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Apophenia and the Intentionality Fallacy

Why License Plates are Not Messages from the Beyond

David and Andrea Lane

“The theory of probabilities is at bottom nothing but common sense reduced to calculus; it enables us to appreciate with exactness that which accurate minds feel with a sort of instinct for which of times they are unable to account.”
--Pierre Simon Laplace

I appreciate Elliot Benjamin's recent attempt to justify his belief in mysterious synchronicities and his elaborations on why his personal experiences do not seem to be the result of Littlewood's Law of Miracles or even Desultory Decussation.

I agree with him, in part, because a close analysis of his license plate encounters clearly points to an easier, even more rudimentary, explanation for the phenomenon. Contrary to what Elliot Benjamin may wish to argue, the details he presents shows quite clearly that the major factor determining these so-called “spiritual” intersections is his own desire to find meaning in seemingly random events. Quite frankly, Elliot is projecting and transferring his own intentions upon a series of license plates and then deriving some purpose or design as to why those letters or numbers have some special significance.

Human beings do this all the time since it part and parcel of what it is to be human. We are meaning seekers creatures and we are predisposed to find meaningful patterns in all sorts of events, even if those events are random in nature. As Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic Magazine and the author of Why People Believe in Weird Things, writes:

“Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning. Such is the stuff of which myth, religion, history, and science are made. Sometimes the patterns we find represent reality — DNA as the basis of heredity or the fossil record as the history of life. But sometimes the patters are imposed by our minds rather than discovered by them — the face on Mars (actually an eroded mountain) or the Virgin Mary's image on the side of a glass building in Clearwater, Florida (really an oil stain from a palm tree, since removed to enable the faithful to better view their icon). The rub lies in distinguishing which patterns are true and which are false, and the essential tension (as Thomas Kuhn called it) pits skepticism against credulity as we try to decide which patterns should be rejected and which should be embraced.”

A close analysis of the first four license plate synchronicities that Elliot Benjamin provides tells us more about his own predilections than it does about some transmundane occurrence. Ironically, the mathematics that he invokes to objectively substantiate the improbability of his encounters are, in fact, a complete ruse. Probabilities and the like have actually nothing to do with the synchronicities, since the real issue at hand is Elliot's own pattern seeking. What is at work here is the intentionality fallacy, where we as subjective creatures conflate our subjective needs and wants with outward events, mistakenly believing that the latter is literally contouring to our internal forms of awareness. Elliot Benjamin hasn't tapped into some integral networking of the divine that supersedes rational science. No, what he has uncovered is how easy it is to confuse one's neurology for ontology and then pass it off as beyond current scientific explanation.

What is most important in Elliot's examples is what he leaves out, since it is in those middling details that we can uncover how intentionality, and not some heavenly agent, is at play. Richard Feynman, the well-known architect of Quantum Electrodynamics, strenuously argued that a scientist should point out those details which may contradict his findings or allow others to reevaluate his results in new and perhaps contrarian ways. As Feynman so persuasively argued in his now famous “Cargo Cult” Speech at Cal Tech in 1974,

“It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

The Intentionality Game

Elliot Benjamin provides the following as his first example and reminder of what he claims “cannot be explained by our rational scientific technological minds or brains.”

“A few days ago, while I was agonizing over having recently lost one of my mental health jobs, I found myself driving behind a license plate that said ACT. For me this was an immediate recognition of the meaningful workshop I had done a few years ago in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes, Strousahl, & Wilson, 2004), which is abbreviated as ACT. In ACT you are taught to accept your disappointments and difficulties in life in a mindful way, and then make a commitment to actualizing your deepest values in life in spite of these disappointments and difficulties (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2004). Seeing the ACT license plate was a meaningful reinforcement for me that I needed to accept the loss of my mental health job gracefully, and was connected to my deepest intention of offering my services to continue to work with mental health clients, independently and without expecting to earn any real money from doing so.”

