Miracles, Improbability and the Brain

I am an engineer by training, which means I place a great deal of “faith” in data, observation and analysis.  I tend to be a skeptic when someone makes a fantastic claim about some miraculous event.  UFO’s, ESP, out-of-body experiences, immaculate conceptions, resurrections, walking on water, turning water into wine, etc.

I am also skeptical of superstitious beliefs.  I have no fear of the number 13 or Friday the 13th.  Black cats don’t scare me at all.  I love cats of all colors.  I don’t normally walk under ladders when I can avoid it, but that seems more like common sense.

A lot of people DO believe in these things, though.  Humans are curious, problem solving creatures.  They want to understand the world around them, and when the cause or reason for something is not obvious, they often invent one.  The most obvious example of this is the concept of God.  There are many unanswered questions about the origin of the Universe, of life, and of human consciousness, just to name a few.  It’s convenient and effortless to simply assign these mysteries to God.  God did it!  Problem solved.

I am also a skeptic when it comes to explanations of even highly improbable events that require supernatural intervention.  If I suffer some “bad luck” or enjoy some “good fortune,” I don’t look for answers based on superstitions or divine actions.  Stuff happens, both good and bad.

However, even I cannot escape my human nature when events conspire.  But I am getting ahead of my tale.  Read on.

About two weeks ago, I was weeding in my back yard, something I do regularly.  I happened to put my hand down on the ground under a lemon tree, and POW!  A sharp pain in my pinkie finger on my right hand.  I examined the finger and saw nothing, but it immediately started to swell and was hot to the touch.  I looked at the ground where my hand had been, and at first I saw nothing.  But then, I noticed a bee, crawling slowly, obviously dying.  Needless to say, I helped it along.

What an unlikely occurrence!  What was that bee doing on the ground?  I could spend the next year putting my hand down anywhere else in my back yard and I doubt if such a thing would ever happen again.  Bad luck!  Ah well, stuff happens.

And then, a few days later, I was sitting on the Great White Throne, completing my morning paperwork.  The TP roll ran out, and I removed the cardboard tubular core and tossed it across the bathroom toward a wastebasket.  As an old (very old) basketball player, I never pass up an opportunity to “hit a three pointer.”  In this case, it wasn’t that tough a shot, but what happened was truly miraculous.  The core hit the rim of the wastebasket and bounced up several feet in the air, tumbling end-over-end.

And then, sports fans, something remarkable happened.  Like an Olympic gymnast dismounting from the balance beam or parallel bars, it “stuck” its landing, ending up perfectly balanced on end, without even a tentative step needed to maintain its balance.

I would guess that I could spend the rest of my life tossing that TP core at that wastebasket, and never achieve that perfect landing again.  A miracle!  Or so it seems.

I thought about the two seemingly mundane events, occurring so close together in my life, and, despite my best efforts, my subconscious started working on it.  Were these omens of some major event that was coming in my life?  Were more weird things “planned” for my future?  I couldn’t help myself.  The juxtaposition of these two incredibly improbable events had awakened some long-dormant subroutine in my brain’s programming.  (Did I mention that I was also a computer programmer?)

How much of the current belief in spiritual or supernatural forces is based on similar personal “miracles?”  I have discussed this with devoutly religious people, and some say that they had a personal epiphany of some kind, and often it happened at a time of crisis in their lives.  Clearly, at such a time, if a person is “rescued” from some impending disaster, they would be more receptive to the idea that “powers above” were watching over them and protecting them from the impending catastrophe.

In my case, I have managed to resist the primal urge to appeal to a higher power through prayer.  Nor am I wearing an amulet, scapular, rune, crucifix or talisman to ward off evil.  I don’t even have a rabbit’s foot in my pocket….yet.

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