I don’t like to fly.
I will do it; I have flown dozens of times before; I will do it again. But I don’t particularly enjoy the experience. It has nothing to do with the perceived risk of flying…I know, of course, that driving on the highway is much, much more dangerous than getting into an airplane. No, I don’t like to fly because it seems to me a particularly stressful way to die. Seeing the wing shear off, then having the plane spiral down, gradually…
I don’t really want to talk about flying today. What I want to talk about is a paradox that I discovered recently. The paradox is this: the knowledge that magic is non-existent, that the universe is indifferent, that you are not special in the grand scheme of things—that knowledge can be both a comfort and a source of fear, simultaneously. And that’s weird to me. Shouldn’t one’s beliefs comfort you, or not comfort you, as the case may be?
Let’s say that you do think that you’re special, that you were meant for some grand purpose. This would certainly be a comfort if you were afraid of flying. After all, you’d say to yourself “why should I be afraid to get into an airplane? It won’t crash—I’m special somehow!”
Now, suppose you are superstitious, and think you are special in the opposite way: you think you’re cursed, that the world is out to get you, that God hates you, whatever. I bet that your beliefs don’t make flying a fun experience.
But what about me? I am a physicist, a determinist, an agnostic, a free thinker. You know how some people describe themselves as spiritual? Whatever the opposite of spiritual is, I am that. There’s no guardian angel watching over my shoulder; I was not meant for some higher destiny, and the universe doesn’t care about me one way or the other. Given such beliefs, should I be comforted when I get on a plane, or not comforted? Therein lies the paradox.
When I get on a plane, I often start thinking, “the wing’s going to rip off in mid-flight, I just know it…that would just be my luck…you just know I’m going to be on that one-in-a-million flight that crashes into the Grand Canyon.” But then I comfort myself by saying “there’s no such thing as ‘being unlucky’. I am no more likely than anyone else to be on an ill-fated Grand Canyon flight. So I should take comfort, because objectively, plane crashes are really rather rare.”
The problem is, my beliefs also make me more nervous at times. “There is no guardian angel. I am not remarkable in any way, so I can’t be comforted by the idea that I am somehow special. Planes sometimes crash, and there’s certainly a chance that I will be on such a flight.”
So: should I be comforted, or not comforted?
I should be comforted if I think (in some deep recess of my brain) that there really is something called bad luck, and that I really am “cursed” in some way, because when I remember that this is nonsense, I will feel better…my belief has erased a sense of foreboding that I was irrationally experiencing.
I should not be comforted if I think (in some deep recess of my brain) that there really is something called destiny, and that I really am “blessed” in some way, and that I was meant for some higher purpose than disintegration in a smoldering pile of twisted metal, because when I remember that this is nonsense, I will feel worse…my belief has erased a sense of protection and comfort that I was irrationally experiencing.
So again: should I be comforted, or not comforted?
Well, which is greater? (1) My irrational belief (that everyone has to some degree) that I am cursed in some way, and that there is a “doom” hanging over me… or (2) my irrational belief (that everyone has to some degree) that I am blessed in some way, and that I was meant for something more? In the first case (the pessimistic case) I should be comforted when I come to my senses, and in the second case (the optimistic case) I should be more worried when I come to my senses.
Hence the paradox:
- Pessimists are comforted when they remember that the universe is indifferent;
- Optimists are more worried when they remember that the universe is indifferent.
On balance, I am an optimist, which means my deterministic world view gives me even less comfort than it should.
Of course, given the fact that I am an optimist, I am comforted by the fact that there’s probably something wrong with my analysis. Only, wouldn’t that make me a pessimist? I’m so confused…
[Image is from the movie Flight (2012), directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s a good movie. You should watch it.]