How Unusual Events Trick Us Into Believing in Miracles

Valerie Tarico with the sixth in a seven part series on miracles.

“The really unusual day would be where nothing unusual happens.” –Persi Diaconis 

rio-christ-600 lightning magicPart 6 of a 7-Part Series – Why People Believe in Miracles and Other Kinds of Magic

(Read Part 5 here.)
One reason belief in miracles persists is that when it comes to big numbers we are really, really bad at math.

Consider: The odds of your getting killed by lightning this year are around one in three million (slightly more if you are an avid mountain biker and slightly less if you spend most of your time playing video games). With over 500 million people in North America, about 150 will die this year from lightning strikes.

Around the world, as many as 24,000 people get killed by lightning each year and ten times that many get struck and injured, with even more having close calls. It is not hard to imagine that one unlucky victim said something about being hit by lightning before it happened. Nor is it hard to imagine that one of them took the name of the Lord in vain right before being struck down.

Now imagine that someone witnessed the whole thing and either told the media or posted the story to the internet. There are over 7 billion people on planet earth. Over the course of a decade over 2 million of them will have been hit by lightning and millions more will have seen it happen. When you think seriously about the numbers the likelihood of not being able to find such a story might be more miraculous than finding one. After writing those words I opened my search engine and sure enough. The paradox is that the story got written because we instinctively think it unlikely.

The internet abounds with lists of inexplicable coincidences. Here is a sampling:
  • Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835, the first day that Halley’s Comet appeared that year. He died when it reappeared in 1910. In 1909 he predicted his own death, saying, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.”
  • In 1898, 14 years before the sinking of the Titanic, novelist Morgan Robertson wrote a book called Futility about an unsinkable ship called the Titan. Just like the Titanic, it struck an iceberg and sank during the month of April.
  • Rosie Davies, who was given up for adoption wanted to meet her brother Chris but couldn’t locate him. It turned out he was living across the street from her. They had known each other for months before discovering that they were siblings.
  • Stephen Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death. He died on the anniversary of Einstein’s birth.
  • Senator John McCain died of a brain tumor on August 25. Nine years earlier, on August 25, Senator Ted Kennedy died from the same kind of cancer.
  • In 1930s Detroit a baby fell out of a window but was saved from harm by landing on the shoulders of a passerby, Joseph Figlock. A year later, the same baby fell out of the same window and landed on the same man.
  • In 2002, 70-year-old Finnish twin brothers died within hours of each other. The first was killed by a truck while riding his bicycle on Highway 8. The same is true for the second, who didn’t yet know that is brother was dead.
Mere coincidence, perhaps, but our gut tells us something more is going on. As I was scanning for examples to include in this list, several stories that I read gave me chills, and a faint eerie feeling lingered. Half of people say they get chills sometimes listening to music. Others find that looking at particular piece of art or landscape can trigger the same spontaneous response. Why is this reaction so involuntary and delectable?

Scientists suggest that emotional chills are related to the experience of expectations violated and satisfied. The mechanism appears to be a burst of dopamine, which can be intensified by anticipation and delay. For this reason, some people call emotional chills “skin orgasms,” and as with sexual orgasms humans have refined techniques that aim to heighten the experience. Music may climb to a crescendo. The viral story genre called “glurge” exaggerates the heart warming to the point of acuity. Poetry often builds up to a particularly powerful image or word.

Surprise appears to play a central role in triggering the rush and goosebumps. Some scholars believe that the dopamine rush is a “prediction error signal.” That means it gets generated when we expect something to happen that doesn’t or we don’t expect something to happen that does. Correcting mistaken predictions is key to learning—so the theory goes—and learning is key to survival, so getting a prediction error signal may trigger a gush of pleasure.

If surprise is key when it comes to coincidences, better statistical reasoning might spoil some of the fun, because—as the lightning example illustrates—most surprising events aren’t actually all that surprising. Consider the birthday paradox: With only 23 people in a room, the odds are 50-50 that two share a birthday. Like other statistical paradoxes, most of us find this counter-intuitive.

