The other day I complained that my printer had broken down. It occurred the day after I received notification that I was going to get a raise. Earlier in the week I obtained a new client; this was followed by not getting a seat upgrade on a flight. Each positive event was ‘balanced’ by a negative one. I even suggested that it was the way the world worked — with the universe balancing off the good and the bad to achieve equilibrium in my life.
This, of course, is utter nonsense. The universe could care less about the daily triumphs or vicissitudes of my life. The universe is not only indifferent; it is random.
Yet we all have a tendency to think ‘everything happens for a reason.’ And so we should — cause and effect is fundamental to the laws of physics. Even at the quantum level, it may seem skewed but it is still there. Time’s arrow moves in only one direction and despite some theoretical constructs that suggest otherwise, there is little empirical evidence to support them.
But cause and effect is not what people are referring to when they try to discern larger meaning in random events. Take the idea that my good fortune at getting a raise is somehow balanced off by having my printer break down, hence costing me the money in my raise. Where is the causal link? Since I am the only common factor between the two, I would have to conclude that some force interested in me had caused them both. This force — karma, if you like — wants my life to be balanced. It is a small step from that to believing in a personal god who happens to care about trivial things.
At the bottom of this are two fundamental aspects of human existence. The first is that we are self-aware and only at a certain developmental stage do we become aware that others are also self-aware and distinct from us in any real way. Mommy and Daddy aren’t just there to serve our needs but have interests and needs of their own. Some people never get past that stage and remain permanent narcissists. But even if we do grow up we retain that egocentric 3-year old and carry it throughout our lives. We remain the centre of our own universe.
Pile on top of that the very useful skill of pattern recognition that has proven over and over again to be valuable to our survival. This ability to see patterns, for example, help us recognize faces so we can distinguish friend and foe. In some people this is broken which proves a significant disability for them; others have it so overdeveloped they see Jesus in the patterns of frost on glass or in pancakes at Denny’s.
Narcissism plus an ability to see patterns — even when they don’t exist — and a caring universe seems almost inevitable. And once we think the universe (or God) gives a damn about us — well, then all hell breaks loose.
But that’s ten minutes.