Significance Junkies

Seth MacFarlaneFamily Guy creator, 2011 recipient of the Harvard Humanist of the Year award, and executive producer of the upcoming Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted remake of Cosmos — was on NPR’s Fresh Air a few days ago.

There was one portion at the end that was absolutely fascinating to hear because it comes from an atheist’s perspective and we rarely hear a celebrity say it so well. It concerns the fact that MacFarlane would not be alive today if he was on time for a certain flight on 9/11.

(Host) Terry Gross: So, one more question. And I know you’ve been asked this a lot. But on September 11th you were supposed to be on that plane that was supposed to fly from Boston to L.A., but instead was hijacked and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. And you were late. Your travel agent gave you the wrong time, so you missed being on that catastrophic flight. Do you ever think of the rest of your life as being this kind of gift? Because you just, it could have all ended for you that day.

MacFarlane: One of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan is that we are, as a species and as a culture, we are significance junkies. We love attaching significance to everything, even when there is really no significance and something is just a coincidence. And this is a perfect example to me of something — you know, I really, in all honesty, you know, not to sound cold but, you know, I don’t think of it that way. I think of it as, you know, I’m living the same way in 2011 as I was in 1999. And the reason for that is that, you know, I had missed a lot of flights for being late. I’m a perpetually late person. You know, every flight that takes off, you’ve got to figure somebody’s missing the flight or somebody is late. And on top of that, you know, who knows how many times a day we have similar close calls as the one that I had. You know, I mean this morning crossing the street; if I had crossed five minutes later I would have been hit by a car. Who knows? So in my case, you know, obviously the day itself was a tragedy and a disaster, but if we’re just talking about my case, it doesn’t strike me as something that I am attaching an unbelievable amount of significance to because of those reasons. Because, you know, I’ve missed a bunch of flights.

Isn’t it refreshing to hear someone say that?

Sagan talked about this concept in The Demon-Haunted World. He was talking about how we attach significance to events that don’t have any. If your family tends to give birth to a lot of boys, it doesn’t mean your next child is more likely to be a boy. If you’re thinking about a friend of yours and your phone suddenly rings because that friend is calling you, there’s nothing psychic going on.

And if you pray for something and it happens, it doesn’t mean a Higher Power caused it (or even heard your pleas).

MacFarlane and Sagan were right to say we shouldn’t put too much significance on events that really aren’t deserving of them. To paraphrase a famous saying, even one-in-a-million occurrences happen thousands of times a day.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Piet Puk

    Reminds me of my faforite quote:
    “Luck is probability taken personally”
    Chip Denmanus

    • Piet Puk

      *favorite

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

      I like that quote. It is far more succinct than any similar sentiment I have shared. I just always say “luck and chance are the same thing, it just depends on how you look at it.”

  • oambitiousone

    Hold on here–there’s a Cosmos remake coming? To the Google Search Engine, Robin!

  • Mitch

    Whenever I hear about people ascribing significance to events like “I was late for the plane that was flown into one of the towers”, I wonder about the person who was flying standby and got that seat.

    • Matto the Hun

      Well clearly God hated that fucker and put him on standby specifically to die.

      People who play the significance game and/or the God has a plan ought to go up to the people who lost loved ones and say “God had a plan to save my loved one, and part of that plan was killing yours… isn’t it beautiful.”

      But as we’ve been saying here, no one talks about that part. 

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

        I’m waiting for a sports star, like Albert Pujols, to point to the sky whenever he strikes out, errors, or loses a game. Until people start giving their god credit for the ills as well I just like to imagine they are pointing to the atmosphere and thinking, “thanks for existing, otherwise I wouldn’t be a sports star.”

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Seth MacFarlane sure thinks that I know a lot.

    (Probably doesn’t sound as bad in audio, as opposed to being written out. I’m pretty sure I say “umm” entirely too much.)

  • Godless Heathen

    I’ve heard McFarlane say that before and I love it!

    I remember mentioning the fact that some people survived that day through pure coincident and how lucky they were to my dad in the days after 9/11.

    His response was essentially the same, except he added that there were also plenty of people who died who, just through pure coincidence, moved to an earlier flight or were in a certain area of the WTC or the Pentagon that day and that it didn’t mean anything.

    Not that I thought it meant anything, I’d just forgotten about the other side of it and that it’s not really worth pondering because it’s all just coincidence.

    Also, his point about him living his life the same way in 2011 as he did in 1999 reminds me of a quote from House:
    “Almost dying changes nothing. Dying changes everything.”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Sagan differs from Satan by only one letter. Coincidence?

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    Jesus Christ, MacFarlane, I know already. The reason that guy misses so many flights is because his conversations run long due to the “You Knows” he inserts every 7 words.

