An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1957, “Mail Order Prophet,” concerns a particularly clever scam. A man named Grimes receives an unsolicited letter from a Mr. Cristiani predicting the outcome of an election. It turns out to be correct. Subsequent letters name the winners of upcoming sporting events and are always right. Finally, the mysterious soothsayer offers to a valuable stock tip in exchange for a fee. Grimes takes the chance and risks everything. But it turns out to all have been a ruse. The swindler sent different combinations of predictions to thousands of people. Grimes was one of a small proportion of victims who happened to get consistently correct forecasts, and who were thus convinced of the charlatan’s clairvoyant abilities. The Grimes-eye view of the situation was severely biased, and he had no idea.
Cristiani’s trick gets to the heart of the biggest questions we ask about our own existence. Life, the Universe, and Everything stuff: why are we here, why is the world the way it is, what is our purpose. Not that Hitchcock’s version is so unique. If you are similar to me in age and nerdiness, you may have first encountered a parody of this story on the Mathnet segment of Square One TV circa 1990. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern witnessed a comparable winning streak defying all probability by flipping dozens of heads in a row. In any case, the same plot plays out on a cosmic scale. Our species is Grimes. The lucky victim.
The concept works on several levels. So if you think you see where I’m going with this, stick with me, since it may be deeper than you think. The first level deals with creationism and the anthropic principle. We look around and find ourselves on a planet fine-tuned to support our existence. Just the right size, just the right distance from the sun, plenty of water, sheltered from most asteroids by Jupiter’s gravity, etc. A paradise built for us implies a benevolent and intelligent creator, some think. But we have Grimes’ perspective. Millions of other worlds are uninhabitable, and thus are of course uninhabited. The grand forces of the cosmos have are no more magical or compassionate than Hitchcock’s con man.
But even secular-minded evolutionary biologists can be duped. Consider the evolution of consciousness. Was it inevitable? Was it adaptive? It’s easy to assume that natural selection must have favored our enormous, self-aware brains. But if we hadn’t evolved them, we wouldn’t be here asking these questions. Could it all have been a series of lucky accidents, ala Cristiani? That’s certainly the null hypothesis, the simplest explanation favored by Occam’s razor. Maybe there was more to it, but you can’t conclude so based on the fact that we’re standing here, any more than Grimes can conclude he has a prescient pen-pal. We could even consider the Cristiani effect to be another evolutionary force. Some things have happened because of natural selection, some because of genetic drift, and some because of Cristiani. This extends beyond neuroscience. Was the evolution of, say, photosynthesis necessary for our own eventual existence? If so, chalk it up to Cristiani.
Then there’s the ecological take. Our planet has enjoyed a remarkably constant climate over billions of years, despite major changes in the sun’s output. Living cells have continuously adjusted the atmosphere to perfectly counteract the solar shifts. Earth seems to be maintaining homeostasis. This observation prompted the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the whole planet can self-regulate like an individual organism. It has a nice ring to it. But once again Cristiani has been working his deception. If life on Earth hadn’t kept the climate fine-tuned over the eons, we wouldn’t be here. That’s all the explanation needed to account for the pattern.
So, like Grimes, we find ourselves in a pivotal moment. If our success up until now has just been due to luck, there’s no reason to expect it to continue in the same way. Past performance is not an indicator of future results. Grimes contemplates suicide, and it would be easy for us to also slide into despair. Will everything suddenly start going wrong?
Not necessarily. Ever since the Big Bang, the Cristiani effect has been setting up systems to ensure that we would be here today to think about them. Systems like Jupiter’s orbit and our planet’s carbon cycle, as well as our own incredible brains. Now that we’re aware of it, the Cristiani effect is over, but the systems it set up are still off and running. They aren’t going to break down overnight, but we need to be responsible about maintaining them. Just look at Grimes. His story doesn’t turn out to be a tragedy after all. As luck would have it, the stock goes up and he gets rich. The universe isn’t guiding our destiny. We have the power to choose it ourselves. The danger lies in trusting Cristiani to watch over us, when he’s nothing more than a fraud.