A typical event in our materialistic, mindless, purposeless universe (/irony off)

(Note: be sure to see Hannon’s anecdote about a husband and wife who had been quarreling.)

This morning I wanted to tell a friend and VFR reader something important, but hadn’t heard from him in a few months. The last I had heard from him he was living in an outer borough of New York City, having returned this past January from Romania where he had been residing for a year. To make sure that he was still around and reachable. I sent him an e-mail that contained no text in the body of the e-mail but just the following brief message in the Subject line:

Hi, are you there?

An hour and a half later, I was returning home from making a purchase in my neighborhood, walking down Broadway a block and a half from my corner, and heard someone call my name. I turned and saw my friend standing a few feet away, smiling at me with a big smile. We had not seen each other in over a year and a half. Also, he had not yet gotten my e-mail.

Not only that, but in the course of our conversation I told him about an errand I had to do today, which I was reluctant to embark on because it involved a longish trip to an inconvenient part of the city. He told me about a much easier-to-reach location where I could do the same errand.

- end of initial entry -

Anita K. writes from Canada:

I would call that “a double.” Sometimes I run into what I call doubles, when for instance, I see an uncommon word that I haven’t seen for months, and then the next day I see it again…. or I think about a particular place, and two days later that place is mentioned in the news—things like that. Sometimes, but more rarely, there are triples.

Anyway, good for that meeting with your friend!

LA replies:

The “double” is a regular occurrence in my experience.

Hannon writes:

I have had a strange experience where I am driving and a word is sung in a song or spoken on the radio and at that exact moment (give or take less than a second) I happen to glance at a sign or a truck displaying that very word (or symbol). It is an uncommon event but always gets my attention. What are the odds? I don’t think it has to mean anything beyond “It means something”.

Will D. writes:

I used to scoff at what I called “magical thinking”—because there was no other way to explain or understand the odd coincidences that cropped up in my life on a seemingly regular schedule. I have come to accept that if I am reading while a radio or television is on in the same room (or in the car—this has happened with road signs), I can expect to hear a word spoken as I am reading it—not “the,” “and,” “of,” but multisyllabic, seldom-encountered words. Not each and every day, but often enough to notice. It is either random and meaningless or a glimpse of the transcendent. I’m not saying that it’s the only glimpse of the transcendent we’re given, but I’ve come to regard it as a subtle (or not-so-subtle) prod in that direction. I could go on—I have a couple of good anecdotes from my diehard atheist days that I was never able to dismiss out-of-hand, much as I tried (dealing with people and events, not merely words)—but my point here is to say the “double,” or something like it, is a phenomenon I’m familiar with.

James M. writes:

This entry reminded me of one of my own weird experiences.

Many years ago, while I was still in school and living with my parents, I was taking a nap on the couch and had a short, simple dream which lacked the goofy details typically present in dreams. I dreamt that I was my father and that I was sitting in his car in the parking lot of his office. I picked up his cell phone to make a call. I (as my father) dialed a number, and I could hear the phone ringing in my ear as I waited for someone to pick up. Well, you can probably guess what happened. The sound of the dream-phone in my ear became the sound of my real-life phone which was sitting on the coffee table and it woke me up. Guess who called and from where!

Now, why is it that I experienced this when my Father was just calling to see what was for supper?

LA replies:

Because existence is not just physical, it is mental. Mental causation is not limited by time and space, as physical causation is; it transcends physical limitations. Your mind picked up the fact that your father was calling you, and expressed that thought in your dream.

Nicholas T. writes:

I believe this is the Jungian concept of “synchronicity”, an “expression of a deeper order” through meaningfully related though causally unrelated events.

Hannon writes:

I wanted to share a story that I think is apropos here, the most incredible story of its kind I have ever heard. I read this in Reader’s Digest at least ten years ago. I believe they are diligent about ascertaining the veracity of such anecdotes.

A couple was fighting in the morning and finally the husband left for work, without resolution to their dispute. On the way he made his usual stop to buy a refreshment, and as he was leaving the store he heard a pay phone ringing. He hesitated, then thought, “What the heck,” and answered it. It was his wife. She was calling the plumber and had misdialed by one number. They were on that call for some time in a real heart-to-heart.

July 20

James B. writes:

This has become such a regular occurrence that I have come to expect it: my wife and I are traveling in the car, along a route we have taken many times. I suddenly notice a sign, or some other feature that is obviously not new, but that I have never noticed before. Just as I am looking at it, my wife will pipe up, “Hmmm, I’ve never noticed that (sign, etc.) before”.

I wonder, have you ever heard of the work of Rupert Sheldrake? Although he is usually associated with the “new age” types, I don’t find his thinking as wooly and weird as most of them. He has some fascinating theories about biological form being modulated by “fields” that reach across both space and time. He has also done many experiments on things like telepathy, the sense of being stared at, and other things to test his theories.

LA replies:

I read one of Sheldrake’s book in the ’80s and felt it offered a promising approach. It fit with my general holistic point of view.

