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You’re astonishing! | Aeon

Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

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You’re astonishing!

Life can be better appreciated when you remember how wonderfully and frighteningly unlikely it is that you exist at all

by Timm Triplett + BIO

Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

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.

As with emotions like hope, anger and fear, the emotion of astonishment can be unreasonable if the associated beliefs or expectations are unjustified or unreasonable. One can be unreasonably astonished at flunking an exam, having taken too high an opinion of one’s abilities and readiness.

Sometimes, of course, astonishment is warranted. Consider then what we should say about a young person who is told about the facts of reproduction Nagel refers to, or who learns about the chance events that led to her parents meeting, and realises that, but for those events, which could so easily have gone another way, she would not now, and never would, exist. For such a person, the emotion of deep astonishment at the very fact of her existence is, I would argue, the appropriate reaction.

But some might demur. A roll call of those who don’t think their existence is very astonishing:

The weary parent: There’s nothing astonishing about your being born. You came into existence in the ordinary way, for ordinary reasons, and in the ordinary course of events. I won’t go into the details, but I can vouch for it. Calm down and finish your oatmeal.

The no-nonsense naturalist: The posterior probability of your having come into existence is one. The chain of events leading to your conception followed the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. If determinism is true, your existence was fully determined by prior conditions. Even if determinism is false, there was nothing extraordinary about the course of events leading to your conception and birth. Sorry, but no choir of angels announced your coming.

The theist: God has a plan for everyone. He created you for a reason, perhaps to be revealed in the course of your life. And, actually, there might have been a choir of angels singing in celebration of your coming to be. But that would be true for every person God chose to bring into this world. The naturalist is right that there’s nothing cosmically special about you that wouldn’t apply to everyone else created by God. But your existence is the result of the loving deliberation of God, not the indifferent forces of nature.

This is quite different from the emotions of joy and happiness that many feel about being alive

The Leibnizian: My theist confrere does not have it quite right. God, in his infinite powers and infinite goodness, created the best of all possible worlds. His failure to do so would have diminished the perfection of his creation. Since sentient life is a good, God has created such life to the maximum extent possible. All the possible people that could exist (consistent with this being the best of all possible worlds) actually do exist, or did exist, or will exist. So there is nothing astonishing about you coming to be, for this is only to say that there’s nothing inherent in your nature incompatible with being part of God’s creation.

The cosmological physicist: Your existence is indeed inevitable, but not because of any God or gods. The physical universe is spatially infinite. In such a space, every physically possible combination of atoms occurs, and reoccurs infinitely. There is nothing extraordinary or astonishing about your existence because the Universe contains multiple versions of you, and everyone else – indeed, minute variations of each individual – and even more: each variation repeated infinitely!

All of these perspectives encourage an attitude that treats the fact of one’s existence as nothing remarkable. This might be the default state of many children, since they simply find themselves alive and experiencing this world. And if, on top of that, a child is told that her being here is nothing out of the ordinary, or that it was inevitable, or ordained by God, then there may be less likelihood for the deeper reflection that can lead to an astonished awareness that one exists when one might never have existed at all.

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.

Instead of taking the fact of our existence for granted, consider what can be said for the idea that each of us should upon reflection be utterly astonished about our own existence – happily astonished if we are happy with our lives. On my view, the positions noted above that don’t accept the appropriateness of astonishment are not sustainable.

The response of the no-nonsense naturalist (and, for that matter, the weary parent) does not take into account the particular significance of the subjective perspective. This sort of naturalist is exemplified by one of the professors I had in graduate school. He defended the idea that one’s existence is unremarkable by gesturing toward a section of bricks in the wall we were standing next to. He asked me to consider the particular order of the atoms composing that part of the wall. The chance of those atoms being arrayed in exactly that order was just as extraordinarily small, at some time prior to the bricks being manufactured, as was the chance of your existence, he said. Right, I agreed. So, he asked, we don’t think there’s anything remarkable about those atoms being arrayed just like that – why should you think you’re any different? Because, I replied, that array of atoms is not home to a subjective point of view that would allow it to form any attitude about the utter contingency of its coming to exist in just this atomic configuration.

Nagel is right that ignoring or discounting the subjective perspective fails to do justice to an irreducibly significant factor in our attempts to provide a full accounting of the world. Nagel argues that subjective and objective points of view are both legitimate, and that neither can be explained in terms of the other. From the objective point of view – the perspective taken by our naturalist – we look at the Universe as it exists independently of any particular person’s subjective perspective. We can imagine, for example, a universe that contains no subjective perspectives at all. Certainly, there were no human subjectivities in the early ages of our solar system. Even after humans emerge on the scene, when we look at the course of human lives from the objective perspective, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this set of lives coming to be, as opposed to some other set. There are of course some individuals who have changed the course of the world in objectively significant ways. But had the world gone a different way and produced a different set of individuals, some among them would surely have made their own significant contributions. From the objective perspective, humans are dispassionately observed, as it were, from a very high perch. That one individual exists as opposed to some other doesn’t matter.

The proper comparison is to all those who might have been born instead of you

But we also have to acknowledge that there are in fact subjective perspectives. Each of us has a point of view from which we view the world, distinct from the objective perspective, and also distinct from the subjective perspectives of others. And from your subjective point of view, it is appropriate for you to be astonished that, of all the possibilities, the incalculably improbable sequence of events that led to your existence was the one that in fact obtained. This applies as well to me when, from my perspective, I consider the sequence of events leading to my birth, and to my sceptical professor from his perspective. Even that array of atoms in the brick wall, if it had subjectivity and appreciation of its existence as a subjective being, should be astonished.

There is, however, a straightforward rejoinder to this argument. Our no-nonsense naturalist might reasonably reply: ‘But check out all the subjectivities the next time you’re in Times Square or at the county fair. All these individuals, going about their lives. What you’re saying is that the same considerations apply to every one of those people regarding how extraordinarily contingent their existence is. But if the same considerations apply to everyone, why should there be anything astonishing about any of this?’

Because these considerations don’t apply to everyone. They apply only to the extraordinarily small proportion of those who do exist, compared with those who might have existed. That every living person has won the existence lottery might be a major motivator for one’s taking for granted the fact of one’s own existence. But the data set of 7 or 8 billion existing humans is, in the present context, too small a sample size. The proper comparison is not to those who share this planet with you, but to all those who might have been born instead of you, had the world gone a different way. All those who have ever lived are but an incomprehensibly tiny fraction of those possible persons who might have lived but never will.

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.

I have been supposing so far that there was no supernatural agency involved in one’s creation. The belief that one’s existence is part of God’s plan might be another important reason why many people don’t focus on the contingency of their own existence. How can it be that one’s existence is happenstance, and might never have occurred, if it was the deliberate act of God? But I don’t see that theism allows one to ignore the contingency of one’s existence once the implications of the theistic perspective are properly reflected on.

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.

These responses to the theist might lead her to embrace the Leibnizian position – that virtually every possible person must be part of God’s plan. According to Leibniz, God’s omnipotence and infinite goodness entail that ours is the best of all possible worlds. An all-good, all-powerful God surely wouldn’t leave anyone out!

Perhaps our defects were exactly what was needed to further some inconceivable Godly aim

That can’t be quite right, though, for there are issues about one individual’s existence being logically incompatible with another’s. In addition, God will recognise that some intrinsically flawed lives are incompatible with the best of all possible worlds. He presumably could not accept into such a world animals or persons living with irremediable intense and chronic pains, such that their lives from beginning to end are constant misery, with no redeeming purpose. There are also problems with the idea of admitting into existence persons of fundamentally evil wills. With these qualifications and exclusions in mind, the theist might use the Leibnizian position to counter any defence of the contingency of one’s existence: it’s not contingent because it follows of necessity from God’s nature.

