Have you ever gone to the phone to call a friend, only to have the phone ring first and find your friend on the other end of the line? What are the odds of that? Not high, and your patternicity intuition probably signaled to you that there was something special about this event. Was there? Probably not. Here is why: the sum of all probabilities equals one. Given enough opportunities, outlier anomalies will inevitably happen. The question is not: What is the probability that a friend would phone while being thought about? - which is very low - but: In the total population of all people making phone calls and thinking about friends, what is the probability that at least one phone call will overlap with at least one simultaneous thought? - which is very high. Analogously, the chance of any one person winning the lottery is extremely low, but in the lottery system as a whole, someone will win. Coincidences are seen as miracles, and the pattern creates the illusion of purpose or reason.

Lets define a miracle as an event with million to one odds of occurring. Let us also assign a number of one-bit per second of data that flows into our senses as we go about our day, and assume that we are awake for 12 hours a day.

That nets us 43,200 bits of data per day, or 1,296,000 per month. Even assuming that 99.999% of these bits are totally meaningless (so we filter them out), that still leaves 1.3 "miracles" per month, or 15.5 "miracles" per year per person. Thanks for selective memory and the confirmation bias, we will remember only those few astonishing coincidences and forget the vast sea of meaningless data.

 

 

<3 Michael Shermer - The Believing Brain, pg 257

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Comment by PaleoAnthroEvo on October 12, 2011 at 9:06am
Well Michael Shermer was just being hypothetical in stating that miracles even COULD happen at a million to one odds, he has been arguing against miracles, the paranormal, UFO sightings the whole book. He actually talks about the lottery right after this quote. He couples these with claims of dreams where someone dies and the person dreamed actually dying that same day, phone calls from friends right when the receiver was thinking about them, etc...He is just explaining that events in our lives that are outlier anomalies, though they have a low probability of occurring, we will remember them because of selective memory and confirmation bias.  He definitely does not claim that real "miracles" do happen, just events that people are claiming to be miracles but are just coincidences.
Comment by Loren Miller on October 12, 2011 at 8:55am

I wouldn't cut miracles even that much slack.  Miracles are, by definition, a suspension of the laws of nature and what's more, said suspension operates in the favor of the person or persons needing said miracle.

The Great Randi spent a considerable period of time, offering his challenge to anyone who had verifiable proof of a paranormal event (which might as well be miraculous), and after decades of waiting, his $1 million prize went unclaimed.

The million-to-one odds you quote are hardly daunting.  The Mega-Millions and Powerball lotteries have odds of hitting the big prize on the level of HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS, and I would say that people hit the lotto far more often than any form of verifiable miracle would ever occur.

Miracles are wishful thinking and BS, and the odds of a genuine miracle happening are, so far as I'm concerned, more of the order of a pig flying without benefit of Boeing, Cessna or Piper.

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