Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Probably Not

[To begin to circle around the Stochastacism topic again]

The first science fiction and fantasy convention I ever went to was something called CreationCon. There is now a regular comic convention by that name, but the CreationCon I went to with Ben, Johnny, and the Albany gang had nothing to do with comics. God knows, it had everything else in it though.

Someone had the idea that there was a crying need for a convention bringing together science fiction, fantasy, new age ideas, and the occult. I mean, it sounds like it might work; it just turned out that fantasy writers like L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter considered “the occult” to be pseudo-scientific rubbish.

But it was fun. I met David Gerrold for the first time, just after When Harlie Was One came out, and a small group of us had lunch with him. I’ve met David maybe five or six times now, and every time it’s as if we’ve never met before, which is kinda cool, actually.

I also started my Freak File at that convention. That’s my collection of fringe material. Years later, Larry Jannifer and I spent an evening comparing notes on the subject. He called his the “Nut Shelf” so you can see where this is going. I also once loaned my collection to Jim Turner of Ducks Breath Mystery Theater, after seeing his one man show “The Brain that Wouldn’t Go Away.”

I think my real prize from CreationCon was Norman Bloom. Bloom was handing out copies of his self-published ‘zines, really well produced things, photo-offset on news stock, with sturdy staples, the works. Bloom thought he was Jesus, or, more accurately “The Second Coming of Christ.” As nearly as I could tell, he was serious, and harmless. His booklets were filled with proofs of the existence of God, all of which boiled down to the proof of improbability. You see this a lot in Creationist circles, “The odds of life forming are similar to having a 747 appear after a tornado in a junkyard.” Bloom, god bless him, stripped the whole thing down to basic fundamentals. He’d open up the phone book, look at a phone number, and calculate the odds of that particular number appearing. For a seven digit number, assuming all the numbers are random (which they aren’t of course, but I’m not going to stop a crazy man on a roll), you’re talking 100 million to 1. And there are hundreds of thousands of numbers! Good lord, the improbability of it!

If you didn’t like that one, the one about how unlikely it is to have the Moon be just the right size and distance to just barely, yet completely, eclipse the Sun, well, tornado in a junk yard, here we are.

Bloom was, I believe, an engineer, so he had just enough statistical knowledge to get him into trouble. Nevertheless, the problem that he fastened onto is a real problem. It’s known in philosophy as the Plenitude Principle, the notion that if the universe if big enough (infinite sounds about right), then everything that is possible must occur. Or alternately, why do some things happen when other, seemingly just as likely, things don’t?

Regular probability theory finesses the problem nicely: the probability of any event that has happened is 1. Baysean statistics allow a bit of a scew from that: you can’t always be sure that something has happened, so the probabilities then become a measure of your own ignorance.

The Wikipedia article on the Plenitude Principle goes all the way back to Aristotle, though it misses Nietzsche’s take on it: eternal recurrence. Old Friedrich decided that if everything happened once, it would happen over and over again; infinity is big enough, after all. Hard to argue with that, though it’s pretty easy to ignore or dismiss.

A lot of people have taken the entire “many worlds” idea a step beyond, to the notion that everything that you can imagine happening happens somewhere. The real problem with that line of thinking is that it’s possible to imagine things that can’t actually happen, like flying horses and FTL spaceships. Then there is the extended problem of people who think that they are imagining something when what they are really doing is imagining that they are imagining something. That, it turns out, is pretty easy. Just ask Norman Bloom.

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