Sketches of Disruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs
Accident, chance and necessity
From the above review of the prevalence of accidental discovery in technical and scientific progress, it is clear that there are two sides to this phenomenon. An unexpected or inadvertent mistake or result occurs that becomes, through the engagement of an inventor, the basis for an important breakthrough. Awareness of this contradictory reality—the ability to understand that all natural evolution moves simultaneously through deterministic and random elements and, likewise, that the steps in technological advancement proceed along a law governed path that manifests itself by way of unanticipated particulars—is the touchstone for grasping the essential contradiction embedded in the disruptive continuity of human progress.
Dictionary definitions of the term “accident” present the concept as an event that is unforeseen or unplanned. While an accident is often associated with negative outcomes (I was in an auto accident), it is also frequently used to connote good fortune (We met by accident). Although there is a tendency to see these determinations as mutually exclusive—as either purely desirable or undesirable—these opposite meanings of the word express one side of the objective duality of accidents. Whether accidents are associated with negative or positive results, they always appear to be purely unintended. However, it becomes clear upon examination that an accident was preceded by circumstances that caused it to happen and the accident itself is the cause of still further apparent unanticipated results. Thus, every accident is both cause and effect and expresses both something that was entirely expected and unexpected at the same time. This is the real and true contradictory nature of the phenomenon.
The term “chance” is defined in a similar manner, as an unpredictable event without discernible human intention or observable cause. The existence of a chance happening is conventionally understood to arise at random and without a purpose. However, while the outcome of a chance roll of dice may be thought of by the roller as either bringing “good luck” or “bad luck,” a combination of scientifically observable and measurable factors—gravity, air resistance, friction, the force of the throw and the initial position of the dice—interact to produce one of the thirty-six possible landing combinations of the two cubes.
Definitions of the term “necessity” emphasize the concept as a quality or state of being that is required or a consequence that could not have turned out any other way. From this understanding, it would appear that necessity is predetermined with no influence from accidental elements. In this formal way of thinking, accidents or chance events and necessary events are conceived of as fixed opposites that never touch or interact with each other.
Accounts of accidental invention most often present the moment of discovery by way of happenstance in a similarly one-sided manner. The unscientific perspective erases the contradictory content of an event that was both accidental and necessary and takes on one of its two forms: either presenting the accidental occurrence as completely disconnected from necessity or by dismissing the accident and overemphasizing the trajectory of an inevitable outcome as the only possible path of development. In the first instance, the event is seen as itself being purely accidental. This means that the accident is thought to express only inconsequential or irrelevant trends. From this point of view, the discovery or invention at that particular moment in time did not come about because it was necessary at all, but instead took place purely at random. In the second instance, focusing on the importance of the motivations of the inventor or attributing the event to “good luck,” for example, this standpoint dismisses the accidental element entirely and sees only the necessary or predetermined eventuality.
However, there is a more precise and objectively accurate way of understanding the manifestation of accidents in connection with technical progress that accommodates for the contradictory relationship between chance and necessity. Instead of viewing an accident like a lifeless cartoon, it can be understood scientifically as the real means through which advancement takes place. Like a motion picture, there is a concatenation of circumstances that surround and form the lead up to the moment of a chance discovery. These conditions are the foundation upon which it is possible for the innovator to see the potential contained within the unanticipated event. It is precisely here that the accidental and the necessary merge together and become identical; the accidental is necessary and the necessary is accidental. This manner of understanding rejects the notion that an invention is either purely a chance event or purely a predestined outcome and instead embraces the view that these two states exist as one and that this is the way that innovation genuinely takes place. A necessary event has a cause because it is accidental and also has no cause because it is accidental; the necessary manifests itself as chance and this chance also is the expression of necessity.
