A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

I don’t usually debate people about their actual religious or spiritual beliefs, unless they’ve either asked me to explicitly, or have invited me to implicitly by arguing with my beliefs. (I did say “usually,” everyone, so there’s no need to rush to the archives to dig up counter-examples — unless you’d find that entertaining.) I’ll start debates about the place religion has in society, the way we do and don’t talk about religion compared to other topics, what kind of language we use to talk about religion and atheism, whether faith does more harm than good or vice versa, etc. — but for an assortment of reasons, some good and some bad, I rarely debate the actual beliefs themselves.

But a few weeks ago, Layne made a comment here saying that he believed in some sort of telepathic or precognition phenomenon, at least partly because of an experience he had in his teens, when he had a sudden fear of his sister’s car being hit by a train and later found out that it almost had been. I know Layne to be a smart person with a thick skin and a fondness for a good argument, so I decided to cadge an invitation, and asked if he wanted to know my skeptic’s response to his experience. He said yes (“Go ahead, hit me with your best shot” were his exact words). Here is that response.


My short skeptical answer to the experience you described would be, “Yes, I think that was a coincidence.” But I don’t actually think that’s a very good answer. Not by itself. It doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the freakishness and intensity of your experience. And it doesn’t accurately or fairly represent the skeptical philosophy.

Besides… well, you used to be my editor. When have you ever known me to give a one-word or seven-word answer when 1000 words would do? 🙂


I can see that an experience like the one you had would be both intense and hard to explain. The odds against it are astronomical. It would be foolish of me to say otherwise. Yes, the odds of that particular experience — getting a sudden scary mental image of your sister being run over by a train, and then finding out that she almost had been — are very unlikely indeed.

But look at it this way.

What are the odds that SOME freakishly unlikely experience along those lines would happen to you at SOME point in your life?

They’re actually pretty darned good.

Random thoughts about the people we know and love are flashing into our minds every minute of every day. And things are happening to the people we know and love every minute of every day. Given enough time, the thoughts and the events are going to line up — in a way that will seem far too unlikely to be merely a coincidence. (A tip of the hat to Douglas Adams on this one.)

The problem is that the tens of thousands of times when the thoughts and events don’t line up, we don’t notice. We only notice the few times when they do. It’s the “van on the corner” phenomenon. We say, “Why is that white van always at the corner?” when it isn’t always at the corner — we just notice it when it is.

And here’s the bigger problem. Our brains are not very good at grasping statistics and probability. (That includes mine — I can’t get more than ten pages into a “Statistics and Probability For Dummies” book without my puny earthling brain exploding.) The processes of evolution have shaped our brains to understand probability, not in a way that’s accurate, but in a way that helps us survive. Among other things, our brains are wired to see patterns and connections, regardless of whether they’re there. And they’re wired to pay very careful attention to things that seem out of the ordinary. All for very good evolutionary reasons. It may not help us understand the finer points of probability and coincidence, but it helps us find food and escape from tigers.

So because this stuff is so fucking counter-intuitive, I want to give a couple more examples of this particular idea before I move on

Example 1: There’s a wonderful example from a book called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal by Lynn Kelly. (An excellent book, btw, and one I recommend to anyone – she’s very readable, often very funny, and she doesn’t talk down to her audience.) When Lynn’s mother was in the hospital, she (Lynn) had an intense dream that her mother had died. She woke up and called the hospital in a panic 

 and her mother was fine, recovering nicely.

But what if her mother had in fact died? It wasn’t completely unlikely; she was in the hospital, after all. And it wasn’t at all unusual for someone whose mother was in the hospital to dream that she’d died. But if her mother had died, Lynn says, she would have been completely convinced that her dream had been precognition or telepathy — not coincidence.

In fact, Lynn says, there was a part of her that was almost disappointed that her dream hadn’t been true. A part of her wanted to believe that the connection between her and her mother was so close, she would just know when she’d died. (I wonder, Layne, if that might be relevant to the experience you had with your sister.)

Example 2: Here’s an example Ingrid likes to use (probably because she’s deathly afraid of flying). Millions of people fly in airplanes every day. Flying is scary (even for people who aren’t seriously phobic about it). So almost certainly a high percentage of the millions of people in the air every day have had, at some point, a strong feeling of the willies about their flight. Add to that the number of people with family and friends who are flying on a given day, and think how many of them got the willies about the flight. Then add to that all the people who, for some reason, were going to take that flight but didn’t… and think about how many of them had some sort of willie-ish experience about it before their plans changed.

Okay. Planes do sometimes crash .Or almost crash. Or have some serious malfunction that requires the plane to make an emergency landing. Or have food poisoning in the fish dinner that incapacitates half the passengers and both the pilots…

Any one of which would confirm the feeling of “I knew it! I knew something was wrong with this flight!”

Now, what are the odds that, in any given plane disaster, someone on that plane — or someone close to someone on that plane, or someone who was “supposed” to be on that plane but wasn’t — had had the willies about the flight? I’d bet that it’s pretty close to 100%. (And then those people — if they survive — tell the people they know about it, who then add it to their own bank of “too weird to be coincidence” stories… but that goes to pattern recognition, which is another point I’ll get to in a minute.)

But people don’t pay much attention when they get the willies about a flight and the worst thing that happens is they run out of pretzels… which is what happens most of the time. They only notice when they get the willies about a flight and something bad happens.

Third and last example: Finally, I have an example from my own life, from my woo-woo Tarot reading days. A few months after I’d broken up with my boyfriend (first real relationship, total schmuck, very traumatic), I did a series of Tarot readings on the question, “Should I start looking for another relationship?” I was lonely and horny, and really hoping the answer would be “Yes”… but in every single reading (four or five in a row, if memory serves), The Hermit came up somewhere in the spread.

At the time, this to me was unshakeable proof, not only that I should stay single for a while, but that the Tarot was real and that a mystical force was guiding the cards. (The fact that the answer was the one I needed rather than the one I wanted only served to confirm this.) But when I started looking at my Tarot readings with a more skeptical eye, I realized a couple of things.

