Stanislaw Lem, "Odds", The New Yorker 54 (11 December 1978) 38-54.
(A REVIEW OF “DE IMPOSSIBILITATE VITAE” AND “DE IMPOSSIBILITATE
PROGNOSCENDI,” BY PROFESSOR CEZAR KOUSKA)
THE author calls himself Cezar Kouska on the cover but signs the introduction Benedykt Kouska. A misprint or a devious device? Personally, I prefer the name Benedykt; therefore I will stick with that. So, then, it is to Professor Benedykt Kouska that I owe some of the most pleasant hours of my life—hours spent in the perusal of his work. The views it expounds are unquestionably in conflict with scientific orthodoxy. We are not, however, dealing here with pure insanity. The thing lies halfway in between—in that transitional zone where there is neither day nor night, and where the mind loosens the bonds of logic yet does not pull them so far asunder as to fall into incoherence.
Professor Kouska has written a work which demonstrates that the following relationship of mutual exclusion obtains: either the theory of probability, on which stands natural history, is false to its very foundations, or the world of living things, with man at its head, does not exist. In the second volume, the Professor argues that if prognostication, or futurology, is ever to become a reality and not an empty illusion, not a conscious or unconscious deception, then that discipline cannot avail itself of the calculus of probability but demands the implementation of an altogether different reckoning—namely, to quote Kouska, “theory, based on antipodal axioms, of the distribution of ensembles in actual fact unparalleled in the space-time continuum of higher-order events.” (The quotation also serves to show that the reading of the work, in the theoretical sections, does present certain difficulties.)
Benedykt Kouska begins the first volume by revealing that the theory of empirical probability is flawed in the middle. We employ the notion of probability when we do not know a thing with certainty. This uncertainty is either purely subjective (we do not know what will take place, but someone else may know) or objective (no one knows and no one can know). Subjective probability is a compass for an informational disability; not knowing which horse will come in first and guessing by the number of horses (if there are four, each has one chance in four of winning the race), I act like one who is sightless in a room full of furniture. Probability is like the cane that the blind man uses to feel his way. If he could see, he would not need the cane, and if I knew which horse was the fastest, I would not need probability theory. The question of the objectivity or the subjectivity of probability has divided the world of science into two camps. Some maintain that there exist two types of probability, as described above; others, that only the subjective exists, because regardless of what is to take place, we cannot acquire precise knowledge of it. Therefore, some lay the uncertainty of future events at the door of our lack of knowledge of them, whereas others place the uncertainty within the province of the events themselves.
That which takes place, if it really and truly takes place, takes place indeed: such is the main contention of Professor Kouska. Probability enters in only where a thing has not yet taken place. So saith science. But everyone is aware that the event of two bullets from two duelists flattening each other in midair, or of the breaking of one's tooth while eating a fish on a ring which by accident one had dropped overboard at sea six years before and which was swallowed by that very fish, or of the playing in three-four time of Tchaikovsky's Sonata in G Major in a score of kitchen utensils by shrapnel bursting during a siege (the metal balls striking the larger and smaller pots and pans exactly as the composition requires)—that any of these events is highly improbable. Science says, in this regard, that such phenomena occur with a very negligible frequency in the sets of occurrences to which they belong—that is, in the set of all duels, in the set of eating fish and finding lost objects in them, and in the set of bombardments of stores selling housewares.
According to Professor Kouska, however, science is selling us a line, because all its talk about sets is a complete fiction. The theory of probability can tell us how long we must wait for a certain event of a given and unusually low probability—or, in other words, how many times it will be necessary to repeat a duel, lose a ring, or fire at pots and pans before the above-mentioned remarkable things come about. But this is nonsense, says Kouska, because in order to make a highly improbable thing come about, it is not at all necessary that the set of events to which it belongs represent a continuous series. If I throw ten coins at once, knowing that the chance of ten heads coming up at the same time, or ten tails, works out to barely 1:796, I certainly do not need to make upward of 796 throws in order that the probability of ten heads turning up, or ten tails, becomes equal to one. For I can always say that my throws are a continuation of an experiment comprising all the past throws of ten coins at once. Of such throws there must have been, in the course of the last five thousand years of Earth's history, an inordinate number; therefore, I have every right to expect that all my coins are going to land heads up or tails up straight-away. Meanwhile, says Professor Kouska, just you try and base your expectations on such reasoning! From the scientific point of view, this reasoning is entirely correct, for whether one throws the coins non-stop or puts them aside for a moment to eat a knish or go for a quick one at the corner bar—or whether, for that matter, it is not the same person who does the throwing but a different one each time, and not all in one day but each week or each year—has not the slightest effect or bearing on the distribution of the probability. Thus, the fact that those who threw ten coins were Phoenicians sitting on their sheepskins, and Greeks after they burned Troy, and Roman pimps in the time of the Caesars, and Gauls, and Teutons, and Ostrogoths, and Tartars, and Turks giving their captives to Stamboul, and rug merchants in Galata, and the merchants who trafficked in children from the Children's Crusade, and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Robespierre, as well as a few dozen tens of thousands of other gamblers, is also wholly immaterial. Consequently, we can consider that the set is extremely large, and that therefore our chances of throwing ten heads or ten tails at once are positively enormous! But just you try and throw them, says Professor Kouska, addressing some learned physicist or other probability theorist, and gripping him by the elbow so that he can't escape, for scientists do not like having the falsity of their method pointed out to them. Just you try, and you'll see that nothing comes of it.
