Do you feel uncomfortable with Romans at your back? Are you thinking this is not exactly what you’d planned? Are you thinking, This looks bad, but someday soon He’ll see I was right to use my knowledge of Gethsemane.
Possible you don’t recall what, months ago, He said: that the Christ must first be killed and then rise from the dead. In the sacred city He’d be turned in to the priests, then to the Gentiles to be killed – do you not feel unease?
Just hours ago He broke the news that He would be betrayed. You’re certain He did not mean you … but why are you afraid? If you would only think it through! But you’re set on your track, although you look uncomfortable with Romans at your back.
Don’t think about it, Judas. You’ve begun – now see it through. There’ll be time for thinking later when you’re swinging from a noose.
Again He took the twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to Him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” He said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.” Mark 10:32-34
As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30
Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled. She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom. Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess.
Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche
is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.
As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends. But everything changes when Psyche is offered
as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted
mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.
We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from
the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters. Like me, you will probably pick it up because
when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you
immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one. And you do.
But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.
This book is a perfect addition to
the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at
their beliefs with a critical eye.
That’s what I try to do in my books.
Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till
We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)
If you read the back of the book,
you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian
woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually
destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom. Well, not quite. For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the
affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is
only half of the novel.
The other half is about Levin, a
wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the
girl he loves. His long, slow upward
trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.
The writing in this novel is
amazing (assuming that you get a good translation). The psychology is beautiful. It’s also an example of a successful
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
This book was first published in
1678. The language, therefore, is more
modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as
elegant and succinct as either one.
It is an allegory of one man’s
spiritual journey. It is anything but
Take the incident where Giant
Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle. He beats them, he starves them, he tells them
they will never get out. It is
Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s
lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to
Hopeful. The giant encourages the two
men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do
so. He also shows them the skulls of
past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed.
All in all, if you have ever been
through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a
precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body. This giant and his wife literally sit up at
night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.
When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them. But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.
The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)
Hercule Poirot is the more famous
of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple. All the other characters, being British,
consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner. All the younger and more worldly characters
underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village
all her life. They think she is likely
to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience. In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of
human nature in her 60+ years of life. As
she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like
a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.
Miss Marple’s method of crime
detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature. People she meets remind her of other people
that she has once known. She can
recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they
will do based on these past people’s behavior.
She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little
story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present
situation. Her method of thinking about
crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.
Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories. You could say that Poirot is a plotter and
Marple a pantser. But they both get
their man in the end.
Miss Marple is also aided by her
fantastic British manners. She is an
amazingly good listener. She is
excellent at drawing people out. People
cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will
tell you the truth.
Miss Marple might be a little old
lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.
In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out
and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”
There is a type of sci-fi that is
triumphalist. In this kind of sci-fi,
people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal,
enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and
all goes well. This is welcomed as a
Then there is another type of
sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased
out. This is what sci-fi is for, after
all: thought experiments. “What would be
all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but
routine?” This thoughtful strain of
sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought
experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.
It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers. All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well. I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”
Here are a few
Think it would be great if all
parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?
Go watch Gattica.
Predicting people’s behavior and
assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions? Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?
Interested in “designer babies?”
There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing
seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended
side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that
created them. They are understandably
bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their
genetically edited strength and smarts.
How about perfectly executed
plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?
There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.
Creating a human/animal hybrid?
The movie Splice.
Storing all our important personal
information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?
Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?
What if we take this wonderful
stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it
at any time?
Back to The Outer Limits. In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies. The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace. Poor guy. (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)
How about “smart homes,” where our
electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much
I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every
other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can
Really smart AI?
How about a perfectly controlled
society in which children are raised communally?
Run and The Office of Mercy. Oh, and Soviet orphanages.
How about a perfectly controlled
society in which children are raised in families, but these families are
assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?
Giver by Lois Lowry.
How about we find or create a
portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it? Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to
him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …
(But actually, we shouldn’t need a
movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything
through a portal that we don’t know where
OK, OK, you’re right … no one is
seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes. Not that I am aware of. Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:
We have discussed in previous posts the idea that the people of the very ancient world were much smarter than we give them credit for, probably smarter than we are today. This post will explore the idea that genetic engineering may have been tried thousands of years ago. By the nature of the topic, the post will be highly speculative and will contain some stuff that is not for the squeamish.
