The other day I was at the Small Dog Park. It's a fenced area where dogs under 20 pounds can frolic with each other. I was chatting with a friend, whose dog is named Indy, about a movie I just watched involving a dog named Marley. After my friend left, I met a guy who has two Italian Greyhounds, coincidentally named Marley and Indy.

I don't know the odds of discussing two dogs named Marley and Indy, immediately followed by an unrelated discussion of two different dogs named Marley and Indy. I'm thinking it is in the smallish category.

Speaking of coincidences, I have started noticing that all movies are about me personally. For example, the Marley and Me movie is about a guy who writes humorous columns about his dog. My last blog post prior to watching the movie was a humorous piece about my own dog. (See below.) The writer in the movie worked in a cubicle at one point, and if you look closely at the comic hanging on his wall, it's Dilbert.

There's a bit of selection bias in this coincidence. I did know it was about a dog. But I wasn't aware it was about a writer who writes humorous bits about his dog. And I didn't expect to see one of my drawings in it.

Still, it seems that every time I watch a movie or a TV show lately there is at least one element that is yanked directly from my life. And I don't mean the obvious stuff such as "we are both humans." The connections are usually pretty obscure.

I have to remain true to my skeptical roots and explain these coincidences away with references to selective memory, and pointing out that it would be even stranger if there were no coincidences at all, given the richness of life's experiences. But it got me wondering if there is any way to design an experiment to test the theory that life is an illusion.

Obviously the illusion could be so well designed that all testing of it would be cleverly thwarted. So a negative result would mean nothing. But suppose this illusion was providing a fire hose of ongoing clues. What would those clues look like?

One possible clue is that your life might have what I will call a theme. For example, Steve Jobs' theme is that he can turn any business into a huge winner. You might call that skill, but he still had to be in exactly the right places at exactly the right times for his particular skill to be useful. I don't think he would have been much of a hunter/gatherer.

You probably know people who are the opposite of Steve Jobs, able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory again and again, through no obvious fault of their own. It looks like extraordinary bad luck. That's a theme.

If your name is Kennedy, you might have good luck with love and money and power, but bad luck with transportation. Stay away from PT boats, convertibles in Dallas, cars in rivers, and small aircraft. That's a theme.

Some people are lucky in love, but unlucky in health. That's a theme. You get the picture. So ask yourself if your life would look entirely random from an objective viewpoint or is there a recurring theme. If you have a theme, you might be a product of design.

Another clue that life is an illusion is that perceived reality might have inexplicable dead ends or cracks. Consider the physics study of entanglement, where particles influence each other at any distance, which is seemingly impossible. Or consider that light is both a particle and a wave. Physics is full of examples where reality seems to have cracks and dead ends.

How would you test to see if life is an illusion?

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Jan 5, 2009
Well, according to Hindu Philosophy everything is an illusion or 'Maya'. There is nothing in life which you can call absolute/real, its all an illusion. So coincidences are also part of this Maya.

Here is some more information on this ...
Jan 5, 2009
How would I test to see if my life were an illusion?

Better than that, I propose to you, better to spend your time deciding what you would do if you could prove that it were an illusion. Something tells me even if you could prove that it were an illusion, there'd be nothing for you to do but roll with it.

Do you suppose the creator of this illusion would suddenly pop into view and say "Good work! You got me there, bub. You clever guy! Ok, back to [whatever it is someone with the power to pull that off would have you do]."
Jan 5, 2009
Not to be start slicing things up with Ocham's Razor or anything, but the book 'Marley and me' was extremely popular amongst dog lovers. The name 'Indy' for a dog is also well known amongst film buffs from the last minute of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'. Indy and Marley are extremely popular names for dogs. They're the current replacements for Rex and Fido.

I know two Indys, although that sort of coincidence could simply support that my simulation keeps taunting me with Scott Adams' oddball theories :-)
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Jan 5, 2009
My good man, you are ignoring the real reason that everything is about you. Your life as you know it is really the plot for the Adams Show and everything around you is an elaborate construct.

You may have seen a film about a chap called Truman, who had the same problem.
Jan 5, 2009
If the world is an illusion, it's a very good one, and it would be difficult and costly to make. So how would anyone profit from this experiment?

The only reason I can see is that if scientists would like to know what would happen to humans if something catastrophic or amazing happend on a global scale.

An experiment like that would be very unethical, and scientist wouldn't do it unless the real humans had a really big problem that justified it.

