Unlike Robin Hanson, I am not surprised by who I am. Sure, most things that exist are not alive, are not human and are not statisticians, but that doesn’t make it surprising that I am. What I am is the only thing I could have been.
It’s true that Robin is smarter than most people, and most people don’t write a popular blog. So should he be surprised that he is those things? The only reason he noted those particular features is because those features already exist. The question was generated by the result. Everyone has things about them that are unusual. Should we all be surprised? For example, Brenda might be one of the few left-handed female plumbers in Texas. Should she be surprised? If everyone has unique things they can point to, then shouldn’t that fail to surprise us?
Consider the t-shirt experiment:
20 t-shirts, each a unique color, are placed in a box. You are blindfolded. A shirt is randomly selected from the box and placed on you. You then remove the blindfold.
Suppose you participate in the experiment, and after you remove the blindfold you observe that your t-shirt is blue. Your reaction could be: “I’m surprised to be wearing a blue t-shirt. Only 1 out of 20 shirts was blue.” But of course, you could say the same thing no matter which t-shirt was selected. There was a probability of 1 that a shirt that was unlike the other 19 would be selected. We see the result and then start thinking about how unique that result is.
This kind of reasoning leads to bad inference, such as the self-indication assumption or the doomsday argument. The wikipedia version of the doomsday argument is: “supposing the humans alive today are in a random place in the whole human history timeline, chances are we are about halfway through it.” In other words, if there was a time-traveling stork that selects humans from all humans that will ever exist, and randomly places them at various places in the human history timeline, then we are probably about halfway through human existence. People then debate whether the doomsday conclusion is correct, but do not challenge the assumption that we know is wrong. The doomsday argument can be rejected by simply noting that the assumption is bad (we are not in a random place in the human history timeline).
We shouldn’t be surprised that we exist, since we had to exist to notice that we exist and ask questions about our existence. It would be more surprising if we noticed that we didn’t exist.