If God does work on this earth (I.E does “stuff” in our lives and with mankind in general) then it is indistinguishable from the ordinary noise of probability, and thus could be considered entirely coincidental.
Or in other words, he chooses to be intentionally incognito. For the non-believer, who wants stability and proof, this seems like a convenient cop-out — for the believer this is merely a matter of accepting God’s will.
The fan in the ceiling story — a set of probabilities
Recently I was talking with a member friend who shared an experience from his mission:
He was sitting underneath a ceiling fan that was spinning while watching general conference for a solid four hour block. After the four hour block he left to stretch his legs / grab something to eat (or similar) and shortly thereafter the fan fell down straight onto the position where he was just sitting.
Naturally, as a believer, we’d turn around and say something to the effect of “The Lord protects his missionaries” — which is exactly what he said to me.
I thought about his story for a while. Naturally, I also deeply hope and believe that this was indeed the hand of God in action. He’s a nice guy and has a lot of work to do on this earth so I’m glad the Lord protected him. However, as I will explain, regardless of the outcome of that situation, we would all have accepted it as “the will of the Lord”.
Imagine for a second some alternate possibilities:
- The fan fell much later on, when no one was watching or nearby, in which case we could turn around and say “thank goodness it fell when no one was around, the Lord is protecting us”. There is also a chance that the facilities manager just found it and fixed it without any serious over-interpretation!
- The fan could have fallen on my member friend while he was sitting there, but done non-critical damage. Perhaps the fact that it only hurt him slightly would have been interpreted by faithful people as the hand of God: “his injuries are non-critical, the Lord protects his missionaries”.
- The fan could have fallen on my member friend while he was sitting there, and done serious damage, but he could have been taken to hospital and made a speedy recovery. In this case we would interpret this as the hand of the Lord: “The Lord helps his missionaries heal quickly so they can get back to work”.
- The fan could have fallen on my member friend while he was sitting there, and done serious damage, and he had to be sent home as a result. In this case we’d say “It is the will of the Lord that he go home at this time, perhaps he has other work to be done there”. He would get his education, get married, etc.
- The fan could have fallen on my member friend while he was sitting there, and done serious damage, and killed him. In this case, we’d certainly be very mournful, but we’d accept it as “the will of the Lord that he take this missionary home to him at this time” (“perhaps he has work to be done on the other side of the veil”)
- Finally, the fan could have just not fallen at all! In which case I’d have to come up with a different example because we tend to not notice the fact that the fans just keep spinning!
Can you see how regardless of the outcome, if we have an eye of faith, we always interpret the outcome as being the will of the Lord, and his hand at work? Probabilistically speaking there was some chance that each of those outcomes (and the many possible outcomes in-between) could have happened, and one of them had to happen. Even very unlikely things (like winning the lottery) do happen frequently, whenever something extremely unlikely happens — is it the hand of God impacting the roll of the dice? Or is it just standard probability playing out?
It may be, it may not be. I don’t actually have the answer to that. In fact there is perhaps a more nuanced answer:
Doctrine and Covenants 46: 15-16 mentions something called the gift of recognising “the differences of administration” and “the diversities of operations”. Madsen comments on this by saying:
“It is possible that the term “diversities of operations” refers to the recognition of the movements, the trends, the activities, the ongoing processes of history, recognition as to which are centered in the light, in the influence of the living God, and which are simply of man, and which, if any, are from the lower regions.”
But this nuanced explication further drives my point: If some events are “of God”, some are “of Satan” and many others are just “neutral” (like the weather on most days), and the things that are “of God” fall well within normal probability, then indeed God works through coincidence that is indistinguishable from ordinary noise.
Praying to find lost stuff
With a chuckle I recall something I have frequently prayed for at various points in my life to find something I’ve lost.
One day when I was a teenager I was looking for my kite. I had a beautiful blue kite that flew really well and I wanted to take it out. But I couldn’t find it in my room. I started searching and then thought “Oh yea, I’ll pray that I can find it” — maybe it’s tradition from the church in my area of the world, but people seem to pray a lot when they lose stuff (crime rate in South Africa?) —
So I knelt down to pray, and as I prayed I had the feeling that I should clean my room. Being a normal teenager, sometimes my room does get a bit out of hand. Within about five minutes of starting to clean my room I found my kite in a cupboard. Rejoice! I found the kite.
I’ve prayed many times when I’ve lost things. We’ve lost phones, keys, wallets and many other things.
Just recently I was looking to find a saw to cut down some trees in our back yard. I looked all over but couldn’t find it. I decided to pray. I knelt down in front of our laundry room and said a prayer that Heavenly Father would help me find the saw. I stood up and continued my search, quickly finding it above the hot water tank right there in the laundry room. Again, another experience where I prayed and found something that was lost.