Let's systematically breakdown Elliot's example here which I think will easily illustrate how and why intentionality (and not some mysterious spiritual interplay) is at work. First, Elliot reveals his emotional condition with these words “I was agonizing over having recently lost one of my mental health jobs.” Thus, this is the mental context in which to better understand what he reports next, “I found myself driving behind a license plate that said ACT.”

Importantly, the interested reader will not notice anything of significance or that what just transpired constituted a synchronicity. Rather, it is Elliot who draws a meaning out of these three letters, which he then conjures up as reminding him of a workshop he done in “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.”

At this juncture, several problems arise (especially in light of Feynman's insistence about revealing more, versus less, information which could cast one's own pet theory in doubt), not the least of which is that those three letters ACT could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The fact that Elliot finds meaning in them is precisely the point: it is his own projection from his mental state onto those letters. The letters themselves don't indicate their meaning objectively in a way that others may agree with Elliot at all. That Elliot may find significance in those three letters is one thing, but to then extrapolate from his own projections into some sort of “mysterious” synchronicity is not only unwarranted but borders on the ridiculous.

While I can well appreciate that this license plate moment meant something to Elliot in a time of need, it doesn't at all follow that such is an example of a mysterious synchronicity. Far from it—it shows, rather, how easy it is for human beings to find meaning in letter sequences. Kids do it all the time at school, but they don't then proceed to scientifically argue that something “magical” is transpiring.

In addition, a few questions arise after reading Elliot's narrative. Were the letters ACT in capitals? Were they surrounded by other letters or numbers? Were there other license plates that Elliot looked at during this time? Did those other plates have anything significant on them as well? If not, then are those considered to be “misses.”? I can come up with a whole of questions that need to be answered, but all of them are unnecessary if the real cause of the event points directly to human intentionality. To be precise, what we are witnessing is the brain's ability to find meaning in almost anything, including three letters conjoined from our alphabet placed on a metal plate riding low on the back of a four wheel car.

Let's move on to Elliot Benjamin's second example and see if perhaps this one holds up better. Writes Elliot,

“I concluded my little perfect number lesson to my son and his friends by disclosing that the third perfect number is 496, and that this was the number in my e-mail address. A few minutes later, as Jeremy was driving me and one of his friends who had very actively participated in my perfect number lesson to our destinations, I noticed that the license plate on the car in front of us said, lo and behold: “496”! I immediately pointed this out to Jeremy and his friend, and we were all quite impressed and amused by this amazingly concrete display of playful synchronicity.”

Again, a few questions should be asked before we proceed. Were the numbers 496 alone by themselves on the license plate? Were there any other numbers or letters surrounding 496? If so, what were they and why were they not listed? I can readily appreciate that this event holds special significance for Elliot, but there is nothing here that rises above mere coincidence. I say this because I think each of us, perhaps daily, have such oddities arise and yet we don't conjure up a metaphysical template to explain them.

That such a number has significance to Elliot is one thing. That such significance indicates something metaphysical is quite another. Elliot could just have well seen the number 6 or 28 or even 43 etched on a license plate and (given his predisposition in finding meaning in these things) used the same as illustrative of a mysterious synchronicity.

This is a parlor game of intentionality and one which I have myself played over the years with great amusement.

Knowing that intentionality and probability intertwined can produce all sorts of unexpected things, I sometimes say to myself before going into the Newport Beach library bookstore (a treasure trove for a book collector) that I have to get into the “Littlewood” stream. One time, I went into the bookstore and I was looking for a nice edition of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. But alas none was found. So I said to myself, "Ah, wait and see; let's play the Littlewood game." A minute or so later, the librarian brought a new trove of books for sale to be placed on the shelves. And the first book she brought out? A leather bound copy of Tolstoy's classic.

Okay, today, after I go to my favorite Vegan restaurant, Veggie Grill at the U.C. Irvine, I walk into the Newport Beach Library bookstore, but before I walk through the doors I say myself "Littlewood! Game on!"

