A fantastic lottery

I finished two books this week which, accidentally, were perfect companions to read together. One fiction. One nonfiction. Both about existence and non existence. Sum by David Eagleman & Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt.

Sum is a piece of fiction which, through short stories, helped me imagine an afterlife beyond just what my previously Christian background taught me. Rather than imagining an all powerful “God”, imagine an insecure creator whose creation has grown beyond their control. Imagine an afterlife where you wake up and you find out you were just data collectors for another species – like some sort of advanced mars rover that we’ve been sending out. Needless to say, it’s a brilliant piece of fiction that left me annoyed at finishing the book.

Why Does the World Exist? is a truly fascinating study into why there is something rather than nothing. I just finished it and am still reeling at its conclusion. I can’t say I have the answer but I now know what some of the greatest minds think of as possibilities. Ultimately, the answer lies in my own perception… for now. Warning: this book is not a light read.

Reading these two books side by side left my brain feeling like it got a full body workout. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction especially after getting halfway through Why Does the World Exist? and realizing how little we really know about how this whole universe came into existence. Coming from that perspective to only read about the different variations of the afterlife make anything seem possible. I’ll leave you with a quote:

“So my existence, from the perspective of the cosmos, has neither meaning nor purpose nor necessity. I am an accidental, contingent thing. I might have easily not have existed at all.

How easily? Let’s do a little calculation. As a member of the human species, I have a particular genetic identity. There are about 30,000 active genes in the human genome. Each of these genes has at least two variants, or “alleles”. So the number of genetically distinct identities the genome can encode is at least 2 raised to the thirty-thousandth power – which roughly equals 1 followed by 10,000 zeroes. That’s the number of potential people allowed by the structure of our DNA. And how many of those potential people have actually existed? It is estimated that about 40 billion humans have been born since the emergence of our species. Let’s round that number to 100 billion, just to be on the conservative side. This means that the fraction of genetically possible humans who have been born is less than 0.00000…000001 (insert about 9,797 extra zeroes in that gap). The overwhelming majority of these genetically possible humans are unborn specters. Such is the fantastic lottery that I – and you- had to win in order to shimmer on to the scene. This is contingency with a vengeance.” excerpt from page 255 of Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt


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