How Do We Deal with the Unexplained?

A good friend and I have been talking recently about things that seem to defy explanation. We’ve probably all had experiences that seemed so serendipitous that it’s hard to believe they were a coincidence. Hearing just what you needed to hear from a stranger who had no reason to share it with you, having something bad happen to you right after you skipped a superstitious ritual, or any similar event. How do we rule out the supernatural? How do we explain these things rationally? Does everything really happen for a reason?

Let’s start with a little bit of human psychology. To quote Michael Shermer, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” Our brains are wired to see patterns everywhere as a shortcut to having to figure every situation out from scratch every time we encounter it. Imagine how inefficient it would be to have to discover that fire is hot every time you see a fire and it’s not hard to see why using these shortcuts is a survival advantage.

One unfortunate side effect of this, is that we often see patterns where none exist. For our primitive ancestors, running from a shadow you perceive to be a predator costs very little, but failing to run from an actual predator you perceive to be a shadow means you’re dead. This means that early humans who saw patterns that weren’t there would have been selected for over humans who did not. You’ve probably heard the expression that correlation does not equal causation.

There is a specific form of this pattern-seeking behavior called Pareidolia where people tend to see faces that aren’t actually there. You have probably seen this in things like “Jesus in a piece of toast” or “the face on Mars.” Sometimes, simply looking at the same object from a different angle or at a better resolution makes the apparition disappear.


What does this have to do with things that seem too eerie to be coincidence? Well, just like we see faces that aren’t there, we see causes that aren’t there too. Here are a couple of examples:

“I have been struggling with depression lately and feeling like no one understood what I was going through. None of my friends seemed to notice and things were getting desperate. A stranger that I met by chance struck up a conversation and out of nowhere he started telling me about his struggles with depression and it really helped to have someone that understood what I was going through just when I needed to hear that.”

That seems like too much of a coincidence to just disregard, right? Isn’t it at least possible that God put that person where we would encounter them just when we needed to? Well, the short answer is no, it’s not too much of a coincidence and there’s no reason to attribute this to a supernatural cause when there’s reasonable rational explanation that we can verify and test.

How often have you struck up conversations with strangers? How often have they told you something that didn’t resonate with you because it wasn’t what you needed to hear in the moment? Probably far more often than this one encounter, right? Human brains tend to associate meaning to things that affect us emotionally. Very positive and very negative experiences tend to stick around in our memory while mundane conversations with a stranger are usually much more difficult to remember. What if that exact same conversation had happened on the exact same day with the exact same stranger but you weren’t dealing with depression? Would it have had the same impact? Of course not.

“I used to always avoid walking under ladders or opening an umbrella indoors but it bothered me that I kept adhering to these superstitions even though I consider myself to be a rational person so one day I decided to stop doing it. I walked under a ladder on my way to the grocery store and opened my umbrella inside before I left with my groceries. When I got to my car I saw that there was a dent in it that wasn’t there when I pulled in. I should have kept doing those little rituals!”

This is very much like the last example. How many times have you gone to the grocery store? What are the odds on any given trip that someone might open their door into your car or bump it with a cart? Would you even have made the connection if you hadn’t resolved to give up your superstitions the same day? Even better, what if it had happened even though you did keep up your superstitions? What if you gave them up and nothing happened? It may certainly seem like there’s a cause and effect here but once again it’s just our brains conflating correlation and causation. This is so common that there’s a formal fallacy dedicated to it, the false cause fallacy. Scientists work diligently to combat this bias when doing research studies and ensure that they can determine that one event is actually the cause of another–primarily by repeating the initial events and also by discovering the mechanism by which one event can influence another. By what mechanism would a superstition prevent a later event from occurring?

Ultimately there are plenty of things like this where we perceive things that aren’t really there, but what about something much harder to explain with just the way our brains work? What if you saw something you were sure was a ghost or a miracle of some sort? Certainly that would be evidence of the supernatural? Well, no again. If you find something that you can’t explain then the honest answer is “I don’t know” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Leaping to a supernatural conclusion may be comforting but it’s intellectually dishonest and not a logical conclusion.

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