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Accident Ahead, Seek Alternate Route

David Cowles

Jan 25, 2024

“All paths lead to Rome; what happens along the way is your life. Please don’t waste it on speculation or regret.”

Ever encountered a sign like this flashing on the side of the road? Did you think, “If only the rest of life came with warning signs like this?” Did you follow the advice to ‘seek an alternate route’ or did you decide to stick with your original plan?

Either way, how did it work out? Did you sail home with barely a tap on the brakes, or did you end up in a two-hour traffic jam? Are you glad you did what you did, or do you wish you’d made a different decision? You have no idea! 

You have no idea what would have happened if you’d chosen a different option. Maybe you’d have gotten home an hour earlier…or maybe you would have been swallowed up by a sinkhole. Every second you spend thinking “What if?” and “If only!” is a second of your life irretrievably wasted. Did you squander a couple of hours in unnecessary traffic? That’s nothing compared to the minutes you spent banging on your steering wheel, shouting, “If only!”

On December 5, 2023, the NYT published an article by Matthew Futterman. Here it is in part: “Four years ago, David Lewis received a phone call from the coroner’s office in Washington, D.C. His oldest daughter, Carolina, a former college tennis player, had been found dead in a hotel room. She was 23… 

“Shortly after midnight, Carolina and her friends…headed to a nearby nightclub called Abigail. Carolina and Trujillo became separated inside the club, and just after 1:30, Trujillo left….If there were one thing Trujillo could change in her life, she said in an interview, she would go back in time and drag her friend out of the club.

“’It’s like the person who has the terrible car accident wishing he had taken a different route," Lewis said. Tennis was everything for a time for the family…Now it’s…a road they wish they had never taken.”

What if? If only! How could David Lewis not regret moving his happy family from New Zealand to Hilton Head? How could Trujillo not regret leaving the club without her friend? And yet… there is no straight line between what happened to Carolina and the decisions taken by Lewis and Trujillo. ‘A Million Little Things' intervened to connect two well-intentioned decisions with one horrific outcome.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Both a truism…and a fallacy. Obviously, it’s true. To the extent that anything is ever caused by anything else, we can say that whatever is now must have been caused by whatever went before it. We invest the sequence of actual events with a royal title, Causality, but we do so retrospectively. When we project the same algorithm into the future, the best we can hope for are predictions based on probabilities.

Do you watch football? The latest ‘thing’ is Analytics. It’s 4th and 4. Should I go for the first down or punt? Analytics aggregates hundreds of ‘4th and 4’s’. Based on those results and adjusting for a finite number of situational variables, the Oracle says, “Go for it!” (Or not.)

But this is a poor predictor of whether this offense will get this first down on this day against this opponent under these conditions. Football is chaotic! Each event (play) is unique and sui generis, but that is not to say that Analytics are useless. Sometimes, a well-worn path is a worthwhile factor to consider, among many others. 

This is entirely different from saying that current event A was ‘caused’ by past event B. The drawing of a causal line between a particular ‘outcome’ and a particular ‘antecedent’ is always fallacious. Causality, to the extent that it is ‘a thing’ at all, is not a linear phenomenon; it is a way of describing the evolution of a ‘field’. So, two things are true: (1) every event causes every other event, and (2) no event causes any other event. 

So, where does this leave David Lewis and Trujillo? They made decisions, a butterfly flapped its wings, ‘bad things’ happened. Do you blame the butterfly for Carolina's death? Then neither should you blame David nor Trujillo.

To decide is to cut (Latin). Every time a decision is made, the ‘world line’ woven by the Norns of Norse mythology (and Macbeth), is cut, allowing new threads to ‘bud off’. We cut (decide); that is our role. Sartre called it Neant (Negation) and Pour Soi (For its own sake). 

David Lewis made a decision to move his family to Hilton Head. He meant no harm. Trujillo left Abagail alone at 1:30 AM because she had to work the next morning. Each made a well-intentioned decision that apparently contributed to a tragedy. 

But we really don’t know that! We can’t view the alternative threads. What would have happened if Mr. Lewis had not left New Zealand? What would have happened if Trujillo had not left the club without Carolina? And what would have happened if Carolina had lived to make her own decisions? There’s simply no way of knowing!

Because we assume, reasonably, that all three people in our story are ‘good people’, we assume that things would have worked out better if catastrophe had not interrupted the ordinary course of events. Assume? Based on what? On our experience that only ‘good things’ happen to ‘good people’? As the Book of Job made clear, there is no correlation between virtue and fortune: bad things happen to good people…and vice-versa.   

Robert Frost confronted this paradox in his poem, The Road Not Taken. As we showed in the Winter Issue of Aletheia Today Magazine, Frost ultimately concluded that there was no objective reason to choose one path over another. All paths lead to Rome; what happens along the way is your life. Please don’t waste it on speculation or regret.

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