120: A sign

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
120: A sign


Do you believe in signs from (insert your preferred deity, power, or force here)?

Show notes and links:
Coincidence Studies (Coincider)
Where belief is born (The Guardian)
Confirmation bias (Science Daily)

Full episode text

There’s an email service called “Notes from the Universe” that many of my friends – of various religious and nonreligious traditions, belief systems, and level of cynicism – all subscribe to. More than once, I will see quotes from one of these notes from the Universe pop up in conversation as a quote, “sign from the Universe.”

From rainbows to doves, thunderstorms to bountiful harvests, many things over the centuries have been designated as a sign. How those signs are seen and interpreted can be an intensely personal thing.

It’s also something that has been widely studied by a huge range of individuals – and can be a flashpoint of debate, as with many things based on and around belief. The two phrases that seem to come up most often in these debates are coincidence and confirmation bias.

For Bernard Beitman, coincidences are a life’s work. He’s found through years of study that there are certain personality or life traits that predispose someone to coincidence – individuals who describe themselves as religious or spiritual, people who tend to be self-focused when processing information from the external world, and people who score highly on a scale of meaning-seeking in their lives. Coincidences also tend to be more likely when somebody is sad, angry, or anxious – all states that tend to show a higher correlation with confirmation bias – a phenomenon where our brains tend to weigh memories, experiences, and observations that confirm our pre-held beliefs more heavily than ones that may disprove them.

Combined with the theory from Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University that belief and memory are stored, processed, and reinforced in the same exact way in the brain, how an individual sees something that may be signs from a deity quickly gets wrapped up in memory as much as statistics.

That’s not to say, though, that signs don’t exist. In 1952, renowned psychologist Carl Jung suggested the theory of synchronicity – or acausal connecting principle – that was a force led by the underlying order and structure to reality.

In short, a sign from a deity is very mixed up in coincidence, confirmation bias, brain structure, memory, belief – all of which don’t invalidate belief, but can inform our interpretation of seemingly random events that may or may not not be so random.