In many people, there's a deep-seated need to find a reason for the bad things that happen in the world.
Well, of course, there always are reasons, but those are proximal causes; the car crashed into a telephone pole because the tires hit an icy spot on the road, Uncle Hubert died because his cancer recurred, the house caught fire because of an electrical short in the wiring. But there's this strange desire to ascribe more to it than that, to find ultimate causes beyond the here's-why-it-happened proximal causes.
It's not limited to unfortunate events; that sort of thinking can extend to positive ones as well. "It was meant to be" is a deeply seductive idea. I remember running into it in the fantasy literature I grew up with, that certain outcomes were fated to be by some sort of overarching pattern to the universe. Take this example from The Lord of the Rings:
"There was more than one power at work, Frodo," [Gandalf said.] "The Ring was trying to get back to its Master. It had slipped from Isildur's hand and betrayed him, then when a chance come it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean, and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its Master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
"Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case, you, Frodo, also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought."
I think I'm not alone in having read this passage and found it a comforting idea. I ran into it again, even more explicitly, in the novel/fable for adults The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, in which the main character is told repeatedly that if you are on the right path to accomplishing your life's goal, "the universe itself will conspire to make certain you succeed."
Wouldn't it be lovely if that were true?
Most people are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that the universe might be simply a weird and chaotic place -- full of proximal causes, but damn few ultimate ones. That it's a place where things sometimes work out even when you do everything wrong, and sometimes don't, even when you do everything right.
The reason the topic comes up is the much-publicized emergency landing made on January 5 by Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 from Portland, Oregon to Ontario, California, minutes after takeoff, when a chunk of the fuselage blew off. Astonishingly -- some say miraculously -- there were no serious injuries.
Even weirder is that the two seats next to the place where the damage occurred, 26A and 26B, were empty at the time.
To say this is fortunate is a significant understatement. Claims have surfaced since then that the two seats had been sold and the two passengers were delayed and missed the flight, but those claims have not been verified and it's possible the seats were simply empty.
Almost immediately, two explanations began to circulate, one benevolent and one of a darker hue.
The more positive one was that a divine power had intervened to save the two people who would have sat in those seats, as well as the rest of the people on the plane. "God is great!" posted a devout Reddit user. "How can anyone doubt His existence after something like this?"
Well, the sticking point is all the times circumstances conspire to produce a more gruesome outcome. It's all very well to see God's hand in saving the two presumed passengers, and to utter platitudes like "God must have a plan for them!" The problem starts when you apply it the other way. In for a penny, in for a pound, you know? If Great-Aunt Petunia falls down the stairs and breaks her neck, do you then say, "I guess God was done with her"?
Sometimes things end happily, but often they don't. If you think there's a Grand Plan, you'd better be ready to explain both. (Unless you fall back on "God works in mysterious ways," which is an unassailable position but explains exactly nothing.)
Also circulating, though, is a less pleasant option for the reason behind the aircraft accident, and that's the one taken by the conspiracy theorists. I've already seen a variety of twists on this, but the most common is that Alaska Airlines was running a test of its emergency protocols and deliberately staged the rupture, but at least was kind enough to make sure the two seats next to the hole would be unoccupied at the time. Besides being wildly unlikely -- airplanes are expensive, and there are lots of ways to test emergency protocols without blowing a hole in the side of one in midair -- there's the dubious logic of the airline company saving two people while simultaneously risking the lives of the other 177 people on board.
But as usual, the conspiracy theorists are convinced they've figured it out. Better a horrifying reason, apparently, than no reason at all.
Whether you buy the first or second scenario, though, the urge to find an explanation for the happy outcome of the accident (beyond the proximal causes, such as the skill of the pilot and copilot in landing the damaged plane) is leading people onto some very thin philosophical ice. I'm reminded of the brilliant and devastating novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which I read when I was in eleventh grade. I don't exaggerate when I say I never saw the world the same way afterward. In the book, devout and innocent Brother Juniper, a monk in seventeenth-century Peru, is devastated when five members of the village where he lives were killed in the collapse of a bridge over a canyon. Believing that God always has a reason for everything, for "the fall of every sparrow," he sets out to study the life histories of each of the victims, to see if he can determine why those five and no others were killed.
In the end, he reaches a deeply troubling conclusion; either the mind of God is so subtle that a human could never parse it, or else there was no reason. Things simply happen because they happen; there are no patterns and no ultimate causes. It's a heretical position, and at the end of the book Brother Juniper is burned at the stake by the Inquisition along with all of his writings.
So perhaps there is a reason that the two seats on Flight 1282 were unoccupied, beyond simple happenstance. If so, it's beyond me to see what that might be, given how many times things go wrong and people do die. Scary as it is, I think it's much more likely that the universe is simply a chaotic place where -- to quote the wonderful song "The Monkey's Paw" by Laurie Anderson -- "it's the roll of the dice, a shot in the dark, the big wheel, the big ride."