Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck


UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)

Uncanny?

Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

Do Miracles Happen Today?


In the comments section of a post I made some months ago, I was recently asked if I believe that a severely damaged eye could be restored immediately following a Christian prayer meeting.

Here’s my reply, made more accessible with a separate and exclusive post. Read more of this post

Resurrection Belief Discussed by Scott at Serene Musings


“The Epistemology of Resurrection Belief” is the title of an essay I wrote for the book The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue. Scott, over at Serene Musings, has read my essay carefully and made a couple of critical comments that I thought I might respond to here.

I want to say, first, that I appreciate the respectful tone of Scott’s comments. He doesn’t hesitate to say where he agrees with me, and he disagrees in a spirit of good will.

I argue in my essay that N. T. Wright, a Christian theist, aims for methodological neutrality in his historical analysis of the evidence for and against a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus in the first century; in contrast, Dom Crossan’s methodology is inherently naturalistic. Whereas Wright explicitly endorses classical Christian theism, Crossan explicitly denies classical Christian theism. Their metaphysical commitments are quite different. Crossan’s metaphysical commitments play a greater role in his analysis of the historical evidence than do Wright’s metaphysical commitments in his analysis of the same evidence. I believe that Wright’s method is more properly historical than Crossan’s, though I’m less confident than Wright that the historical evidence alone warrants belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Scott argues that Wright and Crossan are equally biased by their respective metaphysical commitments in their appraisal of the historical evidence.

Wright believes that the historical evidence strongly indicates that Jesus died, was buried in a tomb, and rose again. Crossan believes that Jesus died by crucifixion, was not entombed, and did not rise from the dead. Wright and Crossan agree that first century believers affirmed the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus and that a significant number of them also claimed to have seen Jesus alive again following his death and burial. Wright and Crossan also agree that these would-be eyewitnesses were sincere in their testimony and were not hallucinating.

So what explains the difference in their respective conclusions about the resurrection of Jesus? The answer lies in Crossan’s explanation of the facts agreed upon. Crossan maintains that those who claimed to see Jesus alive again were actually having apparitional experiences, typical of those who grieve at the loss of a loved one. In other words, Crossan extrapolates from recent cases of this type of experience to the nature of the experiences by those who believed they had seen Jesus alive again after his crucifixion.

There are a number of problems with Crossan’s proposal that I don’t get into in my essay. A special psychological phenomenon plays a key role in his explanation of the testimonial evidence. But Crossan’s description of this phenomenon is sketchy. More important, Crossan fails to acknowledge the relevance of the fact that this phenomenon does not occur in all instances of grief over the loss of a loved one. It is far more likely that it will not be experienced than that it will. Those who attest to having “apparitional” experiences of a deceased person do not generally conclude that the person had literally risen from the dead. Apparitional experiences of the kind Crossan attributes to alleged eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus would differ in detail from one person to the next, if they were to happen to several individuals at the same time and in the same place (which is unlikely in itself). Also, since it is reported that many were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, it is likely that some, at least, were less intimately acquainted with Jesus prior to his crucifixion, and so were unlikely candidates for apparitional experiences of him following his death. Finally, there is no special evidence that what the alleged eyewitnesses actually experienced was apparitional in character. People of that time period were no strangers to death, and many of those who claimed to see Jesus alive would have been intimately acquainted with others who had died. This makes it very unlikely that they mistook an apparitional experience for a literal resurrection, and continued to believe in a literal resurrection for the rest of their days.

So why does Crossan find his explanation so attractive? The main point I make against Crossan is that his explanation of the agreed upon facts is motivated by a kind of naturalism. He can think of no other possible explanation because he denies theism.

In contrast, Wright, who is a theist, is open to a fuller range of possibilities. This need not be because he is a theist. Any historian who sought to investigate the evidence for and against the resurrection might conclude that it is likely that Jesus rose from the dead. Even a naturalist might come to such a conclusion. Of course, the question arises, What is the best explanation for the resurrection, if Jesus did in fact rise from the dead? Some Christian theists, as I note in my essay, argue that the best explanation is that God raised Jesus from the dead. I myself believe this would be the best explanation, unless there was strong independent evidence for the non-existence of God.

But I argue further in my essay that, because the event of the resurrection of Jesus would be a historical singularity, it would be difficult to settle the matter in favor of a literal resurrection on the basis of historical evidence alone. So on the basis of such evidence, a historian might acknowledge that there is considerable evidence that a resurrection occurred, but remain agnostic unless and until evidence of some other kind could warrant belief in the occurrence of such a singularity. Thus, if there was strong evidence for the existence of God, and especially of a kind that suggested that God might favor Jesus in some special way, then the historical evidence, in combination with this evidence for theism, might justify belief in the resurrection for people living in the modern era.

