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?

Eternally Vexing Words


The Apathy of a Cow

I have several dictionaries, some at home and some at my office. The one I consult with the greatest satisfaction is The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary of 1989. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (available at a stunning discount at Amazon just now).

I also like the Merriam-Webster website. And one thing I like best is their “Top 10 Lists” feature. Today they presented the “Top 10 Words for Valentine’s Day”—not synonyms for “Valentine’s Day,” but words with special significance on this day of love, romance, and infatuation (three of the words on their list).

These “Top 10 Lists” follow a pattern. The word entry includes by a definition or two. Then there’s an example of the word in use, or a little background about the word—sometimes both. Each word entry is accompanied by a graphic, usually a photograph. This is an interesting element. I often wonder how the picture came to be associated with the particular word they are defining.

What do you suppose are the words most searched for on merriam-webster.com? Well, they have a “Top 10 Most Frequently Searched Words on M-W.com”—of course.

Here’s the list of “eternally vexing words”:

#1: Pretentious

#2: Ubiquitous

#3: Love

#4: Cynical

#5: Apathetic

#6: Conundrum

#7: Albeit

#8: Ambiguous

#9: Integrity

#10: Affect/Effect

Obviously, these words vex for different reasons. Item #10 is a pair of words that are easily confused with each other. Hence the need to consult a dictionary. The meanings for two of the words, “love” and “integrity,” seem clear enough. But maybe they’re looked up because they are words for abstract concepts of traits that matter deeply to us. The rest may simply be words whose meaning is easily forgotten, or words used with remarkable frequency given the comparative minority of English-speakers who actually know what they mean.

I’m intrigued by the choice of graphic for the word “cynical” on this list. The pic choice for “apathetic” is fun-clever. And why they have a photo of three YAs looking at a laptop screen for the word “conundrum” is a conundrum for me.

When learning a list of new words, it can be good practice to use them all together in a few sentences that form a short and coherent paragraph.

For example:

Pretentious people love to sprinkle their conversation with large words—or I should say, with unfamiliar, albeit short, words. The cynical person may note that ambiguous words are ubiquitous among the most pretentious pontificators, who affect apathy about the effect of their speech and, so doing, compromise their integrity. It’s a conundrum.

* * *

For the word enthusiast: If you’ve checked the link for the word “cynical” here, what do you think explains the choice of image to go with that word?

Should Everyone Vote?


Answer—yes . . . and no. It depends. Given the way things are right now, the way things have always been, and the way things will always be, not everyone should vote. So I guess the answer really is “no.”

This is political heresy. You don’t hear many politicians saying this. It isn’t politically expedient because it challenges a pervasive myth. It could be political suicide to say that there are citizens who should not vote.

Who should not vote?

  1. People who don’t exist.
  2. People who have taken no initiative to get registered or to understand the issues.
  3. People who vote to protect their own self-interests only.

I know the first claim is controversial, but in order to save space, I won’t try to support it here.

The second claim is motivated by my belief that a vote should be cast in order to promote the common good. A failure to get registered and negligence in seeking to understand the issues are indicators that this responsibility is not taken seriously. And those who register because someone from a particular party urged them to and provided them with on-the-spot opportunities to register are vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, often they are manipulated. Deliberately compelling people, often the poor and uneducated, to register and vote, and to be sure their vote is cast for a certain named candidate, is manipulative; it betrays the condescending, patronizing attitude of those who take to the streets to get more people registered. The cynicism behind their alleged desire to help the poor and uneducated by getting them to vote for a particular candidate is lethal to democracy. It is a powerful indicator that party leaders are not interested in doing right by the poor and uneducated, that they are more interested in keeping their political machine running by exploiting those very people. If the policies of hard-left liberals succeeded and everyone was educated and living above the poverty level, these liberals would be out of business. To stay in business, they’re counting on there always being people who need their advocacy. Many of their policies will ensure that they remain in business.

I would add that, in general, people who do not understand the issues should not vote, even if they have taken pains to sort out what the issues are and what the candidates stand for.

What about the third claim? It implies that those who are low on the economic spectrum should not cast a vote for someone willing to levy taxes on the wealthy simply because it could mean that they will have more money to spend. It means that public educators should not vote for bills and propositions promising additional benefits to them and to public education just because they are educators and so stand to gain personally. These are but two examples. But the possibilities are legion.

Our elected representative have responsibilities to represent all of the people to the best of their ability. The electorate has responsibilities, too. We have a responsibility to act in support of the common good. We need not agree on what issues and candidates best serve the common good. But it should be our sincere pledge and intention to be informed to the fullest degree possible, to vote in deliberate support of the common good rather than pure self-interest, and to stay home on election day if we can’t meet these basic conditions.

What say you?

* * *

Related Posts on Doug’s Blog:

Paid to Be a Genius


How would you like to receive one half million dollars just for being clever?

If you play the saxophone or invent musical instruments, if you write novels or restore old cathedrals, if you propose “insightful interpretations of hieroglyphic inscriptions and figural art” or design stage lighting, you could be eligible.