I have this strange habit of closing my eyes when I go to the Classics section and randomly pulling a book off the shelf to see what I can unconsciously uncover. Okay, right before I go to the bookstore I was thinking about making a little movie on that article I did on Mary Magdalene. I was playing out in my head how the scenes would work, etc., since I had just finished a film on the Kirpal Statistic, where I pointed out how human expectations and human neurology can produce all sorts of fantastic results during meditation but which has precious little to do with the so-called mastership of the initiating guru.

As this is going through my mind, the very first book I pulled randomly off the shelf was an old novel written in the 1950s about (yes, you guessed it right) Mary Magdalene. I love this game. Of course, we tend to only recount the times it works and neglect the times it doesn't.

Do I really think like Elliot Benjamin that these book coincidences “may serve as a reminder to us that there is indeed inherent spirituality in the universe that cannot be explained by our rational scientific technological minds or brains.” Of course not. To the contrary, I think it shows how human intentionality intertwined with probabilities plays out over time. I think it is the height of hubris to think that the universe is contouring to my internal whims.

But Elliot provides us with two more examples that he thinks qualify as significant,

“Last week Dorothy (my significant other) and I went camping to celebrate her birthday, and on the way back I realized that she was almost exactly twice as old as my son Jeremy, as he turned 29 two days before Dorothy turned 58. I was thinking how interesting this was to me as I was driving to my weekly tennis game, two days after Dorothy's birthday. After I stopped off to have a quick bite to eat on the way, I noticed the license plate of the car parked next to me; it was 2958!”

At this stage, one might think that Elliot is suffering from apophenia which ”is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” As Sandra L Hubscher points out in her fine article of the same name, “This brings us to a number of deficiencies in the natural human assessment of randomness. One is that randomness, by virtue of its nature, does contain some patterns. Being pattern seekers, we focus on and over-interpret these patterns.”

Once again I can well understand why Elliot can get excited by noticing numbered coincidences, but he seems to have a resistance to accepting how commonplace these occurrences can be, given the powerfulness of human “patternicity.” As Michael Shermer, the first person to apparently coin the term, explains in a widely cited article “Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise” in Scientific American (November 25, 2008):

“Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat¬ternicity”). In my 2000 book How We Believe (Times Books), I argue that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens. Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.) But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution.”

Sometimes these patterns can be very startling, much more so in fact than what Elliot Benjamin has provided for us in his article. But just because they are surprising doesn't then mean that they are indicative of a spiritual intelligence guiding the universe. I too, like Elliot Benjamin, have witnessed several amazing coincidences--the likes of which seem to defy probabilities. But therein lays the catch. Strange coincidences do happen and they happen much more often if they are coupled with a creature evolved to be a pattern seeker. Homo sapiens are gifted enough to connect dots that are unconnected, to conjoin meanings that are from disjointed, and discern deeply personal messages from the universe in the letter and number sequences on license plates while driving in a car. A few years ago I wrote the following in my online diary on,

“The other night I was watching a couple of DVDs which is my habit if I get off the computer early enough. None of the movies were any good, but I did find the previews of coming attractions intriguing. One of the new movies coming out from Lion's Gate is Peaceful Warrior which is based on the life story of Dan Millman, a former world champion athlete and the author of several books with millions of readers. He is very well known in New Age circles and has been so for a couple of decades. After seeing the preview I was over at a friend's house who unexpectedly asked me about Dan Millman and his books completely out of the blue (as I had not mentioned watching the preview). I mentioned that I was aware of his writings, but I didn't know much more than that. Well, today, guess what? I receive a completely unexpected and unsolicited letter from Dan Millman himself asking if I would give him my permission to use some of my writings in his forthcoming memoir. He mentioned how he had read my earlier book, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York: Garland Publishers, 1992). Naturally, I gave him my permission and mentioned briefly the odd coincidence of him writing just now.”