Oddly, I think, Wright does not consider theism to be such a superior explanation for the resurrection of Jesus that one who believes Jesus rose from the dead should also believe in God. Conceding the first, one should, I think, infer the other. But a confident judgment regarding the actual occurrence of the resurrection, however strong the historical evidence may be, may depend on the availability of independent evidence for the existence of God. It is on this point that Wright and I disagree.

***

In response to Scott’s blog, a comment was posted by someone identified as “G.P.” That person seems to have explained my position remarkably well, without having read my essay. Thank you, G.P., whoever you are!

And thank you, Scott, for getting the discussion going!

This Is Only a Test


Wanna’ hear hip hop that’s hip to God? And to spiritual discernment, when someone claims a manifestation of the supernatural? Check out the tune called “Test It,” by the group Cross Movement. For the MP3, go here. For the lyrics, go here.

You don’t have to fall for every miracle claim to believe in miracles. You’re not a naturalist—or a deist—if you want to test it. So test it.

If God expects you to believe that a miracle has happened, he will supply the evidence. So test it.

If someone, human or nonhuman, wants to usurp God’s authority, then there will be the illusion of miracles. So test it.

Check out the New Testament and ask this question: “What’s the worst thing that happened to someone who had trouble believing a miracle had happened when it was a genuine miracle?” You’re not a reprobate if you need evidence. So test it.

Something to ponder: “If you believe that Jesus literally rose bodily from the dead, do you need another miracle?”

***

I blogged on July 7, 2008 about an MSNBC article about the Todd Bentley “revival” phenomenon in Lakeland, Florida. I was interviewed for the article, and there were many readers who commented and sent me mail. They were scandalized by my skepticism. Many have watched Bentley on YouTube and happily boarded the bandwagon of non-discriminating miracle mongers. It is possible to be duped. So test it. And test every claim of supernatural revelation and the miraculous. It’s only a test.

MSNBC Reports on the Todd Bentley “Revival”


On May 29, 2008, in an article titled “Revivalist Claims Hundreds of Healings,” MSNBC reported on Todd Bentley and the alleged revival happening in Florida. I was interviewed for this article. Almost instantly, reader responses came pouring in about my comments in the article. And most of them expressed some degree of irritation with me. They weren’t happy with my statement that “Mr. Bentley’s worldview appears to be a mixture of New Age notions, an obsession with the paranormal, and an untutored grasp of Christian theology.” In addition to the readers’ comments at the end of the article, I have so far received one letter by regular mail and an abundance of email messages expressing disagreement and concern.

Eventually, I may respond from this blog to some of the more interesting objections that have been made. In this post, I simply want to give brief answers to a few questions some might have about the Todd Bentley phenomenon.

1. Is there biblical support for the events associated with the “Bentley revival”? Many of this movement’s alleged miracles diverge from the pattern of miracles recounted in the New Testament (in the Book of Acts, for example). Several of Mr. Bentley’s “prophetic utterances” frankly resemble occultic practices, quite in contrast with the biblical prophets.

2. How would you describe this branch of Christianity? As I say in the MSNBC article, the Bentley phenomenon doesn’t it fit neatly into any branch of Christianity. Mr. Bentley’s worldview does indeed appear to be “an admixture of New Age notions, an obsession with the paranormal, and an untutored grasp of Christian theology.” His core message is a vague conception of life-transforming power, rather than the clear message of salvation from sin and revival of the soul through faith in Jesus Christ.

3. How “mainstream” are these beliefs among the mainstream evangelical Christian population in America? The Bentley phenomenon is better known for spectacle than for doctrine. Mr. Bentley’s website stresses the continuation of divine revelation in our time, in manifest tension with its own statement that “Scripture is our source of revelation of God . . . the final Court of Appeal on all points of doctrine, life and godliness.”

4. What should non-Christians make of these meetings? If people have no way of confirming his claims or the authenticity of his “powers,” they are better off simply ignoring Todd Bentley. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. In my view, there is no evidence that he is a legitimate heir to apostolic authority.

***

There has been quite of lot of blog action about Todd Bentley and his “revival.” Most of it is either supremely sympathetic or relentlessly critical. And almost all that I’ve seen has been more emotional than thoughtful. But there is one blog entry that I recommend: Dan Phillips, “What I Think of ‘the Florida Revival,'” at the PyroManiacs blog. Check it out—and let me know what you think.

Doug’s other posts on the subject of miracles:

%d bloggers like this: