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How Do Accidents Happen?

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The following is a review of a lecture given at St. John's College by Daniel Harrell on January 16, 2004. Please note that the summary portion features a style of writing that is a reflection of the lecture, not of myself. Credit for the ideas and formulations in this review, unless otherwise specified, goes to Mr. Harrell.

How do Accidents Happen?

by Daniel Schwartz

Mr. Harrell has deceived you all. Those who participated in his lecture titled “How Do Accidents Happen?” thought they were merely joining him in the “thinking-something-through” of an idea: the accident. His lecture started with common sense observations and examples, presupposing only a group of minds willing to look at the evidence with him. His lecture seemed merely to build from that evidence as anyone thinking through the issue for the first time might do. Yet I came away from the lecture not merely with a new understanding of accidents, but also with a new understanding of Aristotle’s philosophy. Mr. Harrell’s deception was a success: he smuggled an incredible illumination of Aristotle into a lecture which, in fact, hardly mentioned the great philosopher’s name.

The lecture began with a degree of common sense never before seen on Friday night. An accident, Mr. Harrell observed, is what happens by accident. It is what happens to happen. For example, two friends happen to run into each other at the store. John drove there; Joe walked. John needed cigarettes; Joe needed milk. This is an accident. They run into each other; they collide. Literal collisions can serve as examples of accidents, too. Tripping on the stairs and falling to the ground is an accident. Spilling one’s drink is an accident.

But what makes these accidents? After all, they are not uncaused. Indeed, they are necessities. We live in a world where everything comes from somewhere, where nothing is truly groundless, where cause can be traced back to cause, revealing that the seemingly accidental actually could not have been otherwise. If this is so, if the world is more rational, does the accident not seem to be less real? And if accidents are real, does the world not have to be less rational?

Suppose the accidents described above are really accidents, but that, though necessary, their necessities are unseen. Does a more rational but less known world imply that accidents seem more real, but are less real? If the world were completely known, accidents could not happen. Thus, when a bridge collapses accidentally, we head for an engineer, who would laugh at the idea of a groundless event. In order to rid the world of the same accident, he must learn about its causes. Thus, if the question “How do accidents happen?” could be answered, they would no longer happen.

Perhaps the idea of an accident is not even coherent. Certainly, no experiment will ever produce one. By its nature, an accident happens apart from design. It seems, from this, that accidents are not real. Aristotle, however, replies: “Of course accidents happen.” And Mr. Harrell adds, “And isn’t he right?” Accidents are what happen occasionally, suddenly, contingently.

Is an eclipse an accident? It is unpredictable. So what? It is still caused.

Is it an accident that a man is a doctor and a housebuilder and a flute player? Perhaps this combination is unexpected. So what? Though he is all three, each one is still caused.

But in one sense, they are uncaused. The three skills were learned separately, and thus are separately caused. All three skills were learned, one a time. They were not caused merely by his being a man. Thus, we have the makings of an accident: one thing which is simultaneously a number of other things. And here the hidden Aristotelian argument of the lecture begins to emerge. In Metaphysics 1015b20, Aristotle describes how things can be one accidentally. Many accidental states or attributes, says Aristotle, belong to the same independent thing. And, though Mr. Harrell in no way pointed directly to this idea in Aristotle, he nevertheless had already given a wonderful argument in its favor.

Suppose our doctor, Jack, is playing the flute at a concert. Jill, a heart patient in the audience, becomes ill. “Is there a doctor in the house?” someone yells. Jack sets down his flute and rushes over. “I’m a doctor,” he says. Jack is one man, but both a doctor and a flute-player. Jill is one woman, but both an audience member and a heart patient. This twoness is what makes an accident possible.

This corresponds with Aristotle’s description of chance and fortune in chapter five of his Physics, though once again Mr. Harrell did not directly point to this. An example of chance or fortune, Aristotle tells us, is when “someone gathering contributions would have come for the sake of collecting money, if he had known; but he came not for the sake of this, but it happened to him accidentally to go and to do this. And this was not through frequenting the place for the most part or out of necessity, but the end, the collection, though not belonging to the causes in him, is among choices and things that result from thinking.” In other words, the man is both a collector of contributions and some other thing which motivated him to go to the place. The twoness is responsible for chance or fortune.