Now if I, like Elliot Benjamin, wished to ad hoc devise a number scale on the unusualness of the preceding synchronicity, I am fairly confident that I could massage the numbers enough so as to make it appear that these three unrelated events (seeing a preview of Dan Millman's movie, being asked about Millman the next day, and then having Dan Millman write to me) could not simply have happened by chance.

But assigning probabilities in this after-the-event way is pseudoscientific sleight of hand, since it implies a neutrality and objectivity that cannot be ascertained. That's precisely why science often necessitates double-blind experiments and rigorous experimental protocols so that the researcher's biases (consciously or unconsciously) get minimized in the translative process.

What Elliot Benjamin should champion is not his own numbering system, since that is already tainted from the start (just as mine would be as well), but one drawn from a body of disinterested scientists. But in the cases that Elliot Benjamin provides us (and even the ones that I, myself, have just proffered), this is not likely to happen because he is confusing his own intentional meaning system (Shermer's patternicity) with something he portends is beyond the rational brain.

Ironically, the opposite thing is transpiring. It is our brain and our intentionality and our meaning seeking ways that derives messages from metallic plates. This isn't Elliot Benjamin's fault, as it is the lot of almost all human beings. Given our subjective moods and desires, we have an endemic tendency to impute meaning and patterns on events which when objectively analyzed by disinterested observers have neither.

Sandra L Hubscher provides us with a brief history to these delusional tendencies of ours in her Skeptic Dictionary article "Aphohenia: Definition and Analysis":

“August Strindberg, the early 20th century Swedish playwright, chronicles in Inferno/From an Occult Diary his descent into what would likely be diagnosed as schizophrenia in modern times:“There on the ground I found two dry twigs, broken off by the wind. They were shaped like the Greek letter for “P” and “y”… [I]t struck me that [they] must be an abbreviation of the name Popoffsky. Now I was sure it was he who was persecuting me, and that the Powers wanted to open my eyes to my danger.” This is an eerie and extreme glimpse at the propensity of the human mind to commit what the statisticians Neyman and Pearson (1933) termed Type I error. As a statistical error, it is the acceptance of a false positive, that is, believing to see a difference or meaning when the given result is attributable to chance. Strindberg, in this example, was driven to interpret the random arrangement of sticks as non-random written letters. Although he was laboring under mental illness, the tricks of his mind were not hallucinations, but over-interpretations of his actual sensory perceptions as being more meaningful than reality warranted. Brugger (2001) puts this weakness of human cognition as a “pervasive tendency of human beings to see order in random configurations,” which Klaus Conrad in 1958 had refined and termed as apophenia, or the “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.” Modern examples of apophenia (and its subset corollary pareidolia) are so numerous and sufficiently well-known to hardly need enumerating, but are amusing enough to merit repeating: Drosnin's The Bible Code, in which arrangements of letters pulled from scripture predicted events such as 9/11 (and, heads-up, an earthquake – “the big one” – will hit in 2010), the infamous grilled cheese sandwich virgin Mary, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven crooning “My sweet Satan,” when played backward, the face on Mars, and, apparently, psychoanalysis.”

I realize that before I conclude this essay that Elliot Benjamin most likely won't see eye to eye with my argument since he thinks that I am perhaps too “scientistic” or reductionistic in my approach. But I think David Hume's maxim is an important yardstick here. Do we really think that the universe is bending the known laws of physics and chemistry (keeping in mind that license plates are made of chemical elements embedded within the known laws of gravity and electromagnetism) simply because I have lost my job or that the ages of my lover and son show up together? I think not.

Or, to put a more positive spin to this discussion, I would strongly suggest that Elliot Benjamin and others who believe in supernatural synchronicities should up their game a bit and provide us with some truly extraordinary examples of transpersonal intersections. But even here they will have to follow Pierre Simon Laplace's pertinent admonition, “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” In other words, Elliot Benjamin's purported coincidences are not strange enough to invoke the transcendental and his evidences are insufficient to convince us that anything but the commonplace and the ordinary are occurring. Of course, just as I write these last lines, I was interrupted by my wife and two children who are playing a child's card game called “War.” As I was explaining to each of them what the word “apophenia” means, I jokingly looked at the covered deck of cards and said, “In honor of the goddess of apophenia, I predict that the next card will be the number five.”

