Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I DO Believe In Coincidence

"That a particular specified event or coincidence will occur is very unlikely. That some astonishing unspecified events will occur is certain. That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight."-David G. Myers

Coincidences come in all sizes, some are large, some small, but all have a certain power to amaze the human mind and convince it that purpose is lurking behind the curious events in question. I once had a dream of a train crashing; it collided with another train heading in the opposite direction. The very next day, as I met someone for dinner at one of those not-very-good but inexpensive cafes, I saw a newspaper headline announcing just such a crash. It felt eerie for a moment, and I could have convinced myself with little effort that I'd had a precognitive experience. If I had done so, however, I would have ignored the dozens of dreams I'd had over the years of planes falling from the sky, none of which coincided with any actual event. But that is exactly what most people do, and they do it often. A common occurrence is to be thinking of someone, perhaps a friend you haven't heard from in a while, and then to hear the phone ring, answer it, and discover it is that very person you were just thinking of.

Of course, there are also those events that seem to dwarf something as mundane as a phone call in their apparent inexplicability. These are the coincidences that seem to really excite people such as talk radio show host George Noory (Coast to Coast AM) leading to the absurd statement "I don't believe in coincidence", which Noory repeats at every opportunity. He may as well say "I don't believe in the laws of probability" which, of course, is what he's saying. But is there any reason to invoke spooky, hidden causes to explain such events? There was the case of the two little girls, both ten years old, and both named Laura Buxton. One released a balloon with a note tied to it and the other, living 140 miles away, found it later in her yard. Did Laura number one specify in advance that she was sending the balloon and its message with the purpose of finding another Laura Buxton of the same age? That would have been a great deal more remarkable, but still not necessarily miraculous. And in any event, from what we know of the case, that was not Laura Buxton the balloon sender's intent. But if dozens of other little girls had released such balloons with their names attached at the same time (as part of a school project, perhaps) and all or at least a significant percentage of them had landed in the yards of children with identical names, you would've had something to wonder about. But nothing so striking happened, and we can safely assume that indeed, the two Lauras in this instance were brought together not by mysterious mystical forces, but by plain and simple coincidence, and that's something anyone can believe in.

The biggest coincidence of all, though, would be if there were no coincidences! Think about it. What if you NEVER had a phone call from someone you were thinking about. What if you never ran into an old classmate at the local supermarket. What if there were never any occurrences where seemingly random events appeared to go together. Wouldn't you think something strange and out of the ordinary was going on? But if indeed you would, then you can stop thinking that the coincidences that you do encounter are something that can't be explained by, you know, coincidence.

My mother met my father at a dance at a hotel ballroom one weekend a few years before I was born. My mother was not exactly enthusiastic about going out that evening, but she was finally persuaded by her sister to go. Suppose though that she hadn't gone? My dad was a complete stranger to her, and their meeting was pure chance. Or was it? Am I so special, so wonderful, so valuable, that I deserved life while the unlimited number of other possible humans that could have existed had my parents each have mated with someone else, did not? Was my conception part of some divine plan? Or was I a mere coincidence, a lucky accident (lucky for me, that is, unlucky for those others never to be born), a lottery winner in the ultimate game of chance? I think it's fairly easy for people to acknowledge, that "yeah, I was an accident" (in fact, many will put it exactly like that, or say the same of their own children). But they will be unable to admit the same of the human species itself. But both cases are really no different. If the dinosaurs hadn't been wiped out when they were, or if any number of other random events had been just a little different, there might have been no human race at all. But people can't be cured of superstition so quickly or simply. They will ask how life got started and how long the odds are of it happening by "chance". They wouldn't think it remarkable if one person out of the six billion plus alive at this time were to win a hypothetical global lottery and become a billionaire upon collecting the jackpot. On the other hand, there are at least one hundred billion galaxies, each containing one hundred billion stars, in the known universe. Is it so odd that one of those stars, belonging to one of those galaxies, should have a small planet orbiting it that won the lottery of life?

A minister called on Robert Ingersoll once to say: "Colonel, I understand you do not believe in a special providence." "I do not." "Well, I want to prove it to you beyond all question, in my own case. Some years ago I engaged passage on a steamer, to go abroad. Before she sailed, I had a fear, a presentiment, or feeling -- call it what you will -- that something would happen to that steamer. I got so worked up over it, that I took it to the Lord in earnest prayer. As the result, I gave up my stateroom. Colonel, that steamer never reached port. She went down, and every one of the four hundred souls on board sank to a watery grave. Will you tell me that that was not a divine interposition in my behalf, in answer to my prayer? Is it not proof positive that God cared for me in a special, personal way?" "But, my dear sir," was the Colonel's reply, "what do you suppose the families and friends of the four hundred drowned thought of your special providence? Do you think that God cared only for your one little soul and forgot to warn all the rest? It won't do. Besides, do you feel comfortable at the thought that having such a warning from the Lord you did not, day and night, beseech the captain of that ship to postpone his sailing, at least till you could get word from heaven that it was safe to go?" The minister did not reply. "Now, let me tell you my case," continued the Colonel. "Providence cared for me a little while ago in a striking way, though you may not believe it. A thunder-bolt struck the Young Men's Christian Association's building which adjoined my own office in Washington, and I escaped! If that shaft was aimed at me, I certainly think your providence was a very poor marksman!"


  1. "There are no big or small coincidences, just coincidences."

  2. Yes, but not necessarily in minds of the people who experience them, which was my point.


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