NEXT, Professor Kouska undertakes an extensive thought experiment that relates not to some hypothetical phenomenon or other but to his own biography. We repeat here, in condensed form, some of the more interesting fragments of this analysis.
A certain army doctor, during the First World War, ejected a nurse from the operating room, for he was in the midst of surgery when she entered by mistake. Had the nurse been better acquainted with the hospital, she would not have mistaken the door to the operating room for the door to the first-aid station, and had she not entered the operating room, the surgeon would not have ejected her. Had he not ejected her, then his superior, the regiment doctor, would not have brought to his attention his unseemly behavior regarding the lady (for she was a volunteer nurse, a society miss), and had the superior not brought this to his attention, the young surgeon would not have considered it his duty to go and apologize to the nurse, would not have taken her to a cafe, fallen in love with her, and married her, whereby Professor Benedykt Kouska would not have come into the world as the child of this same married couple.
From this it would appear to follow that the probability of the coming into the world of Professor Benedykt Kouska was set by the probability of the nurse's confusing or not confusing the doors in that hospital in that certain year, month, day, and hour. But it is not that way at all. The young surgeon Kouska did not have, on that day, any operations scheduled; however, his colleague, Dr. Popichal, who wished to carry the laundry from the cleaner's to his aunt's, entered the house of the aunt, where because of a blown fuse the light over the stairwell was not working, because of which he fell off the third step and twisted his ankle. And because of that, Kouska had to take his place in surgery. Had the fuse not blown, Popichal would not have sprained his ankle, and therefore he would have been the one operating and not Kouska. Moreover, being an individual known for gallantry, Popichal would not have used strong language to remove the nurse who entered the operating room by mistake, and, not having insulted her, he would not have seen the need to arrange a tete-a-tete with her, but tete-a-tete or no tete-a-tete it is absolutely certain that from the possible union of Popichal and the nurse the result would have been not Benedykt Kouska but someone altogether different, with whose chances of coming into the world this study does not concern itself.
Professional statisticians, aware of the complicated nature of the events of this world, usually wriggle out of having to deal with the probability of such phenomena as someone's coming into the world. They say, to be rid of you, that what we have here is the coinciding of a great number of divaricate-source causal chains and that consequently the point in space-time in which a given egg merges with a given sperm is indeed determined in principle, in abstracto; however, in concreto one would never be able to accumulate knowledge of sufficient power (that is to say, all-embracing) for the formulation of any practical prognosis—with what probability there will be born an individual X of traits Y, or, in other words, how long people must reproduce before a certain individual, of traits Y, will with absolute certainty come into the world—to become feasible. But the impossibility is technical only, and not fundamental; it rests in the difficulties of collecting information and not in any absence in the world of such information to collect. This lie of statistical science Professor Benedykt Kouska intends to nail and expose.
As we know, the probability of Professor Kouska's being born does not reduce merely to the alternative of “right door, wrong door.” Not with regard to this single coincidence must one reckon the chances of his birth but with regard to many: the coincidence of the nurse's being sent to that hospital and not another; the coincidence of her smile in the shadow cast by her coronet resembling, from a distance, the smile of the Mona Lisa; the coincidence, too, of the Archduke Ferdinand's having been shot in Sarajevo, for had he not been shot, war would not have broken out, and had war not broken out, the young lady would not have become a nurse; moreover, since she came from Olomouc and the surgeon from Moravska Ostrava, they most likely would never have met—in a hospital or anywhere else. One therefore has to take into account the general theory of the ballistics of shooting at archdukes, and because the hitting of the Archduke was conditioned by the motion of his automobile, the theory of the kinematics of automobile models of the year 1914 should also be considered, as well as the psychology of assassins, because not everyone in the place of that Serb would have shot at the Archduke, and even if someone had, he would not have been on target—not if his hands were shaking with excitement; therefore the fact that the Serb had a steady hand and eye also has its place in the probability distribution of the birth of Professor Kouska. One cannot ignore, either, the over-all political situation of Europe in the summer of 1914.
