The Statistical Probability of Miracles

Summer is a time for discovery, and today I discovered that the statistical probability of a miracle is higher than you think.

In the 20th century, there was a Cambridge University mathematician named John Littlewood (1885-1977) who had the grand idea of calculating how likely it was to witness a miracle—a statistical anomaly occurring at random in any given time. He suggested that, if a “miracle” is defined as an unlikely event with a probability of 1 in 1,000,000, and if you are cognizant of the world around you 8 hours a day 7 days a week, and things occur around you at a rate of 1 per second, then you would observe about 30,000 things every day, which means roughly a million things a month. So on average, you should witness one miracle every month (or, to be more accurate, every 33.3 days).

He argues that events viewed as miraculous are actually commonplace if considered in the context of how much occurs in a person’s life. And of course, these calculations are based on the assumption that we’re awake and observing things around us for only 8 hours a day. On average, I feel like many of us are observant, at least partially, for more than 10 hours a day, which increases our probability of witnessing a miracle.

However, this law leaves a lot of room for interpretation and can be rather ambiguous. Mathematically, it depends on how one defines the likeliness of a miracle—one in one thousand? One million? A billion? And by changing these arbitrary factors, one changes the frequency.

But that’s beside the point.

Basically, if a miracle is just any type of improbable occurrence, then they actually happen more frequently than expected. Which is uplifting in a way, because it means that, statistically-speaking, you could witness a miraculous event every month.

I like math, and I like numbers (they can be oddly soothing). But I especially like it when math and numbers make the miraculous seem more predictable. Some might think that it takes the magic out of the magical, but I believe it makes the ordinary more extraordinary.

What do you all think? Is there truth to Littlewood’s Law? And how does it make you feel about miracles?

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

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