December 10th, 2012

Humans are great at recognizing patterns. Often times, however, we can see patterns where there are none.

A few months ago I was at Panda Express with a friend. This was not at all uncommon for me, since the restaurant was close to the office. As we often did, my friend and I talked about work for most of the time. He let me know that there was a position open at a place, and I let him know I would seriously consider it.

After finishing my meal, I noticed that they had given me an extra fortune cookie. Now, I know what fortune cookies are, and I know that the nice sayings within them are written by some copywriter in an office, not a genie who can see into my future.

I am a skeptical person with everything, and fortune cookies hold no weight or bearing on any of my decisions in life. I think they are nice, but that’s it.

Two fortunes

After eating my meal I cracked open my first cookie, ate it, then looked down at the piece of paper that had my fortune. It said this:

A good position and a comfortable salary will be yours

Huh, interesting. At the time, I thought the fortune in my cookie was a funny coincidence. Until I opened the second one:

You will soon change your present line of work

Wow. What are the chances that I would receive two fortunes, both about the same thing, and both relating to what I was just then talking about?

There have only been a few moments in my life where I came to a quick and sudden realization that there must be something bigger going on, behind the scenes, from what I was experiencing. The closest thing I can compare it to is when a characters in a movie or TV show break the fourth wall. In the moment it felt as if I had just peered behind the fold of our everyday reality and seen a glimpse of what was going on beyond it.

Now, if you’re a fan of stories with happy, meaningful endings, you might want to stop reading now because I’m about to ruin this story with logic.

Post Hoc

Even though it would be extraordinarily easy, and seem to make sense, for me to say that the fortunes and other coincidences were a sign from something, all I can say is that it was a funny coincidence.

I have probably opened a hundred cookies, read a dozen fortunes about new jobs, and ignored every single one except these two because I happened to be thinking about something related to what they mentioned.

About two weeks later I actually did end up getting a new job. Although the fortunes in those cookies could have been placed there by any number of things or reasons, I have to accept that I have no reasonable way to determine what caused that to happen.

Although it would be easy for me to say “Because I got these fortunes, and I got a new job, there must be some force directing my life to bring these events into place”, I would be committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”).

Humans are great at recognizing patterns, but often times our brains like to go a step too far.

One last fortune

To end this post I’d like to share one more fortune. This one I got years ago, and I’ve kept it in my wallet ever since:

Be willing to admit that you may be wrong, you're only human

Is it possible that some force actually did place those two fortunes there for me to know ahead of time that I would be getting a new job? Definitely. Should I conclude that it must be caused by some external force? No, and it would be irrational to do so.

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