I had been preparing for months for a conference overseas and at long last was boarding the airplane. How much effort had gone into this, but now everything had been arranged and all that remained was to carry through with my well-designed plans. The main event was to be the presentation of a poster at the conference; this is a form of mini-paper that features a literal poster on a wall containing one’s main arguments. As I was approaching my economy seat in the rear section of the plane and getting ready to hoist my carry-ons into the overhead bin, I suddenly realized I was not carrying the tube containing the poster! I was later told by an onlooker that my pale face went absolutely white. I know from my own experience that my stomach dropped to the floor. In a panic I turned around and struggled through the line of people in the narrow aisle to the exit of the plane and explained my plight to the attendants. One of them accompanied me to the gate, where an official grudgingly gave us permission to return as far as the security entrance but no farther. Halfway there I recalled that I had definitely brought the tube through security, so my anxiety was partially relieved. And, sure enough, when we arrived there, my tube lay in a bin of lost-and-found items. The attendant told me that this was a rare case of discovering something that had gone missing in this manner. As relieved as I was, I never got over the shock. I am still wracked by the nightmare of: what if I had realized I didn’t have the poster just a few minutes later, as the plane was taxiing down the runway? It is as if it actually happened.
This episode instances a general phenomenon. We have all had moments in which catastrophe was narrowly averted – near misses, close shaves, etc. Mine hardly represents the worst sort. For all I know the airplane I was on narrowly missed colliding with a meteor midway to our destination. Indeed every single moment of our lives is potentially like this and possibly even actually like this. The more general phenomenon is called (by philosophers anyway) contingency. Each and every thing that happens (not to mention what does not happen) is the product of a zillion factors, mostly unknown to us. And that goes of course for the catastrophes that do occur … and also all the wonderful things.
I think that I have developed a particularly keen sensibility to contingency -- perhaps an occupational hazard of being a philosopher? Thus, I can honestly report that my journey overseas went fabulously well in all respects, both at the conference and on a little holiday excursion afterward. I returned home with a sense of great professional and personal satisfaction. And yet I vowed never to go on such a trip again if I could possibly avoid it.* Why? Because I was also acutely aware of a handful of salient near-misses during those 12 days in addition to the tube one. The trip contained other moments of high drama, which confirmed my sense that travel is not for the faint of heart. And even though everything turned out well, so that these events could just as well be celebrated with joy and relief, my final takeaway was almost terror. Their main message for me was that several such things would be likely to occur during any major undertaking in future; and so the chances were high that they would not all be near-misses but an occasional hit. So to embark on another adventure would be to court disaster (whether of a minor or major sort).
I am not saying for a moment that my thinking here is truly rational or sound. I am simply trying to articulate the underlying logic of my feeling. Although there is certainly something to said for the line of reasoning therein, various counterarguments also readily suggest themselves. For example, as already noted, every single moment of our lives, and of my life in particular, is dependent on countless “accidents”; so even if I never set foot on an airplane again, indeed, even if I never left my house again, I would still be liable to catastrophes in abundance.
Perhaps the most fundamental refutation of all is that the very same outlook that underlies our liability to contingency offers a perfectly countervailing consideration. For just as every moment of our lives is governed by this that and the other ultimately beyond our ken, every moment of our lives is, by the very same factor, guaranteed (or “determined,” as we philosophers say) to happen. Thus, since at least the Big Bang thirteen billion years ago, it was quite set that I would lose and find my tube; there was no real possibility that I would not have my poster at the conference. So how could such a thing, rightly conceived, possibly be a source of anxiety for me? Even if I also factor in my response to it all, including my philosophical anxiety, won’t my decision to travel again, or not to, as well as any resultant catastrophe, also be something that is carved in stone?
Thus the consolation of philosophy to counteract the anxiety of a philosopher. But now I philosophically wonder why we live at all, even why there is a universe at all. If each anxiety is matched by a “consolation” that wipes it out, wouldn’t everything have been quite simpler if none of it had happened in the first place? The same seems to be true of the entire physical universe: There is some kind of universal accounting that returns everything to zero in the end (don’t ask me to explain the technical details, which I couldn’t). Well, here too one can adopt an opposite attitude: Isn’t it grand that we can derive absolutely everything from nothing?