If our intuitive sense of probabilities were better, would a tumor that disappears after prayer, or a hurricane that spares a statue of the Virgin Mary, or a bolt of lightning that strikes a van fleeing from a church robbery seem so improbable as to be deemed miraculous? Probably not.

In his book, The Improbability Principle, statistician David Hand makes five key points about why coincidences seem incredible when they shouldn’t.

  • Law of Truly Large Numbers – As I illustrated by talking about lightning, when the population of opportunities is large enough, virtually anything can happen. Somebody somewhere has just discovered a stash of gold. Another person has met their doppelganger. Another has been killed by their toaster.
  • Law of Selection – Out of all the bits of information coming at us, we selectively hone in on surprising coincidences. We are more likely to notice them, find them interesting, remember them, and tell others about them. We don’t talk about the woman who didn’t find her long-lost brother living across the street. And when we recount stories about eerie coincidences, we make them even more compelling by leaving out the parts that don’t line up and emphasizing the parts that do.
  • Law of the Probability Lever – Two things may seem like they are unrelated or one caused the other, but if outside circumstances or prior events influenced both, the coincidence may not be so unlikely. If we hear that three siblings all died on the same day in three different cities, the coincidence strikes us. If we learn that they were triplets, aged 93, who had just been to a family reunion where a relative gave them all influenza, it hits us in a different way.
  • Law of Near Enough – For the purpose of finding meaning in coincidences, we tend to treat things that are similar as if they were equivalent. It’s cool to meet someone who shares our birthdate, but we get a little bit of the same surge if we learn a person was born on the day before or the day after. Prophecies are more likely to be fulfilled if there’s a little wiggle room around their meaning.
  • Law of Inevitability – Something has to happen. Someone has to win the lottery. Lightning has to discharge somewhere. Albert Einstein had to have the same birthday as someone, because there aren’t enough to go around.
Psychiatrists Stephanie Coleman and Bernard Beitman conducted research examining how personality traits relate to the experience of meaningful coincidence. They found that people who self-describe as religious or spiritual report noticing coincidences more frequently.

People who believe in miracles often say that the events in question are so unlikely that the only possible explanation must be that something supernatural happened. Improbability serves as evidence that miraculous events—miraculous in the sense of surprising and wonderful—must be miracles—meaning cosmic wizardry of some sort.

They are wrong. Rationally, we should be incredulous about miracle stories for many reasons, but especially because of what we know about human nature and information processing. Human beings revise and adapt histories to support specific points of view. Stories evolve over time to fit tropes and scripts that are shaped by human culture and biology. Scribes “correct” or omit awkward passages thinking they are simply clarifying the original intent. We all make stuff up, sometimes without even realizing what we are doing.

In evaluating the deity of Jesus, Anglican apologist C.S. Lewis looked at the gospel stories, assumed them accurate, and pronounced a famous trilemma often paraphrased as Jesus must be liar, lunatic or lord. His trilemma conveniently leaves out a fourth option: legend. In actual fact, most modernist scholars assume the gospel stories to be mythologized history while a few even argue that they are historicized mythology. Modern-day miracle stories are less subject to revisionist history—though they aren’t completely immune. People are still motivated to see what they want to see. And some people, as Lewis points out, are outright liars—religious leaders included.

But a more powerful fount of miracle-belief in the modern era is simply bad statistical reasoning. Christians make fewer and fewer claims for the impossible. (See Why Won’t God Heal Amputees.) But in the hazy realm of possibility and probability, believers continue to mistake probable for improbable, and improbable for miraculous, and miraculous for evidence of the biblical God.

(Like this? Read Part 5 – Seven Kinds of Magical Thinking that Even Skeptics Can’t Escape, or subscribe for the conclusion of this 7-part series: People Love Miracles. Why Not Play Along?)

Valerie Tarico
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.

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