But I sincerely ask: Are all of those finding things that were lost completely miraculous and completely improbable? Going back to the set of probabilities above with the fan, regardless of whether or not I found the thing I was looking for, I’d accept it as the “will of the Lord”. (Again, for a non-believer, that’s a very convenient workaround to avoid facing the real issue: he didn’t help you find it).
A scientist studying religion might also ask another question: is it possible that in the action of kneeling down and focusing our mind on finding something that we could allow ourselves to remember actually makes us remember where that thing is? (That’s a model that doesn’t involve God, but still involves prayers “working” effectively).
Either way, atheists lose and find their car keys all the time. So do Hindus, Buddhists, and Islamic people. I don’t know of any study that shows conclusively that Mormons find their car keys more frequently or speedily due to prayer than anyone else. When you zoom out and think about it: it’s doubtful that praying to find our car keys makes any statistical difference over when or whether we find them (or if it does it could be explained by the “channelling your mind” idea above).
Winner of American election 2012
I remember shortly before November 2012 the whole world was watching the US election polls (the election between Obama and Romney) to see the outcome. Elections are a fascinating area in the church because we’re “not supposed to be political”, but we actually are. (Reference: people saying stuff like “Romney used to be a stake president” in church meetings)
Shortly before the election took place, I remember seeing something on my Facebook (I don’t remember who posted this, it was a member of the church) who ultimately said something to the effect of:
“No matter who wins, it’s the will of the Lord, it’s up to Him to decide”
So funny! Apparently the will of the Lord swings with the votes of men. Apparently if a swing state like Florida is having a different day and the election goes differently it’s the will of the Lord.
In any case, why doesn’t God care more about the election results in Ethiopia? Probably because many people in Utah don’t know what Ethiopia is.
Mosiah 29:27: “And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgements of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.” — clearly the voice of the people is their own voice.
I highly doubt God influences the voting polls. But if he does, it would be in a way statistically indiscernible from noise.
The Holy Ghost bringing things to your remembrance
This is an excellent example of probability and coincidence / noise.
In a recent ward conference, our stake president shared a story of a mission reunion he had with his mission where he had served as a mission president. He recalled how as the missionaries lined up he remembered things about them; their names, their lives, their familial circumstances, their careers, their hobbies, and by remembering them he could reach out to them in love and concern.
Of course, the claim was that the Holy Ghost called those things to his remembrance because of the love of God — and his desire to reach out to his children in concern. David A Bednar, in his very recent Face to Face with Elder and Sister Bednar shared with the youth that the Holy Ghost can help them in their studies, the example he used is that of a youth studying mathematics and the Holy Ghost helping him to remember the things that he’s studied.
Fair enough. I feel many times in university I was helped to remember things too, I prayed really hard before examinations. I also studied hard. I did well.
But then you turn around and ask yourself: What about those people who don’t pray? What about those people who don’t believe in the Holy Ghost or his ability to help us recall things? Were they any worse off for not having prayed for and received his help? (Or do they get his help anyway? But they don’t have the gift of the Holy Ghost so technically they shouldn’t get the help that we do.) —
Does BYU have staggeringly higher academic results as a result of the gift of the Holy Ghost being present and prayed for more often than at competitor universities? (I don’t actually know — maybe someone can share some statistics with me).
There is actually a negative correlation between education and religiosity. The more educated people get, the less they tend to believe in God. Perhaps the fact that the Holy Ghost brings things to our remembrance is Heavenly Father trying to give us “uneducated” believers a “leg-up”. All of those atheist astrophysicists don’t seem to have trouble remembering things from throughout their lives. What does that mean — “bring things to our remembrance”? How is that different from the way the human brain normally functions?
There are various memory phenomena that humans have, from positive (like Hyperthymesia or Eidetic Memory) to negative (Alzheimer’s or Amnesia) — given that the Holy Ghost has the power to influence our ability to remember or recall things, I wonder if there is any statistical variance in the number of both positive and negative memory phenomena in places like Utah where there is high membership in the only true church and the only one with the authoritative gift of the Holy Ghost. (Who brings things to our remembrance) — One would expect such anomalies if the Holy Ghost really does impact memory, but I doubt you’d find them.
Strangely, in coming up with ideas for this blog (where I sincerely question fundamental assumptions of my belief system) I’ve had a LOT of things come back into my memory and a LOT of inspiration and ideas, so many that currently I have about 30 articles waiting in my queue — I’m writing material that is in sincere questioning to the truths of the gospel, but I’ve had heaps of ideas and memories. Isn’t that a bit counter-intuitive? Shouldn’t I be having heaps of “stupor of thoughts”? Perhaps this is not the Holy Ghost bringing things to my remembrance, but I can’t really tell the difference between when he does and when he doesn’t?
