Too coincidental to be an accident? What constitutes a sign from God?

  1. Pattern detection

  2. Confirmation bias

  3. Unusual events

  4. Signs from God

  5. A working example

  6. A self-reinforcing cycle of beliefs

Pattern detection
People are extremely good at pattern detection. We make rapid associations between related subjects, and deduce underlying causes of events.

Sometimes, however, our detection system is overactive and we perceive a relationship where none exists. For instance, when two events occur within a short time of each other by coincidence, we tend to think that they had a common cause, or perhaps that one of the events caused the other.

Coincidences such as these may happen only infrequently, but when they do, they're liable to make such a strong impression on us that a false association persists in our minds. Many believers can recount an incident (or several) of this nature, which they describe when listing the reasons for their faith.

People often voice a plea to God, along the lines of ‘If you are real, send me a sign, give me irrevocable proof of your presence.’ Some of us make this request several times a day.

Dramatic, improbable incidents occur every so often in our lives. If, on one particular occasion, a dramatic incident occurs right after our plea is made, we feel strongly inclined to take this as a ‘sign.’

The more often we make requests to God for a ‘sign,’ the higher the likelihood that one of these requests will coincide in time with such an incident. When we request and look out for signs from God, the occasions during which a noteworthy event occurs are ‘successes,’ while the times during which nothing happened are ‘failures.’
Confirmation bias
When we form memories of incidents in our lives, it’s natural to take particular note of instances where our question is ‘answered,’ or where a theory is proven correct. In contrast, we tend to ignore or discount the instances when our query goes unheeded, or a theory fails. This tendency is termed ‘confirmation bias.’

Unusual events are seared into our memory, and these memories get reinforced each time we recall those particular incidents. Commonplace events, on the other hand, are less striking, and their memories tend to fade over time.

Thus, successes, or ‘hits,’ tend to take on a disproportionately large degree of significance in our minds, whereas we assign diminished importance to the failures, or ‘misses.’ A single ‘successful’ incident may be counterbalanced by dozens of uneventful requests, and yet exert a stronger influence over our perception.
Unusual events
How can we tell whether a noteworthy incident was triggered by our request, or was merely coincidental? For any given incident, there's no way of telling for sure, any more than we can conclusively prove God’s existence to the billions of people around the world.

What we can do, however, is obtain an idea of how likely it is that the event occurred coincidentally, as opposed to having been triggered by our request to God.

Firstly, we've to get an idea of how often ‘significant’ events happen- events that, if they took place right after our request was issued, we'd be inclined to think of as acts of God.

Examples of such events:
  • Electronic equipment fails, or a blackout occurs.

  • Some suspended object, such as a picture frame or a religious ornament, falls to the ground.

  • We encounter a statement such as ‘God is real,’ through an overheard conversation, the TV, a book title, or website.

  • We receive a phone call out of the blue from a friend.
We might not be requesting proof of God’s existence specifically, although that is a common request- we might, instead, be asking God to save us from a difficult situation, to give us an advantage over other people in some way, or to inspire us with a solution.
Signs from God
Examples of events that might be construed as interventions of God include:
  • Being able to meet a deadline or accomplish a goal.

  • Receiving good news.

  • Avoiding disaster.
If such incidents occur while we’re not actively looking for a sign that could be attributed to God, then we’re less likely to ascribe religious significance to them.

If, however, it happens that we've just requested a sign from God, then our senses are sensitively tuned to detect any vaguely out-of-the-way event that could be construed as a sign, and interpret it as such. Under these circumstances, we’re more likely to hesitate and wonder, ‘Was it because I prayed? Or could it have been merely coincidental?’
A working example
For illustrative purposes, let’s come up with an estimate: let’s say that such events occur at a rate of around once a day. Whether an incident qualifies as a ‘success’ or not does depend partially on the types and frequencies of our requests. For instance, ‘meeting a deadline’ or ‘catching a bus’ might only be considered significant if we had previously asked God for help, and not otherwise. For now, we’ll keep our calculations simple.

How often do we make requests of God? As with the previous estimate, this figure varies greatly between people and points in time, but assuming that some people make requests frequently (every few minutes), and others only invoke God’s help several times a lifetime, let’s go for something that could be fairly reasonable for most people- say twice a day.