This Leibnizian picture is highly implausible, for this world hardly seems to be the best possible. But even if it were so, there is still room for astonishment that I, of all people, made it into the best of all possible worlds. Surely God, with his infinite power to fashion the best world, could have overseen the creation of a being who, in my place, would have done better than I have in contributing to its being the best. Even if, in his appreciation of freedom, God left some of my doings up to individual choice, then given my own evident deficiencies in motivation and strength of will, and given the infinite alternative possibilities available to God, surely, in creating the best of all possible worlds, he would have installed someone with more resources to contribute to a greater good than my poor self has been able to muster. Perhaps you harbour similar thoughts. Perhaps, in some unfathomable way, our defects and failures were exactly what was needed to further some inconceivable Godly aim that was nevertheless consistent with this being the best of all possible worlds. But if that were so, it would be truly astonishing.

Our cosmological physicist offers a naturalistic version of Leibnizian plenitude that doesn’t require the moral perfection of this world and might be more attractive as a defence of the idea that there’s nothing remarkable about one’s existence. This defence might take the American physicist Brian Greene’s account of the multiverse, from his book The Hidden Reality (2011), as its starting point:

[T]he expanse of space contains an infinite number of separate realms … with our observable universe … being but one member. Canvassing this infinite collection of separate realms, we find that particle arrangements necessarily repeat infinitely many times. The reality that holds in any given universe, including ours, is thus replicated in an infinite number of other universes across the Quilted Multiverse.

This possibility, if true, might seem to undercut the astonishment attitude in the most thoroughgoing way. (Greene himself does not address questions about the appropriateness of astonishment.) Given the Quilted Multiverse, not only do I exist, so do infinite atom-for-atom identical duplicates of me elsewhere in the multiverse – ‘endless doppelgängers’, says Greene, and also near-doppelgängers that vary from me by one or two rearranged atoms – and infinite versions of each such near-doppelgänger to boot! And so on for each individual creature in this world, and for each blade of grass, each clod of dirt.

Could such an extraordinary plenitude actually exist? Other physicists demur. And even if Greene were right that an infinite amount of matter/energy is dispersed through an infinite spatial expanse, it does not follow that there is an endless replication of all possible particle arrangements. There’s no logical guarantee that even an infinite number of monkeys at their typewriters will produce Hamlet, because there are an infinite number of ways to type gibberish. Similarly, it’s possible that the putative infinity of other universes are all just stupefying equivalents of monkey gibberish, duplicating nothing of the life-generating complexity of our universe.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Greene’s picture of infinitely replicated doppelgängers of yourself is correct. This still does not reduce one bit the astonishment of the extraordinarily unlikely fact that you came into existence and are alive now in this universe. To see this, imagine a young woman who is tragically about to die from injuries suffered in a car accident caused by a distracted driver. Had some passing thought or event not distracted the driver, our young woman would have made it safely home and carried on with her life.

Now, suppose that, just before she dies, an omniscient, multiverse-overseeing being speaks to her: ‘You needn’t worry about dying so young. There are infinite universes in which molecularly identical doppelgängers of you are not victims of doppelgängers of that distracted driver, and you’ll be happy to learn that in most of those universes your doppelgängers go on to live long lives full of love, productive work, and enjoyable leisure.’ This young woman would not, of course, actually be terribly happy to learn of this. For in the only life she has, her life is cut tragically short. She will not identify with these other doppelgängers because they are not her – they are entities vastly remote in space, in universes that bear no causal relation to anything that happens on Earth.