Old Testament Laws Against Mixing Kinds
The Old Testament is famous for
puzzling and obscure laws. Here are a
“Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of
seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two
kinds of material.” Leviticus 19:19
At first glance these three rules seem arbitrary. But they may actually have been a prohibition on attempting to create genetic hybrids of animals or plants.
This verse comes in the midst of a passage that forbids the Israelites to do a number of different, mostly disgusting things that were part of contemporary pagan practice in Canaan, including child sacrifice, “divination,” self-mutilation, bestiality, and “eating meat with the blood still in it.” Translated into modern terms, all of these practices could potentially relate to genetic manipulation. They reflect an attitude towards people as disposable products (child sacrifice); a desire to carve up the human body and make it into whatever we desire (self-mutilation); a desire to find out hidden knowledge or secrets so as to take control of them (divination); and a desire to mix characteristics of humans and animals (bestiality, consuming blood). We know that these impulses were not confined to Canaan in the ancient world. See nearly every Greek myth ever recorded, but the particularly the story of the Minotaur.
Of course, we tend to think of
these practices as religious, and no doubt they were. But this doesn’t mean they were not also an
attempt to alter the nature of things in the physical world. Pagan religion is often a path to maintain
the agricultural cycle and prevent infertility.
These particular pagans took things one step further and sought to
“improve” these natural processes.
The Canaanites may even have had some success with their genetic experiments. Israelite spies managed to bring back from Canaan a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole between two men (or possibly between two poles, depending on the translation, which would make it even bigger). (Numbers 13:23)
Genetic Engineering in Really Ancient Times
The Israelite conquest of Canaan took place about 1400 BC according to conventional dating. This is very recent compared to the dates this blog usually has in view. It is more than a thousand years after the Sumerians, well after the probable date of the Tower of Babel, and even farther after the speculated date for the Giza pyramids. Many of the hints of genetic engineering – both in the Bible in other historical sources – come from these even more ancient times.
Hints from the Bible
There is a strong emphasis in the
creation account in Genesis on all things reproducing themselves “according to
their kinds.” Almost every time a particular class of plant, bird, fish or
animal is mentioned, it is followed by the phrase “according to their kinds” or
“each according to its kind.” This was
the intended order of creation.
It was violated a mere six chapters (but possibly untold thousands of years) later, when the “sons of God” (some of kind spiritual or transdimensional beings) lusted after human women and “married any of them they chose.” (Genesis 6:1 – 3) Their hybrid offspring were the Nephilim, who were giants.
The speculation goes that these “sons of God” or their hybrid descendants may also have begun to violate animals, either sexually (ew!!!) or through some other, unknown means of genetic manipulation, and that people began to learn these techniques and the attendant values. The general picture is a slow obliteration of all “kinds.” There would have been creatures running around that were hybrid animals (chimeras perhaps?), other creatures that were part human and part “divine,” and perhaps “divine” animals and animal/people as well. The world was on its way to complete biological, sexual, and perhaps even dimensional chaos. Soon no one would be safe from any kind of sexual violence or grisly experiment. This was the world that, thousands of years later, the Canaanites were still trying to bring back.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” (Gen. 6:11 – 12) The word corrupt here may mean more than just morally corrupt. There had been some deep perversion of the natural order of things. So God decided to destroy all the people and birds and animals (verse 7). He chose Noah. My translation of verse 9 says that Noah was “blameless among the people of his time.” It is possible that a better translation of this phrase is “perfect in his generations.” That is, Noah was still 100% genetically human. His family line had not intermarried with the gods and had not been genetically manipulated (Van Dorn 36). God then asked Noah to gather “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate.” He was going to re-start the world using the originally created kinds.
It is possible that the secrets of genetic manipulation were not completely lost after the Flood. Around the time of the tower of Babel, we get the figure of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before [or against] the Lord,” who founds a number of ancient cities and is later worshiped as a god by the Babylonians. Genesis 10:8 says in the NIV that Nimrod “grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth,” but the grammar allows for the translation “began to become a giant.” (Van Dorn 77) Perhaps he found a way to alter his own genetic code. That would certainly have made his city-building task easier, especially if he was planning to use megaliths.