The marriage did not, in any case, come about in that year, or in 1915, when the young couple became acquainted in good earnest, because the surgeon was detailed to the fortress of Przemysl. From there he was to travel later to Lvov, where lived the young maiden Marika, whom his parents had chosen to be his wife out of business considerations. As a result of Samsonov's offensive and the movements of the southern flank of the Russian forces, however, Przemysl was besieged, and before long, instead of repairing to his Lvov betrothed, the surgeon proceeded into Russian captivity, after the fortress fell. As a prisoner, he remembered the nurse better than he did his fiancee, because the nurse was not only fair but sang the song “Sleep, Love, in Thy Bed of Flowers” much more sweetly than did Marika, who had an unremoved polyp on her vocal cords and consequently a constant hoarseness. Marika was, in fact, to have undergone an operation to remove the polyp in 1914, but the otorhinolaryngologist who was supposed to remove the polyp, having lost a great deal of money in a Lvov casino and being unable to pay off his debt of honor (he was an officer), robbed the regimental till and fled to Italy. This caused Marika to conceive a great dislike for otorhinolaryngologists, and before she could decide on another she became betrothed. As Kouska's betrothed, she was obliged to sing “Sleep, Love, in Thy Bed of Flowers,” and her singing, or, rather, the memory of that hoarse and wheezy voice, in contrast—detrimental to the betrothed—to the pure timbre of the Prague nurse, was responsible for the latter's gaining ascendancy, in the mind of the doctor-prisoner, over the image of his fiancee. So, returning to Prague in the year 1919, Kouska did not even think to look up his former fiancee but immediately went to the house in which the nurse was living as a marriageable miss.
The nurse, however, had four other suitors; all four sought her hand in marriage, whereas between her and Kouska there was nothing concrete save the postcards he had sent her from captivity, and the postcards in themselves, smudged with the stamps of the military censor, could not have been expected to kindle in her heart any lasting feeling. Her first serious suitor was a certain Hamuras, a pilot who did not fly, because he got a hernia when he moved the airplane's rudder bar with his feet, and this happened because the rudder bars in the airplanes of those days were hard to move. (That was, after all, a very primitive era in aviation.) Now, Hamuras had been operated on once, but without success, for the hernia recurred—recurred because the doctor performing the operation had made a mistake in the catgut sutures—and the nurse was ashamed to wed the sort of flier who instead of flying spent his time either sitting in the reception room of the hospital or searching the ads in the newspaper for a genuine prewar truss, since he figured that such a truss would enable him to fly after all. On account of the war, however, a good truss was unobtainable.
One should note that at this juncture Professor Kouska's “to be or not to be” ties in with the history of aviation in general, and with the models of airplane used by the Austro-Hungarian Army in particular. Specifically, the birth of Professor Kouska was positively influenced by the fact that in 1911 the Austro-Hungarian government acquired a franchise to build monoplanes whose rudder bars were difficult to operate. The planes were to be manufactured by a plant in Wiener Neustadt, and this in fact took place. Now, in the course of the bidding, the French firm Gastambide-Mengin competed with this plant and its franchise (which came from an American firm, Curtiss), and the French firm stood a good chance, because Major General Prchl, of the Imperial Crown Commissariat, might have turned the scales in favor of the French model, because he had a French mistress, who was the governess of his children, and on account of this he secretly loved all things French. That, of course, would have altered the distribution of chance, since the French machine was a biplane with swept-back ailerons and a rudder blade that had an easily movable control bar, which would not have caused Hamuras his problem, in which circumstance the nurse might have married him after all. Granted, the biplane had a hard-to-work exhaust hammer, and Hamuras, rather delicate shoulders—he even suffered from what is known as Schreibkramff, and because of that condition experienced difficulty in signing his name fully (Adolf Alfred von Messen-Weydeneck zu Oryola und Munnesacks, Baron Hamuras). Even without the hernia, then, Hamuras could have, by reason of the weak arms, lost his appeal in the eyes of the nurse.
The French firm did not get the contract, however, for there popped up in the governess's path a certain two-bit tenor from an operetta troupe, who with remarkable speed gave her a baby. Major General Prchl drove her from his door, lost his affection for all things French, and the Army stayed with the Curtiss franchise held by the company from Wiener Neustadt. The governess met the tenor at the “Ring” when she went there with General Prchl's older daughters because the youngest had the whooping cough and they were trying to keep the healthy children away from the sick one, and if it had not been for that whooping cough, brought in by an acquaintance of the Prchls' cook—man who served coffee in a smoking room and was wont to drop in on the Prchls in the morning (drop in on their cook, that is)—there would have been no illness, no taking the children to the “Ring,” no meeting the tenor, and no infidelity, and thereby Gastambide-Mengin would have won out in the bidding after all. But, as it happened, Hamuras was rejected, and married the daughter of a purveyor to His Majesty the King and had three children by her.
