On the Odds of Your Existence


Last week I volunteered to read a story for my older son’s 3rd grade class. The book I selected was Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go” because I think it does a nice job of conveying the theme of perseverance in a kid-friendly way, which is the reason I read it often to my boys at home.

The teacher had my son and his classmates sit on the classroom rug. They were polite and attentive, and the fact that it was a Friday afternoon added to the relaxed atmosphere. (It was also “pajama day” for the students, which I think universities should consider adopting. I imagine stress levels would drop if college students and faculty were walking around in bath robes, slippers, or footed Spiderman pajamas). I tried to infuse the reading with enthusiasm and emphasize the right places. We then had a Q-and-A session about the meaning of the book and the importance of reading. Standard stuff.

For the last fifteen minutes of the school day, the students had some free time to read to each other in small groups. Two girls asked me if they could read another Dr. Seuss’ book, “Happy Birthday to You!,” to my son and me. I hadn’t encountered this book before, but they both read very well. I smiled when they came to this section:

If you’d never been born, well then what would you be? 

You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree! 

You might be a doorknob!

Or three baked potatoes! 

You might be a bag of hard green tomatoes! 

Or worse than all that – why, you might be a WASN’T!

A WASN’T has no fun at all. No, he doesn’t. 

A WASN’T just isn’t. He just isn’t present.  

But you … You ARE YOU! And, now isn’t that pleasant! 

I wondered if the two girls understood what they were reading, or if they were just concentrating on pronouncing the words and holding onto the rhyming scheme. The reason it made me smile was that it seemed like the childhood version of existentialism. It also reminded me of one of my favorites quotations from Richard Dawkins, which I cited before in Life is Beautiful:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

There are probably many ways of arriving at the same place, whether through Dr. Seuss, Dawkins, or Kierkegaard, which is the need to reflect every so often on the nature of our existence. The exact probability of anyone actually being alive is  probably impossible to calculate, although some have tried. Ali Binazir estimated that the odds of your existence is about 1 in 102,685,000.  As he put it:

So what’s the probability of your existing?  It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.”

The exact number is probably not as important as the concept that the deck was severely stacked against any individual being here. Yet here we are. Once someone comes to that threshold, they will have their own unique answer on what to do with their time, trying to strike some balance between maintaining our externally imposed obligations with our internal desires to explore and live authentically, however that is defined. Before we become wasn’ts. 

Now, back to grading and obligations. Isn’t that pleasant?

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