    • One Man Damned

      Yeah, usually when one transcribes an interview like this one edits the pauses, repeated phrases, “Ummmmm”‘s, and so forth.  I can only imagine they left in so many “you know’s” because IT’S PART OF A PLOT TO MAKE ATHEISTS LOOK INARTICULATE!

      • Anonymous

        You know, we got point taken off in speech everytime we said “you know” or “ah”….you know.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    Sagan was proud to be attacked for being

    “obsessed with reality.”

  • Anonymous

    I’ve heard him talk about that before, I think it was on Stern or Kevin Pollack and his answer has always been very similar to that.

    Wishing more people would say it like he did. The was no hand of god or a blessing or meant to be. Just a coincidence and the fact that he misses flights a lot.

  • Alexis

    If I had taken my education and career more seriously, I might have been a multimillionaire executive with a corner office in the WTC towers. Fortunately, however, I screwed up my grades, took a low level office job in Pittsburgh, and was spared!

  • Mihangel apYrs

    Two things;
    humans are wired to see patterns, and once we became sentient, we explored coincidence as though the pattern were meaningful

    2
    ” If your family tends to give birth to a lot of boys, it doesn’t mean your next child is more likely to be a boy.”
    That can be true because it’s not pure chance which sperm makes it.

    Just saying…

  • Matthew

    I’m sure most readers here already know this, but Michael Shermer’s latest book “The Believeing Brain” is all about this very construct – we as humans have an intrinsic susceptibility to seeing patterns where they do not exist, he labels it “patternicity”, and then we assign some purpose to that pattern, what he labels “agenticity”.  Great read.

    • oambitiousone

      Just finished Hitchens last week–now on to Shermer! Thanks for the recommendation.

      • Matthew Dawson

        Well worth the read oambitiousone.  Enjoy!

  • JZ

    access denied on the image btw, someone doesn’t like hotlinking :p

  • Coyotenose

    “If you’re thinking about a friend of yours and your phone suddenly
    rings because that friend is calling you, there’s nothing psychic going
    on.”

    Now, I know there was nothing supernatural going on (all other arguments aside, it’s too dumb and pointless to be supernatural), but I’d like to know exactly why this occurred:

    I was  sitting in my living room with a sibling and friends, very zoned out while they talked, thinking about nothing in particular. I got up and walked across the room to answer the telephone, but the thing is, it didn’t ring until I already had my hand on it. It was nobody important on the other end, I wasn’t expecting a call, and I had nobody to call myself. My friends and family were looking at me funny when I hung up, because they’d witnessed it, and confirmed it. They had thought I was going to go make a call, not answer one, because it wasn’t ringing.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

      Something similar happened to me when I was a kid.

      I was sitting at home with nothing to do and decided I was going to give my friend Jeff a call. I reached over, picked up the phone and dialed. When I held the phone to my ear I didn’t hear a dial tone or any ringing; just open, crackling air.

      So I said “Hello” to see what was going on. That’s when my friend Jeff spoke up. He had literally dialed my number seconds before I picked up the handset. My wanting to call him coincided with his perfectly. The phone never rang, for him or me. It was odd and serendipidous. We both also wanted to go to the movies, so we did.

      There is this thing called Littlewood’s Law, which states, ” that individuals can expect a “miracle” to happen to them at the rate of about one per month.” (from Wikipedia). We spend so much time dealing with monotony- brushing our teeth, cooking our meals, etc., that these “odd” moments become significant because of the triteness of our daily lives.

      Picking up a phone moments before it rings, or thinking of a friend and having them call, are just coincidences. If they are your friend, how many times do you think of them and they don’t call? How many time do you pick up the phone to only hear a dial-tone? A one-off occurrence is the exception to the rule; it happens because it can happen, but that doesn’t make it special.

      How many times have you bought a lottery-ticket or scratch-off and didn’t win? We think winning is special because we’ve lost so often, but really we only win because we’ve lost so often. Even that rare occurrence of someone winning on the only, or first, lottery ticket they purchased, doesn’t amount to much when compared to other avenues of their lives where things failed or didn’t go as wanted.

      As special as we’d like to think we are, these oddities, or “miracles” are just distractions form normalcy and the typical path of our daily lives. There awesome as hell, but not special, other than being statistical oddities.

  • Anonymous

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  • gsw

    Is this an American thing?

    When I missed a train (years ago) in London and an IRA bomb blew it up, killing lots of people, injuring lots more and trapping all of us on the train behind in a tunnel for an hour, no one said “it’s a gift’ although a few said ‘that was a close call’. One said ‘I thought you were on that train’ (disappointed?).

    But nobody seemed to think that there was any fate or godlike attributes. Nuts blow up trains, some people survive other don’t.   

  • http://kaleenamenke.blogspot.com/ Kaleena

    I really enjoyed listening to that interview! Thanks for posting!


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