I don’t usually debate people about their actual religious or spiritual beliefs, unless they’ve either asked me to explicitly, or have invited me to implicitly by arguing with my beliefs. (I did say “usually,” everyone, so there’s no need to rush to the archives to dig up counter-examples — unless you’d find that entertaining.) I’ll start debates about the place religion has in society, the way we do and don’t talk about religion compared to other topics, what kind of language we use to talk about religion and atheism, whether faith does more harm than good or vice versa, etc. — but for an assortment of reasons, some good and some bad, I rarely debate the actual beliefs themselves.
But a few weeks ago, Layne made a comment here saying that he believed in some sort of telepathic or precognition phenomenon, at least partly because of an experience he had in his teens, when he had a sudden fear of his sister’s car being hit by a train and later found out that it almost had been. I know Layne to be a smart person with a thick skin and a fondness for a good argument, so I decided to cadge an invitation, and asked if he wanted to know my skeptic’s response to his experience. He said yes (“Go ahead, hit me with your best shot” were his exact words). Here is that response.
My short skeptical answer to the experience you described would be, “Yes, I think that was a coincidence.” But I don’t actually think that’s a very good answer. Not by itself. It doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the freakishness and intensity of your experience. And it doesn’t accurately or fairly represent the skeptical philosophy.
Besides… well, you used to be my editor. When have you ever known me to give a one-word or seven-word answer when 1000 words would do?
I can see that an experience like the one you had would be both intense and hard to explain. The odds against it are astronomical. It would be foolish of me to say otherwise. Yes, the odds of that particular experience — getting a sudden scary mental image of your sister being run over by a train, and then finding out that she almost had been — are very unlikely indeed.
But look at it this way.
What are the odds that SOME freakishly unlikely experience along those lines would happen to you at SOME point in your life?
They’re actually pretty darned good.
Random thoughts about the people we know and love are flashing into our minds every minute of every day. And things are happening to the people we know and love every minute of every day. Given enough time, the thoughts and the events are going to line up — in a way that will seem far too unlikely to be merely a coincidence. (A tip of the hat to Douglas Adams on this one.)
The problem is that the tens of thousands of times when the thoughts and events don’t line up, we don’t notice. We only notice the few times when they do. It’s the “van on the corner” phenomenon. We say, “Why is that white van always at the corner?” when it isn’t always at the corner — we just notice it when it is.
And here’s the bigger problem. Our brains are not very good at grasping statistics and probability. (That includes mine — I can’t get more than ten pages into a “Statistics and Probability For Dummies” book without my puny earthling brain exploding.) The processes of evolution have shaped our brains to understand probability, not in a way that’s accurate, but in a way that helps us survive. Among other things, our brains are wired to see patterns and connections, regardless of whether they’re there. And they’re wired to pay very careful attention to things that seem out of the ordinary. All for very good evolutionary reasons. It may not help us understand the finer points of probability and coincidence, but it helps us find food and escape from tigers.
So because this stuff is so fucking counter-intuitive, I want to give a couple more examples of this particular idea before I move on
Example 1: There’s a wonderful example from a book called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal by Lynn Kelly. (An excellent book, btw, and one I recommend to anyone â she’s very readable, often very funny, and she doesn’t talk down to her audience.) When Lynn’s mother was in the hospital, she (Lynn) had an intense dream that her mother had died. She woke up and called the hospital in a panicâŠ
âŠand her mother was fine, recovering nicely.
But what if her mother had in fact died? It wasn’t completely unlikely; she was in the hospital, after all. And it wasn’t at all unusual for someone whose mother was in the hospital to dream that she’d died. But if her mother had died, Lynn says, she would have been completely convinced that her dream had been precognition or telepathy — not coincidence.
In fact, Lynn says, there was a part of her that was almost disappointed that her dream hadn’t been true. A part of her wanted to believe that the connection between her and her mother was so close, she would just know when she’d died. (I wonder, Layne, if that might be relevant to the experience you had with your sister.)
Example 2: Here’s an example Ingrid likes to use (probably because she’s deathly afraid of flying). Millions of people fly in airplanes every day. Flying is scary (even for people who aren’t seriously phobic about it). So almost certainly a high percentage of the millions of people in the air every day have had, at some point, a strong feeling of the willies about their flight. Add to that the number of people with family and friends who are flying on a given day, and think how many of them got the willies about the flight. Then add to that all the people who, for some reason, were going to take that flight but didn’t… and think about how many of them had some sort of willie-ish experience about it before their plans changed.
Okay. Planes do sometimes crash .Or almost crash. Or have some serious malfunction that requires the plane to make an emergency landing. Or have food poisoning in the fish dinner that incapacitates half the passengers and both the pilots…
Any one of which would confirm the feeling of “I knew it! I knew something was wrong with this flight!”