Hints from Other Historical Sources
The general picture we have painted
of the world immediately pre-Flood is a terrifying one. It is also strikingly similar to the picture of mythological times found in
Greek myths, as everyone knows, routinely
feature gods impregnating human women, giants, part-god “heroes” (often very
badly behaved themselves), and entities that mix characteristics of animal,
human, and/or divine. Not to mention
countless “monsters” created by the gods. It all adds up to a portrayal of a world that
is fascinating from a distance, but also chaotic and deeply unsettling. It is not a world that a sane person would
wish to live in.
But this is not confined to Greek mythology. Stories of giants are found everywhere. So are stories of human/divine intermarriage, and stories of people mating with various animals (or even inanimate objects such as stones), and producing monsters. It is a truism that these are common features of myth. All these very strange ideas are, no doubt, deep in the human mind. But perhaps there is a story behind the way they got there. Perhaps this was, in fact, the world that humankind lived in for some generations.
Finally, I give you a visual image that is not proof of anything, but that might be suggestive. It is the caduceus, a very ancient symbol that came to be associated with the Greek god Hermes in his capacity as a healer and as a patron of doctors. It is two snakes entwined around a winged pole. The symbolic association of snakes with healing in world mythology is too big a topic for a post that has already gone over 1,000 words. But, if you buy in to the idea that ancient people were very smart and may have engaged in genetic manipulation, it is interesting that this ancient medical symbol resembles a double helix, or DNA molecule.
Giants: Sons of the gods, by Douglas Van Dorn. Waters of Creation Publishing, 1614 Westin Drive, Erie, CO 80516, 2013. Van Dorn’s book was the source for all the original ideas in this post.
Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ed. Sam D. Gill & Irene F. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1992. The Dictionary contains many references to giants, monsters, and to sexual activity between people, animals, rocks, etc.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. Scholastic, March 2010. First published 1962. This is a classic illustrated book for children that sanitizes the myths somewhat. Of course there are many other reference books for Greek myths. In addition to many other suggestive stories, D’Aulaires’ mentions that the smith god, Hephaestus, “built for himself two robots of gold and silver to help him about. They had mechanical brains and could think for themselves. They could even speak with their tongues of silver. They also served him as helpers in his workshop on Olympus.” (page 28) Here again we see at least the idea of very advanced technology in an ancient context in which we would not expect it.
The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:
The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this: A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced. Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship? Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?
Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com
The Essence of a Thing – Or Person
White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”
Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.
Changes to the Body
I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.
Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)
It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.
A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness
I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.
White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.
The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.
Would it Work, Though?
It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.
This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.
Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.
If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.
Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.
Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.
This is a great mystery.
On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.
I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.
To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:
“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”
When I thought about this question,
I realized that such coincidences happen to me regularly. This is especially strange because I don’t believe in them.
In fiction, I expect thematic
unity. If coincidences happen, I expect
there to be a good narrative reason for them and I expect them to move the
story forward. But this is not fiction,
this is real life. Coincidences don’t
happen, and events don’t organize themselves according to theme.
Except that they do, and … they do.
I have come up with the following handy taxonomy of weird coincidences for your enjoyment. Afterward, we’ll talk about possible causes.
1. Striking But Trivial
Often, like BlackSheep’s example
with the pizza, coincidences might be striking but they seem trivial and they
lead nowhere in particular.
For example, once I was passing
through Yellowstone and I knew I’d be seeing
my sister soon. On a whim, I bought her
a stuffed raccoon. There was absolutely
no history involving raccoons between her and me; I just thought it was cute.
When I saw my sister, I said to
her, “I have a gift for you in the car.”
And she said, “Is it a raccoon?”
You can’t tell me that wasn’t
Nor could you convince me that it
means anything. (Other than that maybe my sister is a mind reader. But why did she read my mind about that, and
not about much bigger things that I’d rather have had her instantly understand?
2. Foreshadowing Life Events
Perhaps, while reading above, you
objected to the phrase “trivial.” “How
can we know which events are trivial?”
you ask. Well, good point. Sometimes a seemingly minor coincidence looks
more significant (though still kind of baffling) in retrospect because of how
things turn out.
When I was young and eligible, I
met this guy. He heard I was from Idaho (a relatively
rural state with a relatively low population).
He said, “Oh, you’re from Idaho? Do you know ____________?”
And just as I was preparing to say,
“Not all Idahoans know one another, you know,” he said the name.
And it was of a writer I admired and had actually met.
Furthermore, I ended up marrying
the guy who asked the question.
And his first name is the same as
Now, the tricky thing about these
foreshadowing coincidences is this. They
don’t tell you as much as you’d think.
They don’t serve very well as
guidance from God, at least not if they are your sole source of it, because
they don’t happen often enough to guide you through every important decision in
They are not a substitute for
wisdom. You still have to take into
account Reasons. I’d’ve been a fool to
have married the guy on the spot.
Sometimes these coincidences do,
along with a host of other factors, seem to confirm you are taking the right
path. But even then, it is possible to start down the right path and at the
same time be making serious mistakes that will come back to bite you
later. And the stupid coincidences don’t
give you any warning about your blind spots.
At least not in any form that you can use.
So what are these foreshadowings
for? I don’t know. Perhaps their occurrence is not intended but
is more of a natural law analogous to the laws of physics … “Future events cast
backward shadows” or something like that.
But that’s getting into causes, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
3. When a Theme Emerges (over a short period of time)
This is when your attention keeps
getting drawn to a particular theme, but it’s coming from different sources
that are unrelated to each other. For
example, you are reading (or writing) a novel that has a particular theme, and
then you also hear a radio broadcast on the same topic, and a friend also
brings up the theme over lunch.
Granted, you are the missing link between all of these. Maybe the reason the theme keeps coming up is
that you keep bringing it up, or seeking it out. But I think we’ve all had experiences where
the theme keeps pursuing us, as it were, from the outside.
Christians will tell you that this
happens a lot with Scripture. The Bible
has a lot of verses and a lot of themes, as anyone who studies it
knows. So it does seem striking when,
say, you have been memorizing a passage with your kids one week, and then on that
Sunday, the sermon includes a quote from that
very verse. But this happens often.
The Psalms, by the way, are great for this. There are 150 Psalms, most of them short. This means that if you read five a day, you can read through all of them in a 30-day month (skipping most of Psalm 119, the really long one). And I can tell you that if you do this, on about 25 days of that month (or possibly all 30), one of the Psalms you read will have a direct bearing on a situation you are in. And this is not because the Psalms are filled with a lot of vague language that could be applied to anything. I mean, some of them are worship, some are laments, some are imprecatory (calling down vengeance on one’s enemies), some are historical or prophetic. Many are cries for help. But these different types are not evenly distributed throughout the book in such a way that you’d be sure every day to get one of each.
4. When People Become Magnets for Certain Events
This can be a really tragic
one. We’ve all heard anecdotally that
once someone is struck by lightning and survives, they are more likely to get
struck again – and again. I don’t know
whether that’s been verified, but I do
know of two families each of whom experienced two or more horrible,
life-changing car crashes within a few years.
And it wasn’t because they were drunk driving or anything like that. And
they lived in rural, non-high-traffic areas.
You often hear about this
phenomenon in cases where someone repeatedly runs into abusive situations –
say, at home, then in another home, then at church, then at work. Or at job after job. The temptation is to seek the reason for this
recurrence in the behavior of the victim: to say “She keeps marrying the same
kind of guy” or “He has problems with authority.” And there might be something to that,
sometimes, sure. But after looking at
the families with the car crashes, I think there might be more going on. It’s as if there is such a thing as a luck
switch, and God help you if yours gets flipped in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately, all the examples I
could think of for people being “event magnets” were bad ones. Does anyone know of a case where a particular
person seemed to attract a particular kind of event that was either good,
neutral, or just funny?
Causes for Weird Coincidences
Ok, now back to the question asked
“Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”
Mathematical Odds plus Pattern Recognition
We all know that the human mind is
predisposed to detect patterns. This is
useful, as patterns occur in the actual world and we couldn’t act if we
couldn’t detect them. In fact, experts on culture crossing will tell you that
it is difficult to really see an object unless you know what you are looking
at, and it is difficult to repeat back a string of sounds unless you know what
they mean. Our very perception is tied
up with patterns. We literally can’t
function without them.
