual making of the decision?

Or let’s consider a businessman who has to travel extensively during the course of a year, meeting potential clients, and sometimes winning the business of the people he meets. In that universe of possibilities there are: A. The number of stops the businessman makes in a year. B. The number of people he will encounter at those stops C. The varying emotional and intellectual receptiveness of the people he meets. D. His ability to communicate effectively with his potential clients, an ability which will be determined by such factors as his mental acuity on a given day and his relative physical health. E. The number of new clients he actually wins during the year. How many possible outcomes are in that universe, and how many of those outcomes rest on factors which cannot be predicted in advance? (And this isn’t even taking into consideration all the possible combinations of sales/non-sales on the part of the salesman.) The success rates of salespeople can be calculated, but predicting the success of any salesperson in any given year is a highly uncertain enterprise. And this situation represents an extremely small part of the sum of the human experience over the course of a single year.

The “bigger” and more complex an event is, the greater the probability of the unexpected occurring. When an event involves a great many humans doing a great many things over a large enough area over a long enough time, the odds are very, very good that some random events will occur, including those which can alter the ultimate outcome of the main event. These odds are good because the universe of possible outcomes is so huge in a “big” event. In a war the size of the Second World War, even if one could predict the probability of either an Allied or Axis victory, a seemingly straightforward binary choice,  the universe of possibilities was of such enormity that no one could have conceivably predicted the detailed course of the war, or the specific features of its outcome. There was no possible way that anyone could have foreseen the individual events of which the war was comprised, nor could they have known the outcome of specific human actions in advance. Human will had less to do with the outcome of the struggle than we might suppose.

Various areas of the Earth are governed by local probabilities. When people from these areas come into contact with those of other regions who have been shaped by different distributions of probabilities, the effects can be particularly unpredictable. Differences in the geographic settings of different cultures are a major source of these variable probabilities. Some people have been conditioned by harsh terrains or brutal climates. Others have faced more temperate conditions and far different challenges. Cultures with high population densities and heavy rates of interpersonal interaction will have different probability sets than cultures where human interaction is minimal. The point is, the action of probability is not uniform over the surface of the Earth or throughout all human populations. In the sparsely populated regions of the world the randomness of life tends to come from the natural elements that have caused the region to be thinly populated to begin with. In more populous regions, probabilities stemming from the actions of others might play a more dominant role. And it is by no means a certainty that people in sparsely populated regions are more at risk than those from heavily populated areas. In many ways, the greatest threat to a human is other humans.

Sources of Randomness in Human Life

So randomness, the expression of the probabilities that lie all around us, is the great unknown variable of existence. The sources of randomness in the human experience are:

1.   Sudden events in the natural world. These events may have a very long genesis but their actual manifestation is dramatically unexpected. Outbreaks of disease are included in this category, as are illnesses which strike an individual human unexpectedly. Other examples range from such relatively common events as wind storms, floods, lightning strikes, blizzards, cold snaps, heat waves, fires, hail storms, and the like to less common events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wild animal attacks, and landslides, to very uncommon and rare events such as strikes by meteorites or comets. The rarer the event—the greater the odds against its occurring—the more profound the shock and surprise when it does happen.

2.  Events which are caused by human volition. We might qualify this by saying “apparent human volition” because people don’t fully know the reasons for their actions, in my view. This volition may be a simple decision that carries no larger purpose (such as what to eat at a given time), it might be something a human does because of the will of another human (such as the actions of an employee), it may be something done in the course of ordinary social interaction, it may be something that a human wishes to do to benefit another human, or it may be completely malicious in nature. It might have elements of several of these motives. Most significantly, human volition itself stems from the unique, randomly expressed variables that make up the consciousness of the individual. No expression of human volition is identical to any other. This category is closely related to but does not entirely coincide with…

3.  Events which are caused by human miscalculation or error. This is the source of an enormous amount of randomness in human life. Human misperception—the false interpretation, by the relevant portions of the cerebral cortex, of stimuli coming into the senses—has been the source of countless random errors. People do not necessarily see what they think they see. They do not necessarily hear what they think they hear. They miscalculate distances, underestimate times before a collision, or make other errors of prediction based on misperceived stimuli. The failure of humans to anticipate negative consequences is a relative of this misperception. In failure of anticipation, sensory data may be accurately perceived, but the next step—action based on this perception—is not consistent with the sensory data received. The role of fatigue and intoxication in causing human error must also be considered, as well as errors caused by damage to the brain. The story of human history is so rife with error that no one can know its full impact. The accidents caused solely by human mistakes, as opposed to mechanical failures or natural interventions, are quite literally innumerable. Human mistakes are the great “wild card” of human history.