I realized that I’d seen other patterns and runs like this, which I’d also taken as profoundly meaningful and predictive… but which hadn’t actually come true. (In a later relationship, I had a similar run of getting The Star several times in a row, a card of “hope in a difficult time/light at the end of the tunnel” — which turned out to be total bullshit. That relationship was doomed.)

Plus, I realized that I’d almost certainly gotten other runs of cards that I simply hadn’t noticed, because they weren’t very interesting cards or weren’t relevant to the questions I was asking. I mean, at some point in my Tarot years I almost certainly had a run of getting, say, the Two of Wands or the Eight of Disks in four or five readings in a row, runs that were every bit as unlikely as getting The Hermit four or five times in a row… but it was the Eight of Disks, so who the hell cares.

(Statistical tangent, which I’m finding fascinating, but which y’all should feel free to skip past to the next bit if you find it tediously math-y: Now that I think about it, I wonder how astronomical the odds of my Hermit run really were. There are 15 cards in a reading [the way I was reading them, anyway]. There are 78 cards in the deck. Plus there are a couple different cards in the deck that can mean “solitude” or “independence,” so that brings the odds down a lot more. And there are also a couple of cards that can mean, “Whatever you’re thinking about is a really bad idea, get it out of your head right now.” Let’s be very conservative and say there are four cards that could mean either “solitude,” “independence,” or “whatever you’re asking, the answer is No Way.” [There are probably more, but I’m trying to be fair here.] So that’s four out of 78 cards, or about 1 in 20. What are the odds of one of these four cards coming up somewhere in a 15-card spread? If my math is right [and it may not be], it’s three out of four. Pretty damn good odds — better than even. And what are the odds of any one of the four coming up in four 15-card spreads in a row? Again, my probability math is poor, but I just called Chip and we put our heads together, and are coming up with 81 in 256  or roughly 1 in 3. Not at all unlikely. Make it five readings in a row, and you still get about 1 in 4. Okay, this is freaking me out now. I based my metaphysical beliefs for YEARS on the idea that this pattern was ridiculously unlikely. Sheesh. [BTW, if there are any mathematicians or statisticians reading this who are screaming with frustration at my math, please feel free to correct me.])


So enough with that idea and those examples. There are other things that compound this situation, and I want to move on to them now.

The first thing that compounds the situation is what I call the “cluster phenomenon.” (I’m sure there’s some psychological or statistical term for it, but I don’t know what it is.)

Think of it this way. Your sister didn’t, in fact, get run over by a train. She almost did. (In the strictest sense, your precognition didn’t actually happen.) Now, think of all the other things that could have happened that day that might have made you think, “Wow, that is so freaky, what are the odds of that?” Your sister might have gotten into a car crash near the train tracks. Or tripped and broken her leg while crossing the train tracks. Or been in a toy store near the toy train section when the store got robbed at gunpoint. Or someone else you knew might have been run over by a train. Or gotten into a car crash. Or… you get my drift. The odds of your particular coincidence, the one that actually happened, aren’t very high — but the odds of SOMETHING happening that might have made you think, “That is too freaky to be a coincidence,” are nowhere near as bad.

This goes back to the “how often do you suddenly think of someone, and how often do people die” question. If we suddenly think of someone out of the blue and then find out they’ve just died, that can seem very unlikely and spooky. But if we suddenly think of someone and they give us a call, or we hear they’re getting married, or we read about them in the paper, or we run into one of their kids, or their ex calls us to say they’ve just broken up and we’ve been on their mind and would we like to meet for a drink at this nice little hotel bar they know  any of these events, and dozens more like them, will also give us the “Woo, spooky” experience. The odds against any particular one of these events are astronomical, it’s true… but the odds of something in that cluster of events happening aren’t quite as bad. And again, when you add those odds up over a lifetime, the odds of something in that vein happening at some point in your life start to get pretty damn good.

Then the situation gets compounded further by the fact that (a) our brains are wired to see patterns and connections where none may exist (and intention, too, but that addresses the God question more than the telepathy/ precognition/ general metaphysical weirdness question) — and (b) our brains are wired to be more likely to see what we expect to see, and to explain what we see in a context we already believe.

So if we’ve already had a freakishly unlikely experience that we’re chalking up to telepathy or precognition, we’re more likely to explain other weird experiences with similar paranormal explanations. And once we’ve started doing that, and have started creating a mental pattern and a mental context for thinking paranormal or metaphysical experiences are real, then there’s a cascade effect/ feedback loop. The more we believe in something, the more we see of it — and the more we see, the more we believe. (I think this is what Nina was getting at when she talked about having had intense transcendent experiences, but not thinking of them as religious because she wasn’t brought up to see things in a religious context.)

Like with the Tarot. There were so many times when what I thought was a clear message from the cards turned out to be wrong. (The time Chip and I asked the cards what movie to see and were given the unmistakable message that we should see “Pretty Woman” leaps to mind…) But when the cards were wrong, I always blamed myself and figured I’d mis-read them. I only went “Woo, spooky” when they were right.

(BTW: While I am mostly talking here about less conventional spiritual beliefs, I think this principle can apply to many traditional beliefs as well. I’ve heard and read many religious believers defend the power of prayer in this exact way. When their prayers are answered, it’s proof of God’s love and works; when their prayers aren’t answered, then God moves in mysterious ways. I know that’s not the way everyone experiences prayer — but it’s not uncommon.)


All of which is a very long way of saying this:

“It just seems too unlikely to be a coincidence” is not, by itself, enough evidence to support a hypothesis of telepathy or precognition or metaphysical energies. It’s too easy to explain unlikely-seeming coincidences with all the stuff I’ve been talking about: long-term probability analysis, the cluster phenomenon, and pattern recognition.

