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At Aeon: You’re astonishing! Life can be better appreciated when you remember how wonderfully and frighteningly unlikely it is that you exist at all


Philosophy professor Timm Triplett writes:

Family lore has it that my grandfather, having spent some time doing business in England and about to return to the United States, received an invitation to seek additional sales opportunities in Scotland. At the last minute, he cancelled the passage he had booked on the Titanic. If the story is true, then, but for a chance communication from a Scottish businessman, I would never have come into existence. And what led to that businessman learning about my grandfather? Perhaps it was a mere afterthought as someone was leaving a meeting in the purchasing office of a Glasgow manufacturer. Surely somewhere along the line there was something – many things – equally happenstance, without which the invitation to my grandfather would never have been made – without which, that is to say, I would never have been born.

In his book The View from Nowhere (1986), the American philosopher Thomas Nagel captures well the reaction that these sorts of reflections can generate:

We are here by luck, not by right or by necessity. Rudimentary biology reveals how extreme the situation is. My existence depends on the birth of a particular organism that could have developed only from a particular sperm and egg, which in turn could have been produced only by the particular organisms that produced them, and so forth. In view of the typical sperm count, there was very little chance of my being born given the situation that obtained an hour before I was conceived, let alone a million years before …

If you concentrate hard on the thought that you might never have been born – the distinct possibility of your eternal and complete absence from this world – I believe you too will find that this perfectly clear and straightforward truth produces a positively uncanny sensation.

If an uncanny sensation indeed results from such reflections, it’s something that just happens, like a shiver or a shudder. It can’t be evaluated as reasonable or unreasonable. But emotions can be assessed in that way: hope may be misplaced, anger may be an overreaction, fear may be unwarranted. I want to focus, not on any sensation such as Nagel speaks of, but on the emotion of astonishment. I believe that, when one reflects on all the things that had to have happened exactly as they did in fact happen in order for one to be born, astonishment is a reasonable and appropriate emotion.

Let me be clear that the emotion I am focusing on here is astonishment, and that the object of astonishment under discussion is the fact that one came to exist when one so easily might not have. Call this the contingency of one’s existence. This is quite different from the emotions of joy and happiness that many people feel about being alive and living their lives fully. Joy and happiness are emotions readily distinguishable from astonishment. A person can take delight in her life yet, if she never reflects on the contingency of her existence, or rejects the idea of such contingency, or accepts and understands it but is indifferent toward it, she will not experience the sort of astonishment of which I speak.

But suppose that determinism is true, and that each event that occurs in the world, including my birth, was the inevitable result of prior causal forces. Even if this is so, it’s still true that, from my subjective point of view, the exact course the world must take is outside my ken. I can’t penetrate into this determinacy and understand why things happened as they did in every particular. And so, as I reflect on the events that had to happen in order for me to be born, it is easy to imagine how this extraordinarily complex cause-and-effect sequence might have gone differently. Even if everything was determined, it’s still astonishing from my subjective perspective that the set course of the world went this way, so as to include me, and not that way – a way in which I’m forever absent, and no one even notices.

Consider the theist’s position. God created you for a purpose. If he needed you for a purpose that some other possible person could have fulfilled, then it is extraordinary that he picked you as opposed to one of those others. Suppose though that only you would do. Then it is extraordinary that, out of all the possible beings God could have created, the circumstances called for your creation, not that of any of those others. Had those circumstances been even slightly different, God would have chosen someone with a different profile. It’s wonderful for you that the circumstances were just right for God to need you, but you were also extraordinarily lucky, given that different circumstances would have entailed God’s need for a different person.

Why then do so many people seem to treat the fact of their existence as unremarkable? Perhaps, quietly and occasionally, many people do feel the astonishment that is appropriate to the contingency of their existence. But many others seem to go through life, however happy they may be to have it, taking utterly for granted what is in fact the most important thing in their lives – that, against all odds, they came into existence in the first place. Of course, the contingency of one’s existence may never occur to many people. 

