Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The universe might not be big enough

Infinity is a difficult concept to explain, but the old saying that given an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of keyboards and an infinite length of time, one of them would end up typing out the complete works of Shakespeare, correctly spelled and in the correct order, is as good an attempt as any.  If the number of possibilities is endless, then all possibilities must occur at least once (although a pedantic mathematician might well argue that in such a scenario, the Shakespeare possibility, like all the others, would itself occur an infinite number of times).  Put in simpler terms, it means that to get a specific outcome from a random process requires a very large number of iterations.
Given that requirement for very large numbers, it is surely no surprise that of the 10 candidates in the Tory leadership contest, none of them has managed to display an anywhere decent hold on reality.  Indeed, 10 being almost infinitesimal when compared with infinity, it’s close to a mathematical certainty that none would be able to do so.  It could be argued that we need to make a few adjustments to the arithmetic, however, to take account of the fact that, contrary to appearances, the leadership election process isn’t entirely random.  The 10 possibilities have been self-selected from a larger pool of around 300 Tory MPs (I think 313 at the time of writing, but who knows by this time next week?).  Mathematically, that’s still a lot closer to infinitesimal than infinite, though, so it doesn’t really change the calculations much.  And there’s no real evidence that the Conservative Party’s selection processes, let alone the electoral system in the UK, positively select for those with a grasp on reality.  Indeed, looking at polls on the views of the party membership, the opposite seems more likely to be true.
The multiverse theory postulates that there are a large number of parallel universes, so it has to be possible that there might just be one universe, somewhere out there, where at least one of the candidates for the leadership understands the world in which (s)he is living.  It doesn’t postulate that the number is infinite, however, so we’re still only dealing with probabilities.  But given that the number isn’t infinite, we can probably safely conclude that there is unlikely to be a universe anywhere in which Boris Johnson is regarded as an honest and realistic politician.  It was Douglas Adams who said that “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”  It still might not be big enough to avoid a Boris premiership, though.


Dannyoosh said...

So, John, aren’t your conclusions arrived at from a before-the-fact pov in which you don’t want Boris as PM regardless whether he may or may not make a success of it – “… we can probably safely conclude that there is unlikely to be a universe anywhere in which Boris Johnson is regarded as an honest and realistic politician”.
However, since we don’t know how many multiverses the theory postulates, just not an infinite number, then surely we don’t have the information required to make that conclusion (a bit like the Brexit argument).
And, if that number tends toward infinity rather than zero then surely the probability of such a universe is much higher and if we work on that premise then why is so hard to believe that we are actually that very universe.

John Dixon said...

My purely mathematical response would be to argue that any number of possibilities limited by the finite nature of the universe in which we live is necessarily a very small number compared to infinity, because 'inifinity' is awfully, awfully big.

But you are, of course, correct in suggesting that my own priors colour my judgement, as they do for everyone else. If, though, we were by chance living in that one unique universe in which Boris Johnson was regarded as an honest politician, might we not expect to see rather more evidence of that honesty?