…and a lot of accidents

DSC01956_33864029I’ve been watching some of the YouTube videos posted by the TED group, including one presentation by Murray Gell-Man (he of The quark and the jaguar).  Most of the presentations at TED seem short and sweet, not a lot of technical detail but a good – if broad – explanation of an interesting concept enabling people to gain something like a ‘lay of the land’ within intellectual life.

One of the things Gell-Man was saying in his presentation which really struck home, however, was the role of accidents.  “The history of the universe is … co-determined by the basic law and an unimaginably long sequence of accidents (outcomes of chance events)” (Time: 4.59).  He re-emphasises this point at various places during the presentation, that accidents are crucial co-determinants of reality together with any basic law that exists.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by a short and simple point made by Deleuze.  “It will be said that the essence is by nature the most important thing. This however, is precisely what is at issue: whether the notions of importance and non-importance are not precisely notions which concern events or accidents, and are much more ‘important’ within accidents than the crude opposition between essence and accident itself.” (DR, P189, Athlone edition)

The issue, then, is not that Gell-Man is somehow wrong but that merely positing these two co-determinant factors of law and accident doesn’t seem adequate.  The question, quite simply, is why did this accident matter?  Nothing in the two factors enables a clear sense of the specific and actual.  The basic law (which I am reading as close to what Deleuze refers to as essence) gives a kind of combinatory such that, given a set of elements they will be combined according to the combinatory.  The law thus enables the effect to be understood in the sense of being able to explain its mechanism.  This seems akin to the rules of a game, say chess, such that knowing the laws enables the moves that occur to be understood.  Unlike a game of chess, however, no starting position is given by the laws and without the starting position an explanation must remain incomplete.  The accidents, therefore, seem akin to the starting positions of the pieces, which in chess can be established by stipulation but which in nature must somehow exceed any law.

Accidents thus refer to something like an excess.  No matter how perfect the knowledge of the basic laws of physics could be, there will be an accidental starting point for any explanation, a starting point from which the laws can hold but before which they cannot speak.  Moreover this notion of accidents seem to have a further problem beyond merely this limitation of an ‘unknowable absolute starting position’.  This further problem might be posed in the following way – either there is a basic law which can explain the mechanism of reality, and the accident is singular in that the laws presuppose a basic starting point which is beyond the law, or the accidents continue to occur, a constant series of starting points is produced or at least a constant series of potential starting points, some of which actualise new situations of complexity with further domain-specific laws whilst others don’t.  This seems to introduce a radical contingency, a weak contingency if there is only one ‘big’ accident of the starting point, and a ‘strong’ contingency of a continuous stream of starting points.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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  1. Matt
    Matt at |

    I recall that Deleuze quote myself, and remember wondering how to defend a ‘vitalistic’ notion of the importance of accidents over the importance given to the rigour of predictability between essences. The strong contingency idea here is interesting; it reminds me of the primacy of change and difference in Deleuze (immanent starting points are ‘singularities’? I’m not sure that’s right).. Is it really a question of “what gives the gibbon”, a strangely abstract question that only a ‘philosopher’ or ‘philosopher-scientist’ would care about?

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