Great Moments in Pedantry: The odds of your existence

What are the odds that you, as an individual, exist? Pretty good, you'd guess, since you're sitting right here reading this. But, in an abstract sense, the chances that you exist are really rather slim. In fact, once you see the full infographic, put together by futurist and designer Sofya Yampolsky of Visual.ly, I'm sure you'll be much more skeptical of your existence.

The infographic is based on this post by Dr. Ali Binazir.

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1. GTMoogle says:

2. and yet this has happened over 7 Billion times.  Imaging that.

1. I can’t wait for those images.

2. 7puck7 says:

Not really, you were not born 7 Billion times… He’s calculating the odds for ONE specific person, not the odds for one human being’s birth.

3. 7 billions? I think you mixed up with number of living people in the world right now with number of people born.. it’s way higher than that for the latter..

3. David Forbes says:

The odds that I would exist are about 1:1. You could ask my twin brother, whose odds are about the same.

I have a relative who made his name by writing books about creationism, in which he posits that the odds of life beginning the evolutionary way (amino acids and whatnot) were something like 1 in 10^3000. I suspect he was going about it all wrong, though, since that would lead to us not existing.

1. Daniel Meyer says:

Hah.  Is this guy’s last name Meyer?  It’s the same as mine… and I also have a degree in mathematics.  His argument is pretty shameful.

I like to counter this with a very easy thought experiment.

Roll a standard 6-sided die.  The odds that the number you got was 1/6 .  Roll 2… the odds that you get that sequence is (1/6)^2.  Go ahead and roll 50 die.  Look at the sequence.  The odds it will come up is (1/6)^50.  Wow!  What an amazingly small chance for this occurring!… yet all it took was one attempt.  Amazing!

4. Patrick Grote says:

Can you link to the original or a larger version? The small type face is very hard to read. Also, Facebook logon isn’t working for comments.  Thanks!

5. Dan Fornika says:

I do exist.  Odds that I exist are 1.0.

1. a11138776 says:

The question is: Who is “I”?

6. Small odds, roll the bones
Small transfinitesimalFlip the flop cards fast

7. Can you prove, without a shadow of a doubt that I do exist? Or that anybody does?

1. GTMoogle says:

Yes, you exist, QED

Prove me wrong :)

8. Is there a version of this image somewhere not riddled with JPG compression artifacts? I can hardly read it.

9. The odds are 1:1 even in an abstract sense. It would have been impossible for there to have not been me now..

10. xzzy says:

The odds that I can’t read the small text in the graphic because it’s been obliterated by jpeg compression: 1

Where is the original at?

1. mindtheink says:

Exactly. I feel the odds of us getting a PNG file of this are slim at best.

1. Miracles! ;) http://i.imgur.com/Dub8k.png

11. GlenBlank says:

Cogito, ergo sum.

Ergo, probabilty that I exist = 1

1. “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.”

~Ambrose Bierce

2. Guest says:

truly putting Descartes before the hordes

12. Glen Able says:

Jeez…it seems that everyone is very reluctant to “go forth and feel like the miracle they are”.

13. Dr Manhatten’s conversation with Laurie on Mars.

1. Uh…Temba, his arms wide…?

14. GlenBlank says:

Entirely aside from that, this is one of those daffy attempts to calculate ‘odds’ that turn on bogus assumptions, the mistaken idea that average results indicate odds, and the illusion that long odds mean low probability.

That makes it the most irritating sort of pedantry – wrong in so many different ways it’s hard to even know where to start.

15. David Llopis says:

Yeah… some people walking around acting like “the miracle that they are” don’t seem to be aware that they aren’t special.

16. Greeny says:

What are the odds of me buying a bottle of wine on the way home from work tonight?

lol

17. RobDobbs says:

I hate these graphics that are so huge yet somehow manage to use letters so small  that they compress to an illegible chunky mass.

