Friday, January 18, 2013


"The universe is so fined-tuned for intelligent life that there's just no way all that could have 'just happened' randomly! There had to be a guiding force!"

Take a deck of 52 standard playing cards (remove the jokers and any ad cards), or, if you have them handy, you could use a standard deck of 78 tarot cards as well. If you want to be evil and possibly murder some random person.

I keed, I keed! You won't cause random murder with a tarot deck. Probably.

Shuffle them at least six times to ensure a more random order. (Seven if using the tarot deck.)

Cut the deck. Or don't. I don't really care.

Now, deal the cards out one at a time, face-up, on a table, floor, or other flat surface so that you can see all the cards.

When you're done, carefully examine the order of the cards that you've laid out, from left to right.

That particular sequence of cards that you laid out was so improbable that it was impossible, by all practical definitions of the word. It had roughly a 1 in 8.06582 x 1067 chance of occurring! (Or 1 in ~1.13243 x 10115 if you used the tarot deck.) If a machine that could sort and deal the entire deck of cards in one second were to start doing so at the moment of the big bang, it still would not have exhausted all the possible combinations of cards in the 52-card deck, much less the 78-card tarot deck. The universe is only a bit over 432 quadrillion seconds old. That's ~ 4.3233 x 1017 seconds. You'll notice that 17 is much smaller than both 67 and 115.

And yet, this extremely improable event occurred right before your eyes. You watched it unfold before you! How astounding! You've just witnessed something that has almost certainly never occurred before, and will almost certainly never occur again in the history of the universe.

Do you feel privileged? As though you've witnessed a miracle that requires a "guiding hand" from elsewhere so that it aligned just right?

Eh, probably not. I mean, it's just random card order, right?

People tend to ascribe higher "impossibility" to sequences of events that mean something to them. Like flipping a coin a hundred times and coming up with heads every single time. In reality, any sequence of a hundred flips of the coin is equally unlikely as a hundred heads, a hundred tails, or fifty of each, intermingled (HTHT . . .).

Admit it: if you did the shuffle-then-layout thing and the cards managed to be in order from ace to king by suit (spades, hearts, diamonds, then clubs), or in a similar order for the Tarot cards, with the minor arcana first by number and suit, followed by the major arcana, you'd be much more likely to get a cold chill up your spine. But those "special" arrangements are exactly as likely — or as unlikely — as any other one.

Or if you shredded a catalog into confetti, then tossed it all up into the air over a fan, and as the pieces drifted to the ground, it happened to form an image that looked like Jesus or the virgin Mary, suddenly, it's a miracle! Whereas, if it formed the equally unlikely picture of, say, Flo the cashier from those Progressive Insurance commercials or Pepe le Pew, the Loony Toons skunk, it would be kind of neat . . . but hardly miraculous. They only seem miraculous because the image formed means something to us.

If it actually formed the unmistakable image of anything, I'd be highly suspicious. That our brains see patterns where there aren't any is called "pareidolia," and it's a well-known explanation for such things as Jesus-tortillas or Virgin-Mary-grilled-cheese-sandwiches.1

This is why I tend to be scornful when I hear things like "the universe has to have had a creator because there's no way everything just happened to line up to allow our kind of life!" If you look into it a bit, you realize that there's more beauty to the universe without a guiding intelligence than with one, or at least that's how I see it.

  1. Frankly, the Virgin Mary grilled cheese (see the image at the top of this post) doesn't look like much of anything to me, but sometimes I can sort of see an image of Tracy Scoggins, if I look slightly to one side and squint. And it's dark enough. And someone tells me I'm supposed to see Mary/Tracy.

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