The Seeker of Peace

Synchronicity vs. Apophenia
October 23, 2008, 4:43 pm
Filed under: God, World | Tags: , , ,

A few days ago, I mentioned that I had received what seemed to be a fortune cookie from God. As is typical for me, I’m second-guessing the significance of it.

Getting a degree in engineering only reinforced my rational/physical view of the world. (Please don’t give me that oft-quoted drivel about how quantum physics “proves” that we create our own reality. Because I actually know something about quantum physics, I know how absurd that claim is.)

Until recently, I would have put down any claims of the supernatural to Littlewood’s Law. John Littlewood was a mathematician who defined a “miracle” as an event that was exceptional and of special significance. He figured the odds of an event being a “miracle” at 1,000,000 to 1. Since an event occurs to us about every second that we’re awake, simple math shows that “miracles” should happen to us roughly monthly. Littlewood’s Law would say that something seemingly significant, whether my fortune cookie or something equally improbable, was actually bound to happen sooner or later.

Was receiving my fortune cookie an example of synchronicity? Carl Jung coined the term to refer to events that are related, but outside the direct realm of cause and effect. Jung believed that the “collective unconscious” governed the whole human experience and could cause such things. Except for theological differences, such as who created what, Jung’s collective unconscious is a lot like the idea of an immanent god. The collective unconscious has a vision of the ideal self, and could cause me to get my fortune cookie to help drive me towards self-actualization.

Another argument is called apophenia. Klaus Conrad coined the term to refer to our tendency to see connections where none exists. I’ve been studying spirituality, and many fortune cookies have vaguely spiritual themes. The odds are good that I could find relevance there, just as I likely could by opening to a random page in the Bible. That is, it was pure coincidence, but I want there to be meaning, so I see it.

Where does this leave me? This may sound like a cop-out, but I don’t think it matters which is true. I can’t prove any of the theories, which means I’d just be picking a belief. As I wrote last week, I’m finding all beliefs detrimental to my progress. Instead, I am going to go based on what I can actually know from personal experience.

I know that I’m happier when my mind is quiet and peaceful. I know that most of my ego’s thoughts are negative and destructive. I know that the more loving and less judgmental I can be, the better I feel about other people. Against that knowledge, does it matter whether or not the fortune cookie was a sign from God? Just as seeing a gum commercial can remind me to schedule my dental checkup, seeing the fortune cookie reminded me not to neglect an important part of my spiritual practice.

It would be nice to think that God had a role to play in bringing me that cookie. But not so nice as to be worth cluttering up my mind with yet another belief.


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