18. Colin Lickwar says:

The point is taken, but this infographic represents the probability that you would exist “exactly the same” if the world was restarted and not the probability of your existence, which as pointed out is 1, if we use the authors definition of existence.

Thank You. Now the point of this exercise makes sense. If the entire universe were restarted then the chances of any one specific person existing as they do now, is near zero. Ok. Great. So what? It’s a stupid thought exercise. 1) you do exist. 2) the universe isn’t going to start over 3) even if it did you’d never know you existed before. a) Don’t know about you but I can barely remember last week, much less the time between universes.

19. Indeed, this kind of wrong-headed thinking leads to all kinds of problems. Change the example a bit. The odds of selecting any particular number at random from a set of one million are 1/1,000,000. However, the odds of selecting any number from a set of one million are 1/1. Only if you take the post hoc result as the intended outcome does it seem statistically unlikely. However, some result is certain.

1. you are the one number out of a million. If there were exactly one million clones of you, this would make sense.

20. Greeny says:

Think I’d better give my girlfriend some of that one in 400 quadrillion tonight

21. hnice says:

Is it Dawkins or Dennett who writes about 1,024 people in a single-elimination coin-flipping tournament? At the end of it, there’s guaranteed to be one winner who actually wins 10 coin tosses in a row, which seems incredible but is actually whatever the opposite of incredible is. It’s a great illustration of how silly and backwards this setup is.

To me, the trick is figuring out how to find meaning in life given that I’m entirely *not* special. I’m just this guy, and that’s OK.

1. VerySincerely says:

Yes, a coin flipping tournament pre-supposes a winner. But is the universe such a tournament?

1. Guest says:

22. GlenBlank says:

….and then finally, turned into an ‘infographic’, so that even the borderline-literate can think they learned something of value.

Feh.

23. TooGoodToCheck says:

Yeah, if there were some way to roll back the universe 100 years and replay it from that time, I can pretty much guarantee that I, in my current form, would not exist.  but, well, BFD

. . .I was trying to come up with a more significant way of dismissing this analysis than just BFD but while I was doing that, hnice did it for me

24. Lobster says:

The odds that I exist are 1.  The odds that any particular piece of matter in the entire universe should happen to be part of me are astronomically (literally) small.

25. emo hex says:

I don’t exist

Therefore

I’m not!

26. I like to roll out something like this when creationists blather on about the odds of evolution. Fun, now I have a handy image, but somehow I still think they just won’t get it. The odds of a particular person winning the lottery are slim, the odds of someone, somewhere winning the lottery are 100% (depending of course on the rules of the particular lottery.)

1. VerySincerely says:

The lottery analogy is useful, and I think the particular rules matter.

If we’re talking about the kind of  lottery where there is guaranteed a winner, the odds of someone winning are 1. Of course the universe didn’t agree to any such rules about producing intelligent life, so I think the analogy falls down. In the other kind of lottery, where a whole bunch of people choose numbers, the odds that you or me will win are slim, but the odds that someone from the pool will win are actually pretty good. I think this is the kind of lottery we’re talking about here (no granteed winners), except that the odds of anyone winning are impossibly slim (as the poster illustrates).

The comments on BoingBoing suggest that everyone reasons that since they’ve bought the winning lotto ticket (I exist), the odds of winning the lottery were 1. I disagree. The universe could have produced no winners. It seems to me that we do exist in spite of impossibly slim odds, and that I exist in the face of even slimmer odds.

1. flagler23 says:

But you see it makes no sense to speak of the odds of us existing.  That’s because not only is the universe a one-off event, but if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t be around to question the odds.  That we do exist, as intelligent, self-reflecting beings, brings about that question, so that even if the odds were 1 (absolute) that the universe would produce us we would necessarily, by your logic, conclude that our existence is highly improbable-and be wrong.  If we could observe an experimental run of multiple universes and note which ones produced intelligent life and which ones did not we would be in a position to determine the odds of us existing.  But conceptually that is paradoxical because the universe we are observing the experiment from would itself be a one-off event and include ourselves and all the universes of the experiment in which intelligent life exists, so the odds would still be absolute that we exist.

