Yesterday I was re-watching Arachnids in the UK, the fourth episode of the latest season of Doctor Who, and a somewhat goofy idea popped into my head about how to respond to the charge that sometimes stories are just ‘too improbable’ to enjoy — or to have happened at all.
That certainly is an accusation that seems to apply in many cases. In order for some story to have happened at all, certain events had to happen just so and in the right order. It’s easy to shake your head and think, “Yeah, right. As if that could actually ever happen.”
For many years I’ve had a generic response to that accusation, but yesterday I realized it can be justified mathematically!
Now don’t be scared; I’m not going to get into any heavy math lifting, just some general descriptions — no actual math required, and no numbers were harmed in the making of this post.
(Also, all of its electrons are free-range, mostly solar, and 98.3% recyclable.)
In fact, if it’s not obvious, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek.
(Yet it makes as much sense as anything else these days, so let’s continue.)
Let me get the mathy part out of the way. It’s just one thing: how weird things get if we take infinity seriously.
There is reason to not take infinity seriously. After all, nothing in the physical world is infinite.
At least not in the ‘there’s always another’ sense. A circle, in some sense, is infinite, it goes around and around forever. But there’s no such physical thing as an infinite supply of circles.
Yet circles are, in that sense, infinite, and there is always another number after any given number, so numbers are genuinely infinite. Infinity has some reality, it seems.
The tension between nothing physical being infinite and math itself having infinite infinities might be taken as evidence to the artificiality of math — that it’s something we made up, a game of symbols.
But that is a long-running philosophical discussion I only mention to set the stage. For now we’ll accept infinity (the countable kind at the least) as a real thing.
As a real idea, anyway (like justice or unicorns).
Accepting infinity leads to some odd things (such as the Hilbert Hotel). In this case, the weirdness has to do with probabilities.
Imagine for a moment that we have a magic bin with an infinite number of objects in it. Imagine also that one-trillion of those objects are red; all the rest are blue.
If we reach into the bin and remove an object, what are the odds that we get a red object?
It turns out the odds are indistinguishable from zero. There is effectively no chance whatsoever that we will get a red object, even though there are one-trillion of them.
This is because the odds in question, infinity-to-one-trillion, are impossibly one-sided. To see this, let’s divide both sides by one-trillion.
Which gives us odds of infinity-to-one.
We could divide by even larger numbers, but we’d only reduce the right side of those odds. The left side remains forever infinity.
Keep dividing, and it effectively becomes infinity-to-zero.
This holds true even if the right side is (countably) infinite so long as the left side is an uncountable infinity.
For example, the natural numbers are (countably) infinite, while the real numbers are uncountable. (Given any real number, we can’t even identify the next real number, which is what makes counting them impossible.)
Therefore, given a bin of all numbers, the odds are effectively zero that we would draw a natural number rather than a real one, despite the infinite supply of natural numbers.
(In cosmology, this is known as the measure problem.)
Okay, enough math; the point is simply this:
Given an infinite supply of something, the odds on drawing a member of any particular sub-group of that supply is effectively zero.
Now, let’s imagine the infinite supply is stories.
All the stories.
Most of them — very nearly all — are ordinary, even boring, tales where nothing exciting or surprising happens. Certainly no weird coincidences, paranormal manifestations, alien appearances, or costumed superheroes.
But if all the stories are there, then so are the interesting ones.
So are the ones involving massive coincidences and momentous events.
So are the ones based on that single moment when life changes.
But those are the stories worth telling and hearing.
Whether parable or entertainment, those are the stories we crave.
In part, no doubt, because they represent such rare exotic fruit.
Perhaps also because they represent ideals, goals, dreams, hopes.
Stories are a distillation of our experience, concentrated, purified, curated, even aged (compare the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the Disney versions, for instance).
If real life is an apple; stories are fine apple cider (or jack).
So of course they’re improbable, some of them.
My old response was along the lines that stories didn’t need to be about what usually happened, or what ought to happen logically, but what actually did happen that one time.
My new response can be along the lines of Math! and isn’t it amazing the author managed to find such an interesting gem among all the ordinary stories!
And isn’t it great they have that drive and make the effort, because most of that infinite supply is pretty dull. (Like the one where a guy spends an hour writing a blog post. Or the one just now where someone spends a few minutes reading one.)
(Props to storytellers and perhaps an insight to why I never thought of myself as one: no regard for my own skill at finding interesting gems.)
That doesn’t mean a story can’t be criticized if its own internal logic fails.
The trick is determining that internal logic. For example, a character’s abrupt shift in stance might turn on logical factors in the author’s mind, but those factors may not be visible in the story.
I’m thinking of Lee Sizemore’s final sacrifice in Westworld, which was widely criticized as pointless and out of character. (Which, frankly, may have some truth to it.)
We can’t really know why he did what he did, so we’re left to either criticize the story point for leaving us out of the loop or to accept it as what happened (for reasons we can only guess at).
It does present an interesting borderline case, though. It can be argued as shoddy storytelling, but it can also be accepted. It kinda depends on the viewer.
(I’ve raised the idea that, at that point, he may have been very hungry and light-headed. We never saw any of them eat.)
I try to be fairly accommodating in terms of character and plot.
If I can find any logical path to a plot point, any way to say, ‘well, maybe it happened this way,’ then I’m inclined to accept it.
It’s when I can’t find any way to make sense of the plot that I object.
As for that Doctor Who episode, which is widely considered one of the weaker ones this season, I didn’t think it was that bad the first time around, and a second viewing only made me like it more.
Maybe not as good as other episodes, but I’d stack it favorably against a great deal of TV past and current. (It may be that the disdain for it comes from Whovians having such a high bar.)
Stay interesting, my friends!