Despite this healthy skepticism, we do try to use sound reasoning and pay attention to evidence. For this reason, there are certain wild historical theories that I’ve never felt the need to engage with. One of these is the flat-earth theory.
Luckily for us, someone has already done the work for us.
Faulkner got interested enough in the flat-earth movement to study it. In this short piece, he gives a handy overview of the movement and a critique of its reasoning. The reasoning appears to depend on a radical skepticism not just about things that have earned some skepticism like social science and carbon dating, but about any and every kind of research or scholarship.
A few years ago, I posted this article on Hubpages. It argues that most social science research data can’t be trusted because of the inherent difficulties in studying human thought and behavior. Today, just like Herodotus, I am vindicated.
This article on Futurity shows that a major psychological test that has been used for years to screen for potential psychiatric illness is not reliable. The differences between the scores of schizophrenics and neurotypical people are smaller than the differences in scores for less educated versus more educated people, and even slightly smaller than the score differences among blacks versus whites. In other words, whether you finished college has a greater impact on your score of this test than whether you are an actual schizophrenic. Yet the test supposedly measures our ability to guess what other people are thinking.
This does not mean that the designers of the
test were racist or classist. It means
that, like nearly every person who dares to undertake social “science,” they
were naïve. They didn’t realize that it’s almost
impossible to measure anything in human cognition without also measuring a
bunch of other stuff, such as vocabulary and cultural norms. And often, you don’t even realize that you
are measuring the other stuff instead.
Rating People’s Ratings of Pictures of Eyes
For the test, subjects were shown a series of black-and-white shots of actors’ eyes expressing various feelings. For each eye shot, they were asked to choose between four words that would best describe the eyes’ mental state. For example, in one of the samples in the article, you are asked to choose between sarcastic, suspicious,dispirited, and stern.
I am sure you have spotted the problem already. You have to be fairly literate to parse the nuances of those four words. And all the shots were like that. This explains the education disparity produced by the test. To make matters worse, in most of the examples the article gives, two or even three of the offered words could plausibly describe what the eyes are expressing. Which word was considered right on the test was decided “through consensus ratings.”
Finally, some kinds of emotional expression are culturally conditioned. For example, in many cultures people show respect by looking down, avoiding eye contact. This is not true in mainstream American white culture. So, the same eyes that might say “confident” to an educated WASP could say something very different to a Latino: “defiant,” perhaps, or “angry.”
The test designers’ naivete lay in not realizing how much of emotional expression is culturally conditioned. This is a blind spot that all of humanity shares, but in this case there were serious real-life consequences for it because this test was being used to identify people who might be at risk for psychiatric disorders, and thus might require intervention. Imagine being flagged as possibly schizophrenic because you didn’t understand the cultural norms behind a test.
However, I would argue that the deepest problem was not with the designers’ ethnocentricity but with their assumption that they were in a position to “objectively” measure human thought and predict human behavior.
You can’t do it, people.
Machine Analysis of Word Frequency
Here’s another test. This one is much more recent, better backed by data, and apparently better at predicting what it’s supposed to predict. But there’s still a problem with it.
This test, too, is used to screen for potential psychosis, which usually, according to the article, comes on in a person’s early 20s, with warning signs in the late teens. Apparently there are subtle signs of being predisposed to psychosis in a person’s language (for example a less rich vocabulary).
For this test, researchers used an algorithm to study in detail the speech of 40 individuals in their diagnostic interviews with therapists. Based on these diagnostic interviews, a trained therapist can predict who will later develop psychosis with about 80% accuracy. The participants were then followed for 14 years (!) to discover whether they in fact developed psychosis. (Following a subject long-term is called a longitudinal study.)
It turned out that the algorithm could predict psychosis with a greater than 90% accuracy. The machine found that in addition to using a lot of synonyms, another predictor of psychosis was “a higher than normal usage of words related to sound.” The researchers had not anticipated this.
I am impressed with the results the test yields and I am really impressed that the designers actually tested its results by doing longitudinal studies to find out how many of the subjects actually displayed psychosis. (I think longitudinal studies are almost the only legitimate kind of social science research.) This checking of their results already puts them light years ahead of the eyes test.
That said, I think there is a potential problem with the way the machine was trained. To create a baseline for “normal” conversation, the researchers “fed [the] program the online conversations of 30,000 users of the social media platform Reddit.”
Internet conversation defines “normal.” That should raise red flags for all of us.
Then, that baseline of “normal,” from written conversations, was used to evaluate transcripts of face to face interviews. It looks like, in this case, this problem did not skew the data, given how well the test predicts psychosis. But I have a huge problem with the principle that we can diagnose people based on word frequency counts. In the wrong hands, this principle could really escape its glass cage and go rampaging across the countryside, wreaking havoc and destruction.
To take just one example, I’ve heard of a scholar (somewhere) who decided the Apostle Paul had some kind of sexual fixation because his letters so often use the word “flesh” (sarx). Never mind that Paul used the word sarx as shorthand for the deep sin nature of the unredeemed human being. When he used sarx, he was talking about a frustrating natural human inability to do good … and usually, he was talking about this phenomenon in himself.
This demonstrates how easily
word-frequency studies can be manipulated to prove whatever we want. And this problem gets bigger the smaller the
size of the text being studied.
What if you were analyzing an essay in which the author has to define a term? The term in question, and its synonyms, could come up dozens of times without being something that author is fixated on in everyday life. Using machine learning, you could “prove” that Ben Shapiro is a Nazi, because lately he’s had to spend so much time refuting that very accusation. (Shapiro is an orthodox Jew.)
Suffice it to say, though this particular study
seems well-done, in general I am deeply suspicious of word-frequency tests,
especially if they are the only measure being used, because they allow the
researcher to ignore the actual content of the text in question.
So, What’s the Takeaway?
I don’t have a big moral of the story to give you here. Read the articles I linked to and decide for yourself. I am just sounding a warning that social science “data” is not nearly as objective as we tend to think it is, and may often be flat-out false.
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.