27. TooGoodToCheck says:

As long as we’re floating meaningless odds, he left out the odds that there would be a habitable planet, in a universe whose physical constants aren’t inimical to life.  Try calculating those numbers

28. daneyul says:

Odds that multiple posters will stubbornly answer “1” and take this rather innocuous speculative article way too seriously…uh…1?

29. Guest says:

“Five to one against and falling…” she said, “four to one against and falling…three to one…two…one…probability factor of one to one…we have normality, I repeat we have normality.” She turned her microphone off — then turned it back on, with a slight smile and continued: “Anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem.”

30. Glen Able says:

so…anyone want to remark on which of the (dozens of) horribly wrong things in this calculation is the most horribly wrong?

The particular one that jumps out at me is this:  It seems to be trying to determine how likely it is that I got my particular genome, and that “who I am” is solely dependent on this.   This seems rather at odds with the final message that I’m some sort of unique miracle – just shove this genome in another body and you’ll get ME again!

31. robdobbs says:

This reminds me of the Doomsday argument: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_argument

32. Badly flawed in the first posit: my parents lived within 300 feet of each other in a village north of Manhattan that had about 5,500 residents. If you further narrow that to the number of kids/people within an age range of say give or take 5-8 years, then we talking about a few hundred. There is no validity in referencing the rough population of the globe at any point! Dumb.

1. umbriel says:

That assumption caught my eye right out of the gate as well — clearly that “number of prospects” term varies enormously on a case by case basis. And you don’t have to be a starry-eyed romantic to recognize that basic issues of attraction and compatibility aren’t really “random”, and further hone down the successive parent numbers.

So I’d guesstimate that, for my daughter, that first 1:40,000,000 probability would improve to about 1:50 or better.

The non-uniqueness of sex cells issue, discussed below, should pretty much negate that whole term, though post-conception variables would open up a whole ‘nother can of worms.

33. sussed says:

Wait didn’t Douglas Adams solve this in the ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galexy’ when he wrote (dare I say proved) how the population of the universe is essentially Zero.  (…because the Universe is infinite and the amount of planets which developed life on them is so small compared to infinity that the number is practically zero)
…so in turn the odd are that you exist are Zero.

34. s2redux says:

“Roxanny, every life is unlikely.”
— Louis Wu

35. Andrew Rice says:

I remember hearing someone say, “Remember if you never win anything in your life you won the races to make it into the egg”

36. In the words of Mike Skinner…

“For billions of years since the outset of time, Every single one of your ancestors survived, Every single person on your mum and dads side, Successfully looked after and passed onto you life… what are the chances of that, like?”

I think that we all understand that technically the chance of us each existing is 1; because we exist, but that’s not really the purpose of the musing.

37. What are the odds that a tossed handful of glitter lands the way it does? It can’t happen!

38. flagler23 says:

Rather than attacking the obvious flaws in the original argument, why not restate the idea-that we are a product of chance-in a more accurate sense? If time were reset to some arbitrary point, say, the beginning of life on earth, would we still be eventualities?  I think before the discovery of quantum phenomena the answer would be an absolute yes.  In a fixed, determined universe without spontaneous events everything follows from everything else, in time and space.  But with quantum fluctuations wouldn’t the universe unfold differently if, hypothetically, time-states were repeated?  The butterfly effect produced from quantum uncertainty might be infinitesmal but would still be exponentially proportional to the difference in time, so at what starting point of this “experiment” would we become unlikely?  Of course our identity needs to be defined as well, which is totally arbitrary.  At what point does something resembling us and thinking like us cease to truly be us?  I’ll stop there before I get too carried away.

