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On Possibility, Eternity, Genius, and an Infinite Monkey

Zackjk April 27, 2015 User blog:Zackjk

Any bounded possibility, given an infinite amount of time, can be considered not only an eventuality, but an absolute certainty. This follows because infinity is not merely a big number, it's an insanely, massively, enormously, gigantically bigger number than you can even begin to imagine. If you place a limit on something, no matter how large or liberal that limit is, that thing will happen not just once, but again, and again, and again an infinite number of times if it's given an infinite amount of time to run its course. For example, novels generally have from 60,000 to 200,000 words. That's a large number, but it is still as far from infinity as three is. The English language has, and this is very approximately, 988,968 words that have ever been written down or uttered. This information allows for some calculations to be done. The number of possible ways to write one word is the number of words, precisely 988,968 possibilities. If you were to write two words, the number of possibilities is the number of words times itself, or 988,968^2. That number works out to 978,057,705,024 possibilities. So the total number of two word combinations that are possible is somewhere in the neighborhood, though slightly less than, one trillion permutations. The number of possible two-hundred-thousand word novels is easily deduced from mostly similar steps. You take the number of existing words and raise it to the power of the number of words you have, in this case 988,968^200,000. So there are 988,968^200,000 two-hundred-thousand word English language novels possible, though many of those would be incomprehensible nonsense, but everything up to 200,000 words is in there. Everything that’s been written by, and could have been written by the likes of William Shakespeare, Douglas Adams, Ian Fleming, Stephen King, or anybody for that matter. Each masterpiece, and each masterpiece greater than anything that’s been written, but not yet written, exists in the realm of possibility. There is a limit, the limit is massive, it’s huger than huge, overwhelmingly, mind-bendingly big, but it can be reached, given enough time. This goes for anything, given infinity, or even just a very long time, every thing that is possible will happen, and it will happen over and over again. This especially goes for music. There is a limit to the different patterns of One’s and Zero’s that can be burned on to an audio CD. The information on a compact disk is stored in areas of pits and lands, one’s and zero’s, offs and ons. There are about two billion different pits on a CD, and each of those can be in two different positions. The equation for figuring the number of possible permutations, the absolute upper limit to musical creativity is around 2^2,000,000,000. One should never forget the power of exponential growth; if not for lack of resources, rapidly dividing bacteria would soon consume the earth in their greedy, sexless orgy of cytokinesis. Now most of these CD’s would be static, noise that didn’t resemble a thing, but buried in the monstrous heap you will find every one of Pink Floyd’s records, and the ones they may have made if there situation were only a little bit different. That assortment of CD’s would contain everything there has been, and everything there could be. The same goes for DVD’s, movies, and TV shows. There’s a limit for everything, possibilities aren’t infinite, and eventually you will run out of ways for things to go, if the experience is placed under any bounds or limits. There’s a limit for CD’s, books, poems, shows, and anything else you might want to define. Given a bound, a limit, and more time than can be imagined, the possibilities of existence will play themselves out, everything will happen, and everything will keep happening, over and over again, ad nauseum, trapped in a penitentiary of eternal time.An addendum: Take the hypothetical case of the monkey banging away on a keyboard for infinity, what are the chances of said simian coming out with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or maybe the King James Version of the bible? The bible has some 3,566,480 individual characters, though I’m not sure whether or not this includes spaces. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, which one can multiply by two to account for capitalization. So a monkey (or maybe perhaps a president) hammering away on a keyboard would have 52^3,566,480 different ways of writing a book of that length, and one of them would exactly match the King James Bible. Searching through all of the reams of pages to find the bible would take beyond an insanely long time, but it would be of a finite length. Anytime you have a limit, something that constrains the dimensions of whatever it is you’re considering, you reduce all of the different ways it can be to something that’s finite, a thing that will eventually come to an end, or be forced to repeat itself.

Genius’s substance lies not in one’s ability to make arise from whole-cloth, but in finding the path of what’s already there. As I’ve gone over, there are a finite number of possibilities when it comes to something that varies. All of these possibilities exist, but most are, and will remain, unfulfilled. Genius lies in the ability to pick out the great from the chaff, to find the path through the space of possibilities that leads to the most moving novel, or heart rending poem. The genius is not a creator, he is a discoverer, one who unveils what was already there, but hidden from the light. Just as a sculptor doesn’t make a statue from a block of marble, the sculptor’s job is to remove the bits and pieces obscuring the masterpiece that has been there since the block was created. As there is a block of marble that represents all of the possibilities, there is a space of possible novels, of possible combinations of words, and it is the erudite author who maneuvers its way through the space that is mostly made up of random nonsense, until he finds a gem. Answers are out there, they just need to be found, found and separated from the gibberish and the misleading ones. Possibility is finite.



( UPDATE: 4/20/07: I wrote this before I discovered Jorge Borge's essay "The Library of Babel", it deals with basically the same topic. It relates a universe composed of every assembly of characters that can be fit into a book of a set

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