There was nothing wrong with the nurse's second suitor, Captain Misnia, but he went to the Italian front and came down with rheumatism—this was in the winter, in the Alps—and later died. The Captain was taking a steam bath when a .22-caliber shell hit the building and sent him flying out naked into the snow. The snow took care of his rheumatism, they say, but gave him pneumonia. Had Professor Fleming discovered penicillin not in 1928 but, say, in 1910, Misnia would have pulled out of the pneumonia, would have returned to Prague—having that right as a convalescent—and the chances of Professor Kouska's coming into the world would have been, by that, greatly diminished. And so the calendar of discoveries in the field of antibacterial drugs played a large role in the rise of our author, B. Kouska.
The third suitor was a respectable wholesale dealer, but the young lady did not care for him. The fourth would have married her for certain, but it did not work out, on account of a beer. This beau had enormous debts and hoped to pay them off out of the dowry; he also had a highly checkered past. The young lady and her family, together with the suitor, went to a Red Cross raffle, and, as Hungarian veal birds were served for lunch, the father developed a terrific thirst, so he left the pavilion, where they all were listening to the military band, and had a mug of beer on draft, in the course of which he ran into an old schoolmate, who was just then leaving the raffle grounds. Had it not been for the beer, they would certainly not have come together. This schoolmate knew, through his sister-in-law, the entire past of the suitor of the young lady, and was not averse to telling her father everything and in full detail. It appears he also embellished a little here and there. In any event, the father returned most agitated and the engagement, which was nearly official, fell to pieces irretrievably. If the father had not eaten Hungarian veal birds, he would not have learned of the debts of the suitor, and the engagement would have gone through, and, as it would have been an engagement in wartime, the wedding would have followed in short order. An excessive amount of paprika in the veal birds on May 19, 1916, thus saved the life of Professor B. Kouska.
As for Kouska the surgeon, he returned from captivity with the rank of battalion doctor and proceeded to enter the lists of courtship. Evil tongues informed him of the suitors, and particularly of the late Captain Misnia, who, presumably, had achieved a more than passing acquaintance with the young lady, though at the same time she had been answering the postcards from the prisoner of war. By nature impetuous, the surgeon was all set to break off the engagement after receiving, from some malicious person in Prague, several letters that the young lady had written to Misnia (God knows how they ended up in that person's hands), along with an anonymous letter explaining how he, Kouska, had been serving the young lady as a spare tire—that is, as a standby. But because of a conversation that the surgeon had with his grandfather—who had really been a father to him ever since childhood, because the surgeon's own father, a profligate and ne'er-do-well, had had little part in raising him—the breaking off of the engagement did not come about. The grandfather was an old man of unusually progressive views, and he believed that a young girl's head was easily turned, especially when the turner wore a uniform and pleaded the soldier's death that could befall him at any moment.
KOUSKA thus married the young lady. If, however, he had had a grandfather of other persuasions, or if the old liberal had passed away before his eightieth year, the marriage most certainly would not have taken place. The grandfather, it is true, led an exceedingly healthy mode of life and rigorously took the water cure prescribed by Father Kneipp, but to what extent the ice-cold shower each morning increased the chances of Professor B. Kouska's coming into the world by lengthening the grandfather's life it is impossible to determine. The father of the surgeon Kouska, a disciple of misogyny, would definitely not have interceded in behalf of the maligned maiden; but he had no influence over his son from the time when, having made the acquaintance of one Serge Mdivani, he became his secretary, went with him to Monte Carlo, and came back believing in a system of breaking the bank in roulette which was shown him by a certain widow-countess. Thanks to this system, he lost his entire fortune, was placed under custody, and was forced to give up his son to the care of his own father. Thus, had the surgeon's father not succumbed to the demon of gambling, the coming to pass of Professor Kouska would not have come to pass.
The factor here that tipped the scales in favor of the Professor's birth was, therefore, Mr. Serge, vel Sergius, Mdivani. Sick of his estate in Bosnia, and of his wife and mother-in-law, he engaged Kouska (the surgeon's father) as his secretary and took off with him for the waters, because Kouska pere knew languages and was a man of the world, while Mdivani, notwithstanding his first name, knew no language besides Croatian. But had Mr. Mdivani in his youth been better looked after by his father, he would have studied his languages instead of chasing after the chambermaids, would not have needed a translator, and would not have taken the father of Kouska to the waters. The latter would not have returned from Monte Carlo as a gambler and would not have been cursed and cast out by his father, who would not have taken the surgeon under his wing as a child and would not have instilled liberal principles in him. The surgeon would have broken off with the young lady, and—once more—Professor Benedykt Kouska would not have made his appearance in this world. Now, Mr. Mdivani's father was not disposed to keep an eye on the progress of his son's education when the latter was supposed to be studying languages, because this son, by his looks, reminded him of a certain dignitary of the church, concerning whom Mr. Mdivani, Sr., harbored the suspicion that he—the dignitary—was the true father of little Sergius. Feeling, therefore, a subconscious dislike for little Sergius, he neglected him, as a result of which neglect Sergius did not learn, as he should have, his languages.
