First, I read this post at Ace of Spades about how climate change may lead to an increase in mental illness because, as far as I can tell, schoolchildren tend to get depressed at a greater rate after experiencing a hurricane or cyclone. The post ends with the word “apophenia”. Isn’t that a lovely word? But I had no idea what it meant.
So, I went to my all-purpose, handy dandy, reference tool: Wikipedia. Yes, I use Wikipedia frequently to look up the stuff that I want to know, and so far I haven’t experienced any life-altering inaccuracies. Apophenia, quoth Wikipedia, is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Ah, what a useful word in a world where conspiracy theories and seemingly random phenomena abound.
But is it apophenia or the hand of God when I see answers to prayer, and meaningful encouragement in Scripture that speaks to my immediate needs? And what about this statement at the end of the Wikipedia article: “The popular TV show, Lost, involves extensive use of apophenia in its storyline, including Biblical and numerological patterns, mis-identified faces, intentional use of pareidolia, and more.” Were the writers of Lost saying that the numbers and the patterns and the way people came together and crossed paths was randomness perceived to have meaning, apophenia? Or was there really within the Lost world supposed to be a meaning behind the island and all the things that happened on and off-island? Or were some things “apophenia”, like Hugo’s fear of of the numbers and his perception that he was cursed, and other patterns and coincidences meaningful, such as the idea that certain people were “brought” to the island to work out their salvation in fear and trembling?
I think the world is like Lost island: there are true incidences of apophenia, such as gamblers who think they have lucky numbers, people who see climate change-related calamities in every change in the weather, and even Christians who believe they hear the voice of God in events that are simply serendipitous happenings with no special message from God embedded in them. However, we should be very careful about crying “apophenia” when God may very well be at work orchestrating events and people to do His will. Was it apophenia when Esther found herself in exactly the right place and time to save her people from annihilation? Or was it apophenia that Jesus came to a world that was prepared to deal with him in a way that would fulfill prophecy and work out God’s plan of salvation prepared from the foundation of the world? There may be such a thing as too much ascribing of all fortuitous events to God at work, but there is also the danger of being blind to the wonderful ways in which the God of the Universe designs each detail of His world to work out His purposes.