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Dyson On The Paranormal or Expect A Miracle
July 14, 2004 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Expect a miracle? Freeman Dyson on Littlewood's Law of Miracles: "...the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month. ...The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month." From his review of book debunking the paranormal (whose views he isn't entirely willing to accept). Via Marginal Revolution
posted by Jos Bleau (33 comments total)

There's no way to really resolve this debate :

Even through this sort of hardheaded empirical analysis, because those who do believe in the miraculous will point out that "miracles" which they experience are often highly significant by way of their placement in time, within the overall context our lives, and sometimes through their relationship to the meaning of our lives (sometimes at a very deep level, the level of symbolism). "Miracles" can come serendipitously, at times of desperate need - and so are seen as quintessentially miraculous.

Well (as Dyson might well counter) our human brains have evolved to search for patterns. We see them everywhere. We are constructed to look for patterns and meanings even where none exist.

This debate is, I feel, fundamentally irreducible. All that we can hope is that "miracles" are never fully banished by the astringent, cleansing logic of the Dysons of the World who, nonetheless, perform a necessary role in chasing away woolyheaded thinking and vague, sloppy mystical credulousness.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to my local "pull your own parts" auto junkyard. As I sometimes do, during the drive I took an existing song tune and invented my own bawdy lyrics to replace the original ones. My explicit lyrics ended with "....candy cane!"

I got to the junkyard, paid my $2 entrance fee, and walked straight to the junkyard ghetto where the Subarus lived. I was looking, among other things, for a replacement engine for my brother-in-law's car. The first car I looked at, I poked my head in the driver's side window to read the mileage off the odometer. Then, I looked down to the floor mat. There was a broken candy cane.

What did it mean ? Probably nothing at all. But, that was a lesser-order coincidence. The higher-order ones, especially when they cluster together in bunches that come almost at once, are the ones that shake the rationalist explanations the most.

Some people seem never to experience these sorts of coincidences or "miracles" - or perhaps they simply don't notice them.

I wonder what Dyson thinks of the research done by PEAR ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:42 AM on July 14, 2004

Dyson is more sympathetic to the paranormal than you may realize -

"I claim that paranormal phenomena may really exist but may not be accessible to scientific investigation. This is a hypothesis. I am not saying that it is true, only that it is tenable, and to my mind plausible.

I am suggesting that paranormal mental abilities and scientific method may be complementary. The word "complementary" is a technical term introduced into physics by Niels Bohr. It means that two descriptions of nature may both be valid but cannot be observed simultaneously. The classic example of complementarity is the dual nature of light. In one experiment light is seen to behave as a continuous wave, in another experiment it behaves as a swarm of particles, but we cannot see the wave and the particles in the same experiment. Complementarity in physics is an established fact. The extension of the idea of complementarity to mental phenomena is pure speculation. But I find it plausible that a world of mental phenomena should exist, too fluid and evanescent to be grasped with the cumbersome tools of science."
posted by Jos Bleau at 9:00 AM on July 14, 2004

Another great resource for skeptics is The Skeptic's Dictionary.
posted by twsf at 9:04 AM on July 14, 2004

the trouble with using technical terms is that they are intended to be used in technical writing, not in paragraphs with such vague and undefined things as "paranormal mental abilities" and "scientific method".

think a minute about what he's saying. what does "scientific method" mean? that something should, at least, be reproducible? in that case, do "paranormal mental abilities" exist only if they cannot be reproducible? does that mean that they are random? if so, are they any different from random occurences like troutfishing's candy cane? it seems that without science there's nothing to distinguish noise and paranormal.

so in the end, is he just saying "noise exists" and calling it paranormal? that's not very interessting...
posted by andrew cooke at 9:15 AM on July 14, 2004

(re-reading the above, i seem to be a bit -ve. i thought this was an interesting post - marginal revolution looks good too. thanks.)
posted by andrew cooke at 9:19 AM on July 14, 2004

The scientific method is pretty well defined. One can, however, dress this definition up in various orational guises.

One of the best (IMHO) is Feynman's:
"First make a guess. Then check to see if it's right."
From memory, may be slightly incorrect.
posted by spazzm at 9:35 AM on July 14, 2004

I'm intrigued by the 'expect a miracle' aspect.

I thought "I've never witnessed a miracle' but I've always thought miracles were the big showy ones, like a sudden curing of a terminal cancer or the parting of the Red Sea.

Perhaps I've set the bar too high. I'm sure that people who see miracles in every blade a grass or butterfly have set the bar too low.