The question of the identity of the boy's father was in fact involved, because even the mother of little Sergius was not certain whether he was the son of her husband or of the parish priest, and she was not certain whose son he was because she believed in stares that affect the unborn. She believed in stares that affect the unborn because her authority in all things was her Gypsy grandmother. We are now speaking, it should be noted, of the relation between the grandmother of the mother of little Sergius Mdivani and the chances of the birth of Professor Benedykt Kouska. Mdivani was born in the year 1861, his mother in 1832, and the Gypsy grandmother in 1798. So, then, matters that transpired in Bosnia and Herzegovina toward the close of the eighteenth century—in other words, a hundred and thirty years before the birth of Professor Kouska—exerted a very real influence on the probability distribution of his coming into the world. But neither did the Gypsy grandmother appear in a vacuum. She was reluctant to marry a certain Orthodox Croat—particularly since at that time Yugoslavia was, of course, under the Turkish yoke and marriage to a giaour would bode no good for her. But the Gypsy maid had an uncle much older than she; he had fought under Napoleon, it was said, and had taken part in the retreat of the Grand Army from the environs of Moscow. In any case, from his soldiering under the Emperor of the French he returned home with the conviction that interdenominational differences were of no great matter compared to those of war, and he therefore encouraged his niece to marry the Croat, for, though a giaour, the Croat was a good and comely youth. In marrying the Croat, the grandmother on Mr. Mdivani's mother's side thus increased the chances of Professor Kouska's birth. As for the uncle, he would not have fought under Napoleon had he not been living during the Italian campaign in the region of the Apennines, whither he was sent by his master, a sheep farmer, with a consignment of sheepskin coats. He was waylaid by a mounted patrol of the Imperial Guard and given the choice of enlisting or becoming a camp follower. He preferred to bear arms. Now, if the Gypsy uncle's master had not raised sheep, or if, raising them, he had not made sheepskin coats, for which there was a demand in Italy, and if he had not sent this uncle to Italy with the coats, then the mounted patrol would not have seized the Gypsy uncle, whereupon, not fighting his way across Europe, this uncle, his conservative opinions intact would not have encouraged his niece to marry the Croat. And therewith the mother of little Sergius, having no Gypsy grandmother, would not have thought that merely from watching the parish priest spread his arms as he sang in a bass at the altar one could bear a son—the spit and image of the priest—and so, her conscience completely clear, she would not have feared her husband and would have defended herself against the charges of infidelity, and the husband, no longer seeing evil in the looks of little Sergius, would have minded the boy's education and Sergius would have learned his languages and would not have needed anyone as a translator, whereat the father of Kouska the surgeon would not have gone off with him to the waters, would not have become a gambler and a wastrel, and would have been able to urge his surgeon son to throw over the young lady for her dalliance with the late Captain Misnia (R.I.P.), as a result of which there would have been, again, no Professor B. Kouska in the world.
But now observe: So far, we have examined the probability spectrum of the birth of Professor Kouska on the assumption that both his facultative parents existed. We reduced the probability of that birth by introducing very small, perfectly credible changes in the behavior of the father or mother of Professor Kouska, changes resulting from the actions of third parties (General Samsonov, the Gypsy grandmother, the mother of Mdivani, Baron Hamuras, the French governess of Major General Prchl, Emperor Francis Joseph I, the Archduke Ferdinand, the Wright brothers, the surgeon for the Baron's hernia, Marika's otorhinolaryngologist, etc.). But surely the very same type of analysis can be applied to the chances of the coming into the world of the young lady who as a nurse married the surgeon Kouska. Billions, trillions of circumstances had to occur as they did for the young lady to come into the world and for the future surgeon Kouska to come into the world. And in analogous fashion innumerable multitudes of occurrences conditioned the coming into the world of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. It would seem to admit of no argument that, for example, had the tailor Vlastimil Kouska, born in 1673, not come into the world, then neither would his son, or grandson, or great-grandson, or the great-grandfather of Kouska the surgeon, or Kouska the surgeon himself, or, indeed, Professor Benedykt Kouska.