4.   Events that occur gradually over long periods of time. These are events that were not “willed” by anyone, nor are they the product of human incompetence. Neither are they sudden eruptions of nature. One sub-category of such events is the physical breakdown of man-made objects, a naturally-caused event less dramatic than those typical of the first category. Eventually, a machine simply wears out from the friction involved in its use. Metal becomes brittle. A house needs repair because of exposure to the elements. Such events, happening over long periods of time, can cause accidents, but more often than not such deterioration results in less drastic outcomes. Another subcategory is the slower processes of nature, such as erosion (caused by wind, blowing sand, or water), the shifting of tectonic plates, gradual alterations in the Earth’s climate, slow changes in the Earth’s surface features, the processes of natural selection that bring about changes in the genetic composition of a population in a given area, and other such examples. The sum total of the unpredictable changes brought about by these processes can be dramatic in the extreme. And a third subcategory is actually the hardest one to trace: gradual changes in individual humans, or in the attitudes of groups of humans, or in the interaction of human societies. These kinds of changes, totally unremarkable in most respects, can still manifest themselves in profoundly unpredictable and important ways. The cumulative impact on the direction of this world’s existence brought about by gradual processes  is enormous.

5. The action of the truly unpredictable. There are events which are so utterly unanticipated that they are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Black Swans. Black Swans appear out of “nowhere” in the sense that most people believed they could not happen and made no preparation for them. And oftentimes, they are so unprecedented and unusual that no one could have predicted them. Taleb presents persuasive evidence that humans tend to grossly overestimate their control over affairs and their understanding of reality, and get surprised by Black Swans more often than they would care to admit.5

Arthur C. Clarke characterized the surprise and disorientation brought about by the discovery of unexpected scientific principles as failure of imagination—the (understandable) inability to foresee the radically unpredictable. Examples of such principles would be those which underlie the existence of x-rays, radiation, and nuclear energy. No observer, however scientifically sophisticated, predicted such phenomena would be uncovered because there was no way of doing so. By their very nature these principles were inconceivable, and their discovery constituted a highly random set of developments in the sciences.6

6.   Events which involve interrelated and interconnected aspects of all or some of these sources, acting in unpredictable combination. This is perhaps the most important category of all. Many, many variables operate simultaneously in reality. It is beyond human abilities to know all the individual probabilities of all the variables in a given event. Since the essence of the definition of randomness is unpredictability, this lack of knowledge is the basis of the apparently random nature of things, and manifests itself as the perception of randomness. The inability of humans to comprehend these often blindingly complex combinations limits their ability to take control of situations, or even to take effective measures for their own protection. These unpredictable combinations of random events are also the source of much of the astonishment humans feel as the unexpected plays out around them.

Many humans are surprised by unusual events because they overlook what experts in probability refer to as The Law of Large Numbers. In its essence, it states that if enough repetitions of a given event occur, then sooner or later every possible outcome will manifest itself in a statistically predictable way. This was first proved in 1713 by Swiss mathematician James Bernoulli and it has since been confirmed and its expression made more succinct. Less precisely known as The Law of Averages, it means that everything that can happen will happen, given sufficient opportunity.7 There are many long-shots coming in all the time, there are many of what I call clusters of probability expressing themselves at any given moment. In a human population of 7 billion, statistically improbable things occur every day. They are not miraculous in nature; they are occurring simply because they had enough chances to occur.

Humans generally (not universally) wish to be prepared for unexpected contingencies. In much of human society, security is defined by the ability to defend one’s self and one’s loved ones from the effects of randomness. (A friend and former colleague of mine has said that the human quest for security is largely based on the desire to find a safe place to sleep.) The acquisition and keeping of weapons is one of the oldest examples of the desire to be protected from randomness. The much more recent rise of insurance in the more advanced nations is another example of this desire. The nature of the complex societies that humans have evolved, with their governments, law codes, military establishments, and police forces, can all be seen, in one perspective, as an attempt to increase the predictability of existence. A whole statistical discipline has arisen based on the mathematical calculation of risk, a discipline which serves insurers, gaming interests, and those engaged in finance. For such people, the calculation of odds is vital to their economic survival.