But equally, we all know that this urge to detect patterns is so strong that it sometimes leads us astray. Every pattern that we perceive also forces us to ignore data that don’t fit it. Everyone has heard of Confirmation Bias. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that even scientists, supposedly very data-driven, will not give up on a previous theory unless they have been presented with a compelling alternative. In other words, we’re not willing to say “there’s no pattern here” once we have seen one. Instead, we will refuse to abandon a previous pattern unless there is a new one for us to hang our data on.
In some cases, our expectation of a
pattern will actually cause us to perceive data that isn’t there, simply
because it fits the pattern. This is
especially true when interpreting our spouse’s tone of voice.
I think pattern recognition plus mathematical odds might account for some of the weird coincidences we’ve discussed, particularly the thematic ones. Once our minds have been awakened to a topic, we start to notice it more often, or even read it into things that are only tangentially related to it. Perhaps such “coincidences” were happening around us before, but we didn’t perceive them.
Pattern Recognition Ain’t the Villain, Though
However, let’s not go crazy with
assuming that pattern recognition can only
serve to deceive us as to the nature of the world. It can start to sound like this whenever
people get talking about Confirmation Bias.
It’s as if this weird quirk of the human mind keeps us from seeing the
world “as it really is.” But actually,
pattern recognition often helps us to
perceive things, as when we notice that our kid is always grumpier when he’s
hungry or that the sun always rises in the East. Just because the drive to perceive patterns
sometimes deceives us, does not mean that the world does not operate according
to regular rules. It is not a completely
random world we live in. So, our
pattern-recognizing minds are not alien to this world, but are designed to
operate well within it.
Also, despite our strong predisposition to see only what we expect and understand, we also have minds that are designed to meet and grapple with the unknown. (Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about this. According to him, the left brain basically handles the known, and the right brain the unknown.) We know that we are capable of learning surprising new facts, and sometimes we even seek out this experience. In fact, that is almost the definition of the “weird” in “weird coincidences.”
The Universe is Mind, Not Matter
Let’s review two facts: our minds are capable of moving out into the unknown, and our minds are predisposed to seek patterns. This opens up the possibility that our experiences, including weird coincidences, might represent previously unknown patterns. That is, patterns not coming from our own minds but from somewhere else.
Now, this will be hard to swallow
if you believe that the only real thing is matter. On this view, all of matter is controlled by
random movements at the quantum level. On
this view, the universe really is a random place and patterns are not real
EXCEPT in the human mind.
All of us who have received a modern Western education believe that at some level. That’s why I said above that coincidences happen to me “even though I don’t believe in them.” I got a normal public-school education, so there are some materialist assumptions baked into my thinking.
So that’s one level of our thought.
But on another level, none of us
really believe the materialist/randomness/mathematical odds explanation. We know
that minds are real. This is confirmed
by our daily experience.
If this is a universe in which
human minds exist, then it must be a universe in which mind is a real
thing. Therefore patterns are real. Therefore themes are real. Even if they exist “only” in human minds,
they are still real. They are in the
I would go so far as to say that
the basic unit of reality is not molecules, but mind. (That alliterates, which is why I chose it
rather than “not atoms but mind” or “not quarks but mind.” Or whatever tinier thing down from quarks has
since been discovered.)
In the video below, you can see Stephen Meyer make this case to Ben Shapiro. (It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. If you don’t have the time, he makes his point about mind in the teaser in the first few seconds of the video.) Our genes are, essentially, extensive libraries of information, digitally coded. In all our experience, nothing has ever produced a digitally coded message – let alone a library’s worth of messages – except for a mind.
Now, Christians would say that the ultimate mind – the Mind behind all minds – the medium in which the universe exists – is the Mind of God. I think, for many different reasons, that this is a better explanation than trying to say that “the universe” itself has some kind of emergent mind. But for the purposes of our discussion about coincidences, it’s doesn’t really matter whether you call the Mind God. It’s enough that you accept that mind is a real feature of the universe.
Because if you accept that, then it follows that embedded in the universe itself could be things like: themes, goals, purposes, design, patterns, intent. Stories. Maybe even jokes, which is what some of these weird coincidences resemble more than anything.
I said above, “This is real life, not a novel.” But – surprise! – real life is actually a lot like a novel after all. It has mind and meaning. It might even be one big story, too big for us to perceive. So maybe that’s why things sometimes happen to us that, if you saw them in a movie, you wouldn’t believe them.