So in order to tell whether telepathy or precognition or other paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena are really true, or even plausible, we need to look at them as hypotheses about the world, and test them accordingly. And we need to test them carefully, using the best testing protocols, to screen out unconscious interference and the placebo effect and all that good stuff, and to make sure the results are consistent and replicable.

And so far, when that kind of testing has been done on telepathy and precognition and other paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena, the results have been the same: Zip.

Which all brings me back to the point I made in The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — that given the overwhelming historical pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones and not the other way around, it’s many, many orders of magnitude more likely that any given unexplained or weird phenomenon will have a natural explanation than a supernatural one.

There’s a standard in science that scientists cite a lot (it’s something I believe Carl Sagan first wrote): “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If a scientist claims that, say, tuberculosis isn’t caused by exposure to bacteria but by an excess of chicken in the diet… well, that’s an extraordinary claim, one that contradicts everything we think we know about the disease, and that scientist is going to have to come up with a MASSIVE body of hard evidence to support their claim.

And while claims of telepathy and precognition are certainly common, they’re still extraordinary. They contradict everything we know about how the mind perceives and processes and communicates information. (Admittedly, there’s a huge amount we don’t know about how the brain and the mind work — but there are some things we do know, and telepathy and precognition don’t fit into the picture.) It’s a claim that requires extraordinary evidence to support it… and “It just seems too unlikely to be a coincidence” isn’t enough.

Now, of course, you can argue that pattern recognition works the other way too: that when you’re predisposed to NOT believe in the paranormal or metaphysical, you’re less likely to see it.

Which is true.

But that’s kind of the beauty of the scientific method. If your testing protocols are good, the results are going to be the results, regardless of your expectations. When CSICOP (now CSI) tested the Russian psychic diagnosis girl, I’m sure they were pre-disposed to think her claims were full of shit — but if she had in fact been able to diagnose serious medical conditions just by looking at people, she would have been able to do it, regardless of the researchers’ expectations. (In fact, while they did set up the test to control for educated guesses and picking up physical clues and other non-psychic explanations for her “diagnoses,” they also set up the protocols to give the girl the benefit of the doubt.)

Of course, you can argue that these kinds of metaphysical phenomena aren’t predictable or consistent in the same way that physical phenomena are. But (a) I’ve never seen a good explanation of why that would be.

And (b) even if that were true, even if paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena were “shy” but real… even if it were true, how would that information be useful, either on a day-to-day level or in a larger philosophical sense? How would it change the way we live, or the way we understand the world and our place in it? How would we be able to study and explore these phenomena in any meaningful way? How would we ever know whether any particular freaky experience was one of the real metaphysical ones… or just our brains playing tricks on themselves? Or simply one of the seemingly bizarre but ultimately explainable coincidences?

For all the reasons I’ve talked about here — and more — “I can just tell,” or, “It just seems obvious to me,” or, “It’s just too unlikely to be a coincidence,” simply aren’t good enough answers to those questions.

A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

16 thoughts on “A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

  1. 2

    Hi Greta:
    I enjoyed your “best shot,” and found your skepticism to be very rational, thoughtful, comprehensive and well expressed; knowing you and your writing, I expected nothing less. However, I remain skeptical of the skeptics, so to speak, especially of scientific skepticism. Much of what we think of as objective science is too sure of itself. Much of modern science contains numerous unconscious or semi-consciousness metaphysical assumptions (assumptions being the root of all fuck-ups). I prefer a type of reasoning which I shall call Sherlockian, after the famous detective. Sherlockian observations are based on the inclusion of all data. If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit. In other words, everything must be accounted for. The anomaly can be a key. In the highest and best — what I consider best, anyway — forms of scientific learning, this type of reasoning provided key insights. Accounting for the unexpected way light bends around the sun provided, I have heard, an important contribution to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Something didn’t fit into the previous assumptions about the nature of physical reality; and someone — perhaps Einstein and perhaps his first wife — felt free enough in thinking outside the box to re-think in-the-box assumptions. Now THAT is science worthy of the name.
    My skepticism about much in modern scientific skepticism is that there is not enough willingness to re-think assumptions and test new things. There is not enough deductive reasoning to integrate the mountains of inductive research data that accumulate. There is too much dismissing anomalies out of hand. Too many value judgments disguised as objective. Too much smugness, for my blood. It’s true, as you say, that history is littered with disproved and discredited religious dogma. However, history is also littered with disproved and discredited science. Too much group -think on both sides. Lighten up, guys. (Not you, Greta. You are light enough. But science does not deserve your “faith” in it.)
    One of my favorite stories of psychological studies involves a design where a classroom is filled with stooges, except for one experimental subject, who, of course, does not know about the stooges. The researcher/professor draws an 18-inch chalk line on the board and asks everyone in the class to guess how long the line is. The student stooges are instructed in advance to guess, on average, around 12 inches. The purpose of the study, which is replicated with other subjects, is to determine whether and to what extent the experimental subject tends to guess a shorter chalk-line based on the group responses. Well, sure enough, the effect of the group guesses is very substantial. People are very subject to group opinion. My object in life is to be the guy who says the line is 18 inches, or 17 or 19, and not give a damn what anybody or everybody else says.
    With this in mind, I must say, even after all your thoughtful comments, Greta, and even after all the weight of the beliefs of the logical positivist scientists that form your atheistic support system, that I do believe
 or I grant myself permission to believe based on my newfound Dawkinsonian threshold for how certain I must be in order to officially believe something 
 I do believe, even if a smidgin of doubt remains, that my experience was a true telepathic experience. I know that “truth” the same way I know an eighteen-inch chalk-line when I see one. Train whistles were a frequent sound in the Tualatin Valley. There was no common sense reason for my chilly premonition. How many times do I have chilly premonitions and nothing happens? Almost never, because I almost never have chilly premonitions. Can’t think of another, off hand. I am such an unchilly guy all the time. Therefore, in accordance with my principles advocating the application of Sherlockian reasoning to the world, I must look for explanations, other data or other possible world views consistent with all the information in order to fill in the gaps and help me understand. Indeed, this I have in fact done, but that is another, much longer story.
    Except maybe I will comment in one area of my “long story” in response to your comments when you say:
[E]ven if paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena were
real… even if it were true, how would that information be useful, either on a day-to-day level or in a larger philosophical sense? How would it change the way we live, or the way we understand the world and our place in it? How would we be able to study and explore these phenomena in any meaningful way? How would we ever know whether any particular freaky experience was one of the real metaphysical ones… or just our brains playing tricks on themselves? Or simply one of the seemingly bizarre but ultimately explainable coincidences?”
    I think it would make a great difference indeed and I will give an example: I believe that human emotions are in important respects “interpsychic.” I learned about this from a variety of sources, but I validated it and replicated the results through a series of “single-subject research” designs during S/M play with a long series of lovers. My theory is that something about the polarized emotions of S/M relationships makes the interpsychic energy move more impactfully (I think of it as a polarized vortex) and therefore makes the effects of the energy flow more detectable (to put it mildly) and more replicable if both partners calibrate their mental states simultaneously.
    I’m covering a lot of ground quickly here, but I generally think that the interpsychic energy I found to be detectable and replicable in S/M play is also perhaps characteristic of early love/and or infatuation experiences (that old black magic), mother/child experiences, and other relationship phenomena such as “jealousy,” even if those sorts of experiences are less subject to experimental validation. If my interpsychic theory is true, it would make a great difference indeed in how we approach, for example, relationship counseling. If the differences are not immediately apparent I would be happy to provide examples.
    As it happens, science is in a position to research such matters through the use of modern technology, in particular functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery, which has the potential to map emotions as they happen. Don’t look for any research soon, however. There are only a couple of Magnetic Resonance Imagery facilities in Northern California, and the medical people who schedule them are unlikely to be interested in anything so “paranormal.” If they were to schedule such research they would be laughed out of the Stanford Medical School (where one machine is reportedly located). One does have ones scientific reputation to consider (sniff) after all.
    Thanks for your comments, Greta. I have enjoyed the discourse.