There’s only one catch: you have to be the best and you have to be noticed by the MacArthur Foundation.

James McPherson-1981 Fellow

James McPherson-1981 Fellow

Today the Foundation named 25 new MacArthur Fellows and will award each one $500,000 during the next five years in appreciation of their talents. Jonathan Fanton, President of the Foundation, explains the purpose of this award:

The MacArthur Fellows Program celebrates extraordinarily creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement. With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of Fellows, men and women of all ages in diverse fields, exemplifies the boundless nature of the human mind and spirit.

For the Foundation’s press release and the complete list of newly minted Fellows, click here. You might want to congratulate these individuals with a personal email message.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you in response to two questions:

  1. Are you personally acquainted with anyone who would be a good candidate for this kind of award?
  2. If you could nominate three individuals to be considered by the MacArthur Foundation, who would they be?

Never Say “Lipstick”


Barack Obama’s supporters recognized a smear that he didn’t intend. When he spoke of putting lipstick on a pig, the house exploded with laughter. Talk about red meat.

Only problem is, Obama didn’t mean it “that way.” And that’s Barack’s problem, not McCain’s, or Sarah Palin’s. Barack said it, paused (as he is wont to do), and his audience punctuated his remark with wild enthusiasm as if they believed it was about Sarah Palin. And right at that moment it became about Sarah Palin. And there was almost nothing Barack Obama could do about it.

The McCain campaign posted a web ad exploiting Obama’s slip. Big mistake, if you ask me. Or maybe not so big if the real “catnip for the media” (Obama’s estimation of his comment) continues to be the video of Obama’s slip and not the McCain ad.

Dennis Miller has an interesting theory about what happened. “Lady Palin,” he said, “is deep inside Obama’s mellon.” I’m from California, so let me translate. The esteemed governor Palin has become so popular and has so effectively derailed the Obama campaign that Obama can’t get her out of his head and he doesn’t know what to do.

What’s this got to do with the lipstick gaffe? Ms. Palin’s most memorable remark during her convention speech was the alleged extempore joke about the difference between a hocky mom and a pitbull. She pointed to her mouth and said, “Lipstick.” America liked that, and they liked Sarah Palin. Still do.

So the lipstick motif became a fixture of the McCain camp. Miller speculates that this motif took subliminal root in Obama’s consciousness. Without malice or forethought, the motif surfaced in the form of a long-standing aphorism. Obama’s problem is that this aphorism had never before been used in this peculiar political context.

People are beginning to speculate that Obama has a liability that could injure him in his upcoming debate with John McCain. He seems constitutionally incapable of packaging his ideas in the form of a sound byte. When commenting without a script, his statements are neither crisp nor compact. (In this respect, he is more like President Bush than John McCain is.) Obama may be thinking now that going for the spontaneous repartee may be more dangerous than his typically long-winded answers to questions he could answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”

***

By the way, suppose Obama was actually intentionally ambiguous when he said what he did. Would that really be sexist?

What say you?

Watch for this TV Ad about Barack Obama after the DNC Convention


pH for America will soon be running a TV ad featuring comments by Barack Obama about the proper use of the Bible in American politics. The ad is slated for release shortly after the Democratic National Convention is over. But you can see the complete video of the forthcoming ad now.

If you want to see the video, click here:

Here are a few discussion questions:

  1. What is the primary thesis of this ad?
  2. How is this thesis supported?
  3. What seems to be Obama’s approach to interpreting the Bible?
  4. Do you agree with this approach?
  5. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this particular ad?
  6. Will this ad influence voters? Do you think it should?

What say you?

Should Chelsea Green Be Ashamed?


“Who’s Chelsea Green?” you ask. Chelsea Green is a small, third-rate publishing house that has confirmed its third-rate status with its recent snub of independent booksellers by making a new pro-Obama book available through Amazon and at a special discount before it becomes available in bookstores. The book is Obama’s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner. Read the story here. Read more of this post

Starry, Starry Night


When you look into the night sky, do you see stars against a dark background, or do you see space speckled with stars? And does it matter?

What say you?

Note: This question is inspired by a passage in Isaac Asimov’s novel I, Robot. The chapter titled “Reason” features a robot called QT-1, whom his builders call “Cutie.” It’s Cutie’s perspective on the stars and his view of creation and intelligence that draws attention to the difference alluded to in my question for this post. Asimov, who is generally fun to read, is in rare form in this SF novel. Will Smith starred (no pun intended) in a film based on this novel.

What Say You?


What Say You? is a new category of posts where I invite responses to questions of interest to me and those who visit my blog.

No Evil in Heaven?


Philosopher Graham Oppy writes:

. . . if it is part of the essence of heaven that it should be a place in which there is no evil, then there is at least some reason to think that heaven must also be a place in which human beings have severely limited freedom of action. . . . [For] no agents are free to perform evil actions in heaven.*

What say you?

*Graham Oppy, Arguing about Gods (Cambridge, 2006), 315

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