The same reasoning holds for those ancestors of the line of the Kouskas and the line of the nurse who were not yet people, being creatures who led a quadrumanous and arboreal existence in the Lower Eolithic, when the first paleopithecanthropus, having overtaken one of these quadrumanes and perceiving that it was a female with which he was dealing, possessed her beneath the eucalyptus tree that grew in the place where today stands the Mala Strana in Prague. As a result of the mixing of the chromosomes of the lubricious paleopithecanthropus and the quadrumanous protohuman primatrice, there arose that type of merging and that linkage of gene loci which, transmitted through the next thirty thousand generations, produced on the visage of the young lady nurse the very smile, faintly reminiscent of the smile of the Mona Lisa, from the canvas of Leonardo, that so enchanted the young surgeon Kouska. But this same eucalyptus could have grown (could it not?) four meters away, in which case the quadrumaness, fleeing from the paleopithecanthropus who pursued her, would not have stumbled on the tree's thick root and gone sprawling, and thereby would have clambered up the tree in time and would not have gotten pregnant, and if she had not gotten pregnant, then Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, the taking by the Turks of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Moscow campaign of Napoleon, as well as several dozen trillion like events, undergoing slight changes, would have led to a situation in which in no wise could Professor Benedykt Kouska have been born—from which we can see that the range of the chances of his existence contains within it a subclass of probabilities involving the distribution of the eucalyptus, trees that grew in the location of modern-day Prague roughly three hundred and forty-nine thousand years ago.
Obviously, it does not follow from this argument that the entire Universe is a machine designed to enable Professor Kouska to be born. Let us imagine that, a billion years before its genesis, an observer wishes to compute the chances of the Earth's coming into being. He cannot foresee exactly what shape, mass, or chemical composition the planet-making vortex will give to the nucleus of the future Earth. Nonetheless he predicts, on the strength of his knowledge of astrophysics, that the sun will have a family of planets and that among these planets there will be a planet No. 3. It may look different from the predicted Earth—it may be ten billion tons heavier or have two small moons instead of one large, and a greater percentage of its surface may be covered with water—but still it will be an Earth. Now, Professor Kouska, predicted by an observer in 500,000 B.C., would still be a person if born as a Buddhist monk or Oriental woman, but he clearly would no longer be Professor Kouska. Because objects such as suns, planets, clouds, rocks are not in the same way unique that all living organisms are.
EACH man is, thus, the first prize in a lottery, as it were—in the kind of lottery, moreover, where the winning ticket is a teragigamegamulticentillion-to-one shot. Why, then, do we not daily feel the astronomically monstrous minuteness of the chance of our own or another's coming into the world? For the reason, answers Professor Kouska, that no matter how unlikely a thing is, if it happens, it happens. And also because in an ordinary lottery we see the vast number of losing tickets along with that single one which wins, whereas in the lottery of existence the tickets that miss are nowhere to be seen. “The chances that lose in the lottery of being are invisible!” explains Professor Kouska. For, surely, to lose in this sweepstakes amounts to not being born, and he who has not been born cannot be said to be—not a whit. We quote the author now, starting on line 24 of page 619 of Volume I (“De Impossibilitate Vitae”):
Some people come into the world as the issue of unions that on both the spear and distaff sides were arranged long in advance, so that the future father of the given individual and his future mother, even when children, were destined for each other. A man who sees the light of day as a child of such a marriage might have the impression that the probability of his existence was considerable, in contradistinction to one who learns that his father met his mother in the course of the great migrations of wartime, or that, quite simply, he was conceived because some hussar of Napoleon, while making his escape across the Berezina, took not only a mug of water from the lass he came upon at the edge of the village but also her maidenhead. To such a man it might seem that had the hussar hurried more, feeling the Cossack hundreds at his back, or had his mother not been looking for God knows what at the edge of the village but stayed at home by the chimney corner as befitted her, he would never have been—in other words, that the chance of his existence hung on a thread when compared to the chance of existence of him whose parents had been destined for each other in advance.
Such notions are mistaken, because it makes absolutely no sense to assert that the calculation of the probability of anyone's birth has to be begun from the coming into the world of the future father and the future mother of the given individual. It we have a labyrinth composed of a thousand rooms, then the probability of going from the beginning to the end of the labyrinth is determined by the sum of all the choices in all the consecutive rooms through which passes the seeker of the way and not by the isolated probability of his finding the right door in some single room. If he takes a wrong turn in Room No. 100, he will be every bit as lost as if he took the wrong turn in the first or the thousandth room. And, similarly, there is no reason to assert that only my birth took place against great odds while the births of my parents did not, or those of their parents, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc.—back to the birth of life on Earth. And it makes no sense to say that the fact of any specific person's existence is a phenomenon of very low probability. Very low relative to what? From where is the calculation to be made? Without the fixing of a zero point—i.e., of a beginning place for a scale of computation—measurement, and therefore the estimation of probability, becomes an empty word.