  2. 3

    Greta, I can see what you’re getting at with the statistics, especially when I think back on some of my own experiences.
    I often think of a friend I haven’t heard from in a long time. Sometimes I will then get a phone call or Email from that person. And I think “Wow, what a coincidence” – not “Wow, I must be psychic.” More often I do NOT get the Email or the phone call. I think about old friends constantly, every day — but I do not hear from them every day.
    Once when I was a teenager, I was away from my boyfriend and I had a dream that he had wrecked his motorcycle. When I got back home, I found that he had indeed had an accident. Of course I thought I had psychic powers! But then, doesn’t EVERYONE with a motorbiking spouse worry about them having an accident, pretty much ALL THE TIME? My worry just manifested itself during the night when I was asleep.
    One time when I was a college student living with my parents, a strange thing happened. My mother and I BOTH had the same dream on the same night — that our house burned down. We were terrified that this was a premonition. But the house didn’t burn down.
    My niece lives in California where she has been for the past ten years. Every time she flies out to visit, I think, “I hope she arrives safely, I hope the plane doesn’t crash.” And so far, she has always arrived safe and sound. Some day the plane may very well crash. If it does, I will grieve over a tragic accident. I won’t assume that I’m a psychic, and say to myself “I knew it!”
    How many times do we think about tragedies that DON’T happen? And does anyone count those? How often have you feared the worst, but everything turned out okay?
    In these instances (as with prayer) everyone counts the “hits” but not the “misses.” When I DO count the “misses,” it becomes easier for me to see the “big picture.” It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve had to “train” myself to do this — to stop and think about my own thoughts. But when I’m able to do it, it gives me a much better perspective.
    Thanks for another thought provoking essay, as usual!

  3. 4

    I’m trying to find a definition for “interpsychic,” a word used in Layne’s comment, but it is not listed in the Wikipedia, nor anywhere on dictionary.com.
    From the context, however, I wonder whether experiences that Layne describes as interpsychic might be explained eventually by pheremones.
    While it is not proven, nor exhaustively researched, I personally suspect that a lot of communication that is attributed to esp may actually involve scent. Other mammals, such as dogs, acquire a great deal of information using their sense of smell. While our noses are not as sensitive as theirs, I do think that we learn more about other people’s moods and thoughts through smell than we are aware of. However, neither the sending nor receiving sides of this communication are consciously aware of the process.
    Thus, an “interpsychic” link occuring during an SM scene could be explained instead by both top and bottom emitting scents. These scents could be communicating fear, love, desire, pleasure, pain, embarassment, etc., perhaps so specifically that the mind interprets the interaction as “reading each other’s minds.”
    A similar explanation could apply to therapeutic counseling, mother/child dynamics, and infatuation.
    Eventually I hope there will be more evidence supporting or disproving this potential explanation of such experiences. Until then, I find this hypothesis more compelling than ESP

  4. 5

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Layne. I want to reply to your thoughts about science, but that’s a big subject, and it’s going to take me a couple/few days to put that together.
    In the meantime, though, I do want to reply to what you said about SM. Because if I understand you correctly, I’ve certainly had that kind of experience — with S/M sex, with other kinds of sex, even in non-sexual situations. And damn, is it ever intense. Spooky.
    But like Rebecca, I don’t think there’s any reason the experience needs to be explained by ESP or other paranormal phenomenon. The unintentional giving out of of thousands of non-verbal signals, the unconscious adding-up of those signals, even the pheremones that Rebecca talks about… I find these a far more compelling, more likely explanation.
    Why do I think this? I’ll give a longer answer when I go into my science rant. But the short answer is: When people who’ve believed that they could do other types of telepathic communication have gone into the lab to have those abilities tested — and when the testing protocols were carefully set up to screen out the possibility of unconscious non-verbal communication — the abilities vanished. Completely.
    But I also feel like I should say this:
    A lot of times, when believers in spiritual or psychic phenomena hear skeptics try to debunk their beliefs, they feel like the skeptics are trivializing or dismissing their experiences — experiences that, to them, are very powerful and have great meaning.
    So I want to say this: When I look at the kind of intense, powerful connections and other transcendent experiences that people can have — the kind of connections that, for instance, during SM or sex can feel like you’re sharing the same body and the same mind — and say that I think they’re natural in origin rather than supernatural, I don’t think that diminishes or trivializes the experience.
    In fact, for me, it enhances it.
    To me, the idea that, out of atoms and molecules, out of flesh and bone and skin and nerve, consciousness could arise — and not only consciousness, but shared consciousness, and transcendent consciousness — to me, that’s not trivializing or diminishing. It is fucking awe-inspiring.
    I may argue about what exactly is happening during those experiences and what they mean; but I would never argue that the experiences don’t happen, or that they’re not important.

