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Monday, September 23, 2013

Probable Impossibilities

What's more likely, the impossible or the improbable?  I was thinking about this the other day, as I watched a show featuring a magician.  Magicians, of course, perform the impossible all the time: Massive objects disappearing before our very eyes, rabbits materializing from silk-lined hats, attractive women sawn in half with nary a scream nor a drop of blood.  And we are unfazed, because we know that it's a trick; that is, as impossible as it is that we are seeing what we are seeing, we know that, if someone would just explain the secret, we would not only consider the events possible, but actually probable--obvious, even.

The improbable, though, never seems to happen.  Just ask anyone who's ever bought a lottery ticket.  Indeed, if you consider the likelihood of two events--that you will win the lottery next week or that the attractive magician's assistant will survive her turn in the slicing box--you will obviously choose the latter, impossible event as the far likelier outcome.

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