Perhaps they need to know how to fight off an allien attack. Or, maybe it's the alliens doing the experiment to find out how to they should attack earth.

Anyway, I kinda hope life is an illusion, cause then it might turn out to be very exciting - until I die of a lazer beam through the heart.
Jan 5, 2009
Wow. I NEVER see these kinds of coincidences in my life. In fact, if I were a spiritual man, I'd be worshiping a pair of dice, as everything seems totally random.

In fact, I think you're right to credit a lot of this to selective memory and putting yourself in specific situations. I also think that someone whose comic strip is read by millions of people every week is much more likely to run into things that relate to him (i.e., the popularity of Dilbert leads to many Dilbert strips being posted in offices) than someone whose world connections are limited to about 150 people on Facebook. Finally, I think that being in a job that is considered "glamorous" be Hollywood would also lead to many perceived coincidences. When I was a young guy with great hair working at an advertising agency, every other TV show seemed to be about great looking people working at advertising agencies. Now that I am a chubby middle-aged bald guy doing marketing for a high tech company, I don't see ANY TV shows about a chubby middle-aged bald guys doing marketing at a high tech company.

So, in the end, the less "normal" and more "glamorous" your life is, the more likely you are to run into coincidences in the mass media. Additionally, a high number of coincidences in a small, enclosed world (such as that of SF-area dog owners) doesn't seem very coincidental to me. In fact, Indy and Marley may be among the top 10 dog names in SF - I don't know.

P.S. Crediting the damage done to the Kennedy family to an unearthly problem with transportation seems a lot less likely than crediting it to an earthly problem with alcohol and hubris.
Jan 5, 2009
I have hypothesized that we believe there are significances to actually insignificant !$%*!$%*!$%*! because we are constantly trying to relate things together.... and to ourselves so we notice one or two obscure things in, say, a 2 hr movie, and thus feel a bond to the movie/characters in the movie. What we fail to do is to remember that there were tens of thousands of details in the movie that we glossed over because we could not latch onto them. Someone else, on the other hand, probably latched onto a couple of those other points and thus they too felt a bond to the same movie. Likewise we talk to folks/see people and places all the time, but make a big deal about the one out of thousands of encounters that seem "special"... simply because we relate them together. We like the unusual... they are "memorable" experiences.... but if you looked at the frequency at which these occurred it would probably be so insignificant that it could easily be the result of random combinations.. for that matter, most of the "coincidences" to which we refer are silly, insignificant things. If we are on the lookout for coincidental patterns it is inevitable we will find stuff that relates simply because it is probable that SOMETHING SOMEPLACE will look like SOMETHING we experiences in our lives sometime before.

Jan 5, 2009
Fundamental problem: if life is an illusion, we are an illusion - at least the avatar that interfaces with life. Unless you have an experience that either measurably breaks probability on a universe-wide scale I don't see how you can subscribe to this.

I suppose the more likely truth is that the universe is wierd, and has a lot of bizzare laws, that seem to masquerade as magic.

In my case; at least once every other day (no less than twice a week, on average), I get stopped and asked for directions. It doesn't matter where I am (city, state, or country) or if I speak the language or not. SOMEONE will come up and start asking (in their native tounge, whatever it might be) directions. In game analogy, maybe I have a big glowing "I" over my head mistakenly.
Jan 5, 2009

In my opinion all examples anybody can provide about amazing coincidences, are no more than that: just an amazing coincidence. Think of some coincidence you like, imagine the number of small but significative variations that would make the coincidence still almost unbelievable. an enormous number right? Furthermore, you would expect a number of such coincidences during your lifetime. This is rather obvious, but still is quite the point of your discussion.

Now, if you were to decide whether those coincidences are statiscally significative or not I guess it would be a fairly impossible task, (or maybe there is a way, I don't know ).