Deborah A. writes:

I enjoyed your entry about meeting your friend unexpectedly on the street; how it must have brightened your day. I have my own story of an extraordinary circumstance:

I married late (38); my husband and I met when I was working part-time at a shopping mall in Atlanta in 1990.

While talking about our childhoods one evening, I mentioned the unusual name of my family’s 1950s next door neighbor. My husband recognized the name immediately as his uncle, and said that his family took trips from Atlanta to visit the uncle in Tennessee with the unusual name. Although we don’t specifically remember meeting as children, I asked my Mother about that time, and she does recall the “cousins from Atlanta.”

He and I probably did meet during one of those visits in the 1950s, then again of course, 30 or so years later; he having lived ensuing years in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina, and I in Japan, Maryland, and California.

P.s. Meeting under extraordinary coincedences doesn’t guarantee you don’t have the normal ups and downs all husbands and wives do….

Kristor writes:

One of my favorite jokes involves three idiots (of whatever ethnic group one cares to disparage) having lunch and trying to decide what the greatest invention or discovery in human history might be. “Fire,” says Tom. “No; the wheel,” says Jim. “Those are both wrong,” says Bill: “it’s the thermos.” “The thermos? Bill, are you nuts?” “Hell no. Think about it. The thermos keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold.” “Yeah. So what?” “So what? You blamed fools! Think! How does it know?”

The joke depends upon our unconsidered, reflexive conviction that the thermos doesn’t know anything at all. But Bill is onto something. We take it for granted that the thermos just does what it does. But we have no good reason to do so. Indeed, we have very good reasons to think that it is remarkable that the thermos behaves in just the way that it does. For the thing is that the routine sorts of chains of events to which we are so accustomed, that form the regular causal order that allow for such things as plans and intentions, and that make it possible to gain understanding and knowledge about the world, are themselves just a special case of “double.” For consider: one subatomic particle interacts with another, and out of the interaction come two quite different particles, with quite different characters (e.g., an electron at orbit x transforms, hey presto, into an electron at orbit x—1 plus a photon speeding off into the vacuum). How do electrons know how to do this? How do these subatomic particles know how to behave the way they should? The whole thing is fantastically unlikely.

But this means that the causal order as such is fantastically unlikely. It is far, far more unlikely that the causal order of the universe should maintain itself from one moment to the next in all directions, than that it should here and there, from time to time, display a little looseness in the exactitude with which each moment of existence perfectly recapitulates the order that all its predecessors displayed. What we call miraculous is actually a derogation from the much more miraculous chain of events we consider normal and unexceptional. Things like walking on water are interesting only because of the prior and fantastically less probable miracle of water.

LA replies to Kristor:

I’m not yet clear on what this, particularly the thermos anecdote, has to do with the “double” and similar phenomena.

As a general rule I don’t post comments that I myself don’t understand. But in this case I’ll assume that others will understand it, and that I’m just being slow today, so I’ll post it. :-)

P.S. Speaking of the “double,” the book you sent me was delivered at my door via Fed Ex as I was in the middle of typing this e-mail to you.

Also, there were two comments in this thread that arrived several hours after yours, but, after initially looking at yours I forgot about it and I posted those two other comments a couple of hours before I posted yours. Meaning that I inadvertently delayed replying to and posting your e-mail until the precise moment when the Fed Express man with the book you had sent me was about to ring my doorbell.

(Note: the book Kristor sent had to do with a miraculous healing that occurred in his family, a healing that was witnessed by the entire staff of a hospital floor.)

OneSTDV writes:

Confirmation bias amongst a host of other more plausible explanations that don’t require the creation of an incorporeal and only indirectly experienced reality.

LA replies:

What is confirmation bias, and what are some of the other plausible explanations?

OneSTDV replies:

Confirmation bias: There are thousands of instances where you thought of something and nothing happened. You simply don’t remember them; you only remember the uncommon instances where something did happen. Essentially, your memory constitutes an extremely skewed sample of data.

Other explanations:

Coincidence: You’ll dismiss this, but the law of large numbers guarantees extremely unlikely events will happen. Note also that almost impossible events take place every single day. Imagine you’re on a golf course and you hit the ball from the tee. Each individual possible position where the ball may land has a probability of almost zero that the ball will actually land there. But in the end, it has to land somewhere. The position where it eventually lands had a probability of essentially zero that it would actually land there, but it did. (excuse the meandering explanation, I’m in a rush). [LA replies: it wasn’t meandering but quite clear.]

Distorting an event to make it “fit”: This is especially pertinent to horoscopes and spiritual mediums (see cold reading), but it applies here too. People will often distort a particular event by altering a few details to make it fit a certain narrative. So perhaps you thought of some general idea of which a specific example then occurred. What a person will do is forget how general the initial thought was and instead believe the two unrelated events were intimately related.

