Many people feel…well…“different”. They somehow believe that “something” is guiding them, edging them on to a future of significance. And this belief is reinforced by their life history. Maybe they narrowly avoided getting killed in an accident or in a situation of conflict, and maybe even not once but several times. Maybe they got a remarkable job, or a position, or a promotion that they thought they had no chance of getting. Maybe they surprised themselves by achieving something that many others could not achieve. They suspect that there is more than luck involved in their achievements or near misses. Clearly some greater force (call it Providence, fate, or whatever) has chosen them and is protecting them in order for them to fulfil something in the future. There are many examples of such individuals.
Consider one of the most dramatic examples, Winston Churchill, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain during one of the most difficult periods in its history. From childhood to adulthood he survived so many diseases, accidents, and wartime situations that could have ended his life, that he developed the belief that he had been chosen for great things. This was seemingly proven true when Churchill, against nearly insurmountable odds, led Britain to victory during World War II.
Could Churchill’s survival have been due to chance, or is there a deity, or force, or entity that protects and propels some individuals to overcome adversity and guide their people in times of trouble? This is not a scientific question, but we can certainly consider whether this proposition has some internal consistency.
Consider the diametrical opposite of Winston Churchill, Adolph Hitler. He not only survived four years of military service during the First World War, but he also survived many assassination attempts and persevered against all odds to become Chancellor of Germany. As did Winston Churchill, Hitler believed he had been chosen by providence to achieve great things, however, the world considers him today the epitome of evil; a deranged tyrant responsible directly and indirectly for the death of millions.
How is the miraculous survival of Churchill any different from that of Hitler? If one is not fortuitous, it is hard to argue that the other is. To preserve the consistency of the proposal that a deity, force, or entity chooses, protects, and propels some individuals towards good things in times of trouble, you would have to accept that there are also deities, forces, or entities that choose, protect, and propel individuals towards bad things. So, you are left with arguing that history is some sort of grand dueling ground of deities, forces, or entities, and we are the pawns.
There is, of course, a simpler explanation: chance. There are countless individuals on this planet that face extremely trying circumstances and perish in the process or are physically and/or psychologically scarred for life. A certain proportion of these individuals survive and go on to lead average lives. A smaller proportion develops the notion that their survival and success is somehow dictated by a higher power, and this factor may become a driving force behind the choices they make in life (both good and bad). Finally, out of this last group of individuals a select few find themselves in the right place at the right time, and have the smarts, the talent, and the character to propel them to positions of power where they can influence the lives of millions of people.
These are the really scary ones.
When you develop the notion that you are being guided by a higher power, there is the temptation to not listen to opposing views and to see all those that oppose you as standing in the way of the fulfillment of your rightful preordained destiny. You may here be tempted to argue that you would choose Churchill over Hitler any day of the week, nonetheless consider this: in this post I presented Churchill and Hitler as polar opposites, but the truth is far more complicated. Churchill participated in, promoted, and sanctioned many despicable colonial and imperial activities of the British Empire, and he held dismal opinions of non-white cultures and individuals. In the real world, boundaries are blurry things.
Science has found that our brains are programed to look for patterns, and we often can’t avoid making sense of the swirling reality around us by interpreting it within the context of our personal history and beliefs. Most of us may rationally understand the role of chance if we flip a coin ten times and obtain ten heads, but surviving ten assassination attempts is something that we may interpret in a vastly different way. Such is the complexity of the human mind, but still we must try. So please, next time that sensation of feeling special, of being chosen, of being destined for great things comes along, do humanity a favor and read a little about probability.
Churchill picture by Yousuf Karsh used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. Hitler Picture, copyright by