How to rationalize fate, free-will, and accidents in a perfect world?
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I've been thinking a lot about synchronicities, the concept of free will, the tangle of fate and all related existential quandaries since arriving back to New York City. On top of all of this I've been fascinated by something called The Goldilocks Effect.
Have you heard of it?
I hadn't until I read Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything back in 2019. The Goldilocks Effect is the name given to the idea that we exist in a perfect universe/world and so on. What do I mean by perfect? I suppose in it's most blunt sense, perfection here entails a set of circumstances that enable us to exist, to live, to experience the march of time. With the Goldilocks Effect, the absence of perfection would mean the absence of not just life, but the universe entirely, it's worth noting that this is different from what scientists call "The Goldilocks Zone" but certainly related.
A quote from Bill Bryson:
... for the universe to exist as it does requires that hydrogen be converted to helium in a precise but comparatively stately manner—specifically, in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that value very slightly—from 0.007 percent to 0.006 percent, say—and no transformation could take place: the universe would consist of hydrogen and nothing else. Raise the value very slightly—to 0.008 percent—and bonding would be so wildly prolific that the hydrogen would long since have been exhausted. In either case, with the slightest tweaking of the numbers the universe as we know and need it would not be here.
I should say that everything is just right so far. In the long term, gravity may turn out to be a little too strong, and one day it may halt the expansion of the universe and bring it collapsing in upon itself, till it crushes itself down into another singularity, possibly to start the whole process over again. On the other hand it may be too weak and the universe will keep racing away forever until everything is so far apart that there is no chance of material interactions, so that the universe becomes a place that is inert and dead, but very roomy. The third option is that gravity is just right—“critical density” is the cosmologists’ term for it—and that it will hold the universe together at just the right dimensions to allow things to go on indefinitely. Cosmologists in their lighter moments sometimes call this the Goldilocks effect—that everything is just right
Our universe is seemingly held in balance by a 0.001% differentiator. We are a single thousandth of a percent away from ceasing to exist at any moment, or even more plainly, the Universe was a single thousandth of a percent away from never getting started. As far as we know, we hypothetically live in the single instance of the big bang that successfully escaped its own mass. The Big Bang could've spent all of a eternity trying to get it just right, perhaps a longer period of time then it has been a successful experiment for, who's to ever tell? For us to be here it had to hit the jackpot in start-up combinations, everything had to be exactly right, not a single hair could've been out of place.
This comes up again in The Black Swan but this time in relation to the oddity that is Earth:
Think of the odds of the parameters being exactly where they need to be to induce our existence (any deviation from the optimal calibration would have made our world explode, collapse, or simply not come into existence). It is often said that the world seems to have been built to the specifications that would make our existence possible. According to such an argument, it could not have come from luck.
Why do I bring all this up? Well I think that believing that we are in the version of the universe where everything is happening "perfectly" (at least up to this point) is beneficial for contextualizing your life, your relationships, your tragedies, your successes and failures alike in a completely new way. I often find myself in awe of other statistics such as the chances of being born being roughly 1 in 400,000,000,000,000. That's 400 trillion to save you some time.
The number is so ridiculous, the odds of being alive are so asinine that it almost nullifies the sensibility of statistics as a whole. Then I like to think about the people in my life. The odds of them being born were also 1 in 400 trillion, and once they got here they entered into a sea of 8 billion humans. Somehow they took all the right turns, made all the right decisions, all the right mistakes - they left home at the precise moment on the precise day in the precise place required to arrive at a liminal space where you would be, unknowingly waiting for them. All of that so they could end up a contact in your phone, your best friend, or in the truly astronomical case, a partner you live with, some one you call the love of your life. If you zoom out even further you will remember that your friends were all children completely at the mercy of their parents decision making, mistakes, relocation whims, career pivots, and yet here they are.
When you're this zoomed out it feels like the odds of knowing anyone that you currently know are so beyond improbable that it likely defies calculation, but yet its the only reality you know. In order to call your best friend your best friend, it all had to work out perfectly from the big bang to the first Hello. The Goldilocks Effect.
When you see the world as wondrous and nonsensical as this, everyone in your life becomes a little more special. That includes the people who have made you cry, the people who have hurt you, the people who stood in line with you at the grocery store the other evening, and so on and so forth. Everyone found you in life whether as a trusted friend, lover, rival, or face in the crowd exactly when they were supposed to against odds that dwarf the numbers we possess.
Do with that as you will. If you take anything from this, may it be as simple as telling the people in your life just how much you appreciate their presence, share your words in a way that is as honest and vulnerable as possible, tell them exactly how you feel, they all deserve it just as you do.
Over the weekend we got the opportunity to see Georgia O’Keefe’s collection at the MoMA. While immersing myself in her works and learning that she was prominent during the early 1900s, a thought crossed my mind: did F. Scott Fitzgerald come across her artwork?
This was top of mind as I concealed a copy of Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up in my left-hand pant pocket. I had started the book just 24 hours before our trip to the MoMA and had brought it with me so I could steal away some reading when the opportunity presented itself.
When I got home that evening I flipped open The Crack-Up and continued reading. I was startled to come across the following passage just 2 pages later:
A quote from The Crack-Up:
We saw Georgia O’Keefe pictures and it was a deep emotional experience to abandon oneself to that majestic aspiration so adequately fitted into eloquent abstract forms
My question was answered. But more questions about how the universe works populated in its place, a conclusion that is neither here nor there.
To bring it home, that same evening, we watched the Oscar winning movie Midnight Cowboy, and in it came across the character Rico "Ratso", played masterfully by a young Dustin Hoffman. My wife and I remarked upon the peculiarity of the sobriquet and how we had never heard anything like it before - in the movie it was intended as a crude abstraction of his given last name, Rizzo.
After finishing the movie I felt called to starting a Leonard Cohen documentary currently making the rounds on Netflix. In the first 15 minutes while the documentarians explored the origin story of the subject, they interviewed a one Larry "Ratso" Sloman.
So, what are the odds that on this same evening, after the improbable synchronicity that was drawn between F. Scott and Georgia O'Keefe that I would watch The Midnight Cowboy for the first time and immediately follow it up with that Leonard Cohen doc and stumble upon not just one Ratso, but my second as well, all on the same day and in rapid succession?
The Goldilocks Effect. Once again, a conclusion that is neither here nor there.
I'll leave it at that. Have anything to share on The Goldilocks Effect, your thoughts on fate, synchronicities, or anything related? Let's talk about it.
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The Crack Up is the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "quick descent from success to failure and despair and his determined recovery". Detailed by reflective essays written in his final years, it provides a lens into the world of a prolific writer in the most challenging years prior to his pre-mature death at the age of 44.
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work- the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within--that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick- the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.
Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation-the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the "impossible," come true.
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