An accident is, therefore, caused by the multiple lines of causation in things, lines which are completely real and in no way dependent on consciousness. It seemed earlier that the reality of accidents implies a less rational world. Yet isn’t a composite fact an evident fact? What could be irrational about multiple lines of causation?

A list of everything that Jack is would be random and endless. He is a man and million things besides, all at once. With this, Mr. Harrell smuggled in—once again without actually revealing his source in Aristotle— Metaphysics 1007a15, “It is indeed impossible to enumerate all the infinity of accidents,” and Physics 196b25, “To one thing, infinitely many things accidentally belong.”

So what? Jack doesn’t look random or endless. He has a composed life. The infinity of the list looks finite in Jack. The randomness of the list looks ordered in Jack. Reason is a way of putting things in order. Socrates was at once a so-called corrupter of the youth, a philosopher, and a man who was put to death. Reason can order these facts, telling us that because he was a philosopher, he was deemed a corrupter of the youth; and because he was deemed a corrupter of the youth, he was put to death.

Yet accidents also put a road block in the otherwise straight path of reason, forcing it to turn. In this sense, real accidents imply a less rational world. Yet it doesn’t seem that, overall, this is truly a point against reason. Reason is ever-correcting; that is why we write math in pencil. Though a conclusion of reason, once done, is done, it is, in another sense, revocable. Think of the senior essay here at St. John’s. The finished product reads like a straight line from beginning to end. Where did the corrections go? The month of work on the essay consists of speculations that reach dead ends, formulations that prove faulty, arguments that are refuted. It is a relatively “haphazard” process; yet the finished product is composed.

Reason made it that way. Accidents that push us off course from the straight line of reason are really no problem, after all.

I did disagree with parts of the lecture. This first emerged when I returned to Mr. Harrell’s example of an eclipse. Is an eclipse an accident if it occurs where no consciousness can even know it happened? Mr. Harrell’s argument implies that it is still an accident. Accidents are the results of multiple lines of causation in each thing, and those lines exist whether or not a consciousness perceives them. To me, however, it seemed that, apart from consciousness, everything is necessary, nothing contingent. The world only seems to depart from necessity when it is not fully grasped by a consciousness.

But I couldn’t yet explain what was wrong with Mr. Harrell’s account. Then it hit me. Accidents, according to his argument, are departures from essence. This leads him to say that they exist independently of consciousness. Yet it leads me to say precisely the opposite. Essences exist only by virtue of man’s capacity to relate things to one another and abstract. Something is essential only to someone and for some purpose. Those who say that treeness is essential, not to someone, but rather to the tree’s being a tree, forget that a tree’s being a tree implies a class of trees, and a class is a tool of someone and for some purpose. So the essential is still essential to someone and for some purpose: the purpose of classification. When we say that a tree is no longer a tree if it loses its treeness, we are talking about treeness as essential to men for the purpose of classification. Essences are tools men use to grasp and classify the world. They exist epistemologically, not metaphysically. Without men, there is no classification. Without men around to relate two trees to one another conceptually, those trees do not have the same essence. They just are. Thus, there are no departures from essence without men; there are no accidents without men.

Despite this disagreement, I still find Mr. Harrell’s account partially true—twoness still does seem to have much do to with accidents—and definitely worthy of consideration.

This lecture was a great success. It was loaded with Mr. Harrell’s classic humor and engaging style of writing. More importantly, however, by giving what amounts to an Aristotelian argument without actually bringing in Aristotle, but instead presenting his own thought process from the most basic observations on up, Mr. Harrell made Aristotle accessible and understandable. While I ultimately disagree with some parts of both Aristotle’s and Mr. Harrell’s argument, I credit the lecture for helping me to understand and explain more fully why I disagree with Aristotle on this point.

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