Thursday, May 14, 2009

Serendipity, Part 2

Two months ago I wrote about funny, random and unlikely events in a post called, "Funny, Random and Unlikely." Today I had one such event happen to me, and it got me thinking about a follow-up.

This morning I was driving to work when my eye caught one of the small mile marker signs you see on many major highways. I've always wondered how accurate those signs are, given that the large overhead exit signs are clearly only approximations of distance. So I checked my odometer when I passed the next sign. I immediately noticed that the decimal place was at "0". So I was at exactly the beginning of a mile on my odometer as I passed exactly the beginning of a mile on the road. Pretty cool. But it got better.

As I passed successive mile markers I found that in fact they are accurate. Every time my decimal place hit "0" I passed a mile marker, and every time it hit "5" I passed a half-mile marker. It was then that I noticed that the first full digit on my odometer was also perfectly synched to the mile markers I was passing. As I passed the half-mile marker 14.5, the last two digits of my odometer read, "4.5". It was sort of shocking.

I almost never notice mile markers, so the chances against me happening to notice and pay close attention to them on the day that my odometer, against most odds on its own lined up perfectly with them are pretty high.

So first let me refresh my original post's central idea. The chances of what happened this morning happening are very slim. But the chances of an inordinate number of other possible things happening that didn't happen are also slim. And none of them happened, as you would expect. The chances of me getting into a car accident with a car of the same make, model and color were slim. The chances that the radio was playing the song already in my head when I turned it on were slim. Same for the chances that, at a light, I pulled up next to my old college roommate. All very unlikely events, and none of them happened. Except for the one that did. The point is that the odds of any specific random event happening are low. But the chances that any random, serendipitous, completely unpredictable event might happen are very good.

Criminy, Jason. Get to the point.

Okay, so based on the above reasoning, it's clear that interesting and often remarkable events that seem to defy the odds and sometimes explanation, occur all the time. Some of these events are unlikely enough that they get classified as miracles. But given enough time the occurrence of even some extremely unlikely event becomes likely. There's nothing intrinsically miraculous or meaningful about any of it.

And that, to me, is an incredibly positive thing. It means that "omens" don't mean anything. It means that "signs from heaven" exist solely in the head of the person interpreting the "sign." It means that all the ways we humans dupe ourselves into thinking that the universe is trying to tell us something are just randomness masquerading as intention. This is great because it frees us from superstition. The fact that two black cats crossed your path while you were walking to the store means nothing and portends nothing. The chances against it are high, granted, but that doesn't mean it means anything or promises ill fortune. In fact, considering all the other nasty things that could have also randomly happened to you but didn't like getting hit by a passing car, getting mugged, or having a passing bird poop on you, you're actually doing pretty well.

So the fact that my odometer and the mile markers I passed this morning were in perfect synch meant nothing. It wasn't a sign that my day was going to be a good one, nor was it an omen that my car was going to break down. It was just a cool little bubble of randomness made actual. For me, just observing the bubbles for what they are is way more interesting than trying to decipher hidden meanings that just aren't there.

No comments:

Post a Comment