Coincidence and Meaning
Human beings are born with an innate instinct to see patterns in the world. It is part of our nature to find them. One pattern is the coincidence. It is defined as a remarkable occurrence of events without apparent causal connection. Coincidences, when they occur, seem peculiarly significant. They give us reason to wonder. How should we interpret them? What do they mean?
Serendipity describes those that are happy, but not all coincidences are.
For example, the London Daily Chronicle reported on November 3, 1926 that the well-known violinist, Mr. A. C. Peckover had awakened that morning to find himself blind. He was transported to the Bradford Ear and Eye Hospital where his father had been taken from a different location. Both had been struck blind at the same time.1
This clipping was collected by Charles Fort.
Fort was born on August 6, 1874 in Albany, New York. He was considered intelligent and curious as a child but did not do well at school. Biographers cite his authoritarian father as the primary source for his distrust of authority of all kinds, particularly the sciences. Fort aspired to be a novelist and wrote ten novels, only one of which was published. Starting in 1905 he began to collecting notes of strange happenings. He spent years in New York’s Public Libraries, reviewing every scientific periodical written in French and English since 1880. He collected 25,000 notes similar to the one above.
At the age of forty, he inherited sufficient funds to allow himself to pursue his fascination for facts full-time. He and his wife traveled to London where he spent his days at the British Museum and collected 40,000 more notes.
In his final year (1932), he published the last of his four books containing his collected notes and theories. His first, The Book of the Damned, had been published in 1919.
Lest you think his fascination with the odd and obscure was completely inconsequential, his chronicles of strange, inexplicable events inspired films, science fiction stories, and fantasy literature. For instance, the amphibious downpour in the film Magnolia came from Fort as did the idea of alien abduction. Characters in Stephen King’s It and Firestarter have roots in Fort’s investigations. He was also one of the first to speculate that peculiar lights in the sky might be vehicles from outer space. He even coined the term “teleportation”.2
Fort was a doubter of science and condemned its habit of sweeping inconvenient facts under the carpet.
“… my liveliest interest is not so much in things, as in relations of things. I have spent much time thinking about the alleged pseudo relations that are called coincidences. What if some of them should not be coincidences?”3
Fort was not the only one who delved into the subject. Others took the concept farther.
The Austrian biologist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), published a book called The Law of Series in which he describes 100 anecdotes of coincidence. He postulated that all events were connected by waves of seriality. Coincidences were the result of unknown forces. Strange occurrences and coincidences occurred in waves with peaks and troughs. He stressed that this was not a supernatural phenomenon but a physical one. Einstein called his ideas interesting and by no means absurd. Kammerer would spend hours on park benches observing and noting when a passerby dropped something looking for patterns.4
Even Shakespeare noticed that bad things come in clusters. In Hamlet, he wrote:
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions.”5
Coincidences happen, but what is their significance? Perhaps the most noted observer was the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. He coined the term “synchronicity” in a 1952 paper, Synchronicity – An Acausal Connecting Principle. He used this word to describe coincident events that had no obvious connection yet appear linked to us in a meaningful way. We experience them and are changed. We are filled with wonder as we catch a brief glimpse of a world that is quite different from the mundane.
As an example, Jung describes a young female patient who was quite inaccessible to therapy. She knew better than everyone else. She was well educated and had a set way of thinking. There was no room for anything other than a rational systematic view of the world. Jung hoped that she might experience some unexpected and irrational event that would shake her certainty. One night, the patient dreamed someone gave her a special piece of jewelry in the form of a gold scarab. While she was relating it, Jung heard a large flying insect repeatedly hit the window. It was strange, so he opened it and caught the bug. It was a gold-green beetle that resembled a scarab. He handed it to her. The incident was so unusual and well timed it allowed her to reassess her fixed ideas and thinking. It was an example of synchronicity.
Jung believed that life was not just a series of random events and outcomes. Instead it expressed a deeper order. Significant coincidences play an instrumental part in shifting one’s concept of self-importance to one that embraces a wider, more elevated vision.6
In spite of the rather paranormal aspects of his observations, Jung was careful to express the tentative nature of this work. Nonetheless, he considered that when coincidences start to pile up, one could not help but be impressed and give them significant meaning, an interpretation that is not in keeping with more materialistic and rational points of view.
Researchers who followed used Jung’s work as a springboard into the world of psychic phenomena and the occult, which has conflicted with established doctrine ever since.