Now, what are the odds that, in any given plane disaster, someone on that plane — or someone close to someone on that plane, or someone who was “supposed” to be on that plane but wasn’t — had had the willies about the flight? I’d bet that it’s pretty close to 100%. (And then those people — if they survive — tell the people they know about it, who then add it to their own bank of “too weird to be coincidence” stories… but that goes to pattern recognition, which is another point I’ll get to in a minute.)
But people don’t pay much attention when they get the willies about a flight and the worst thing that happens is they run out of pretzels… which is what happens most of the time. They only notice when they get the willies about a flight and something bad happens.
Third and last example: Finally, I have an example from my own life, from my woo-woo Tarot reading days. A few months after Iâd broken up with my boyfriend (first real relationship, total schmuck, very traumatic), I did a series of Tarot readings on the question, “Should I start looking for another relationship?” I was lonely and horny, and really hoping the answer would be “Yes”… but in every single reading (four or five in a row, if memory serves), The Hermit came up somewhere in the spread.
At the time, this to me was unshakeable proof, not only that I should stay single for a while, but that the Tarot was real and that a mystical force was guiding the cards. (The fact that the answer was the one I needed rather than the one I wanted only served to confirm this.) But when I started looking at my Tarot readings with a more skeptical eye, I realized a couple of things.
I realized that I’d seen other patterns and runs like this, which I’d also taken as profoundly meaningful and predictive… but which hadn’t actually come true. (In a later relationship, I had a similar run of getting The Star several times in a row, a card of “hope in a difficult time/light at the end of the tunnel” — which turned out to be total bullshit. That relationship was doomed.)
Plus, I realized that I’d almost certainly gotten other runs of cards that I simply hadn’t noticed, because they weren’t very interesting cards or weren’t relevant to the questions I was asking. I mean, at some point in my Tarot years I almost certainly had a run of getting, say, the Two of Wands or the Eight of Disks in four or five readings in a row, runs that were every bit as unlikely as getting The Hermit four or five times in a row… but it was the Eight of Disks, so who the hell cares.
(Statistical tangent, which I’m finding fascinating, but which y’all should feel free to skip past to the next bit if you find it tediously math-y: Now that I think about it, I wonder how astronomical the odds of my Hermit run really were. There are 15 cards in a reading [the way I was reading them, anyway]. There are 78 cards in the deck. Plus there are a couple different cards in the deck that can mean “solitude” or “independence,” so that brings the odds down a lot more. And there are also a couple of cards that can mean, “Whatever you’re thinking about is a really bad idea, get it out of your head right now.” Let’s be very conservative and say there are four cards that could mean either “solitude,” “independence,” or “whatever you’re asking, the answer is No Way.” [There are probably more, but I'm trying to be fair here.] So that’s four out of 78 cards, or about 1 in 20. What are the odds of one of these four cards coming up somewhere in a 15-card spread? If my math is right [and it may not be], it’s three out of four. Pretty damn good odds — better than even. And what are the odds of any one of the four coming up in four 15-card spreads in a row? Again, my probability math is poor, but I just called Chip and we put our heads together, and are coming up with 81 in 256âŠ or roughly 1 in 3. Not at all unlikely. Make it five readings in a row, and you still get about 1 in 4. Okay, this is freaking me out now. I based my metaphysical beliefs for YEARS on the idea that this pattern was ridiculously unlikely. Sheesh. [BTW, if there are any mathematicians or statisticians reading this who are screaming with frustration at my math, please feel free to correct me.])
The first thing that compounds the situation is what I call the “cluster phenomenon.” (I’m sure there’s some psychological or statistical term for it, but I don’t know what it is.)
Think of it this way. Your sister didn’t, in fact, get run over by a train. She almost did. (In the strictest sense, your precognition didn’t actually happen.) Now, think of all the other things that could have happened that day that might have made you think, “Wow, that is so freaky, what are the odds of that?” Your sister might have gotten into a car crash near the train tracks. Or tripped and broken her leg while crossing the train tracks. Or been in a toy store near the toy train section when the store got robbed at gunpoint. Or someone else you knew might have been run over by a train. Or gotten into a car crash. Or… you get my drift. The odds of your particular coincidence, the one that actually happened, aren’t very high — but the odds of SOMETHING happening that might have made you think, “That is too freaky to be a coincidence,” are nowhere near as bad.
This goes back to the “how often do you suddenly think of someone, and how often do people die” question. If we suddenly think of someone out of the blue and then find out they’ve just died, that can seem very unlikely and spooky. But if we suddenly think of someone and they give us a call, or we hear they’re getting married, or we read about them in the paper, or we run into one of their kids, or their ex calls us to say they’ve just broken up and we’ve been on their mind and would we like to meet for a drink at this nice little hotel bar they knowâŠ any of these events, and dozens more like them, will also give us the “Woo, spooky” experience. The odds against any particular one of these events are astronomical, it’s true… but the odds of something in that cluster of events happening aren’t quite as bad. And again, when you add those odds up over a lifetime, the odds of something in that vein happening at some point in your life start to get pretty damn good.
