Monday, 18 February 2013

A few thoughts on Serendipity (with a tip of the hat to..)

I can't ever make my mind up as to whether the happenings in our lives are  as a result of randomness, as exhibited by a cold, hard Universe indifferent to our existence, or if all the particles in the Universe, set in motion during the Big Bang, were always destined to arrive at a particular set of circumstances due to the laws that govern the interactions of matter and forces.
Ok, that was quite a long opening sentence, but as a summary of my own struggle with the conflicting concepts of determinism and randomness, I think it describes more or less the nugget in the middle of the whole conundrum. It is, in fact, quite a Biggie as far as philosophical arguments go and far beyond my poor engineer's brain to untangle.

Just lately, I have encountered several friends and acquaintances who tell me that all that happens to us is somehow predetermined. Fate, apparently, has its own opinion on whether we crash into a Jack Russell on our bicycles and hence arrive late at a junction where had we not collided with a dog, we would have met our ends under the wheels of the proverbial bus. We have that dog to thank for not only avoiding our untimely death, but the subsequent posthumous embarrassment at the state of our undergarments which by another quirk of Fate, might not have been pristine that very morning.
A local Jack Russell
Well, I am having none of it. Sorry. I know each action we take is the nexus for a branching tree of happenstance that is infinite in its possible courses, but to think there is some guiding hand of providence which decides in our best interests, which of those myriad sets of possibilities befalls us is just plain silly. Ok, it might exist, as might the gods of Mount Olympus with a chessboard containing rooks, bishops and pawns with our faces on. Equally probable to that is the Christian God with a Divine Plan, or even naughty elves who live in the shrubbery and hide our keys when we leave the front door open. They might exists, but there are no good, factual reasons to suppose any one of them does.
The manifestation of a possible deity..?
And I wish I had a quid for every time, over the last year, a well meaning soul has responded to news of my own recent cerebral misfortune with a "Well, it wasn't you time" or "Someone was looking out for you!" (Well, in that case, why didn't they bloody PREVENT IT happening in the first place then?). It was not so. Shit Just Happens. This is how I choose to regard it. And I am alive and grateful to be so.

And so, what we appear to have is Serendipity. I am grateful to a friend of mine for my introduction to the concept and all its glorious implications. I was aware of the word previously, certainly, but not of it's enormous significance. Our approach to the apparent randomness of Life can profoundly influence how we perceive events and what happens to us as a result.

It seems that "stuff happens" to us all the time. For instance, the imaginary terrier described above can be perceived as a nuisance or our possible saviour from a messy accidental death. Ok, that is perhaps a bit of a tenuous stretch, but you get the idea I hope.

As life unfolds and we stumble through the obstacle course that is the narrative of our existences, if we are receptive to the possibility that the unexpected changes in the course of events might bring us an interesting experience, then it is more likely to do so than if we merely regard the change of plan as a nuisance.

What concerns me is that Serendipity is being systematically removed from our lives by algorithms. Our routes are planned by Satnavs which take us to places without us navigating consciously, and without the getting-lost which often takes us to unexpectedly interesting places we might not otherwise have found. If we regard getting lost as a kind of exploration, it takes on a new meaning. For instance, once, I decided to take a route home on my bike which was not the quickest, but which I had never traveled before. There was no reason for this other than, I just fancied finding out what was down this little lane. I was utterly delighted to find an stand of plum trees which once had been an orchard for a large, now-vanished house. Had the detour been forced upon me by, say roadworks, I might have found it a drag, an annoyance, and not noticed the trees and hence not made several hundred litres of wine and hundreds of pounds of jam.
Plum wine which might otherwise not have been made
Similarly, though I like my kindle, I find it annoying that Amazon "suggests" books for me based on my previous reading material. Were I perusing a library, I might look for a book, and possibly find alongside it, another unrelated title that catches my eye and turns out to be a tremendous read. You don't get that level of haphazard delight from "Customers who purchased this also bought..." algorithms.

Such is the pervasive nature of this guidance, this "choosing for us" that an iPhone app (actually called "Serendipity") now exists which authoritatively instructs you whilst walking in a town to take random turns of its choosing, such that you encounter new places, perhaps very close to, but outside of your normal route. The reviewer noted that he had been amazed to find a park this way that he had previously not know about, though he had walked mere metres from it for a dozen years on his way to work. Discovery happened! How serendipitous! Except it wasn't really because it was to some extend guided.
It's a bit sad that this has to now be the result of a technological product and not of mere curiosity.

So, I thank my friend for the introduction to the concept of Serendipity. It can make unexpected into fortuitous. I shall keep an open mind and take unexpected paths in preference to those I already know. And let's see where it takes me, shall we?


sonia said...

Have you read Jung's take on synchronicity? Well worth the read...

PerlNumquist said...

No, sadly, I am a recent arrival at the door of philosophy. I am afraid my education and experience till now has been purely science and engineering. I don't mind that, but perhaps a bit more exposure to philosophy might be helpful. I will look into Jung. Thank you.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Serendipity, in our view, is one of Life's greatest treasures since we can easily think of many occasions when instead of a prescribed route or action, we have chosen an alternative only to be rewarded with the most marvellous and life-enhancing results.

We too believe that 'stuff' happens and remind ourselves when the 'stuff' is bad rather than good that we do not tend to ask 'why me?'when things are going along swimmingly!!!

Increasingly, we are also irritated by the suggestions that flow into our email box about what we might like to have/try/buy or what exciting things our 'friends' have done/are doing/will do that we might like to try too.Yes, give us plain chance any day....who knows where that will take us and what fun we shall have along the way!!

PerlNumquist said...

Yes, Jane & Lance, I hadn't really considered that we only question fate when events are unfavourable. Perhaps to say "Why me?" when good things happen might lead us to a better understanding of how to make more favourable things happen to us, by dint of our attitude. Maybe if the answer was "because I smiled at someone" or "because I was polite and receptive" when someone does us an unsolicited good deed, we might smile or be polite more often. Though of course, I am sure you are always polite and smiling :-)

Friko said...

Fate in the form of a Jack Russell is unlikely to divert you from certain death under the wheels of a bus round here: we haven’t had any of those - buses, I mean - for a long time.

Serendipity is a wondrous thing, I blame all my pleasanter experiences on its manifestations.

The unpleasant experiences are due to the way the cookie crumbles or possibly ‘sod’s law’. In other words ‘why not me?'

I I could speak and write a language (any language) the way you do I’d thank the gods on my knees.

Friko said...

“If I,’ stupid woman, If I”.

PerlNumquist said...

Thank you Friko, What a lovely thing to say. Serendipity seems to have wired my brain for words, which is good, but means I can't draw (and I really really want to be able to! :-) So, it appears we have somewhat of an ambivalence to Serendipity in how we regard it with respect to good fortune and bad luck. Sometimes, when I cycle somewhere and something falls off my bike, causing me to stop and pick it up, I do indeed try to regard it as a possible stroke of luck that resulted in me not being there when an accident might otherwise have befallen me. Perhaps this is my attempt to rationalise the bad into good.