Among the first thinkers to define the relationship between chance and necessity in both nature and human thought was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). In his Science of Logic, Hegel discusses at length the process by which necessity is manifested in phases through the possible, the accidental and the actual:
Frequently, Nature, to take it first, has been chiefly admired for the richness and variety of its structures. … the chequered scene presented by the several varieties of animals and plants, conditioned as it is by outward circumstances—the complex changes in configuration and grouping of clouds, and the like—ought not to be ranked higher than the equally casual fancies of the mind which surrenders itself to its own caprices. The wonderment with which such phenomena are welcomed is a most abstract frame of mind, from which one should advance to a closer insight into the inner harmony and uniformity of nature. …
In respect of Mind and its works, just as in the case of Nature, we must guard against being so far misled by a well-meant endeavor after rational knowledge, as to try to exhibit the necessity of phenomena which are marked by a decided contingency, or, as the phrase is, to construe them a priori. Thus in language (although it be, as it were, the body of thought) Chance still unquestionably plays a decided part; and the same is true of the creations of law, of art, etc. …
Necessity is often said to be blind. If that means that in the process of necessity the End or final cause is not explicitly and overtly present, the statement is correct. The process of necessity begins with the existence of scattered circumstances which appear to have no interconnection and no concern one with another. These circumstances are an immediate actuality which collapses, and out of this negation a new actuality proceeds. …
Necessity is blind only so long as it is not understood.
Similar to that of Newton, Hegel saw all motion and development in nature as being driven by an almighty spirit. However, Hegel viewed the human mind as separate from, superior to and the source of the natural world. He believed that the interaction of chance and necessity in the universe were part of the process through which the human mind was realizing itself as the almighty spirit. While Hegel inverted the genuine relationship between what he called “Mind” and “Nature,” he did show how seemingly opposite determinations such as chance and necessity were united as one and dependent upon each other in the unfolding process of all development.
The biological evolutionist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was among the first scientists to work with similar concepts in a specific study of nature. Darwin showed that the process of natural selection—which governs the evolution of all biological life and is the continuum of descendance from one creature to the next over the course of billions of years—takes place through the complex interaction of chance and necessity. Francisco J. Ayala, the noted evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, explained that Darwin was able to:
discern that there is a natural process (namely, natural selection) that is not random but rather is oriented and able to generate order or “create.” The traits that organisms acquire in their evolutionary histories are not fortuitous but determined by their functional utility to the organisms.
Chance is, nevertheless, an integral part of the evolutionary process. The mutations that yield the hereditary variations available to natural selection arise at random, independently of whether they are beneficial or harmful to their carriers. But this random process (as well as others that come to play in the great theatre of life) is counteracted by natural selection, which preserves what is useful and eliminates the harmful. …
The theory of evolution manifests chance and necessity jointly intricated in the stuff of life; randomness and determinism interlocked in a natural process that has spurted the most complex, diverse, and beautiful entities in the universe: the organisms that populate the earth, including humans who think and love, endowed with free will and creative powers, and able to analyze the process of evolution itself that brought them into existence.
As Ayala makes clear, not every random mutation or evolutionary trait contributes to the viability of an organism. Some prove to be harmful. Nonetheless, these seemingly negative random events are themselves also driven by the variety, complexity and interconnectedness of the material circumstances contributing to biological evolution. Here, it is evident that what proves to be unnecessary in nature is also at the same time the product of necessity.
There were still other thinkers and men of action in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who, basing themselves upon the work of Hegel and Darwin, arrived at a more complete and scientifically accurate understanding of the relationship between chance and necessity as it applies to all of nature, including human thought. From their standpoint, a particular technical breakthrough becomes a necessity in the course of socio-economic development and the specific individual who emerges at the moment when the discovery is achieved is accidental. If this individual had not stepped forward, the necessary advancement would, in the long run, have been brought about by someone else.
These laws of motion and development apply to scientific and technical advancement incorporating the additional variable, as Hegel states, of the “equally casual fancies of the mind.” This means that, regardless of what individual innovators may think about their activity or understand about the significance of the discoveries they are making, there is a logic through which their advancements proceed. As with natural evolutionary processes, the movement of technical progress does follow a pattern that can be examined, traced and understood. Like the development from simple to complex life forms and from unconscious to conscious beings—after passing through a vast number of seemingly accidental physical traits and characteristics—socio-economic technical progress has gone from primitive stone tools over generations to the most sophisticated and complex systems that enable the exploration of the surface of Mars and the examination of the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond. While each of the breakthroughs along this path have come about in apparent randomness—including both the individual person or people responsible for them as well as the manner in which the innovations were secured—the advancements have proceeded along a discernible path that tracks with the stages of socio-economic history and the scientific ideas that emerged as byproducts and drivers of those stages.