  5. 6

    Hey Greta,
    I enjoyed your writing on this topic and NOT being a statistitian, but a 4th grade teacher, I went WOO Hoo, when I saw the Probability book for teachers in your images. ( Lawrence Hall of Science GEMS)
    I didn’t take the statistic route when I earned my late in life BA, so when I discovered I had to teach this subject I balked. Then I found that book for my class. If those of you who have never covered that subject, it’s a blast. Some of the stuff is simple that we know as humans who experience the laws of probability in life just by living, but then there are other aspects too. Bell curve, Why craps has 7 and 11 as those numbers etc. I had several AhHa! moments that I was surprised it had taken me 35 years to get. (I love it when I can share this with my 30, 10 year olds too.)
    I have to say, with the increasing diversity in my class with Christian, Muslim, undecided, unindoctinated kids, I increasingly am finding my self saying to them, “That is what some people believe,” when they bring their faith into the classroom in conversations. They really look at me funny as it I am from another planet.
    But on the tarot, esp, phone call in the night dream thing, I really hadn’t made the leap. It certainly adds fuel to the fire to dispell “paranormal” notions on those topics. I do believe in a higher power, but then I have never gotten a perfect hand in cribbage either! I am waiting. Anyone want up for a game?

  6. 7

    BTW, for anyone who cares about the math-y bit about the Tarot spreads: I just got an email from my cousin D., who is, in fact, a professional statistician. He says, “It looks like you’re off by a bit, but not so far off that your argument is shot to hell.” (He also said, “Sorry for the excruciating detail, but probability calculations seem like they should be straightforward and they rarely are.” Which I knew — that’s why I asked him to check my math.) Here is his complete analysis, which he gave me permission to post:
    I’ve read your tarot card conundrum and I have the solution. First of all, statisticians are really anal about the way a problem is worded, so my first comment is that your initial question should be “what is the
    probability of getting at least one of the four cards (I’m going to call them the candidate cards) somewhere in a 15-card spread?”
    The “at least” part is very important because it has a dramatic effect on the calculations. That being said, here’s the calculation:
    A. Let’s look at the first 15-card spread.
    1. Event #1 is the drawing of the first card. The probability of NOT getting one of the candidate cards is 74/78, or 94.87%.
    2. Event #2 is the drawing of the second card. Since one of the non-candidate cards is gone, the probability of NOT getting one of the candidate cards is now 73/77, or 94.81%.
    3. When two events are independent (as is the case here) the probability of both of them happening is the product of the individual probabilities. So, the probability of NOT getting a candidate card in the first two cards drawn is (74/78)*(73/77), or 89.9%.
    4. Continue this calculation for the complete 15-card draw:
    (74/78)*(73/77)…..(61/65)*(60/64). This number is the probability of
    NOT getting ANY of the candidate cards in the 15-card spread. It
    happens to be 41.8%.
    5. Now the trick — 1 minus this number is the probability of getting at least one of the candidate cards. That number is 58.2%. So, in any one 15-card spread, the chances that you’ll get at least one of the candidate cards are 58.2 in 100.
    B. Now we can look at the series of spreads.
    6. Each of the four 15-card spreads is independent, so again apply what I referred to earlier, and the probability of getting at least one candidate card in each of the four spreads is (58.2/100)* (58.2/100)* (58.2/100)* (58.2/100). This is .115 or almost 1 out of 9. If you make it 5 spreads, just multiply by another 58.2/100; this makes it .067, or 1 out of 15.
    Footnote: for the real statisticians in the crowd, the other way to get to the .418 probability in step 4 above is “74 choose 15 divided by 78 choose 15”. The stuff in quotes will mean something to the hard-core nerds.
    And a quick note from Greta again: Damn, I love my family.

