Picking up again on the topic of bizarre coincidences and whether we can ever establish mathematical odds of this stuff happening. I first blogged about these strange events here two years ago, and more recently here.
Anyway, a few days ago I decided I would blog again about the odds of odd occurences, since I’m planning a magazine piece on the subject. Just by coincidence, that day’s NY Times online carried a piece by former TV talk show host Dick Cavett on the very same subject. Cavett built the article around a pretty strange coincidence that happened to him while walking on a fog-shrouded beach some years ago. You can read his piece here if you like. I chipped in a comment which the gatekeepers actually printed (it’s number #110 if you’re counting) and read a few dozen of the many comments that poured in. Obviously, this is a topic that lights up a lot of people. If you scan the comments, you’ll find more stunning coincidences than you can imagine.
But what does it all mean, Professor? To keep the dialogue going, I’ve picked out a handful of choice comments and reprinted them here in italics, followed by my own thoughts on each:
Cavett comment: Experiences like the one in Cavett’s post literally shout at us the existence of a Higher Power. They’re like God pulling back the curtain for a second and going “Peek-a-boo!” but in an extremely personal and confounding way. I imagine confirmed atheists who have them going “That did Not just happen! No…Way!”
The belief that these coincidences “tell us” something about the universe or about our destiny in it seems to assume a mystical/supernatural substructure that I’m skeptical about. I would also raise this question: If God or the Gods or the Venusian emperor Ra’arquela 5 wishes to communicate to us some underlying truth about the universe, why would He/They/She choose to do so by, for example, having twin sisters who were separated at birth smash into each other and die on their way to meet at a reunion, or having a tourist visit a San Francisco used book store, open a book at random, and find his sister’s signature there?
Man, entering Heaven, to God: “Why didn’t You ever speak up and let me know You were there? I spent a lifetime worrying!”
God: “What? Remember the time you ran into your fifth-grade teacher from Scranton while visiting the Parthenon? Who do you think set that up?”
It just seems an inefficient way to share the deeper truths about living. He might want to stop beating around the (burning) bush and just come right out with it.
Cavett Comment: Here’s a coincidence. I bought tickets for a NY Knicks Saturday night game through Ticketmaster for a friend and myself. Since my friend was a St. John’s graduate, he suggested taking in the St. John’s game that afternoon before the Knicks game. He got the tickets for the afternoon game through St. John’s. When we went to the two games we found that we had EXACTLY the same two seats for each game.
Strange indeed, but this one falls into the “easy” category. As long as we’re dealing with known numbers (# of seats in the arena, # bought) and a few variables (two games, two buyers, four seats), we can figure these out.
Cavett Comment: [Coincidences] in fact emanate from the interactions among our subconscious perception, our memory and innate processes by which our mind both looks for and creates patterns.
This is good. There’s no doubt we are the pattern-seeking animal, and it may well be that our pattern-needy brains insist on seeing order and meaning where there is none. Who knows? Perhaps the truly paranoid have an excess of the pattern-seeking brain cells.
Cavett Comment: Coincidence is a nudge of awareness. It’s [sic] purpose is to cause one to ponder the message(s) contained therein and take appropriate action.
Well, that settles it. All we need to do is “take appropriate action.” Reminds me of the old recipe for making an atomic bomb in your garage: “First, get 20 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium.”
Cavett Comment: Coincidence is not an accident or unusual happenstance. It is orchestrated (believe-it-or-not) through one’s intention, desire or purpose – all directing one toward spiritual evolution.
This assumes what has yet to be proved, and perhaps can’t be.
Cavett Comment: I keep searching for meaning and explanation, analyzing and dissecting. Seems my rational, scientific ego and intellectualism continues to fail me. I can only bow to the mystery of it and sense that whatever it is, “IT” is.
Well, can’t argue with that.
Cavett Comment: Coincidences are only astonishing to the scientifically illiterate. For each “amazing” coincidence” there are literally “billions” of non-coincidental events that go unnoticed. It is only our arrogance that places special value on situations we choose to highlight. Viewed in this light coincidences should not be surprising at all – except for the “new age” crowd!
Uh, so we’re not supposed to be interested in our own experience? If I’ve got cancer, baby, I’m gonna highlight the hell out of it. More proof that the resolutely secular can be as haughty as the Jesus Corps.
Cavett Comment: Coincidence skeptics like to say that believers are in need of a God of mystery to make the world and their lives meaningful. Coincidences are part of the faith crutch for needy people. But it can also be said that if skeptics were to decide that coincidences were Meaningful, then they would have to jettison the comfortable belief of skepticism and rethink who they are and what the universe is: a very scary process.
A useful thought. Reminds me of Joseph Wood Krutch’s essay, “We Were Not Skeptical Enough.” We can be led astray by too easily believing too much, but everyone, even the stoniest atheist, lives by certain assumptions–articles of faith, if you will–that go well beyond the strictly rational.
Cavett Comment: I am surprised that Mr. Cavett did not mention the grandest of all coincidences: that Lou Gehrig died from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. What are the odds of that happening?
Hey, if we can’t laugh at the mysterious universe, what can we laugh at?