Would Trout's finding of the candy cane have counted as a miracle to me? It wouldn't have when I woke up today, but now I'm not so sure.

What really qualifies as a one-in-a million miracle?
posted by Jos Bleau at 9:44 AM on July 14, 2004

Jos Bleau: To answer your question literally, if you have 1 million separate miracles, every one of them will be a one-in-a-million miracle.


Seriously: A chance of 1 in 1000000 is as likely as flipping a coin 20 times and getting heads every time. (Actually, that's one in 1048576, but you get the idea.)
posted by spazzm at 9:59 AM on July 14, 2004

troutfishing: All that we can hope is that "miracles" are never fully banished by the astringent, cleansing logic of the Dysons of the World who, nonetheless, perform a necessary role in chasing away woolyheaded thinking and vague, sloppy mystical credulousness.
Trout, as Jos pointed out, replace "Dysons of the world" with "Charpaks of the world" and that's exactly what Freeman Dyson is saying!
Having said that I would argue that such phenomena, if they exist (which I personally seriously doubt), can be scrutinized scientifically despite the innate difficulty of observing them systematically. Why not? we can surely study stress related heart attacks, despite the fact that they occur "only when people are under stress and experiencing strong emotion". Why not telepathy?
posted by talos at 10:07 AM on July 14, 2004

This debate is entirely dependent on how we define "miracle." I don't believe in miracles because I understand the term to mean events which break the laws of science - things that are fundamentally inexplicable (ie, all the scientists running around in the movie saying, "but that - that can't be right" - which isn't to say that scientists never run around saying such things, but only that there is an explanation, which we will most likely eventually figure out).

If all we're talking about is unexpected coincidences, then of course they exist, and can be personally meaningful and fun and all the rest, although they by no means imply the existence of any "miracle-maker".
posted by mdn at 10:54 AM on July 14, 2004

One of the best (IMHO) is Feynman's:
"First make a guess. Then check to see if it's right."

Shouldn't that be "First make a guess. Then try and prove that it's wrong?" (not that I know what Feynman said - just i thought science can only falsify)
posted by srboisvert at 11:13 AM on July 14, 2004

"Trout, as Jos pointed out, replace "Dysons of the world" with "Charpaks of the world" and that's exactly what Freeman Dyson is saying!" - Talos, you caught me. I was lazy, in a rush, and wanted to insert the "candy cane" anecdote on the way out the door. Or I might have noticed that.

Jos Bleau - I really like Dyson's complementarity analogy. probably because I've thought the same myself.

I actually have some personal examples that are far more extreme, ones that make my head hurt. The candy cane incident was weird, but I'm willing to write it off to chance.

But in the time period I met my current wife.........

I was also flirting with another young woman of about the same age (I thought at the time). As I came to know more about each woman, I discovered the following facts :

1) Jewish.
2) estranged from their families at about the same age (around 13) due to family dysfunction, both (with families in denial of overall familial dysfunction) sent for therapy/ to psychiatrists
3) had tattoos (not surprising)
4) owned a dog or had recently one one (not surprising)
5) were or had been Deadheads, and both shared similar related habits.
6) If I recall correctly, both of their fathers were engineers.
7) had nose rings, same side.
8) had lived in group hippy homes.
9) Outcasts in high school/junior high - both called "witches"
10) Artistic bent
11) Smokers or former smokers
12) issues with weight and/or anorexia

There were more similarities - although their personalities seemed actually very different.

The really startling aspect came to light, though, when I learned that they were more than of the same approximate age. In fact, as I learned, they had the same birthday. Indeed, they had been born on the very same day.

In fact, they had been born on the same evening within - as far as we could narrow it down (neither mother or father could exactly recall) - within the same two or three hour period.

As we learned, they had been both born in Hartford, Conn, in the same hospital, on the same evening, in the same ward.

They had never before met - they met through me, and were friends, somewhat uneasily, for a period. They have not talked, though, for about four years now and don't have - as far as I know - each other's current address or other contact information.

Their paths crossed for a brief while, through me. Then they again diverged and, it is very likely, will never cross again.

But perhaps they will.

What did it mean? That, my suspicions, I'll keep to myself.
posted by troutfishing at 12:00 PM on July 14, 2004

All of this came to light in a period of almost indescribable strangeness which seemed to begin when a group of Tibetan monks, Tibetans, and American hangers-on, needing a place to stay for a night or two, descended on the art-studio warehouse I was living at, on only two hour's notice.

