Friday, May 27, 2022

Almost Certainly

Mark Tobey

The infinite monkey theorem states that a roomful of monkeys with typewriters, given an infinite amount of time, will eventually, almost certainly, produce the complete works of Shakespeare. It's a thought experiment about the concept of infinity. The human brain is not really equipped to think in terms of infinity, so for many of us it's a mind-blowing idea, one that is hard to hold in our heads for any more than a few minutes. Intellectually, we can grasp infinity, but as a practical matter, because of our perspective as apes called Homo sapiens, we just can't get it.

Of course, there is nothing to say that you must believe in infinity, even as math, science, and philosophy all vouch for it. In the end, the existence of infinity is a matter of belief, even as it is almost certainly true. You can assert that the entire universe is limited in all directions and I can't prove you wrong, although you still have to deal with the nothingness that must then infinitely exist outside the shell in which our universe exists. You might validly assert that the entire universe rests on the shell of a turtle, but then you must then consider upon what that turtle rests. If the answer is turtles all the way down, then we're back to discussing infinity.

Like I said, it's mind-blowing. I know some people who ask me to change the subject when I talk about it. Maybe these first couple paragraphs make you uncomfortable. Maybe you're scoffing at the whole idea of monkeys writing Shakespeare. Maybe you're thinking, "Tell me something I didn't know." They're all valid responses to this almost certainly true, but frankly, useless information.

The qualifier "almost certainly" has already appeared at least once in every paragraph I've written so far. It's a mathematical term that is used to discuss probability. It's a hedge against the incredibly unlikely, yet still not impossible, chance that those monkeys will fail to produce even a single page of Shakespeare, even as the math tells us that not only will they produce the complete works they will do so an infinite number of times.

Some dismiss this sort of musing as a waste of time. It will almost certainly never land me a job. It will almost certainly never materially improve my life, except to the degree that I enjoy playing with the ideas. It is almost certainly all just thinking in circles, round and round, with no beginning middle or end, a churn of mental energy that could be better used solving the world's problems. These are the arguments most often used by those who want children to stop playing and start working.

But there is something I can state, without the need to insert "almost certainly." We are, as humans, as Homo sapiens, a kind of ape which can be swapped out for the metaphorical monkeys in the theorem without changing the essential premise. And you know what? We apes have already produced the complete works of Shakespeare. Indeed, we've produced it and reproduced it over and over again and we're just getting started. I have three of those reproductions right here on my bookshelves. Indeed, the internet contains the complete works so many times that the number is approaching infinity.

And we didn't even need typewriters or infinite time in order to do it.

Tune in next week when we play with the idea of time travel. It's almost certainly impossible . . .


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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