Have you ever gone to the phone to call a friend, only to have the phone ring first and find your friend on the other end of the line? What are the odds of that? Not high, and your patternicity intuition probably signaled to you that there was something special about this event. Was there? Probably not. Here is why: the sum of all probabilities equals one. Given enough opportunities, outlier anomalies will inevitably happen. The question is not: What is the probability that a friend would phone while being thought about? - which is very low - but: In the total population of all people making phone calls and thinking about friends, what is the probability that at least one phone call will overlap with at least one simultaneous thought? - which is very high. Analogously, the chance of any one person winning the lottery is extremely low, but in the lottery system as a whole, someone will win. Coincidences are seen as miracles, and the pattern creates the illusion of purpose or reason.

Lets define a miracle as an event with million to one odds of occurring. Let us also assign a number of one-bit per second of data that flows into our senses as we go about our day, and assume that we are awake for 12 hours a day.

That nets us 43,200 bits of data per day, or 1,296,000 per month. Even assuming that 99.999% of these bits are totally meaningless (so we filter them out), that still leaves 1.3 "miracles" per month, or 15.5 "miracles" per year per person. Thanks for selective memory and the confirmation bias, we will remember only those few astonishing coincidences and forget the vast sea of meaningless data.

 

 

<3 Michael Shermer - The Believing Brain, pg 257

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Comment by Chris Dodds on October 17, 2011 at 10:30pm

Most of the time, the only reason things happen the way they do is because they can.  In other words: the reason shit happens is because shit happens.

Comment by PaleoAnthroEvo on October 13, 2011 at 5:31pm
Is that you in the video? You are a brave one! God was definitely guiding you safely....what a miracle! ;)
Comment by AgeOfAtheists14 on October 13, 2011 at 2:22pm

some would say it's a miracle i never broke a bone
in reality it's called skill and knowing how to fall
cya!
Comment by Rich on October 12, 2011 at 7:27pm
Correction.  Skeptic.com
Comment by Rich on October 12, 2011 at 7:25pm
Thanks for posting this.  Mr. Shermer is one of my favorite people.  Let's all join Skeptics.com!  If you haven't already.
Comment by PaleoAnthroEvo on October 12, 2011 at 6:05pm
I added a bit more from the beginning of the chapter leading to the miracles, just for a bit more information.
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on October 12, 2011 at 5:56pm
Further, Rachel, those "miracles" are interpreted in a way that is sympathetic with the theists' world view. eg Everything happens for a reason.
Comment by PaleoAnthroEvo on October 12, 2011 at 5:44pm
Agreed. Real miracles would not have this probability, only "miracles" meaning coincidences that most people feel are too rare to be just that, coincidences, so they label them as "miracles". So the reality of pure coincidences have a probability much closer to his odds, but real miracles are non existent.
Comment by Kris King on October 12, 2011 at 5:40pm
I'm with Loren ... a million to one is too favourable; trillions to one is still too good - the odds of a miracle should be incalculable because they cannot happen without contravening fundamental laws of nature.
Comment by PaleoAnthroEvo on October 12, 2011 at 4:42pm
Well said Glen.

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