It does not follow, from this reasoning, that my coming into the world was assured or predetermined back before the earth took form. Quite the contrary. What follows is that I might not have been at all and no one would have so much as noticed. Everything that statistics has to say regarding the prognostication of individual births is rubbish. For it maintains that any man, howsoever unlikely he be in himself, is still possible as a realization of certain chances. But I have demonstrated that, taking any individual whatever—Mucek the Baker, for example—one can say the following: It is possible to select a moment in the past when the prediction of Mucek the Baker's coming to be will have a probability as near zero as desired. When my parents found themselves in the marriage bed, the chances of my coming into the world worked out to, let us say, one in one hundred thousand (taking into account, among other things, the infant mortality rate). During the siege of the fortress of Przemysl, the chances of my being born equaled one in a billion: in the year 1900 one in a trillion; in 1800 one in a quadrillion; and so on. A hypothetical observer computing the chances of my birth under the eucalyptus, at the Mala Strana in the time of the Interglacial, would set the chances of my ever seeing the light of day at one in a centillion. Magnitudes of the order of giga appear when the point of estimation is moved back a billion years, of the order of tera three billion years, etc.
In other words, one can always find a point on the time axis from which an estimate of the chances of any person's birth yields an improbability as great as one likes—that is to say, an impossibility, because a probability that approaches zero is the same thing as an improbability that approaches infinity. In saying this, we do not deny that we or anyone else exists in this world. On the contrary: Neither in our own being nor in another's do we entertain the least doubt. In saying what we have said, we merely repeat what science claims, for it is the conclusion of physics and not of common sense that not a single man exists or ever did. And here is the proof. Physics maintains that that which has one chance in a centillion of happening will not happen, because even if the event in question is of the type that takes place every second, it still cannot be expected ever to take place in the Universe.
The number of seconds that will elapse between the present day and the end of the Universe is less than a centillion. The stars will give up all their energy much sooner, and therefore the time of duration of the Universe is shorter than the time needed to await a thing that happens only once in one centillion seconds. From the standpoint of physics, to wait for an event so little likely is equivalent to waiting for an impossibility. Physics calls such phenomena thermodynamic miracles. To this class would belong, for example, the freezing of water in a pot standing over a flame, or the rising from the floor of fragments of a broken glass and their joining together to make a whole glass. Calculation shows that such “miracles” are nevertheless more probable than a thing whose chance is one in one centillion.
We should add now that our estimate has so far taken into account only half of the matter—namely, the macroscopic data. Besides these, the birth of a specific individual is contingent on circumstances that are microscopic—i.e., the question of which sperm combines with which egg of a given pair of persons. Had my mother conceived me at a different day and hour, then I would have been born not myself but someone other, which can be seen from the fact that my mother did indeed conceive at a different day and hour (a year and a half before my birth), and gave birth to a little girl, my sister, regarding whom it should require no proof, I think, to say that she is not myself. This microstatistics also would have to be considered in the estimation of the chances of my arising, and when included in the reckoning it raises the centillions of improbability to the myrioillions.
So, then, from the standpoint of thermodynamic physics, the existence of any man is a phenomenon of cosmic impossibility. When it assumes as given that certain people exist, physics may predict that these people will give birth to other people, but as to which specific individuals will be born, physics must either be silent or fall into complete absurdity. And therefore either physics is in error when it proclaims the universal validity of its theory of probability, or people do not exist—and likewise dogs, sharks, mosses, lichens, tapeworms, bats, and liverworts do not exist, since what has been proven here holds for everything that lives. Ex physicali positione vita impossibilis est, quod erat demonstrandum.
WITH these words concludes the work “De Impossibilitate Vitae,” which actually represents a huge preparation for the matter of the second of the two volumes. In “De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi,” the author proclaims the futility of historical predictions that are founded on probabilism—a matter he has already touched upon. He proposes to show that history contains no facts but those that are the most thoroughly improbable from the standpoint of probability theory. Professor Kouska sets an imaginary futurologist down on the threshold of the twentieth century and endows him with all the knowledge that was then available, and puts to this figure a series of questions:
Do you consider it probable that soon there will be discovered a silvery metal, similar to lead, capable of destroying life on Earth should two hemispheres composed of this metal be brought together by a simple movement of the hands, to make of them something resembling a large orange? Do you consider it possible that this old carriage here, in which Karl Benz, Esq., has mounted a rattling engine of one and a half horsepower, will before long multiply to such an extent that from its asphyxiating fumes and combustion exhausts day will turn into night in the great cities, and that the problem of placing this vehicle somewhere, when the drive is finished, will grow into the main misfortune of the mightiest metropolises? Do you consider it probable that owing to the principle of fireworks people will soon begin taking walks upon the moon, while their perambulations will at the very same moment be visible to hundreds of millions of other people in their homes on Earth? Do you consider it possible that soon we will be able to make artificial heavenly bodies, equipped with instruments that enable one from cosmic space to keep track of the movement of any man in a field or on a city street? Do you think it likely that a machine will be built that plays chess better than you, composes music, translates from language to language, and performs in the space of a few minutes calculations that all the accountants, auditors, and bookkeepers in the world put together could not accomplish in a lifetime? Do you consider it possible that very shortly there will arise in the center of Europe huge industrial plants in which living people will be burned in ovens, and that these unfortunates will number in the millions?