In addition, I distrust profoundly of regularities that may happen at our scale, and into our view of the world as human beings. That's why, even since I was very young, I despised religion, it's postulates are totally naïve and simplistic. I mean, they are alledged regularities and facts that refer to the human vision of the world, which is artificial, a construction. Maybe I'm not making myself clear, I hope someone gets my point and be able to explain better!
Jan 5, 2009
didn't Dennis DeYoung (Styx) explain this back in '77?
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Jan 5, 2009
Is life an illusion? One thing I've noticed is that the continuity is sometimes off. For example, I'll be doing something (eg, reading or working at my desk) and I can see something else vaguely in front of me - I'm not staring at it, but I can pretty much see what's there. Then I'll look down and concentrate on what I'm really doing for a second, then look back up as before. But now, something is not quite right any more. It's not quite the same as it was before I looked down. It's as if the continuity department that's supposed to be keeping my life in order missed something. You see it from time to time in movies (eg, the actor finishes tying his tie, and in the next shot he's still busy tying it). Am I the only one who notices this?
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Jan 5, 2009
The only I can think of to test "life is an illusion" to turn the "life switch" off and see what happens. I see three outcomes:

1) Real death, cease to exist - game over, life was not an illusion.
2) Continued conscience - game still on, life is an illusion.
3) Continued conscience, new reality - game still on, but life was not an illusion.

Not sure I like any of the outcomes well enough to make a test...meanwhile it sure is fun to speculate!
Jan 5, 2009
As an intelligent human being, one has to expect that there’s a lot more about the universe that we don’t understand than there are things we’ve figured out. It seems as though when we figure one thing out and are able to define it scientifically, it only leads to more questions, and more complicated mysteries that are even more difficult to define. That said, I think there’s quite a bit that we don’t know about how interconnected we are with each other in this universe.

It’s beneficial to have an understanding of “objective reality”, the ability to recognize what, in any given situation, is fact, and what your brain is making up about the situation to fill in the gaps. But I often wonder if reality is completely objective, or if there’s some subjectivity to it. Was that event you just described completely coincidental, or did you have some part in the universe making that coincidence happen?

The other day I decided to look up an old girlfriend on the Internet, with no intention but to see what she looked like. I hadn’t seen her in over 15 years, and was curious. That’s all I wanted; no contact, no reconnection, just a look. I didn’t have any luck, but the very next day I went shopping and visited a store I’ve never been to before. As I walked in, the girl I was trying to find was walking out. I don’t think she recognized me, and I didn’t say hi, I just got my look, and went on my way. I hadn’t seen this girl in more than 15 years, so was it just a coincidence that one day I put it out into the universe that I wanted to see her, and the next day I did? Personally, I think there’s more subjectivity to reality than we understand at this time.

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Jan 5, 2009
I wonder what theme this guy's life was following. He played lotto for 20 years before buying a ticket winning $10 000 000 the very same day he died.

Jan 5, 2009
These are the sort of posts that keep me coming back.
Jan 5, 2009
One thing not directly related, but I know you have a little obsession about free will.

So, here it goes, ponder this issue "does God have free will?" Consider also that God is defined as omniscient and that he always does good and how that bodes with free will -- one conclusion that you could reach is that God is a robot, since he knows what is the result of his action and he always takes the best action it means that he has no free choice. So he knows the future and already took all the decisions he could take... is he relevant at all? And since he knows the future how men have the "free will" postulated by Christians, if somebody knows what you'll do it means that you are not free to choose. So, it's either not true that God is omniscient or it means that people are not truly free to choose their destiny.

(BTW, I consider "free will" as it's interpreted by most of the people a stupid notion, I used this example only to illustrate how stupid it is. Free will was a notion invented in relation with God, even in that context it doesn't make sense as I explained above, if you don't believe in God not only that it doesn't make sense but it's also an irrelevant concept -- free from what?)
Jan 5, 2009
I've experienced something similar. For nearly every job I've had in the last 20 years, I've previously applied and been rejected by that employer's number one competitor.

P.S. Thanks Scott for putting together Dibert 2.0. It was my favorite Christmas present.
Jan 5, 2009
Steve Jobs turn any business into a huge winner? He virtually destroyed Apple when he was forcibly removed around the time Macintosh was first introduced, and when he returned in 1998, Apple plummetted from roughly 15% market share down to 1.2% and almost went bankrupt. They're basically a PR company that has all but given up on the computer market, and hung its future on portable electronics. Apple was Wozniak. A million people could have done what Jobs did. Wozniak was irreplaceable, and Jobs was lucky to have ridden those coat tails to an inexplicable and undeserved position of respect in the industry.
Jan 5, 2009
Heh, and to think that just yesterday I was reading about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. I forget what linked me there, though.

I dunno, I get the same feeling you do when I watch a lot of anime, for example. It seems like a bunch of them have managed to find simple events and minutiae from my life that have odd meaning for me, and then I see all of them, as though they were picking my head for ideas.
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Jan 5, 2009
Why would you care?
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