For a period of about a year, it seemed as if all of the rules of my personal reality had shifted. Perhaps, I had only gone a bit crazy. I think I in fact did. But there were objective aspects to it as well, one of which was the "Jewish hippy women coincidence revelation". And there was more.

It wasn't exactly the sort of experience that could be, however, held up to empirical scrutiny.

Only described.

But, I do have pictures - such as of the night, when the Tibetans went to my girlfriends house (of one the jewish coincidence neo-twins) and, despite the almost foot of snow in the alley street, an ice cream truck - in the dead of winter - sailed down the alley street warbling it's cracked tune, to stop one house down from out little row-house.

The Americans, one a beefy former marine turned Buddhist, suspected a Chinese assassination plot. Tensions between China and taiwan were tense at the time, and one of the Tibetans was the Dalai Lama's brother - the one who had led the resistance movement against China until it was overwhelmed and he left Tibet.

In fact, the ice cream truck had stopped next door because it dispensed things other than ice cream. But, it sold ice cream - or a somewhat aged imitation of it - to the Americans and Tibetans and we all ate it for dessert.

There was, in fact, a rational explanation for all of this. No miracles. Only the successive piling up of weirdness.

I could go on, and - yes - it's all true.
posted by troutfishing at 12:18 PM on July 14, 2004

The miraculous, in that case above, involved the timing of the ice cream truck - it arrived immediately after we have finished eating dinner and someone had wistfully commented that something sweet would be wonderful.

Only a moment after that, we heard the truck.

I have heard a few personal anecdotes from others (not written down or publicized) involving Tibetan monks and a seeming bending of reality.

One of the monks who had visited me was about seventy. he had recently been released from Chinese prison after being held and intermittently tortured for several decades. He was a very gentle, sweet man. He smiled a lot.
posted by troutfishing at 12:26 PM on July 14, 2004

Oh - I forgot to mention, in the Tibetan monk anecdote, that they were marching down the east coast of the US, to protest for the Chinese occupation of Tibet. They had been scheduled to stay at the house of the local "Free Tibet!" booster. I was the fallback host. But, they said, the first host's place was just out of the question - the vibes were all wrong, and bad.

So, they stayed in my forty by foot foot concrete floored warehouse space which I kept at about 60 degrees by two or three electric space heaters. Once hole wall of the space was shelving filled with auto parts.

They liked the accommodations - and the more subtle energies - so much that they stayed for almost two weeks. I liked them too, so I didn't complain.
posted by troutfishing at 12:45 PM on July 14, 2004

Oh - I'm distracted and typing too fast - that should have read, above, "to protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet"
posted by troutfishing at 12:46 PM on July 14, 2004

My most interesting 'miracle.'

Do you know those little things that carpet layers lay down in the corners to keep a carpet in place? They are little wooden sticks with little nails that point up at an angle to hold the carpet. They are nailed to the floor.

I had a dream about those little thingys. I dreamt that they were on the wall. Whatever, the content of the dream is not important. But the thing is that I had never dreamt about them before, had not had carpeting done for years, and then the very morning after having the dream, I was walking barefoot in the yard (something that I very rarely do), and I STEPPED on one of them!

Tell me if that is a 1-1,000,000 type miracle?
posted by eas98 at 1:53 PM on July 14, 2004

'Tis a strange world indeed when stepping on a tack counts as a miracle! I'm not sure that I'd call that a miracle if that happened to me no matter what I'd dreamt of the night before.

From the Skeptic's Dictionary (above) the Law of Large Numbers entry we find -

"On the other hand, you might say that the odds of something happening are a million to one. Such odds might strike you as being so large as to rule out chance or coincidence. However, with over 6 billion people on earth, a million to one shot will occur frequently. Say the odds are a million to one that when a person has a dream of an airplane crash, there is an airplane crash the next day. With 6 billion people having an average of 250 dream themes each per night (Hines, 50), there should be about 1.5 million people a day who have dreams that seem clairvoyant. The number is actually likely to be larger, since we tend to dream about things that legitimately concern or worry us, and the data of dreams is usually vague or ambiguous, allowing a wide range of events to count as fulfilling our dreams."

A coincidence that's a million to one might meet Littlewood's (and Dyson's) definition of a miracle, but to me, a miracle must be more than an unusual coincidence. Something has to happen.

So stepping on that carpet tack after your dream about wouldn't be a miracle to me. But a dream that warned you against stepping in a place where a carpet tack was not supposed to be but was there anyway - that would be a lot closer to a miracle for me.

