There Are No Accidents of Birth

I caught myself using a common phrase, accident of birth, sometime during my workday on Monday, and something in my mind tripped over it. This is the good kind of mental stumbling in that it’s a cue I take to explore a concept. I’m up too late, suffering from fatigue toxin and goofing up tomorrow’s workday in advance, but I want to type this before I lose the immediacy of these thoughts.

Accident of birth is most used, I think, to express disappointment at the lack of control over the circumstances that surround us when, some sufficient time after being born, we realize we might’ve been different had we been born somewhere else, in some other time. Alternatively, there’s what happens when we talk about other people. For example, atheists who want to argue the relative “validity” of different religions may be prone to saying things like, “It’s an accident of birth that [some person] was born into [some society] and therefore was indoctrinated into [some religion].” (I happen to find this construct annoying because it implies the person who was born existed before birth and then emerged, as if randomly, wherever that person sprung out of the womb. Aren’t atheists supposed to be skeptical regarding the existence of souls?)

But this isn’t about atheism (or souls). The you that you’ve become, the I that I am, neither of those are accidents. Who you are, who I am, we, and everyone else, could only possibly exist in the moment we’re in right now. I so often think how cool it might be (if I’m in a romantic mood) were I to have lived in some other time and place, imagining myself in Classical Rome or Revolutionary France. It’s easy enough to recognize the silliness of such imaginings when contemplating what the reality of those places and times must have been like. What’s not so easy to recognize is that I could not possibly be me in either of those locations in space-time. There is no possible way I could not be a different person. Even in the preposterously unlikely event that some human who lived a thousand years ago had my exact genetic makeup, that person would not, could not in any true sense be me. He might resemble me with respect to phenotype, but his mind, his thoughts, his conscious self, would be a unique creature shaped by his world, and utterly not me. This is not to say genetics are irrelevant, though…

When these thoughts started percolating toward awareness I recalled the scene from issue #9 of Alan Moore’s Watchmen where Dr. Manhattan recognizes the value of humanity after having carefully explained to Laurie Juspeczyk how unworthy humans were of even the remotest consideration compared to the grandeur of the universe. (Both of them are on Mars and Laurie is crying in the aftermath of Manhattan’s remarkably emotionless diatribe.) At the risk of breaching Fair Use…

Dr. Manhattan: Thermodynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter, until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into goldthat is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.

Laurie Juspeczyk: But… if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle… I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!

Dr. Manhattan: Yes. Anybody in the world. But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forgetI forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away. Come… dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes, and let’s go home.

(Italics added to match boldfaced lettering in the original comic.)

To describe you, me or anyone else, the circumstances of our birth and the lives we lead, as mere accidents is to trivialize the stunningly improbably confluence of genes, ancestry, family, culture, geography, and every other thing I can’t think of right now, that makes each one of us a unique expression of the universe.

"You yourself are the eternal energy which appears as this universe. You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean." -- Alan Watts

As only Alan Watts can say it…

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7 thoughts on “There Are No Accidents of Birth

    • I do more than flirt with spiritual thinking. 🙂

      Sam Harris, an atheist I admire (most of the time) has a new book coming out called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (This post on Sam’s website is also relevant.) I’m looking forward to it. Sam is a vigorous proponent of atheism, but has also gotten some criticism from other atheists for his willingness to explore and acknowledge spiritual experience. The book promises to be a deep exploration of this.

      Also, check out this tangentially-related YouTube video distillation of Sam talking about death, the distractions of life, and living in the now.

      • Forgive me for typing this, but I found the content at that link incredibly confusing and incoherent. If that post were a YouTube video I would expect Inigo Montoya to walk in from off-screen at any moment and tell Mr. Schaeffer, “Atheism. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

      • Perhaps we’re getting all tangled up in semantics. In fact, I am pretty sure we are.

        By “we” – I don’t mean just you and me, but everyone in general.

        I am least marginally familiar with Frank Schaeffer as he has a blog featured on Patheos.com (which is another website in which you might be interested in poking around, as this is a great resource for those who have open minds about religion and spirituality.) Trust me when I say that this guy is on a serious rampage about religion – and Christian religion – in general, while still ascribing personally to Christ and his teachings (which in my mind, and probably his mind as well, completely transcend the idea of “Christianity” and actually are applicable to humanity as a whole!)

        Without having read his book just yet (although it will be arriving in my mailbox in about two days, if Amazon delivers on their promise), I will venture a guess here – I think what Schaeffer is trying to get at is that that spirituality is *not* owned and “corner-marketed” by Christians, or anyone else for that matter. Even you, by your own admission, “flirt with spirituality” yet self-identify as an atheist. Well, what if what you are *really* saying, by identifying as an atheist, is that you really just can’t reconcile with religion, and not spirituality? That God can or is a creative force does not necessarily negate what (I perceive) many atheists are getting at – that the baby Jesus didn’t magically create the world and perform miracles and blah blah blah… or Mohammed, or Buddha, or what have you.

        However. Like it or not, whether or not it can yet or ever will be proven scientifically, this universe still came from something. To say that it spontaneously “created itself” without any guidance or intervention or creative force of an “ultimate mover” is almost akin to saying that a miracle occurred – that there was a Big Bang and then there it was, hocus pocus, poof, here’s your universe. And yes, that also means that the something from which the universe came must also be attributed to another external source, and so on and so forth, and you and I both know that particular problem is pretty much unsolvable.

        Here it is in simpler terms, at least to me: if you are going to say that it’s impossible that wine was created from water, or that a man came back from the dead, because that just. can’t. happen. due to the supernatural implications, then you cannot at the same time say, BigBangPoofUniverse. How would that miracle of creation really be any different? What laws of existence shaped the creation of the universe, and who formulated those laws? Technically unsolvable, so there we go.

        And I am probably creating a huge rabbit hole here, and have probably strayed off-topic, but at the moment I am raging starving hungry and need to go grab a burger, so this is where I will stop.

        🙂

      • Okay, what you’re saying about Schaeffer does help clarify his views a bit. I can’t say how much effort I might be willing to make reading more of his stuff if his prose continues to be, for me, largely impenetrable, but if I come across more of him as I peruse things I won’t just overlook him out of hand. As for patheos.com, I have read the occasional post to that site (by other authors) and there’s good stuff on it.

        You can be sure Sam Harris will be quick to note that the religions of the world ought not compel a monopoly on spirituality either, though I’m sure his take will be different from Schaeffer.

        As for the something from nothing problem, all I can tell you right now is Lawrence Krauss begs to differ. I haven’t read that book yet, but it’s on the list, and I don’t want to get too carried away arguing the point without building up the knowledge store first.

        In the meantime, here’s a (((VIRTUAL HUG))), in lieu of the real hug held up for the next time we see each other.

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