Over at the Center for Inquiry blog, Joe Nickell has a post today about some stories he read in the free issue of Angels on Earth magazine. He quickly spots a more normal (vs. paranormal) interpretation of the events. Here’s one example:
A Salt Lake City woman sees meaning in a telephone call. On the anniversary of her younger sister’s unexpected death, she is comforted to receive news that she has become a grandmother. Her son reports, “A healthy baby boy.”
Comment: Isn’t this merely a happy coincidence? Doesn’t the fact of her sister’s untimely death make clear that both good and bad luck occur and that sometimes they coincide?
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Life operates on a bell curve — on variation. Sometimes the variation lines up just right, and our wonderful brains decide to connect the dots and see a pattern. And the pattern feels real. I have a friend whose younger brother — his only sibling — was born ten years to the day after he was born. It’s an interesting coincidence, but really not that exciting in the big picture of six billion people. I’m sure they’re not the only ones like that.
In 1996, when I was 25 years old, my father passed away from cancer. We all knew it was coming, but obviously it’s a tough blow no matter what the circumstances. The day before the funeral, my mother, my brother, and I were getting set to head over to get the gravesite ready — plant some flowers, trim the bushes — so that it would look nice for the service the next day.
As we got set to leave, I realized we didn’t have the spray nozzle for watering the flowers and bushes. For several minutes, I searched frantically for it, and I searched everywhere. I started to get very upset, because it was really bothering me that this stupid little sprayer was going to completely screw up the funeral because the gravesite would be all wilty (yes, I was getting irrational – cut me some slack!).
And then there it was. In front of my face, sitting on a fencepost, 3 feet from me. I swear I had looked there. Several times. I must have, because I looked everywhere, right?
Then my brain connected some dots for me.
- My dad just died.
- We’re setting up for his funeral.
- We’re all sad.
- I’m getting more upset by the moment.
- The spray nozzle appeared out of nowhere.
Suddenly, this idea crystallizes in my mind: Dad’s spirit made the spray nozzle appear there for me. I didn’t consciously make this conclusion – it just came to me out of the depths of my brain.
Now, to be fair to my 1996 self, who wasn’t all the way to being a critical thinker yet, it was obviously an emotional week, but really, that’s an awfully big leap. There have been plenty of other times when I searched for something missing, only to find it later. I almost never decided that an angel or ghost put it there for me. I just missed it. And that’s the more likely story with the nozzle. No miraculous intervention – I just missed it.
Your brain makes a connection, and it really makes sense to you. The draw is powerful.
People are naturally uncomfortable with the universe being random – that chance things happen. They want to assign meaning to random and coincidental events, especially significant ones, and the brain will try do that — but the brain isn’t always right, and we have to guard against it.