But suppose that she, in fact, recovered from her injuries and did indeed go on to have that fulfilling life. And that a big part of that fulfilment included giving birth to you. Suppose that the omniscient voice then told you: ‘It wouldn’t have mattered if the distracted driver had killed your mother, because, while you would never have been born, there are infinite worlds in which a doppelgänger of her thrives and gives birth to a doppelgänger of you, and in most of those universes your doppelgängers live long and happy lives.’ This otherworldly voice may be omniscient about objective facts and alternative possibilities, but it’s pretty clueless about human emotional reactions. For it doesn’t recognise the significance, for you, of your life in this world – the only life you could ever have. It remains astonishing, given all the otherwise inconsequential events that had to occur in order for you to come to be born, that each of those events did in fact occur.

So should we conclude from these reflections that we all ought to go around dizzily celebrating and exclaiming: ‘Wow! Just wow! Here I am! It’s incredible to be alive!’? Well, perhaps not during the calculus exam, or in the middle of the budget committee meeting. And, of course, one should be careful not to choke on one’s oatmeal. But if the argument offered here is right, it is incredible, from your perspective, that you are alive. You should feel amazed that everything came together in the way that it did. To never reflect on the implications, astonishing from one’s own subjective perspective, of the improbabilities of one’s existence is, it seems to me, not to appreciate one’s life as fully as one could.

Parents can encourage such reflections when they remark on the uniqueness of their child

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. But most people now know the facts of human reproduction. Even those who don’t – or who don’t thoroughly reflect on those facts – could easily make the inference to the contingency of their existence when they hear stories of how their parents or grandparents met.

Perhaps ego plays a role in taking all this for granted: ‘Of course I should exist. How not?’ Even a theist who teaches against egocentrism might harbour some unacknowledged self-regard if she feels that it was natural or inevitable for God to think that only she would do. I suspect, though, that what is at play here is typically not so much ego as an understandable tendency to take for granted that which does not demand our immediate attention, or even any attention at all.

We are first, and necessarily, attentive to what is required for our survival. Then we are also understandably attentive to what beyond survival makes for a life with the most important goods – love given to and received from another, social acceptance, and meaningful projects. It is quite possible to survive very well, and live quite happily, without having engaged in the reflections noted here. Even the common philosophical questions that reflective individuals are most prone to ask – is there a God? What is happiness? How should I live? – typically do not reach in to question the very fact of a particular individual’s existence. But if there is some unique delight in life to be found in reflections about the extraordinary contingency of one’s existence, then such reflections offer another value that philosophy has in enhancing our lives.

There is also a practical implication of this argument: the emotion of astonishment, since it is appropriate and life-enhancing, should be cultivated. In her book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013), Martha Nussbaum makes the case for the importance of cultivating emotions such as love of one’s country, of its history and of the sacrifices of forebears, of its vision of itself engaging with the future. While such emotions are often thought of as the bailiwick of politically reactionary cultures or parties, Nussbaum sees it as an essential component of a liberal outlook concerned with creating a more just society. It differs from reactionary emotions because it involves love of one’s fellow citizens in all their cultural, political, religious and ethnic diversity, and because it should form the basis for a further extension to the love of all of humanity.

Emotions certainly can be cultivated. Reactionary political leaders and movements excel in stirring up fear, hatred and other tribalist emotions. Nussbaum thinks the solution is not to disdain the cultivation of emotions in political life. Emotions create meaning that, for good or ill, bind members of a society together. The point is to cultivate the right emotions, in the right way.

Astonishment at one’s existence is not a political emotion, and I’m not arguing that it be cultivated in a public context. But, just as the right political emotions can enhance the meaningfulness of one’s life as a citizen, the right personal emotions can enhance the meaningfulness of one’s life as an individual. The venue for cultivating the emotion of astonishment is not a political or civic gathering, nor even primarily a church or school, though there can certainly be room for more general expressions of this idea in these latter contexts. I am thinking primarily of the value of parents cultivating this emotion in their children, or even of children, in their own often exhilarating explorations of ideas together, engaging in reflections that lead them to this emotion. Parents can encourage such reflections when they remark on the uniqueness of their child or speak of their love for the specific individual that their child is, and is becoming.

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.

Meaning and the good lifeValues and beliefsMood and emotion

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