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May 12, 2018
Do anomalies prove the existence of God?
This op-ed was originally published on Slate.com as part of a Big Ideas series on the question “What is the Future of Religion” in 2015.
For a quarter century I have investigated and attempted to explain anomalous events that people report experiencing, and I have written about a few of my own, such as being abducted by aliens (caused by extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation), hallucinating inside a sensory deprivation tank, and having an out-of-body experience while my temporal lobes were stimulated with electro-magnetic fields. Most people interpret such experiences as evidence for the supernatural, the afterlife, or even God, but since mine all had clear and obvious natural explanations few readers took them to be evidentiary.
In my October, 2014 column in Scientific American entitled “Infrequencies” however, I wrote about an anomalous experience for which I have no explanation. In brief, my fiancé, Jennifer Graf, moved to Southern California from Köln, Germany, bringing with her a 1978 Phillips 070 transistor radio that belonged to her late grandfather Walter, a surrogate father figure as she was raised by a single mom. She had fond memories of listening to music with him through that radio so I did my best to resurrect it, without success. With new batteries and the power switch left in the “on” position, we gave up and tossed it in a desk drawer where it lay dormant for months. During a quiet moment after our vows at a small wedding ceremony at our home, Jennifer was feeling sad being so far from home and wishing she had some connection to loved ones—most notably her mother and her grandfather—with whom to share this special occasion. We left my family to find a quiet moment alone elsewhere in the house when we heard music emanating from the bedroom, which turned out to be a love song playing on that radio in the desk drawer. It was a spine-tingling experience. The radio played for the rest of the evening but went quiescent the next day. It’s been silent ever since, despite repeated attempts to revive it.
Ever since the column appeared in Scientific American I’ve been deluged with letters. A few grumpy skeptics chided me for lowering my skeptical shields, most notably for my closing line: “And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.” I was simply trying to be a little poetic in my interpretation, which I qualified by noting “The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account.”
A few cranky believers were dismissive of my openness, one insisting “that no human being, nor any living thing, is only their body. Also, no inanimate object is only that object. The dead do not die, and the living are not free but bound and enslaved each to his or her own ignorance—a condition which you work to maintain. Shame on you, sir.” Above her signature she signed off: “With kind intentions.”
Friendlier believers sent encouraging notes, not all of which I understand, such as this sentiment from a psychologist: “The central importance of latent, neglected shared spiritual capabilities was indeed a wedding blessing, eloquently and vividly enacted, resulting in very valuable sharing for a world culture remarkably crippled in appreciation of actual multidimensional reality.” Does 3D count? A neurophysiologist imagined what the implications would be if no natural explanation were forthcoming for my anomalous event. “Should consciousness survive the death of the brain, there are exciting implications for the role of consciousness in the living brain.” Indeed there is, but a lack of causal explanation for my story does not imply this.
A geologist wrote to suggest that “There are many explanations that can be posited; I would favor solar flares or the geoparticles of Holub and Smrz [authors of a paper that some claim proves that nanoparticles between neurons may allow for quantum fields to influence other brains], but rather than seek one, this coincidental occurrence should be enjoyed in the supernatural or paranormal vein as it was meant to be…simply a blessing for a long and happy union.” I agree, but without the supernatural or paranormal vein in the rock.
Another correspondent said he would be convinced of the miraculous nature of the event if the radio played for the next 20 years with no power source. That would impress me too, and maybe Elon Musk is working on such technology for his next generation of Tesla cars.
Most of the correspondence I received, however, was from people recounting their own anomalous experiences that had deep personal meaning for them, some pages long in rich detail. One woman told me the story of her rare blue opal pendant that she wore 24/7 for 15 years, until her ex-husband swiped it out of spite during their divorce. (So I guess this would be a case of negative emotions influencing events at a distance.) She felt so bad that while on vacation in Bali she had a jeweler create a simulacrum of it, which led to a successful jewelry business. One day 15 years later, a woman named Lucy came into her store and they got to talking about the lost opal pendant, which Lucy suddenly realized that she now owned. “In 1990 her best friend was dating a guy who was going through a divorce and he had given it to her. Her friend never felt comfortable wearing it so she offered it to Lucy. Lucy accepted, and wore it the following weekend on her wedding day. Soon after, she discovered her new husband had a girlfriend, and she never wore the opal again, thinking it might be bad luck. It remained in her drawer for 15 years. When I asked why she hadn’t sold it (it was now extremely valuable), she said ‘I tried to—every time I went to get it out of the drawer to have it appraised, something happened to distract me. Phone calls, dogs fighting, package deliveries—I tried many times, but never succeeded. Now I know why—it wanted to come back to you!’” This woman’s sister, whom she characterized as a “medical intuitive and remote healer,” called this story “Epic Synchronicity.” She described it as “fantastic and statistically improbable, but it is explainable.”