Then the situation gets compounded further by the fact that (a) our brains are wired to see patterns and connections where none may exist (and intention, too, but that addresses the God question more than the telepathy/ precognition/ general metaphysical weirdness question) — and (b) our brains are wired to be more likely to see what we expect to see, and to explain what we see in a context we already believe.
So if we’ve already had a freakishly unlikely experience that we’re chalking up to telepathy or precognition, we’re more likely to explain other weird experiences with similar paranormal explanations. And once we’ve started doing that, and have started creating a mental pattern and a mental context for thinking paranormal or metaphysical experiences are real, then there’s a cascade effect/ feedback loop. The more we believe in something, the more we see of it — and the more we see, the more we believe. (I think this is what Nina was getting at when she talked about having had intense transcendent experiences, but not thinking of them as religious because she wasn’t brought up to see things in a religious context.)
Like with the Tarot. There were so many times when what I thought was a clear message from the cards turned out to be wrong. (The time Chip and I asked the cards what movie to see and were given the unmistakable message that we should see “Pretty Woman” leaps to mind…) But when the cards were wrong, I always blamed myself and figured I’d mis-read them. I only went “Woo, spooky” when they were right.
(BTW: While I am mostly talking here about less conventional spiritual beliefs, I think this principle can apply to many traditional beliefs as well. I’ve heard and read many religious believers defend the power of prayer in this exact way. When their prayers are answered, it’s proof of God’s love and works; when their prayers aren’t answered, then God moves in mysterious ways. I know that’s not the way everyone experiences prayer — but it’s not uncommon.)
All of which is a very long way of saying this:
“It just seems too unlikely to be a coincidence” is not, by itself, enough evidence to support a hypothesis of telepathy or precognition or metaphysical energies. It’s too easy to explain unlikely-seeming coincidences with all the stuff I’ve been talking about: long-term probability analysis, the cluster phenomenon, and pattern recognition.
So in order to tell whether telepathy or precognition or other paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena are really true, or even plausible, we need to look at them as hypotheses about the world, and test them accordingly. And we need to test them carefully, using the best testing protocols, to screen out unconscious interference and the placebo effect and all that good stuff, and to make sure the results are consistent and replicable.
And so far, when that kind of testing has been done on telepathy and precognition and other paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena, the results have been the same: Zip.
Which all brings me back to the point I made in The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — that given the overwhelming historical pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones and not the other way around, it’s many, many orders of magnitude more likely that any given unexplained or weird phenomenon will have a natural explanation than a supernatural one.
There’s a standard in science that scientists cite a lot (it’s something I believe Carl Sagan first wrote): “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If a scientist claims that, say, tuberculosis isn’t caused by exposure to bacteria but by an excess of chicken in the diet… well, that’s an extraordinary claim, one that contradicts everything we think we know about the disease, and that scientist is going to have to come up with a MASSIVE body of hard evidence to support their claim.
And while claims of telepathy and precognition are certainly common, they’re still extraordinary. They contradict everything we know about how the mind perceives and processes and communicates information. (Admittedly, there’s a huge amount we don’t know about how the brain and the mind work — but there are some things we do know, and telepathy and precognition don’t fit into the picture.) It’s a claim that requires extraordinary evidence to support it… and “It just seems too unlikely to be a coincidence” isn’t enough.
Now, of course, you can argue that pattern recognition works the other way too: that when you’re predisposed to NOT believe in the paranormal or metaphysical, you’re less likely to see it.
Which is true.
But that’s kind of the beauty of the scientific method. If your testing protocols are good, the results are going to be the results, regardless of your expectations. When CSICOP (now CSI) tested the Russian psychic diagnosis girl, I’m sure they were pre-disposed to think her claims were full of shit — but if she had in fact been able to diagnose serious medical conditions just by looking at people, she would have been able to do it, regardless of the researchers’ expectations. (In fact, while they did set up the test to control for educated guesses and picking up physical clues and other non-psychic explanations for her “diagnoses,” they also set up the protocols to give the girl the benefit of the doubt.)
Of course, you can argue that these kinds of metaphysical phenomena aren’t predictable or consistent in the same way that physical phenomena are. But (a) I’ve never seen a good explanation of why that would be.
And (b) even if that were true, even if paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena were “shy” but real… even if it were true, how would that information be useful, either on a day-to-day level or in a larger philosophical sense? How would it change the way we live, or the way we understand the world and our place in it? How would we be able to study and explore these phenomena in any meaningful way? How would we ever know whether any particular freaky experience was one of the real metaphysical ones… or just our brains playing tricks on themselves? Or simply one of the seemingly bizarre but ultimately explainable coincidences?
For all the reasons I’ve talked about here — and more — “I can just tell,” or, “It just seems obvious to me,” or, “It’s just too unlikely to be a coincidence,” simply aren’t good enough answers to those questions.