After we making our request, how long do we wait before we give up and turn our attention to something else? What is the duration of the waiting period during which, if something plausibly God-related occurs, we feel compelled to attribute its occurrence to our having made a request?

This depends on the importance of the event, and the frequency with which we make requests. If the event is fairly trivial, and we’re in the habit of asking God for signs several times a day, then we might only feel convinced if the event happens within a few seconds of our request.

If, on the other hand, the event is life-changing, and we tend to communicate with God only once or twice a year, then a period of days or weeks could pass between our request and the event, and we’d still be inclined to think the two were related.

Just for the sake of this example, I’ll come up with a rough estimate and place the time limit at around a minute.

Thus, in the context of this quick example, there exists a time period of two minutes in each day of this particular believer’s waking hours, during which, if a significant-enough event occurred, this individual might be persuaded to attribute its occurrence to God.

Let’s ignore the duration of events and assume that as long as the event is initiated at any point within these two one-minute periods, it qualifies. Thus, if the believer in our example is awake for 16 hours a day, 16 hours = 960 minutes, which consists of 960/2 = 430 segments of two-minute periods.

The likelihood that an independent, random, significant-enough event takes place within one of the open ‘time windows’ is thus 1/430 each day, and thus the likelihood of such a coincidence taking place is once every 14 months (430/365*12).

That sounds like a reasonable estimate for most people- many believers, when questioned, can cite a few, extremely important, times in their lives, when the events that took place were so specifically aligned in time to their religious mental state, that they’re utterly convinced that on those occasions, God was communicating directly to them.

This is just one example, using plausible estimates for the following parameters:
  1. How often ‘significant-enough’ events occur,

  2. How often requests are made to God, and

  3. How long we wait for a response after issuing each request.
These numbers vary greatly from person to person and change throughout a person’s life, depending on the circumstances at particular points in time, but this rough example demonstrates that mere chance can result in the occurrence of at least a few coincidences that feel absolutely real and meaningful to a faithful observer, over the course of a lifetime.

Even if such coincidences are few and far between, the following factors combine to sway a believer’s faith:
  • The event is a fairly uncommon one to begin with (e.g. a light bulb fuse breaking and causing a light to go out).

  • The event follows our request closely in time- sometimes more or less immediately.

  • We’re in a receptive frame of mind, and are quietly hoping for a sign- indeed, this optimism, however subdued, makes us quite eager and thankful, if something that could pass for a sign does materialise.
Our considerations do not end there. We have to take into account the occasions when we made a request, but nothing exceptional occurred. Again, using the numbers in the example above, we find that the number of times a request is made, within any given 14-month period, is 430*2 = 960, and the number of times that nothing happens is 960 – 1 = 959 (because 430 days, or approximately 14 months, is the span of time within which a notable coincidence occurs once).

Thus, excluding the intervention of God, and looking only at events that are due to coincidence, we would expect this believer to have made 960 requests over a 14-month period, and noticed nothing that could be deemed absolutely compelling 959 out of 960 times, and experienced a coincidental event once. The occurrence of one such event every 14 months, or several times over a lifetime, is probably enough to convince plenty of people to believe in God.

A self-reinforcing cycle of beliefs
To reiterate the point made earlier, incidents that seem significant to us stick in our memory and are elaborated upon as time passes, whereas unremarkable occasions, during which we asked for a sign and did not notice anything out of the ordinary (which is what happens the vast majority of the time), are disregarded with no more than a sigh.

If we were to keep a rigorous tally of the successes and failures, we'd likely find that our perceptions do not quite match what happens in reality, and the occurrence of coincidences is far less unlikely than we intuitively imagine.

To compound the effects of our religious beliefs, once we start believing that events are caused by God and are possibly intensified by appeals to our deity, we might grow inclined to issue requests more often, and lower our threshold for detection. Thus, even trivial incidents are eventually attributed to God, and small patterns that may or may not be genuine are regarded as signs, while non-events are all the more ignored and dismissed.

The point to emphasise here is that our perception is extremely subjective. We amplify the importance of unusual coincidental events, and downplay the instances when nothing happens. Our minds grow accustomed to the belief that rare events are initiated by God in response to our requests.

Furthermore, when searching in earnest for a sign from God with open ears, eyes and minds, we’re in a state of acute receptivity, and are more prone to forming associations even when few actually exist.
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