Another related question would be the D&C 84 claim that priesthood holders “are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies.” — I’m aware of discussions about the prophets or apostles who live to a ripe old age in good health. That’s great! — (of course — it’s great that they live healthily) — but do they live unusually healthily when compared to other old men in other nations (such as China) who come from other backgrounds (such as Buddhism or Atheism)?. It is in comparison that we can see any patterns or characteristics. Without comparison (a control test) to other aged men who’ve lived similarly healthy lives (for instance, the Word of Wisdom without it being called that by them, similar amounts of exercise, etc.)
Again, if God works, he works through statistically indistinguishable noise — coincidence. He works in a way that is unidentifiable from the normal spinning of the earth and the normal stuff that is going on constantly.
The “God of the gaps”
Interestingly the god of the gaps argument (more specifically, the counter argument) applies here very well. As per the above D&C scripture, we could divide all “occurrences” (things that happen in the world) into three broad categories:
- Things “of God”
- Neutral things, things that just happened (you picked pink toothpaste)
- Things “of the Devil”
When you think about it long enough, the “occurrences” of the world could be split into those three categories. But if most of the things that happen in the world are in category 2 (the train came on time, my clothes are blue, my laptop booted up this morning for the 1065th time, it rained today, I woke up hungry last night, etc. etc.) and the things that are in category 1 are externally indistinguishable from category 2 (only God really knows when he influences the rolling of the dice) then you reach the so-called “God of the gaps” discussion, where the gaps just keep shrinking.
People generally used to be more superstitious than they are now. Even now, as church members, I believe we are less superstitious than the early saints. In a sense, we ourselves are prodding, nudging gradually, the scope of 1 and 2 so that 2 takes over everything. Since 1 and 2 are indistinguishable anyway, eventually everything becomes 2. Eventually there is no God influencing the affairs of man. (That doesn’t prove he doesn’t exist, just means he doesn’t interfere, this more resembles the deist worldview)
But what about real miracles?
There are some miracles claimed by the scriptures that do fall well outside the range of ordinary probability.
As members we believe that Jesus literally walked on water, raised the dead, and Moses parted the red sea. Joseph Smith translated an ancient record from reformed Egyptian without any prior knowledge of the language, along with the papyri containing the Book of Abraham. The probability of those things happening without external and divine intervention is pretty much impossible. They would be extraordinary events well outside standard probability (quite unlike my finding my car keys after praying).
The question is: Why are we stuck with only “the miracle of forgiveness” in our day? What has happened to the miracles of the past? Why doesn’t Thomas S Monson translate an ancient Japanese record that verifies the creation story? Why aren’t there public faith healings by the power of the priesthood in our day? (Joseph Smith was the major instrument in a mass healing in 1839).
To the best of my knowledge we’ve not seen any reliably recorded, momentous, “of God” true miracles since … The time of Brigham young? Not sure. Certainly not very recently.
There are three categories of answers to these questions:
- The miracles never happened, miracles don’t happen and there is no God. The prior records are fairy tales.
- God chooses not to work in this way anymore in this day. (The topic of this article; coincidence). Or they do happen but he doesn’t want to share them publicly.
- Perhaps we (and I vigorously and honestly throw myself in the forefront of “we”) lack the faith (collectively) to see those kinds of miracles happen. That’s a lot of people in this world with not enough faith.
I’ve come to accept that if God works, he works through coincidence that is indistinguishable from noise. We’ve not seen major, highly improbable miracles for a long time, and naturally I tend to question whether the initial ones were real in the first place. I’ve come to accept that if God is there, and if he works, then he works through coincidence.
Matthew 5:45: “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”
— don’t pray for sunrises or rain I guess? 🙂 He’ll either send it (or not send it) anyway?
“I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.” Joseph Smith
It’s comforting to read this reasonable statement.
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My wife and I recently discussed what we thought a “miracle” is. I think miracles are events that appear to defy natural laws, but are actually events that are just outside of our understanding of those laws.
E.g., CPR may seem to be a miraculous healing event, but there are clear medical explanations for why chest compressions can keep someone alive after cardiac arrest.
I also think that we have a tendency embellish our stories. My wife told me a story she heard in a church meeting about a child falling from a third-story window who ended up being “just fine afterwards.” I thought about that and wondered what details were left out. Did she fall straight on the concrete? Did she roll down a roof first from the 3rd floor and really only fall 10 feet instead of the implied 30? Did being “just fine afterwards” mean that she was in the hospital for 2 weeks, undergoing surgeries that she recovered from and THEN walked away healthily?
I remember witnessing this as a missionary when my companions would tell stories to others. Technically, yes, that investigator did decide to stop smoking just before we showed up to teach them for the first time. However, we left the detail out about how this was the 20th time that man tried to quit smoking this year. Then we also left the detail out that he chose to start smoking again 2 days later.
I totally agree. And this is exactly why anecdotes don’t count as reasonable evidence in science. Anecdotes are often exaggerated and heavily coloured by our own biases.
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