Episode 67 – “The Arrival”

Is there a possible world in which something happens that could not happen? The answer is clearly “no,” since possible worlds contain events that are possible, and compossible (possible at the same time) with other events.  But there are possible worlds in which something happens that  the occupants of that world believe could not have happened? In that possible world, the occupants are wrong. They have a false belief. That’s what “The Arrival” is about.

In “The Arrival” a commercial airliner lands at an airport without passengers or crew. In a possible world very much like our world, events like this don’t happen, and perhaps we can say that they can’t happen, that is that they are not compossible with other events governed by natural laws. So does the episode provide a representation of an impossible event? No, it does not. It provides represents the appearance of such an event, along with the representation of the explanatory difficulty that such an appearance presents to investigators on the scene. As one says: “It is simply not  within the realm of possibility.” But another replies: “There must be, there has to be, an explanation.”

If everything that happens is caused to happen, then the disappearance of a plane, or its appearance, has a cause, and the discovery of that cause constitutes a causal explanation of the event. But does every event have a cause? Descartes thought so, and thought that the principle that every event has a cause is logically necessary, and could be used as a premise in his argument for the existence of God.  Hume argues, in contrast, that the claim that there are uncaused events is not contradictory, and so the claim that all events have causes is not logically necessary. If you take Descartes’ position, and the position of  Mr. Bengston, who asserts “There has to be an explanation,” then Sheckley’s problem in “The Arrival” is indeed the problem that it’s a matter of logical necessity that there is a cause of the airplane’s arrival. On Hume’s position, what has happened is very strange, and cries out for an explanation, but it’s not a matter of logical necessity that there be one. This could be the possible uncaused event.

The impossible arrival of the empty plane is a placeholder in the imagination of Sheckley, the FAA investigator, for an actual unsolved disappearance almost twenty years prior. His failure to solve that mystery has lead him to imagine the mystery presented to us, as a representation of the general problem of explanation. Haunted by the disappearance of a plane, Sheckley now imagines, and is haunted by the appearance of another.

In 2014, Maylasian Airlines Flight 370 went missing in flight. It has never been found. So something like Sheckley’s problem has surfaced in the real world. Like Sheckley and his fellow investigators, we’re convinced that there is an explanation, that there was a cause. We can hypothesize about those causes, and we can seek them out, but whether there is a logical guarantee that there is a correct explanation, waiting for us to discover it, requires argument, not just the strong  expectation that there is one.

Further Reading

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation 3.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Part 3, Section 3.

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