I agree, but what is the explanation for this, or for any of such highly improbable events? And what do they mean? For Jennifer and me, it was the propitious timing of the radio’s revival—at the moment she was thinking about family—that made it such an emotionally salient event, enabling her to feel as if her beloved grandfather was there with us, sharing in our commitment. Is it proof of life after death? No. As I wrote (and many readers apparently chose to overlook) in Scientific American, “such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.”
The reason is that in science it isn’t enough to just compile anecdotes in support of a preferred belief. After all, who wouldn’t want to know that we survive bodily death and live for eternity elsewhere? We are all subject to the confirmation bias in which we look for and find confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence. We remember one-off highly unusual coincidences that have deep meaning for us, and forget all the countless meaningless coincidences that flow past our senses every day. Then there is the law of large numbers: with seven billion people having, say, 10 experiences a day of any kind, even million-to-one odds will happen 70,000 times a day. It would be a miracle if at least a few of those events did not get remembered, recounted, reported, and recorded somewhere, leaving us with a legacy of frequent infrequencies. Add to this the hindsight bias, in which we are impressed by the improbability of an event after-the-fact, but in science we should only be impressed by events whose occurrence was predicted in advance. And don’t forget the recall bias, in which we remember things that happened differently depending on what we now believe, retrieving from memory circumstances that favor the preferred interpretation of the event in question. Then there is the matter of what didn’t happen that would have been equally spine-tingling in emotional impact on that day, or some other important day, and in my case I can’t think of any because they didn’t happen. Finally, just because I can’t explain something doesn’t mean it is inexplicable by natural means. The argument from personal incredulity doesn’t hold water on the skeptical seas.
As for plausible explanations, one correspondent suggested “that the on-off switch contacts were probably heavily oxidized and that the radio itself was turned on and then stay, as you have inserted the new batteries. By heating and cooling and vibration or small metal parts in a typical 1970s transistor suddenly corrode and make contact. The timing of this process…well, that is just simply remarkable.” A physicist and engineer from Athens, Greece, thought perhaps after my “percussive” technique of smacking the radio on a hard surface, “A critical capacitor at the flow of the current, maybe at the power stage, or at the receiving stage, or at the final amplifier’s stage may had been left in a just quasi-stable soldering state and by the aid of the ambient EM fields may had reach a charging state (leave an empty capacitor for some days out in the yard and you’ll get it almost fully charged) that by the presence of the supply voltage at the soldering spot could have bridged the possible gap of the old or disturbed soldering contact and then sustained this conduction for some hours until by a simple sock may had fully discharged.”
I’m not sure what this means, exactly, because my attempts to resuscitate the radio happened months before, but I can well imagine some electrical glitch, a particle of dust, an EM (electromagnetic) fluctuation from the batteries—something in the natural world—caused the radio to come to life. Why it would happen at that particular moment, and be perfectly tuned to a station playing love songs, and be loud enough to hear out of the desk drawer, is what made the event stand out for us. Which reminds me of an account I read of witchcraft and magic among the Azande, a traditional society in the Southern Sudan in Africa, by the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. He explained that the Zande employ natural causes when they are readily available. When an old granary collapses, for example, the Zande understand that termites are the probable cause. But when the granary crumples with people inside who are thereby injured, the Zande wonder, in Evans-Pritchard’s words, “why should these particular people have been sitting under this particular granary at the particular moment when it collapsed? That it should collapse is easily intelligible, but why should it have collapsed at the particular moment when these particular people were sitting beneath it?” That timing is explained by magic.