Science, in an effort to rein in unwarranted speculation and fantasy, has taken on the subject of coincidence in several ways.
J. E. Littlewood (1885-1977) of Cambridge posited Littlewood’s Law in a collection of works published in 1986. It states that a person can expect to experience a miracle, or an event whose odds of happening are one in a million, about once a month. Littlewood assumed that an event occurred every second a person was not asleep. Assuming one was awake for eight hours a day, one would experience 28,800 events per day and over a million events in 35 days, or about a month. One would also experience a one in a billion event in the course of one long lifetime. This means that a miracle was not in fact a miracle but an expected probability like winning the lottery. Miracles were not some profound magic but an outcome like any other.7
Similar to the above is the Law of Truly Large Numbers, which was coined by a Stanford mathematician and a Harvard statistician. It states that given a large enough sample size, any outrageous, improbable event is likely to happen. Again, miracles are possible and given a large enough population, they will occur in all forms and ways no matter how odd. They are not something supernatural or divinely orchestrated. They are simply outcomes in the same class as nothing happening at all.8
To science and mathematics, coincidences have no meaning other than what we choose to give them. We give them significance because we are hardwired to do this. It is called apophenia, the human inclination to perceive meaningful patterns in random sets of data.9
There is no magic in life; only our thirst for meaning.
Another scientific aphorism is that correlation does not imply causality. Coincidence is simply correlation in another guise.
In the statistical sense, correlation is when two events are linked in some way but not necessarily because one causes the other. For instance, the number of cars sold in the USA and the number of football tickets purchased during the same time may be correlated. Possibly they trend the same way on a graph. If by looking at the data one concludes that there is a causal link or that the relationship is significant, one is making an assumption that is doubtful, if not wrong.
In spite of this danger, much scientific evidence and many conclusions are based on the correlations of variables simply because it is hard not to. In the field of medical studies, it is difficult for ethical reasons to use a double blind test (one in which neither the administrator nor the patient knows whether they are receiving a placebo). Is it fair to give a cancer patient a placebo when the drug to be tested may end up working and lives are at stake? Correlation studies such as Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) or other similar statistical tests are used regularly because that is one of the few tools available.10
In spite of its bad connotations, coincidence, even in the scientific and engineering world, is useful. There is nothing like a suspicious coincidence to lead an investigator to dig deeper. Coincidence can be dismissed out of hand as simply that, but it is difficult to discount the number of scientific breakthroughs, the discovery of penicillin being one, that relied on coincidence as the starting point of an investigation.
Further, just because there is no logical correlation or causal link between two events does not mean that they might not be linked underneath the surface by a hidden relationship.
Buried in the statistician’s tool box is a concept called a confounding or third variable. Suppose one discovers a positive correlation that is statistically significant between soft drink consumption and drownings between the ages of 6 and 16. Both variables are found to have no direct causal link in spite of their significant correlation until a third variable is looked for and discovered: the fact that it is summer.11
Science has no problem with miracles, just that we call them by that name.
Whether we view coincidence as simply an outcome devoid of meaning, or not, is up to us. It is possible to read too much into strange events, but when coincidences pile up, we notice. How could we not? It’s what we do.
So are coincidences simply events like any other?
It depends on how you wish to interpret them. Regardless, we wake up each day to perhaps the greatest coincidence and strangest event of all: we are alive, each and every one of us, uniquely, today, in this particular time. How is that even possible? Is it coincidence, or something more?
- Fort, C. (1933) Wild Talents. Kindle Edition. Retrieved from Amazon.
- Wallechinsky, D. (1995) History with the Boring Parts Left Out. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company
- Fort, cit.
- Downarowicz, T. (2008) Law of Series. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Law_of_series.
- Shakespeare, W. (N.D.) Hamlet. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html.
- Jung, C. G. (1952). Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, 1973 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
- Carroll, R. T. (2013) Littlewood’s law of miracles. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from http://skepdic.com/littlewood.html.
- Carroll, R. T. (2014) law of truly large numbers (coincidence). The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from http://skepdic.com/lawofnumbers.html.
- Poulsen, B. (2012) Being Amused by Apophenia. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-play/201207/being-amused-apophenia.
- A. (2015) ANOVA / MANOVA. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from http://documents.software.dell.com/Statistics/Textbook/ANOVA-MANOVA.
- McDonald, J. H. (2014) Confounding Variables. Handbook of Biological Statistics. Retrieved March 3, 2016 from http://www.biostathandbook.com/confounding.html.
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