  7. 8

    Hi Greta,
    Okay, I opened a can of interpsychic worms and now I see where I need to elaborate a bit to clarify. First, re definitions, as Rebecca noted, there is no established definition of interpsychic. It is my own word, but one that I think has an obvious meaning, namely the idea that there exist forms of interpersonal psychic connection. My contention that such connections exist does not in itself necessarily imply anything “supernatural.” The notion of interpsychic phenomena may “seem” supernatural; but I think the word/phrase is a kind of oxymoron. We think things are supernatural because we don’t understand them, like a coke bottle falling out of the sky in front of a Bushman.
    Interesting thing: Your blog, Greta, is a truly unique forum, because in almost any other group situation, my comments about learning from S/M play would be automatically discounted before I could make any progress trying to explain why I believe in interpsychic connections. But as you say, — “damn, is it ever intense.” And you use the word “spooky.” So we have a beginning agreement on one thing — or I hope we do.
    I will grant that it is POSSIBLE that the pheremones Rebecca talks about, or non-verbal cues, or some combination of things experienced perhaps at a subliminal level, could explain the experience we are wanting to explain. But I think it is unlikely. It does not seem intuitively valid, for one thing.
    Here is what I have experienced with many partners, after first learning about it and experimenting with it with my life-partner, Kat: Kat and I experienced in S/M play, always mutually and simultaneously, a dark rush. Words are difficult, but if you have experienced it you will know what I mean; a bass-clef rumble, a thickened vaso-congestion, something that frightens people if they are at all unsure of their ego-boundaries, all of which is to say, a very darkly — evilly — thrilling set of emotions indeed. And we experienced it at the same time. Through exploration and experiment, we learned that the rush was possible to replicate if we could calibrate our mind-sets in accordance with the following recipe: The person who is submissive must let their mind feel that they would do anything asked, be anything onto death; and the person who is dominant must let their mind feel no concern, selfish and cruel without limits. These are trance states. We can teach our minds to go there. It is also necessary, of course, to stay aware of reality at some level and not go crazy here. It involves some mental trickery. But it is the mental state that counts, not the behaviors of play. Just going to those mental places simultaneously produces the rush. Oral sex or intense sensations are frosting on the cake.
    One of the exercises we used to demonstrate this calibrated interpsychic rush was to bring “known quantity” submissive men into our workshops for dominant women the Kat and I conducted many times in the Eighties. These particular submissives, we knew, could reliably fulfill their part of the equation. We had our submissive kneel in front of each of the workshop participants in turn and the women would squeeze hard on a clothespin that was on the man’s nipple and wait to feel the rush.
    Often, no rush would come. Why? For the same reason that most wanna-be dominants hold back. They care about people and they don’t want to be or be seen to be evil or cruel. So we worked with the workshop participants, helped them with the “problem” until, many times, they finally got it, let go of caring, let themselves be mean and just squeezed the hell out of that clothespin. (A side note: these volunteer submissives were “heavy” players and could not possibly be over personal limits with such trifling pain) Viola! Oh, my God! Wide eyes. Laughter. They got it. By George, they got it. It is a little like those books where we try to see the hidden patterns and when they finally show up due to some new trick our eyes learn they stand out like a sore thumb. Oh, everyone says, I see it now!
    Similarly, I can’t begin to count the submissives I played with where I wasted my breath night after night telling them where I wanted them to go in their stubborn heads until they finally
 did. All mutual great fun after that.
    It is hard for me to imagine that such a subtle mental calibration can be pheremones-based. It would seem to require that the pheremones are subtle and nuanced to a most complicated degree and are capable of changing to a new scent in the twinkling of an eye.
    On the other hand, it is easy to understand why interpsychic connections are difficult to detect in other contexts, in romantic love relationships, for example, where things are negotiated and the connections are more subtle and fluid. That there is a connectedness is commonly believed by poets and lovers, enough so that psychologists and students of emotions feel the need to come up with pheremones, or some other physical cause and effect explanation, even though scent as an explanation for love is a bit of a stretch.
    S/M, however, is a perfect laboratory for learning about emotions by studying the powerful ones, sexually magical ones, that SM’rs commonly experience, even if other people haven’t.

  8. 9

    Layne, thanks once again for your thoughtful reply (and thanks for the nice words about my blog!). And I think I understand you better now. Allow me to summarize where I think we’re at, and do correct me if I’m mis-stating you:
    Here’s where we seem to agree: Under certain circumstances, people can experience a… well, an experience, of sharing thoughts and feelings without communicating in the usual ways. It feels more intense and direct than, say, simply talking (although maybe we’re just so used to talking that it doesn’t seem so freaky) — the experience isn’t one of communicating thoughts and feelings so much as it is of actually sharing them, having the same ones at the same time. The experience is rare, and tends to be brought about by intense sexual experiences, other intense physical experiences, drugs, shared artistic experiences such as music and dancing, and the like. (The SM experience you describe isn’t, I think, the only example of this, although it does sound like an intense one. I don’t think I’ve had it myself, probably because I don’t play in that particular way. I’ve had similar experiences, though.)
    Here’s where it seems we disagree. You think that the most likely explanation by far for this is some sort of metaphysical telepathic connection; you think it’s possible that it has a naturalistic explanation, but you don’t think it’s likely — at least partly because it’s not, as you say, “intuitively valid.”
    I think that the most likely explanation by far is some sort of naturalistic one, probably some sort of unconscious adding-up of signals and cues. (I don’t think, btw, that pheremones could be the whole answer, if only because the human brain isn’t great on the olfactory thing.) I think a metaphysical or telepathic explanation is theoretically possible; but for all the reasons I’ve described, in this post and elsewhere on my blog, I think it’s highly unlikely. (And I also think that, while intuition is a good starting place for an investigation into what is and isn’t true, it’s not a good final answer — if only because it’s so fallible.)
    Now, I don’t think these are trivial differences. (I’ll talk more about that in my upcoming post on science.) But while I think the question of how or why these experiences happen is an important question, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most important one. I think the fact that we have them, and what we choose to do with them, may be more important.
    In fact, this is one of the main things I want to keep doing as an atheist writer — to let people people know that experiences of transcendence and connection and meaning are possible without a belief in the spiritual. Partly I want to do this because I get so irritated when the more annoying believers go on about how empty and meaningless atheism is… but it’s also because I want people who are questioning their spiritual beliefs to know that they don’t have to give that stuff up.
    Does that make sense?

  9. 10

    I really enjoyed this blog entry. I agree with your arguments and you expressed everything so much better than I could have. Thanks again!
    (another Rebecca)