It is clear, states Professor Kouska, that in the year 1900 only a lunatic would have granted all these events even the remotest credibility. And yet they have come to pass. If, then, nothing but improbabilities have taken place, why should this pattern suddenly undergo a radical change so that from now on only what we consider to be credible, probable, and possible will come true? Predict the future however you will, gentlemen—he says to the futurologists—so long as you do not rest your predictions on the computation of maximal chances.
The imposing work of Professor Kouska without a doubt merits recognition. Still, this scholar, in the heat of the cognitive moment, fell into an error, for which he has been taken to task by Professor Bedrich Vrchlicka in a lengthy critical article appearing in the pages of Agricultural News. Professor Vrchlicka contends that Professor Kouska's whole anti-probabilistic line of reasoning is based on an assumption both unstated and mistaken. For behind the facade of Kouska's argumentation lies concealed what Vrchlicka calls “a metaphysical wonderment at existence,” which, he says, might be couched in these words: “How is it that I exist now of all times, in this body of all bodies, in such a form and not another? How is it that I was not any of the millions of people who existed formerly, nor will be any of those millions who have yet to be born?” Even assuming that such a question makes sense, says Professor Vrchlicka, it has nothing whatever to do with physics. But on the surface it appears that it may, for one could rephrase it thus:
Every man who has existed—i.e., lived till now—was the corporeal realization of a particular pattern of genes, the building blocks of heredity. We could in principle reproduce all the patterns that have been realized up to the present day. We would then find ourselves before a gigantic table filled with rows of genotypic formulae, each one of which would exactly correspond to a particular man, who arose from it through embryonic growth. The question then leaps to one's lips: In what way, precisely, does that one genetic pattern in the table which corresponds to me, to my body, differ from all the others, that as a result of this difference it is I who am the living incarnation of that pattern into matter? That is: What physical conditions, what material circumstances ought I take into account to arrive at an understanding of this difference, to comprehend why it is I can say of all the other formulae on the table, “Those refer to Other People,” and of only one formula, “This refers to me; this is I AM”?
It is absurd to think—explains Professor Vrchlicka—that physics today or in a century, or in a thousand years, could provide an answer to a question so framed. The question has no meaning in physics, because physics is not itself a person; consequently, when engaged in the investigation of anything, whether it be bodies heavenly or human, physics makes no distinction between me and you, this one and that one. The fact that I say of myself “I” and of another “he” physics contrives in its own way to interpret (relying on the general theory of logical automata, the theory of self-organizing systems, etc.), but it does not actually perceive the existential dissimilarity between “I” and “he.” To be sure, physics does reveal the uniqueness of individual people, because every man (omitting twins!) is the incarnation of a different genetic formula.
But the metaphysical wonderment implicit in Kouska's line of reasoning would not be diminished one jot, says Professor Vrchlicka, even were all people incarnations of one and the same genetic formula. For an individual could still ask what brings about the fact that “I” am not “someone else,” that I was born not in the time of the Pharaohs or in the Arctic but now and here, and it would still not be possible to obtain an answer to such a question from physics. The differences that occur between me and other people, Vrchlicka says, begin with the fact that I am myself, that I cannot jump outside myself or exchange existences with anyone else, and it is only afterward and secondarily that I notice that my appearance and my nature are not the same as those of all the rest of the living (and the dead). This most important difference, primary for me, simply does not exist for physics, and nothing more remains to be said on the subject. And therefore what causes the blindness of physics and physicists to this problem is not the theory of probability.
By introducing the issue of the estimation of his chances of coming into the world, Professor Kouska has, according to Vrchlicka, led himself and the reader astray. Professor Kouska believes that to the question “What conditions had to be met in order that I, Kouska, could be born?” physics will answer “The conditions that had to be met were, physically, improbable in the extreme!” Now, this is not the case. The real question is: “I see I am a living man, one of millions. I would like to know in what physical way I differ from all other people—those who were, who are, and who are to be—so that I was not, and am not, any of them but represent only myself and say of myself 'I'.” Physics does not answer this question by resorting to probabilities; it declares that from its point of view there is between the asker and all other people no physical difference that will explain the existential one. And thus Kouska's “proof” neither assails nor upsets the theory of probability, for it has nothing at all to do with it!
The present reviewer's reading of such conflicting opinions from two such illustrious thinkers has thrown him into great perplexity. He is unable to resolve the dilemma, and the only definite thing he has carried away with him from reading the work of Professor B. Kouska is a thoroughgoing knowledge of the events that led to the rise of a scholar of so colorful a family history. As for the crux of the quarrel, it had best be turned over to specialists more qualified.
(Translated, from the Polish, by Michael Kandel.)