Perhaps I'm back to defining miracles too stringently, though.
posted by Jos Bleau at 2:27 PM on July 14, 2004

Coincidences are supposed to happen, if they didn't then there might be something to talk about.

Is our collective fear of materialism and mortality pushing us into justifying old dead arguments which "prove" the "supernatural." Seems like these views speak more about the person who holds them than have anything to do with the real world.
posted by skallas at 2:34 PM on July 14, 2004

No, Jos Bleau, I think you've got it.

A coincidence, no matter how unlikely, needs some other signficance to be a miracle. If a meteorite lands in my kitchen and no one is hurt, it's not a miracle, it's just odd. It had to land somewhere.

Conversely, some humdrum, everyday phenomena - say the conversion of grape juice into wine through the intervention of a bunch of tiny microorganisms, or the heady sensation of new baby-smell - are inherently miraculous.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:51 PM on July 14, 2004

Jos Bleau - So, in other words, if the person whose house gets hit by a meteorite (it happens here and there) dreams of it the night before and so avoids being in the exact spot inthe kitchen where the meteorite smashes down (so avoiding certain death) this would be a miracle?

But this also makes some assumptions :

Precognition, at least in dreams, is impossible. What if precognition occurs, at times?

Thus, eas98's striking tack story.

In general, a lot of what we might call the "miraculous" might be discredited by various mind-external world interactions.
posted by troutfishing at 3:31 PM on July 14, 2004

Precognition, at least in dreams, is impossible. What if precognition occurs, at times?

An interesting question to ask would be if eas98 would have remembered the dream if he hadn't stepped on the tack strip. This, in my mind, is what deja vu consists of. We potentially cover hundreds of topics a night in our dreams. The chance that one of those dreams will have some similarity to a real-life event are pretty good.
posted by fatbobsmith at 4:22 PM on July 14, 2004

srboisvert: Possibly. I'm too lazy to dig up the actual quote, but in my mind "try to falsify" and "check to see if it's right" is one and the same thing.

fatbobsmith: Another interesting thing to ask in connection with the carpet tack story is how often eas98 steps on tacks in general.

I once dreamt that I was beheaded and strangely enough, on the following morning, I wasn't.
This must be a miraculous dream signifying that the powers that be don't want me to cheese sandwiches before bedtime.
posted by spazzm at 4:53 PM on July 14, 2004 eat cheese sandwiches...
So sorry.
posted by spazzm at 4:54 PM on July 14, 2004

troutfishing ... this is very interesting to me ... i've had similar periods in my life and for a long time they haven't been happening ... and now i feel it happening again

a miracle every month? ... i haven't been paying enough attention ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:48 PM on July 14, 2004

pyramid termite - yes, these things do come in waves.
posted by troutfishing at 7:22 PM on July 14, 2004

( As the laws of probability would predict )
posted by troutfishing at 6:38 AM on July 15, 2004

all miracles of said tack-type are back-filled stories.
much like dreams based on something physical waking you being back-filled.
the entire story, you falling through a worm with some spys and riding mopeds though the fog and being recruited by some hobo and then being asked to jump from the helicopter into the bush... and you wake up and the roar of the open door on the helicopter sounds peculiarly like the static on your radio.
our lives also don't follow this 'time' nonesense. we are just an ending, our lives just back-filled stories to explain our demise.

that's what these coincidence/miracles are. thank you.
posted by kid_twist at 2:38 PM on July 15, 2004

Of course these things come in waves. If coincidences were evenly spaced, that would be a suspicious... coincidence. Things that occur randomly come in apparent clusters, like static bursts.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:22 PM on July 15, 2004

i_am_joe's_spleen - you didn't notice that I'm playing both sides ?

kid_twist - I would assume, then, that you have similar tales to recount. I'd love to hear them, because eas98 and I have been doing the heavy lifting here.
posted by troutfishing at 11:59 PM on July 15, 2004

Perhaps a MiraclelFilter (or MetaPhysicalFilter?) should be started, along with the other *Filters?
posted by Jos Bleau at 6:46 AM on July 16, 2004

MiracleFilter, that is.
posted by Jos Bleau at 6:48 AM on July 16, 2004

Jos Bleau - I like the idea, except.....

All those miracles would rebel at the attempt to corral or ghettoize them.

They would migrate elsewhere.
posted by troutfishing at 8:18 PM on July 17, 2004

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