LA replies:

I don’t think your explanations work with the incident of my meeting my friend. To repeat the facts: he had lived in Romania from approximately December 2008 to January 2010. Then he moved back to the U.S. and took an apartment in Staten Island. I live in uptown Manhattan, at least 12 miles from where he lives. We had not seen each other in a year and a half. We had not spoken or had an e-mail exchange in three and a half months. Yesterday morning, I realized there was something important I needed to tell him. I wrote him an e-mail, “Hi, are you there?” Ninety minutes later I walked outside to do an errand and we ran into each other a block from my apartment. And not only that, but he happened to have a certain very useful piece of information which very few people would have had and which saved me a lot of hassle for an errand I had to do an hour later and changed the shape of my day for the better.

Now one could say, “This event was nothing but coincidence.” But to insist that it was nothing but coincidence is to close one’s eyes, not only to what ordinary logic would tell us about the extraordinary unlikelihood of such an event occuring by pure coincidence, but to the shape of the event, its “feel,” its human meaning.

And let me add that meaning cannot be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears or sensed with the touch. It cannot be found with scientific instruments or arrived at through mathematical equations. It cannot be located in or reduced to an electrochemical impulse passing through a neurotransmitter in the brain. It is non-material, just as thought itself is non-material, just as our consciousness, our humanity, our individual self, is non-material, though associated with a material body.

LA continues:

Also, the unlikelihood of this event is not at all similar to the unlikehood of a golf ball landing on a particular spot on the fairway. In the lattler illustration, as you point out, the ball has to land somewhere; the unlikelihood only effects the chances of its landing at any particular spot. But in the event I experienced, there was no necessity for my friend and I to run into each other any place at all. The meeting was out of the blue.

Brandon F. writes:

I could give several examples but will only give one of my experiences with this kind of thing.

I had a dream that my son, who was about ten at the time, was behind me and I heard an “oohh” come from him. I turned to see him wielding a large sword, and I said, “Be careful with that.” About two weeks later we were cleaning out our basement garage and I heard an “oohh.” I turned around and he had a full size sword my brother-in-law had made for me years ago that I had forgotten about. I immediately remembered the dream and I what I said to him in it. It only seemed appropriate to say, “Be careful with that.”

I was glad to see Jung mentioned in the post. Have you heard of the recently published “Red Book” of his?

LA replies:

I haven’t.

James B. writes:

OneSDTV’s invocation of “confirmation bias” is a typical response of skeptics to anything beyond their worldview. It can literally explain away anything, because it assumes any pattern you notice is due to your faulty memory. Since you can’t prove (even to yourself) that you “don’t not remember” something, it’s a good all-purpose hand waving explanation,

Some of these type of claims, however, are empirically testable. Rupert Sheldrake has done extensive experiments with “telephone telepathy, testing whether people can tell who is calling before they pick up the phone, (without caller ID, of course) Over many tests, he has found pretty extensive evidence that they do. Here’s a video from British TV that shows one of his experiments.

Stogie (of Saberpoint) writes:

You experienced a “meaningful coincidence,” often referred to as synchronicity. Carl Jung wrote a book on the topic. It is fascinating and I always record such occurrences in my personal journal.

1. Once I was at an intersection between Hollister and Gilroy, California, going to work. I was talking to my truck-driving son on my cell phone; he traveled regularly from northern Washington state to Los Angeles and back, a trip of hundreds of miles. All of a sudden, he told me he was approaching the intersection where I was. Then in a flash, his truck sped through the intersection. I told him “I saw you” and he replied, “I saw you too.”

If I had gotten up five minutes earlier or five minutes later, I would have missed him. What are the odds that we would be at the same intersection when his trip was over a thousand miles long?

2. I have a friend in Gilroy, California, one Larry P. I helped him with his taxes one year. We worked on an “offer in compromise,” a complex undertaking. It was granted. Then a couple of months later I had a business trip to Seattle, Washington. In the Seattle airport, I found the rental car section and took the elevator down to the third floor. This was a mistake, as I should have gotten off at the second floor. When the elevator doors opened on the third floor, there was Larry, also far from home. He was getting into the elevator as I was exiting. We were both surprised to see each other. If I had pushed the right button in the elevator, I would never have known he was in Seattle at the same time.

There is a wealth of information and many examples of this on the web.

LA replies:

Re your first anecdote, occasionally people who are driving a lot are going to pass each other, in the same way that people who live in the same large city may occasionally pass each other. Your son was driving back to the area where you live, and you passed each other on the road. That is the kind of thing that is almost bound to happen from time to time.

OneSTDV writes:

The point isn’t that the two situations are analogous (the golf ball and the coincidental meetings). Rather, one presumes some supernatural component due primarily to the improbability of a given event. For example, this is generally how you’ll hear people talk about these events:

“I dreamed about so and so who I hadn’t seen in two decades. Then all of a sudden, I ran into him on vacation the next week. What are the odds of THAT happening?”

With the assumption that such an improbable event must have some other cause than the mere laws of nature. But in fact, we see wildly improbable events occur every single day. It’s only after the fact, if spurred on by some important aspect of the event (i.e. we dreamed about the person), that we rationalize, pervert, and later remember such events.

As for James B.’s excoriation of confirmation bias, it’s a pretty sound psychological phenomenon independent of its relevancy to skepticism. He dismisses it; oh well.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 19, 2010 07:32 PM | Send

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