  10. 11

    Ah, Greta my dear, you craft a fine atheistic polemic. Very steely-minded. I enjoy this dialogue because you help me to hone my thinking in matters regarding which I have had a lifetime interest.
    When I used the word “intuitive” I thought you would probably zero in on it. I used it anyway, albeit in a somewhat guarded context, commenting that the idea that some of my interpsychic experiences were caused by such things as pheremones or non-verbal cues was not “intuitively valid.” My use of the word valid in this context is designed to match-up with the way statistically-based researchers use the word. Science can be tricky. Different scientific studies arrive at different conclusions, conclusions which are usually properly qualified in the published results, but which also often have a broader intent, namely to try to demonstrate something important. Thus we get the lies, damn lies and statistics syndrome. Intuition is one of the essential tools for evaluating the validity of the broad intent of scientific conclusions. A study may or may not be “reliable,” meaning that it can be replicated using the same measurements, but, as a variable independent of its reliability, it also may or may not be “valid,” in the sense that it accurately reflects reality.
    The danger in allowing intuition to run rampant in our thinking is that we can become too loose, making communication difficult and making it very difficult or impossible to approach complex matters systematically. On the other hand, the danger in failing to apply a measure of intuition to our thinking is that we can become too categorical.
    For example, I think you may hear some of my comments somewhat categorically, as falling on one side of a line in the sand or another, the paranormal side, or the skeptical science side. Thus the dialogue between religious dogma and skeptical science, which starts by examining the question of whether there in fact is an all powerful being called God, morphs into a belief system that seeks to exclude anything thought to be “supernatural,” supernatural being in the category of bullshit. The danger of this is that various gray areas of knowledge disappear from our radar. We may feel more certain, more sure-minded, but we have boxed ourselves in with our certainty.
    An example may help: Acupuncture is increasingly accepted by insurance companies and many medical doctors, even though they don’t understand it. It does seem to relieve pain in many instances, however. So, even though modern (western) science does not understand how it works, pragmatic medical practice takes advantage of it. How can it possibly work? Sticking needles in people? How can that help anyone? Chinese medicine has used acupuncture for many thousands of years. According to their beliefs, there is an energy, which they call “Chi,” that moves throughout the body. When the “Chi” gets blocked it keeps the body from healing itself. Needles expertly placed can release the Chi.
    Some scientists, if not most, will say “Bah, Humbug!” But I say keep an open mind. Try to investigate scientifically, but even if you can’t find the Chi, don’t ignore the possibility that it exists. It’s so ethno-centric and presumptuous to ignore or bluntly discount the possibility just because you don’t understand it or because you think it is a supernatural belief.
    Does a chi-like energy flow through our bodies that can be influenced by needles? After considering many variables, I believe, on balance, with some intuition thrown in, that it does.
    On another matter: You said:
    “In fact 
 one of the main things I want to keep doing as an atheist writer — [is] to let people know that experiences of transcendence and connection and meaning are possible without a belief in the spiritual. Partly I want to do this because I get so irritated when the more annoying believers go on about how empty and meaningless atheism is… but it’s also because I want people who are questioning their spiritual beliefs to know that they don’t have to give that stuff up.”
    Probably you have written already on this. If so, please direct me to the appropriate previous posts. However, the main thrust of your comments as I understand them has not been reassuring in this direction. Your experience with the anesthetic had somewhat the effect of getting you to face something that made you feel a great loss, did it not? Are you saying that the existential joys of fully living now, even though you expect to stop existing one day, are enough to give you all the transcendence, connection and meaning that you need?
    I for one do dearly hope that I shall not stop existing. I do not allow my fear that I shall not seduce me into a blind-faith scenario. Nor do I crave convincing by some Rabbi, Priest or Shaman.
    At the same time, I have no interest in an atheism in which I could have “transcendent experiences” without a belief in the “spiritual.” I do want to understand as best I can, or at least struggle to understand, whether what I experience is in some way real or only in my imagination. Merely to have an experience is not enough. For example, it is not enough, for me, to enjoy a connection with nature that feels like it is full of some kind of wondrous spirit other, if I am only fooling myself.
    Of this much I am certain: there are great mysteries in the universe. I take hope and reassurance from that. The ultimate mystery of existence is — for preacher or scientist — where did everything come from? And if the answer to that is God, then that is no answer at all, because where did God come from? And if the answer is the Big Bang, that is no answer at all, either, because what was there before the Big Bang and where did that come from?
    Whatever the answer is, it is hard to imagine that it is a naturalistic one, because the word naturalistic plays on common sense notions of predictable physical universe stuff in which there is little room for the idea of existence popping into existence from nowhere. So sit back for a moment, Greta, and let your atheistic mind ponder the imponderable. Allow the experience to — like golf for me — make you humble. Someday science may come up with an answer to how everything came to be, but in the meantime, let’s face the truth: the true and valid nature of reality is beyond our present level of understanding.
    Also, whatever the answer to the ultimate mystery of the universe is, it is hard to imagine that it is, strictly speaking, an atheistic one. Atheism I can understand as a existential fatalism, a protest movement or an ethics thesis: How can a so-called God allow evil and so forth. However, the epistemological basis of atheism is less clear when we discuss the great mystery. Somewhere, somehow, existence came to be. Atheism says what about that? Uh, God didn’t do it.
    Well, what did do it? A rhetorical question, obviously, but since we don’t know — and in fact can’t even imagine — how everything came to be, how can we be so sure, even at a Dawkinistic level of sureness, that God, or polytheistic spirit, or higher consciousness, had nothing to do with it? Maybe the paradoxical realities of string theory will point the way to understanding, although so far, some of what string theory seems to suggest, I have heard, sound rather, uh, spiritual.

  11. 12

    Layne, cosmologists are indeed asking where the big bang came from; they don’t take it as a miracle. However, the ideas they have right now are so vague and fragmentary that they haven’t made it into popular accounts.
    You might recall Stephen Hawking’s comments after his interview with the Pope at the 1981 Vatican conference on cosmology: the pope said that Hawking should not inquire into the moment of the big bang itself, because that was divine creation. Fortunately, the Pope didn’t ask, so Hawking didn’t have to explain, that that was the subject of the talk he had just given!
    The ideas are not at all easy to wrap your head around, because normal human experiences (who was it who said that our senses are designed to perceive medium-sized objects at medium distances moving at medium speeds in Africa?) just don’t encompass the way matter and energy behave under extreme conditions. Our “intuition” is just plain wrong.
    Special relativity showed that time is not the same for all observers – indeed, two observers can even disagree about which of two events happened first. General relativity showed that time isn’t even a straight line, and there are situations (which nobody can see how to create, but haven’t been proved impossible to create, either) under which it can go in circles, nad produce time travel. And things’s like Alcubierre’s warp drive.
    So a lot of the ideas about what happened before the big bang involve some very subtle interpretations of words that you might think are obvious, like “before”.
    Cosmologists are trying to “be more explicit here in step two”, but it’s fiendishly tricky, even if they had good theories to work from, and they know that they don’t. A huge issue in modern physics is that quantum mechanics and general relativity, while they have each withstood every test humanity has yet devised, flatly contradict each other. They can’t both be right. But the contradiction only becomes obvious when you combine very large masses and very small sizes. Like black holes (sadly out of stock at earthly science supply stores) or the big bang itself.
    This is all fascinating stuff, and it’s not being deliberately withheld, but it does take some serious effort to understand.