The attempt to arrange one’s life in such a way as to avoid chance encounters with disaster is made harder by poverty, which exposes a human to the effects of bad probabilities to a far greater extent than those who are more affluent. Impoverished humans live closer both to the natural elements and to others who are in similar circumstances. They are exposed, therefore, to a high degree of both natural and human capriciousness. The social arrangements of a society might therefore be best understood by the distribution of exposure to randomness within the society’s population. But even for the most prosperous, the quest for absolute security is a futile one.


Coincidence can be understood as the simultaneous (or near simultaneous) occurrence, through the action of probability alone, of two or more events which bear similarities to each other or which  seem to be related. Coincidences occur because various intersecting chains of unexpected consequences occasionally produce very similar outcomes at about the same point in space-time. Because many humans have a poor grasp of probability (and numbers in general), they tend to see certain events that are merely coincidental as extraordinary. As John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics has said, a million to one shot comes in hundreds of times every day. Ordinary examples from human life abound:

--We are thinking of someone and at the moment we are doing so we get a phone call from that individual or we meet them on the street.

--We are reading about a situation in a distant country, and someone within earshot of us happens to mention that country.

--We happen to be a little short of the change we need for a purchase and we see a coin of the exact denomination we need lying unclaimed on the floor of the shop.

--We have a vivid dream about a disaster occurring, and a disaster very similar to that about which we dreamed actually occurs.

--We happen to be thinking of an elderly relative moments before we receive the news that that relative has died.

--We are playing a dice game. We perform a small ritual to “guarantee” that a seven will be rolled, and indeed we roll a seven.

Besides being the products of simple probability, what do such events have in common? Many people tend to see in them evidence that the Universe is mysteriously bringing events together specifically to convey meaning to us. We often hear the expression, “That was no accident.” Well, in almost every imaginable case, such events are accidents—the accidents of coincidence. 8

Many people claim—completely without logic—that events that have no significance, such as odd little coincidences, are deeply important, in part because these occurrences are so surprising and so unexpected, and in part because they fail to understand that causation is statistically explicable. Many people seem to reject the notion that  probability can touch their own lives. They insist that there must be “good causes” for everything. But just because a book shelf collapses when we are talking about the possibility of a book shelf collapsing, it does not mean that our mentioning of the subject caused it to occur in real life. All of this misinterpretation of coincidences is a symptom of apophenia, the belief that events and phenomena that have little or no real significance are tremendously important. All “omens”, all “prophetic signals”, all “ill winds”, and all “unlucky signs” are examples of this—and so is the conviction that coincidences are intrinsically meaningful. Again, ignorance of the Law of Large Numbers blinds people to the fact that the amazing is actually rather commonplace.

Some people believe in an alleged phenomenon called synchronicity, which was conceived by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. From The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

His notion of synchronicity is that there is an acausal principle that links events having a similar meaning by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially. He claimed that there is a synchrony between the mind and the phenomenal world of perception.9

Furthermore, Jung felt himself capable of “interpreting” these “meaningful coincidences” through sheer intuition. There is no empirical evidence for any of this at all. In fact, Jung believed many bizarre things, and may have been afflicted with mental illness himself. 

Why do people want to believe in the significance of coincidences? Why do they focus on the seeming “success” of  systems designed to “beat the odds”? Why do they fall for scams based on human ignorance of probability? Paulos explains that many humans have a sort of mental filtering mechanism that emphasizes successes and passes over defeats. We remember the time we hit it big on a bet; we forget all the losses we incurred before and after it. In a similar fashion, humans remember all the “hits” of coincidence, forgetting all the thousands and thousands of times such seemingly extraordinary events did not occur.10

Is the world explicable by algorithmic means, or is reality essentially non-algorithmic? In many cases, we can know outcomes in the aggregate; we cannot know them in the particular, much as we can know the behavior of subatomic particles as a group but not the behavior of individual ones. But subatomic particles are much more predictable than the bearers of consciousness, for whom a number of behavioral options are open. It is the evolution of consciousness that in many ways has added a new layer of uncertainty to reality. The bearers of consciousness are affected by the apparent randomness in which they find themselves, but they contribute to this randomness by their very nature. They are much less in control of their lives than they would like to admit, and the hidden realities of randomness and probability dog them at every turn. But in crucial ways, the most dangerous aspects of this randomness come from their fellow humans, the actions of whom over the centuries have helped create the very uncertainties that humans most fear. Humans have helped unleash sequences of events that have played themselves out in wildly unpredictable ways across both space and time. It is to these sequences that we now turn in order to further understand the unseen realities in which we are immersed—and against which we so often struggle in vain