This American Life is doing a show, No Coincidence, No Story. Actually, it was last week’s show, but for some reason, KQED is always a week behind. I only heard a bit of it but I wasn’t terribly impressed because I’m never terribly impressed with coincidences. Our lives are filled with random events and sometimes we find some kind of connection. That’s hardly surprising because humans are really good at finding patterns, even when there are none.
What’s more, I’m a spoilsport. I just can’t help chipping away at these stories. A good example came from an episode of Radio Lab. A girl in the United Kingdom writes her name on a balloon and lets it go. It is found more than a hundred miles away by a girl with the same first and last name. Amazing, no? No. The biggest problem with the story is that it was not found by the girl. It was found by one of her neighbors who saw her name and gave it to her, as anyone would. And the girls’ name was not exactly unusual like “Elisha Pimpleton Rigby, Dane of Attenborough.” And so on.
But what really bugs me is that these coincidences are so trivial compared to the huge coincidence staring us in the face: our very existence. And that is the question that drives me crazy. How can it be that I just happen to exist? I know the obvious responses to this like, “Well you wouldn’t exist to ask the question if you didn’t!” How that is supposed to be helpful I can’t say. In the pantheon of useless answers, it is right up there with, “God is begotten, not made!”
Given the odds of my existing, I can only assume that it is not a coincidence. But don’t think I’ve gone off and got all Abrahamic on you. It could just be that the multiverse has always existed and thus given enough time (if the concept has any meaning in this context) it was necessary for me to exist. Eventually, it would have to create the quantum state that is me. But I don’t think this is the crux of the matter, even though I do more or less accept it from a mystical standpoint.
The theory I lean toward is that consciousness itself is an illusion. So that the idea that I am this thing is wrong. I am just a collection of cells that work together and, in an act of almost unimaginable hubris, think that it is something more like a god. Think about that: the Abrahamic religions think that God created us in his image. To misquote Rick Santorum, “What snobs we are!” It really is the other way around: we created God in our image. Then Man looked over all He had made, and He saw that it was very good!
This idea is what I’m getting at when I question my own existence. I don’t question that there are cells that work together that make up the thing that is writing this. It is just a problem to think of me as anything other than a trick of the will that keeps me eating every day so that all the cells continue to exist. Otherwise, I feel as real as anyone else does. But Descartes was mistaken when he claimed Cogito ergo sum. To me there is a tautology in it. What our consciousness does is think. It values thought above all else. So defining thinking as existence is just another way of putting humans at the top of the heap—more sophisticated than Genesis but no more believable.
So the next time you are on a train and you meet some man who you share a common acquaintance with, don’t be impressed. Think about the near impossibility that you just happen to be you.
I’m not much of a fan of Nietzsche. The only really interesting stuff was a direct continuation of Schopenhauer. But he is right about eternal return. If the multiverse is infinite, then I am cursed to live this exact life over and over again. Unlike most people, I don’t like the idea of eternal life. And the idea that I will sit in this chair and write this article for all time is almost too depressing to contemplate. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have it backwards: they are praying for the greatest evil imaginable.