Guess what happened? To everyone's chagrin, the next card was the number five. I must say that right after this happened I was tempted to get into my car and start looking at license plates.


1. I must also apologize to Elliot Benjamin for misspelling his first name (with one l instead of two) in my previous article. If I had to invoke a defense for such an indefensible lapse on my part, I think it stems from my “Occam's Razor” approach to spelling, which translated here means “do not multiply letters beyond what is necessary.” This explains, albeit partially, why I tend to prefer to spell Occam (with only five letters) versus the more common spelling of Ockham (with six letters), which in the latter case according to my reckoning goes against the very rule that he was trying to champion.

2. I do know of one fairly strange desultory decussation which may be more properly categorized as a “precognitive” synchronicity or maybe even a deceptive prophecy fulfilled. It is a story that I am naturally reluctant to tell but so strange, I believe, that it deserves retelling. Many years ago I was on sabbatical and living in London for a few months developing content for my newly founded website, the neuralsurfer. However, I was in a pickle since I had to go to France and then Switzerland for a few weeks for personal reasons. But the situation in my life at the time was such that I couldn't exactly tell the truth to those in London about where I was going and why. I had to create a cover of sorts, so I concocted a wild tale that I had to go to Greece because a cult deprogrammer from the United States had called and he wanted me to help him in providing important information about the nefarious lifestyle of a guru named Thakar Singh. I further elaborated on this tall tale and said that the organization was willing to pay me all my expenses plus a thousand dollars a day. I then said I would be back in a week or two. The story was a complete fiction. However, it served me well at the time as I needed to completely hide my real whereabouts. Several years later, when the dust had settled and I felt safer about revealing why I had to develop such an elaborate lie, I explained to those involved that I never actually did go to Greece but ended up in Paris and in Interlaken. I thought that was the end of the sordid narrative. But a few years ago, I got the most unusual and totally unexpected phone call. A well-known cult deprogrammer in the United States called and asked if I could help him with a client who was trying to extricate his father from the clutches of a dangerous cult leader.
When I asked who the guru was my jaw dropped.
“Thakar Singh,” the cult deprogrammer responded.
He then asked if I could fly abroad to meet his client.
I asked somewhat sheepishly, “Where to?”
“Greece. We will only need you for a week or two,” the cult deprogrammer replied.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. But then the cult deprogrammer put the cherry on the cake when he continued, “Dr. Lane, we will pay all your expenses and a thousand dollars a day for your expertise.”
Although I ended up declining the generous offer, I was wonderstruck by the apparent fulfillment of my earlier ruse. As I told my wife the story, she too couldn't believe how my earlier fictional story could be so perfectly matched by a later, unmediated, non-fictional offer.
But even here I think we shouldn't succumb to the transcendental temptation or invoke mystical explanations. Coincidences are, contrary to what we may wish to believe, just that. Coincidences.'

3. When I was a sophomore in high school, some of my friends and I would randomly open the Bible after asking a question we needed an answer to. Usually, given our Bohemian ways, it was where to take our girlfriends on a date on Friday or Saturday nights. Inevitably, we would find passages that seemed to pertain to our concerns.
Does this mean that the Bible, like Elliot's license plates, is responding to the internal needs of young teenagers? Of course not. Rather, it is yet another example of how human beings have the ability to find meaning in almost anything. As my now deceased friend, Paul Tooher, once opined about the guru Charan Singh and his ability to find Sant Mat teachings in almost any holy book, “Dave, if you gave Charan Singh a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine I am 100 percent confident that he would find passages that related to the theory and practice of surat shabd yoga.” Intentionality is such a powerful tool that one can extract diamonds from mud, even when there are no such diamonds and there isn't any mud.

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