39. Hey all, here’s the hi-res version: http://i.imgur.com/Dub8k.png

40. Recluse says:

I frequently use this argument when people tell me how stupid I am for playing the lottery.  Pretty much the chances of YOU being here are ZERO..but there you are!  When SOMEBODY wins, the odds of them winning are 100%

1. Recluse says:

OOPS Neal Starkey beat me to it way up there in Comment Land…..

2. flagler23 says:

And when YOU lose, the odds of you losing are 100%

41. ookluh says:

“Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.”

No pressure!

How about I just go forth and  act like the completely improbably accident that I am instead?  Aw shit, I just typed a sentence of words.  What a fucking miracle!

42. Sounds like my hillbilly neighbors with 10 kids should be playing the lotto.

43. GawainLavers says:

But tell me, what are the odds that my existence has precluded the existence of someone smarter, more attractive and happier from existing?

44. PaulDavisTheFirst says:

I wrote something here that was startlingly, flagrantly wrong.

1. lknope says:

What?  Why are not all siblings identical then?  Why can one couple have both boys and girls?  Explain fraternal twins and fraternal twins where one is a girl and one is a boy.

1. PaulDavisTheFirst says:

Yep, I really am an idiot.

1. GlenBlank says:

I believe that barring mutation, all X-carrying sperm are genetically identical and the same for all Y-carrying sperm.

But your believing it doesn’t make it true. :-)

Go look up Meiosis.    We’ll wait.

1. Antinous / Moderator says:

Does this mean that your sign-in problem is fixed?

2. GlenBlank says:

Did you not get my new email?  :-) (Short answer:  Yes, is fixed.  Bad cookie, no comment.)

3. Antinous / Moderator says:

Oops. Missed it in the pile.

4. PaulDavisTheFirst says:

not sure how i forgot that level of biology. I’ve edited my previous posts to reflect my idiocy.

45. Antinous / Moderator says:

There was a newspaper story a decade or so ago, “Science Proves That Dragonflies Can’t Possibly Fly.”

46. Daemonworks says:

100%… or i wouldn’t be reading this ;)

47. Sparrow says:

So what you’re saying is that for me to be here, the rest of the world rolled a natural one on a 10^2685000 sided die.

1. umbriel says:

But clearly such a die would be effectively spherical, and would therefore never stop rolling.

48. Okay, time for a stats lesson.  First, “odds” implies a ratio.  It’s the probability of something happening divided by the complementary probability (p/(1-p)).  I think the infographic meant to use the term “probability.”

Second, this highlights the difference between permutations and combinations.  A permutation is any specific set of event outcomes.  Flipping a coin four times and getting H, T, H, T is one permutation, getting H, H, T, T is another.  A set of permutations with a specific number of each event outcomes is a combination.  The permutations both listed are both examples of the combination two heads and two tails.

Let’s say I flip a coin 500 times.  Getting any one predetermined sequence of heads and tails is phenomenally unlikely, so there is a low probability for that permutation.  Getting  250 heads and 250 tails, in any sequence, is much more likely – the probability of this combination is the sum of the probability of each combination where there are 250 heads and 250 tails.

The infographic  gives the probability of the permutation of the event outcome known as you.  The particular gametes that met (and all the necessary prior gametes meeting) and expressing themselves in a particular way is highly unlikely.  You are a permutation.  The probability of the combination of a person though – very likely.  Even the probability of the combination of a class of people like you is fairly likely, i.e. that you in particular might be unlikely, but the probability in this set of events of producing a tall man with brown hair who likes computers and Megadeth is much more likely.

Who was it that said “Remember, you’re unique – just like everyone else”?

49. SCAQTony says:

I swear to God, this is why I play the lotto each week – The odds above make the lotto look like a coin toss!

50. hinten says:

This presupposes that if the sperm right next to me would have won that it wouldn’t have been me!

51. This old creationist canard is embarrassingly stupid every time the creationists trot it out.  It is no less stupid when put to any other use.  The failure to understand the workings of “odds” or “chance” does not prove miracles nor magic.

