We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. – Richard Dawkins

23 thoughts on “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones

  1. Minh

    Where do you think these ideas come from, of course they are obvious, obvious being that it’s all right in front of our faces. Realize it.

    Too bad I wasn’t famous so I can say these things and be considered great.
    I thought about this long ago before I even knew about Dawkins

  2. Timothy

    This sounds like the embodiment of coulda/shoulda/woulda thinking. If this world were filled with all the people that could potentially be born into it, we would definitely be living in a place whose peace and sustainability is even desperately more in peril than it is today. I gave an essay topic on involuntary birth control–sterilization etc. to a group of Turkish university students who are generally very conservative, and an overwhelming number of them wrote about how this procedure would soon be necessary. wow! even they can figure out that potential people aren’t going to solve our crises. Try Ghandi’s quote instead, “Be the change that you want to see in the world,” instead of waiting for potential people to be the next Newton, lets make something of the ones who are already here.

    Cheers.

  3. Zach

    Timothy,
    I feel that you’re missing the point of this little quote. Dawkins, in my understanding, isn’t saying that there is a really big problem on earth and that he’s sad smarter people haven’t been born to solve them. Instead he’s telling us to appreciate every moment of life that we experience because out of all of the people that could have been born it is us that were given the opportunity, the privilege, to experience the world that we are living in, and to experience the very essence of life itself. He makes the claim that because we are going to die, that also means that we have lived and that we should be happy and grateful for having such magnificent luck. Out of all the possible combinations that could have arisen from your parents gamates, it is YOU that now lives and breathes. And the same for I, and the same for us all.

  4. Timothy

    I wasn’t suggesting that Dawkins claims there to be a big problem on our planet, I am suggesting that our planet is dealing with massive problems.

    Dawkin’s statement, as it seems to assume an ideal world, can only be applied to those living in a country that has appropriated enough of the world’s wealth and power that its citizens can experience their world–and who have the luxury of enjoying life. Not that people in developing countries necessarily despair of life, but the Bengali woman who works 14+ hours per day sewing shoes for Nike probably doesn’t garner the same experience and wonder for life as people like you and I, who’s state, or parents, funded their education. And who have the luxury of arguing philophical-esque questions on the internet.

    Life can be an immensely beautiful experience. But it can also be less so. I don’t deny that there is a positive message in his quotation. And I very much embrace life. However, I think that positive little quips and quotes like this are desperately damaging to those who don’t have the opportunity to experience the joy of life in the same ways that we do. They aren’t a small group either–arguably, most of the world lives in poverty. I live in Turkey, which is a reasonably developed country, and poverty is still rampant.

    Those living in the States, Canada, UK, Western Europe etc. And especially those who have never left those places, in favor of a less developed country, for more than a month, don’t have tactile experience of this reality. Not to mention that such things are not even expressed on the news networks. Thereby, people probably can’t be blamed for holding naive view points. However, this problem of being disconnected from those members of our world who don’t share our economic prosperity, and thereby, arguably, our potential for experiencing life, must in some way be resolved.

    Life will be an unquestionably beautiful experience only when everyone is capable of sharing in that beauty.

    Unfortunately, as long as capitalism exists, and cheap, non-renewable energy sources are accessible, there will be no level playing field for the members of our global community.

    We could also argue from the Deterministic point of view, by the way of quantum physics, and suggest that your parents gametes had no path but to form you, and in a wealthy country, at that. But thats another argument for another day–which I don’t actually support, even though I can’t yet give adequate rejection of it. I think it just shows us that this issue, when examined thoroughly, is immensely more complicated than originally estimated.

    Dawkins is writing from the standpoint of ideals, an ideal world. He is creating a seemingly universal positive image associated with life, but I would argue that such an image is misleading and dangerous, as it causes complacency–unfortunately, a lot of people in the “developed” countries feel that we’re existing in such a place, but a quick look outside will allow us to understand that such a place simply doesn’t exist yet.

    Thanks a lot for your discussion.
    Best,
    Tim

  5. Jim Lasky

    Timothy, I just wanted to point out something about quantum physics. It is called quantum mechanics, the accepted view of subatomic particles. It, best I can tell, places chance into its equations. Up until its advent (Classical Physics) it was believed that if the positions, velocities, spins, etc of every particle could be determined and evaluated then you would know everything from past to future. Standard quantum mechanics states that particles randomly collapse into being from a probability wave. So according to leading physics, particles have a chance of doing anything, and it’s only through the act of observing that particles pick where they are.

  6. Jason Shane

    Timothy, are you deliberatly ignoring the point of the quote or do you really believe that Dawkins is assuming an ideal world?

  7. Cornelio

    Screw those unborn people! =P

    Now, seriously, it’s allegoric folks.
    Don’t take it litterally, for crying out loud…

  8. Les Johns

    The bible bangers are letting their team down. What with the global depression and now pig fever the flavour of the moment,we should be being implored to be asking his nibs for forgiveness and for that rare moment of happiness back in 1964 when I came for the first time. Lots of love.

  9. Ed

    I’m sorry but this quote is such a load of crap. Gene randomisation, through meiosis, is precisely that; random. It’s a shot of the dice, a roulette wheel. Causality being what it is, it is intensely stupid to assign characteristics to hypothetical beings who lack existence.

    Don’t opine on what may have been if A had been in different quantity to B or if John had had eggs instead of toast for breakfast.

    Doing so is merely the worst type of navel gazing.

  10. Juan

    Awesome quote. Statistically speaking, one has a better chance of winning the lotto than to be alive. This is a much more beautiful message as the unsubstantiated adam and eve creationist crap

  11. Gary

    Ed, Dawkins is speaking poetically not scientifcally. The same as when a scientist says “there is likely alien life in the universe”. It’s a ridiculous statement scientifically because we have no idea of the probability of life arising. It’s simply a display of the enlightened thinking that science can give you, don’t over-analyze!

  12. Rakht

    Dawkins will be remembered by all as a great man, a fantastic scientist and a mastere of poetry!

    As Darwin is a hero and a model for human beings, Dawkind will be an inspration as Darwin or perhaps even a bigger and more imperssive one!

  13. Ryan Allen

    I love this quote but you don’t have the quote posted correctly.

    First it should be “…sand grains of Sahara”; not Arabia. Second, it should read, “…allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people”; not exceeds. And lastly the quote isn’t whole. There is more after what is posted.

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