The Improbable Is Probable

Unlikely events do happen every day–that’s what we believe at Mysterious Ways...

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Mysterious Ways blogger Adam Hunter

In the new book The Improbability Principle, British statistician David J. Hand argues that the things we call “miracles” due to their sheer improbability of happening naturally are nothing more than quirks of mathematical inevitability.

To boil down his argument: Things that have a statistically small chance of occurring happen all the time, and as human beings, we’re wired to notice them when they do. He concludes that randomness causing extraordinary coincidences is far more likely than any supernatural or spiritual explanation.

He uses many examples of extraordinary coincidences in his book, but the one he begins with–by sheer coincidence, he’d say–is the first celebrity story we shared in the very first issue of Mysterious Ways: the story of George Feifer's book The Girl From Petrovka that actor Anthony Hopkins discovered on the London Underground.

It’s clear why Hand begins with this example. It’s crazy enough to give even the greatest skeptic something to puzzle over. The only explanations seem to be that something or someone set the whole thing up, or that Hopkins and Feifer are accomplished liars. Hand, however, offers up a third explanation that fits with his area of expertise: the law of truly large numbers. “With a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen,” he writes.

I’m not arguing with him here. Unlikely events do happen every day–that’s what we believe at Mysterious Ways too. Our inbox is overflowing with your stories that prove that point. But while I respect his statistical analysis, I don’t believe it does anything to prove that a greater force isn’t at work. After all, just because something is likely doesn’t account for how “random” events so often become transformative moments in our lives. It wasn’t “any outrageous thing” that happened to Anthony Hopkins on that train–he found the exact book he was looking for, at the exact time he needed it, and it was the exact copy that belonged to the author. That level of precision–the fact that this “outrageous thing” fulfilled his needs, supplied a missing piece to a life that, at the time, was going dangerously off the rails... how many opportunities were there for that event to occur? It needed to happen, and it did.

I’m not saying that’s proof of God. No one can say that for sure. There’s no way to prove the divine–that’s why we call it faith. But as we go through life and these moments pile up on us, they serve as touchstones for our faith. They establish that the randomness of life is very often beneficial to us, even though we may not think so at the time.

Statistics determine that these moments are possible by random chance, the same way it is possible that a thousand monkeys banging away at typewriters may someday recreate the works of William Shakespeare. Monkeys, however, have yet to produce a single sonnet. The clockwork of the universe, whatever force we believe turns the gears, has given us far more than that. 

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