Cultivating astonishment – recognising it in regard to oneself, encouraging it in children – can be seen as a call to see the world in a new way. It deepens one’s appreciation of the world by way of a philosophical argument to the effect that astonishment at one’s existence is a legitimate and realistic emotion. Since this conclusion is life-affirming in the most literal sense, and since it points to an important and too easily taken-for-granted truth, it is valuable to recognise that there is reasoned support for the astonishment that emerges from fully appreciating how wonderfully strange and extraordinary it is that the course of the world went in such a way as to include you as part of it.

The quotes above are excerpted from the complete article at Aeon.

Contingency of an outcome, coupled with the recognition of the specific purpose of that outcome, is more consistent with teleological design than with random outcomes or law-like, restricted determinism.

Fasteddious at 3, The Atheist-Marxist requires disorder. Why? To deny his God-given existence. Just like life came out of chemicals - by itself. Just like your computer was designed and built by nobody, human beings were designed and built by nobody. relatd
CD at 4, Are you white? Do you believe you are "entitled"? If so, who entitled you? Some Leftist-Marxist put a label on you? relatd
This is a really easy (and naive) view of life if you are white and entitled, sitting on top of the food chain.... chuckdarwin
This author makes the mistake of equating himself to his genes, as if the random mix of sperm and egg defines who he is. Then he finds astonishment in the unlikely chance of those particular gametes. This is like saying that any particular random sequence of heads and tails in 10,000 coin flips is astonishing. That is the inverse of the materialist's false argument against ID, conflating specified complexity with random complexity and thus seeing nothing special in the former. Instead, this author sees his particular (seemingly random) combination of genes as being special, just because it was extremely unlikely in the huge range of possibilities. If he wanted to point out that each and every human is unique and specially created by God for his own good purpose, then he would be consistent. But he seems to think it astonishing that his particular genetic endowment exists among all those that could have existed. How could it have been otherwise? Out of the huge number of possible combinations, he has to have one of them. That makes him unique, of course, but in what way does it make him special, and the fact that he has that combination astonishing? Fasteddious
Contingency of an outcome, coupled with the recognition of the specific purpose of that outcome, is more consistent with teleological design than with random outcomes or law-like, restricted determinism.
A wise observation. As it applies in this case, human life may appear on the surface (strictly according to scientific findings) to be randomly contingent on chaotic forces beyond our control and rendering cause for astonishment and wonder, but ancient spiritual traditions and modern paranormal research show otherwise, that our individual existence is the result of a long process of intelligent choices by the spirit or soul. Evidence of this includes the boatload of empirical evidence for reincarnation constituted by the many thoroughly investigated and verified cases of small children spontaneously remembering details of apparent past lives, and even of actually making soul choices regarding the next life. Of course the process leading to particular gametes going to birth is semi-random, but the choice of which offspring to embody in appears to be a deliberate intelligent one. Beyond this, it does not appear to be easily understandable in strictly human terms how souls could choose such unfortunate lives of suffering and deprivation that do sometimes occur. doubter
"it is valuable to recognise that there is reasoned support for the astonishment that emerges from fully appreciating how wonderfully strange and extraordinary it is that the course of the world went in such a way as to include you as part of it" One of the reasons I love to garden is the astonishments that occur when I am gardening. I discovered what an amazing place a little garden is for me to be in. You become familiar with not only the plants you care for and don't care for, with flowers, and all kinds of veggies appearing, but the way the sunlight comes in through the trees, the poofy summer clouds, the way the dirt dries, the breezes on the hill, and so many bugs of uncountable numbers. My garden attracts larger forms of wildlife also, rabbits who sneak in low through holes, the birds who swoop in from above, raccoons climbing over the fence, moles, squirrels, and a fox runs by occasionally AND a groundhog we've named Gordon who seemingly eats everything he can get his mouth on. And then there's me, the limited conductor, wistfully wishing the summer would last forever and this symphony should be Heaven. But why am I so dramatic about it? One of the Big Questions to think about as darkness descends, and I lock the garden gate and report back to the missus. Andrew asauber

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