Deepak Chopra suggested something similar to us when he wrote “The radio coming on and off almost certainly has a mechanical explanation (a change in humidity, a speck of dust falling off a rusty wire, etc.). What is uncanny is the timing and emotional significance to those participating in the experience. The two of you falling in love is part of the synchronicity!” The Azande magical explanation is not too dissimilar to Deepak’s synchronicity, which he enumerated thusly: “(1) Synchronicity is a conspiracy of improbabilities (the events break the boundaries of statistical probability). (2) The improbable events conspiring to create the synchronistic event are acausally related to each other. (3) Synchronistic events are orchestrated in the non-local domain. … (9) Synchronistic events are messages from our non local self and are clues to the essential unity of our inner world of thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, desires, and intentions, and our outer world of space time events.” From this, and my many debates with Deepak, I take him to mean that consciousness exists separately from substance and can interact with it, the interactions governed by strong emotions like love, which can apparently act across space and time to cause effects meaningful to associated participants.
A psychologist named Michael Jawer would seem to agree in his explanation to me “that strong and underlying feelings are central to anomalous happenings.” His approach “doesn’t rely on barely-understood quantum woo,” he cautioned, “but assesses the way feelings work within our biology and physiology and the way emotions knit human beings together.” That certainly sounds reasonable, although how emotional energy could be transmitted from inside a body (or from the other side) into, say, a radio, is not clear. But I appreciated the close of his letter in which he quoted the late physicist John Wheeler: “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.”
That is precisely what the eminent Caltech physicist Kip Thorne did in the blockbuster film Interstellar, for which he was the scientific consultant. In order to save humanity from imminent extinction Matthew McConaughey’s character has to find a suitable planet by passing through a wormhole to another galaxy. In order to return, however, he must slingshot around a black hole, thereby causing a massive time dilation relative to his daughter back home on Earth (one hour near the black hole equals seven years on Earth), such that by the time he returns she is much older than he. In the interim, in order to get the humans off Earth he needs to transmit information to his now adult scientist daughter on quantum fluctuations from the singularity inside of the black hole. To do so he uses an extra-dimensional “tesseract” in which time appears as a spatial dimension that includes portals into the daughter’s childhood bedroom at a moment when (earlier in the film) she thought she experienced ghosts and poltergeists, which turned out to be her father from the future reaching back in time through extra-dimensions via gravitational waves (which he uses to send the critical data via Morse code dots and dashes on the second hand of the watch he left her). It’s a farfetched plot, but according to Thorne in his companion book to the film, it’s all grounded in natural law and forces.
This is another way of saying—as I have often—that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural and the normal and mysteries we have yet to solve with natural and normal explanations. If it turns out, say, that Walter exists in a 5th dimensional tesseract and is using gravitational waves to turn on his old radio for his granddaughter, that would be fully explicable by physical laws and forces as we understand them. It would not be ESP or Psi or anything of the paranormal or supernatural sort; it would just be a deeper understanding of physics.
The same applies to God. As I’ve also said (in what I facetiously call Shermer’s Last Law), “any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” By this I mean that if we ever did encounter an ETI the chances are that they would be vastly far ahead of us on a technological time scale, given the odds against another intelligent species evolving at precisely the same rate as us on another planet. At the rate of change today we have advanced more in the past century than in all previous centuries combined. Think of the progress in computing that has been made in just the last 50 years, and then imagine where we will be in, say, 50,000 years or 50 million years, and we get some sense of just how far advanced an ETI could be. The intelligent beings who created the wormhole in Kip Thorne’s fictional universe would almost assuredly seem to us as Gods if we did not understand the science and technologies they used. Imagine an ETI millions of years more advanced than us who could engineer the creation of planets and stars by manipulating clouds of interstellar gas, or even create new universes out of collapsing black holes. If that’s not God-like I don’t know what is, but it’s just advanced science and technology and nothing more.
Until such time when science can explain even the most spectacularly unlikely events, what should we do with such stories? Enjoy them. Appreciate their emotional significance. But we do not need to fill in the explanatory gaps with gods or any such preternatural forces. We can’t explain everything, and it’s always okay to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that until a natural explanation presents itself. Until then, revel in the mystery and drink in the unknown. It is where science and wonder meet.