52. Andrew S says:

On top of all of this, we have to look at the determinist argument. Yes, a person’s father could have met 200 million women, but due to social groups and such, it is very unlikely he would have met almost all of those people. If we look at the people he plausibly could have met, it’s a lot closer to the number he actually met. But then, you have to define plausible, and you have to figure out how much detail you want to go into, because that’s how probability works. Whoever made this didn’t go into too much detail though, as evidenced by the 200 million women thing. In reality, any physicist or neuroscientist will tell you that causality is total, except perhaps for certain things in the realm of quantum mechanics (though the chances of those acting on the macroscopic or even on the microscopic are quite small). In reality, the anything happening is exactly delineated by what came before. Who your father ends up with totally depends on genetics and environment. As humans, we’re resistant to that idea because we evolved to be resistant to it, but it’s absolutely true. Neurons in the brain take an input and turn it into an output. There’s no way to do something without a reason. Even if you were to punch yourself in the face right now, the reason would be to prove me wrong, which is determined by your personality, which is determined by (say it with me) genetics and environment. Yes, there are things we have no way of knowing based on our ability to gather information, and this necessitates probability, but it doesn’t mean that probability is actually manifest in the world. From what we can determine, there could be incredible numbers of different paths, but if we could somehow look close enough, we would see that there is only one path anything could have ever taken.

53. LYNDON says:

The problem we have is that all probabilities are conditional. What is the probability of me existing given present conditions? 1. Of the world as it was when my parents were born producing me (assuming some degree of randomness)? Quite small. Of a randomly selected possible universe having a me in it? You’re gonna need a bigger infographic.

54. GlenBlank says:

Also, when he says,

Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
So far, so unlikely.
Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.

…all I can say is, he obviously never met my mother. :-)

The chances of her meeting a man she found attractive but then NOT talking to him were… well, maybe one in eleventy bazillion or so.

55. If you took a random person off the street, what would be the probability that their height was exactly X feet?  The answer is zero– basic continuous probability question.  Nobody is ‘exactly’ six feet, because height is not something that can be perfectly exactly measured (a counterexample to this would be a dice roll, which is discrete).

Now let’s think about you.  You have a height, which is finite, of course.  Let’s call it Y feet.  Now, what is the probability that a random person off the street would have height Y?  zero.

56. TaymonBeal says:
57. TheMudshark says:

Look at all you scientists, taking the magic out of things again, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. In fact, you´re all muthafuckas lyin´and gettin´me pissed.

58. 7puck7 says:

Not really, you were not born 7 Billion times… He’s calculating the odds for ONE specific person, not the odds for one human being’s birth.

59. “[Y]our existence here, now, and on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events. Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age.”

I think the odds that all of my ancestors were able to reproduce is pretty great… that’s why they are my ancestors. The odds are certainly greater than the possibility that one of my ancestors spontaneously generated into existence.

It’s certainly true to say that the odds of a single-celled organism’s genetic material surviving for 4 billion years to become a multi-celled organism is great. But it doesn’t work in reverse. That’s like saying the odds that my wooden chair came from a tree is equal to the odds that any one tree will become my wooden chair.

60. Jared Holt says:

Here’s a link to the original:  http://visual.ly/what-are-odds

61. John Ridley says:

Complete tripe.  Throw this out, replace with anthropic principle (you’re here to think about this BECAUSE you are here, end of story).

The odds of that rock being in that exact place on this planet given a random big bang are very very close to zero, but to talk about that is simply crap.  SOME universe exists, and we’re standing in this one, so it’s the only one we can talk about.  In any other universe, we wouldn’t be here asking the question.

62. hymenopterid says:

Indeed, the odds that my parents would marry a person who could actually stand to be with them are vanishingly small.

63. a11138776 says:

I propose another – hopefully less controversial – subject:
The moon seems to be as big as the sun, because the distance to the earth has randomly the right size. The moon-earth distance is changing with time. So, what is the probability of this phenomenon to occure just during the short period of mankind?