  12. 13

    Layne’s question, “Are you saying that the existential joys of fully living now, even though you expect to stop existing one day, are enough to give you all the transcendence, connection and meaning that you need?” gave me one of those lovely moments of feeling completely understood. Greta may or may not be saying that, but it is EXACTLY how I feel.
    The fact that I will cease to exist in the future does nothing to decrease my joy in living now. Nor does the fact that everyone will eventually cease existing stop me from doing what I can to increase the joy of others. That goal gives my life all the meaning I need.

  13. 14

    That’s a lot to chew on, Layne. And mostly for the last couple/few days (for the last week, really), I’ve primarily been chewing on my last two posts about science. So it may take me a day or two to reply properly.
    But one piece of your comment jumped out at me, and I want to respond to it now.
    “Probably you have written already on this. If so, please direct me to the appropriate previous posts. However, the main thrust of your comments as I understand them has not been reassuring in this direction. Your experience with the anesthetic had somewhat the effect of getting you to face something that made you feel a great loss, did it not? Are you saying that the existential joys of fully living now, even though you expect to stop existing one day, are enough to give you all the transcendence, connection and meaning that you need?”
    The short answer: Yes. They are. Absolutely. That is, in fact, exactly how I feel. What Rebecca said.
    If you want to see my writing about this: Well, you could start with my porn.
    Or my non-fiction sex writing. My writing about art. My writing about food, and dancing, and science, and humor, and cute fluffy animals.
    The thing is, when I write about the things that bring me joy and transcendence and a sense of connection with other people and the world as a whole, I don’t always write As An Atheist. I just write as me. But my writing is very much informed by my secular/ naturalist philosophy — even when I don’t feel compelled to explicitly point that out.
    And in fact, I haven’t been writing As An Atheist for very long, so my body of positive atheist philosophy is still coming out. I am working on a manifesto of sorts, an answer to eclectic’s question of why I feel my atheist identity is so important to me; but that may be a few weeks in coming.
    In the meantime: The pieces I just posted about my passion for science might qualify as a piece of it. My “Why Are We Here?” post is probably a better example; it’s at
    There’s a fair amount of it in my “Transcendental Skepticism” post as well, which is at:
    And of course, there’s the piece of writing that started this all for me: “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God,” which I haven’t posted to my blog yet but which is on my website at:
    Which brings me to your question about my experience with the anesthetic and the sense of loss it gave me. Yes, that was a painful experience. Breakups usually are. But like most other breakups in my life, the fact that it was sad and painful doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do. It was sad and hard then, but I’m happier and more at peace now because of it. And I feel like my connection with the world is more immediate, more intense, because of it. (If for no other reason, I no longer have a nagging voice in the back of my head saying, “The only reason you believe this life-after-death stuff is because you want it to be true.”)
    Instead, I have a nagging voice in the back if my head telling me, “You really need to quit staying up blogging until four in the morning.” So for now, I’m going to say adieu.

  14. 15

    I realize that I’m replying to your comment in fragments, Layne. My apologies if that’s annoying: it’s been that kind of week, and I just have too much on my plate to do one long, carefully-crafted reply. So I’m responding to this bit now:
    “Intuition is one of the essential tools for evaluating the validity of the broad intent of scientific conclusions.”
    I’m not quite sure how to say this, but: No, it isn’t.
    Of all the comments you’ve made, this is probably the one I disagree with most passionately. Intuition is a TERRIBLE tool for evaluating the validity of scientific conclusions, either the broad intent or otherwise.
    If we relied on intuition to evaluate scientific conclusions, we would have rejected the idea that the earth is round. That the earth goes around the sun. That sterilizing surgical instruments to get rid of invisible so-called “germs” is a pointless waste of time. That human beings aren’t apes, sharing common ancestors with other apes and ultimately with every other living thing. That…
    I could go on for pages. Countless good, solid scientific theories are wildly counter-intuitive — or at least, they are until we’ve had a generation or three to think about them. (See Eclectic’s comments above.) The thing is, while intuition can often mean sudden flashes of inspiration and insight, it can also be just another word for our prejudices and preconceptions.
    I don’t discount intuition. For making the quick and/or subjective decisions we have to make every day, it’s invaluable. And in science, it’s a fabulous starting place for coming up with theories in the first place. But as an ending place for evaluating them, it sucks donkey dicks.

  15. 16

    I think there is one more relevant phenomenon you need to bring up with Layne; we tend to believe in our memories, but our memory is reconstructive, it is not a perfect camera.
    There is a famous psychological experiment where an audience was shown a car crash. Half the audience got the question “how fast was the red car driving when it hit the blue car?” the other half got the question “how fast was the red car driving when it smashed into the blue car?”
    The latter group estimated the speed as twice as fast. Using follow-up questions they were more likely to remember broken windows and other signs of how violent the crash was.
    The simple act of using the words “smashed into” instead of “hit” changed the recollection significantly despite the fact that it was a recent memory.
    Now, unless Layne wrote down his “prediction” before hearing of the event there is very good reason to suspect that his sister’s story has affected his recollection of events. Perhaps it wasn’t a train, perhaps it wasn’t his sister, perhaps it wasn’t her car, perhpas she wasn’t in the car.

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