The Technium

Embracing the Improbable

Here is why it is so hard to imagine an optimistic future:

God is a million times more difficult to imagine than the devil. We find horror, evil, chaos, destruction much easier to describe in detail than the details of the good, true and beautiful. That’s because the good and the beautiful are improbable, while the destruction is probable, indeed almost certain. This is the law of entropy: that everything in the universe is running down towards uniform gray disorder and chaos. Everything wears down, runs out, breaks down, and levels out into flat sameness. The universe is titled towards this low bottom, as is our imaginations.

Except there is an exception to the way entropy works. If we accelerate the run downhill, that is if we increase chaos and waste energy locally, we can — in the right circumstances — build up a chain of increasing order right in the midst of universal decreasing order. I call this anti-entropy, exotropy. One example of this exotropy is life. Life keeps going and keeps evolving by accelerating the creation of entropy outside of it while life decreases entropy within its realm making everything ever more complex. Like a magnifying glass that focuses sunlight into an intense beam by creating a shadow of no-light around it, ordered life endures by creating disorder around it. That wasted energy is dissipated in very familiar fashion as death, destruction, failure, fear, evil, crime, disasters — all of which we can easily picture. It is easy to imagine because it is a well worn path and highly probable.

On the other hand ordered, living systems are highly improbable. Life may be common in the universe but every specific example of it is unlikely. Flowers might be common but this particular species of flower is improbable. You and I are highly unlikely. The universe could roll its dice a trillion times and another one of you or I will never happen. All of exotropy is improbable.

The challenge in trying to imagine something good that has not existed before is that in order to do so you have to go uphill against the downhill force of entropy. While entropy is a broad and certain path, everything about the good is narrow and unexpected. This makes it very very difficult to specify beforehand, almost like predicting the exact sequence of a million tosses of the dice. The weird thing about life and minds is that they are not random, but they are as unpredictable as random.

All life-like, or exotropic, systems exist along a narrow path. Their existence is highly unlikely, and therefore highly difficult to predict. It also makes them highly difficult to describe before hand. Which is why we find it highly difficult to imagine optimistic futures. We have no trouble describing in very good detail catastrophe, destruction, extinction and the end of the world because these are inevitable states. But we find it near impossible to imagine a plausible, beneficial, supportive, desirable future because any of those specific futures are highly improbable. That is the nature of all good things: in a true cosmic sense they are unlikely statistical outliers.

Today, this moment, was a statistical improbability a year ago. Yet here we are. Life is a long unbroken chain of the improbable, which, despite the odds, will probably keep going. But to imagine it we have to be comfortable in imagining the improbable, and maybe even the ridiculous. If someone told us the future 100, 200, 300 years from now, we would not believe them because it would sound improbable, as improbable if we traveled back 100 years to tell them what our lives were like. So we have to get better at believing in the improbable.