Seth MacFarlane — Family Guy creator, 2011 recipient of the Harvard Humanist of the Year award, and executive producer of the upcoming Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted remake of Cosmos — was on NPR’s Fresh Air a few days ago.
There was one portion at the end that was absolutely fascinating to hear because it comes from an atheist’s perspective and we rarely hear a celebrity say it so well. It concerns the fact that MacFarlane would not be alive today if he was on time for a certain flight on 9/11.
(Host) Terry Gross: So, one more question. And I know you’ve been asked this a lot. But on September 11th you were supposed to be on that plane that was supposed to fly from Boston to L.A., but instead was hijacked and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. And you were late. Your travel agent gave you the wrong time, so you missed being on that catastrophic flight. Do you ever think of the rest of your life as being this kind of gift? Because you just, it could have all ended for you that day.
MacFarlane: One of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan is that we are, as a species and as a culture, we are significance junkies. We love attaching significance to everything, even when there is really no significance and something is just a coincidence. And this is a perfect example to me of something — you know, I really, in all honesty, you know, not to sound cold but, you know, I don’t think of it that way. I think of it as, you know, I’m living the same way in 2011 as I was in 1999. And the reason for that is that, you know, I had missed a lot of flights for being late. I’m a perpetually late person. You know, every flight that takes off, you’ve got to figure somebody’s missing the flight or somebody is late. And on top of that, you know, who knows how many times a day we have similar close calls as the one that I had. You know, I mean this morning crossing the street; if I had crossed five minutes later I would have been hit by a car. Who knows? So in my case, you know, obviously the day itself was a tragedy and a disaster, but if we’re just talking about my case, it doesn’t strike me as something that I am attaching an unbelievable amount of significance to because of those reasons. Because, you know, I’ve missed a bunch of flights.
Sagan talked about this concept in The Demon-Haunted World. He was talking about how we attach significance to events that don’t have any. If your family tends to give birth to a lot of boys, it doesn’t mean your next child is more likely to be a boy. If you’re thinking about a friend of yours and your phone suddenly rings because that friend is calling you, there’s nothing psychic going on.
And if you pray for something and it happens, it doesn’t mean a Higher Power caused it (or even heard your pleas).
MacFarlane and Sagan were right to say we shouldn’t put too much significance on events that really aren’t deserving of them. To paraphrase a famous saying, even one-in-a-million occurrences happen thousands of times a day.