Jogging this morning, a pebble got into my shoe. I was on a sidewalk that wasn’t covered in rocks. The shoes I had on have high tops and were tied tightly. The thought occurred to me about probability, considering all the perfect conditions that have to come together to lead to even such a simple result as a pebble in my shoe.
I had to step on one of the few tiny rocks that happened to be in the right spot. Somehow the rock got kicked up about 6 inches where it caught the back edge of my shoe. It had to land perfectly right in order to lodge in the slight space between my foot and the shoe. Then it had to make its way down my shoe without first getting kicked back out.
It just got me thinking. For any given person at any given moment, a rock getting in their shoe is highly improbable. I run and/or walk numerous times every single day. And I can go years without getting a rock in my shoe. Even when it does happen, it would usually be because I was walking on a gravel road or alley, not on a standard sidewalk. Yet for all of the billions of people who are out and about every single day, the probability of numerous people getting rocks in their shoes at any given moment is quite high.
A more exciting example is getting struck by lightning. The vast majority of people go through their entire lives without getting hit. Still, there is a miniscule minority of the world’s population that gets hit on any day. Some rare people even get struck by lightning multiple times in their lifetime. Lightning directly hitting any single person is extremely improbable, while lightning directly hitting some person somewhere is extremely probable.
Most people don’t go around worrying about lightning, but right at this moment multiple people in the world are probably getting struck. Someone somewhere inevitably will get struck. It could be you, right now where you are. And sometimes lightning comes seemingly out of nowhere with no storm in sight, even on occasion hitting people in their houses.
Probability is dependent on context. So it depends on our perspective, on how we look at the data and how we calculate the probability. Our view of probability tends to be biased by the personal, of course. So it tends to be biased by what we know and have experienced, what is familiar to us. It is hard to think about probability in purely rational terms.
Given the right perspective, almost anything can be seen as improbable.
The entire existence of the universe, if one thinks too much about it, starts to seem improbable. Also improbable is life emerging on a particular planet, then that life leading to consciousness, intelligence, and advanced civilizations. Even so, because of the immense number of planets in the immense number of solar systems in the immense number of galaxies, it is probable to the point of near inevitability that there are vast numbers of planets with conscious, intelligent lifeforms and advanced civilizations.
Heck, we might be surrounded by lifeforms on our planet and in our own solar system while being unable to perceive and recognize them. We think of the probability of life, along with all that goes with it, in terms of the life we know immediately around us. But the actual probability is that other lifeforms would be bizarre to us, even if we could even discern them. Other lifeforms might simply be beings of energy or fluids, might be too small to detect with our senses or too large to comprehend with our minds. If a gut microbe gained intelligence and you were able to ask it what the probability was that their world was a giant ambling creature, the response would probably be amused laughter or else they’d look at you as though you were crazy. Maybe our own imaginations toward that which is beyond us is as relatively limited as that of the gut microbe.
Another aspect is cultural bias. People living in a society that wears sandals would have a different view of the probability of rocks in their ‘shoes’ than those in a society that wears tall boots. Societies that don’t wear any footwear at all wouldn’t even comprehend the issue of rocks in shoes. The same thing for beings that can’t be seen, as in some societies it would be common belief that such beings are all around us (ghosts, spirits, demons, elves, supernatural creatures, etc), and they may claim to know how to interact with them.
How do we determine the probability of bicameral societies having existed in the ancient world? Some say it isn’t even plausible, much less probable. I was reading Hearing Voices by Simon McCarthy-Jones and the author was in this doubting camp. He basically argued that, interpreting ancient non-Western texts based on modern Western preconceptions, it is highly improbable that ancient non-Western societies could exist that contradicted modern Western preconceptions. Uh, well, yeah, I guess. Within that circular logic, it indeed is a coherent opinion. But obviously others disagree based on the possibility of other ways of interpreting the same evidence. For example, unlike McCarthy-Jones, some people would point to the anthropological record to see possible examples of bicameralism or something akin to it, such as the Ugandan Ik and the Amazonian Pirahã.
My point isn’t whether or not bicameral theory is the best possible explanation of the data. But even ignoring the theory, the anthropological record makes absolutely clear there are societies that seem very strange to our modern Western sensibility. Then again, to those other societies, we would appear strange. Considering how perfect conditions have had to be, all of modern Western civilization is highly improbable. If it were possible to re-create the entire world in a vast laboratory, you could run an experiment numerous times and probably never be able to repeat these same results. Supposedly strange societies like the Ik and Pirahã are immensely more probable than our own strange society. Some other societies have lasted for thousands of years and we might be lucky to last the coming century.
Although it’s possible that the world perfectly matches our present beliefs and biases, it is ridiculously improbable that such is the case. Future generations surely will look back on us as we look back on the ignorance and barbarity of ancient societies. So, who are we to hold ourselves up as the norm for all of humanity? And who are we to use our cultural biases to judge all of reality?
We have no way to determine the probability of most things or often even their plausibility. All we know is what we know. And we don’t know what we don’t know. Usually, we don’t even know that we don’t know what we don’t know. Our state of ignorance is almost entirely self-enclosed, as what we know or think we know is inseparable from what we don’t know. As it has been said: The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
The world is full of kicked-up pebbles and lightning strikes, strange lifeforms and even stranger cultures. Everything is improbable from some perspective, until it happens to you or is experienced by you and then it’s the most probable thing in the world. Then it simply is the reality you know.