“A coincidence is like a magic trick. There is an instant tension between the thrill of an apparent miracle and the urge to debunk it.”
A recent episode of the radio show and podcast This American Life was entirely dedicated to exploring coincidences. They ranged from the banal (seeing the same person in two different places in the same day) to the impressive (discovering your grandmother in a baby picture of your current girlfriend). The host of the episode noted her skepticism at the start; that she couldn’t help but remind people of the probabilities and statistics underlying some of these “miracle” experiences they had. But by the end of the episode, she too saw the meaning in coincidence. I did too.
Your Lopsided Attention
I have written on this blog before about understanding the statistics of coincidences, making the point that even having a dream that seemingly predicted the future isn’t all that amazing. Still, coincidences have the staying power to survive attempts to rationally explain them away. Blame it on your attention.
Your attention—the ability to focus your mental life on one problem or conversation or task—is a lighthouse in the night. The illuminating part spins around and around, lighting up important areas but missing most of the sea and land. Of the billions or trillions (choose a large number) of events that happen around the world each day, each second, you are only privy to a few. By the numbers alone, there are bound to be numerous crazy grandmother photobombs that no one will ever recognize. You don’t notice all the coincidences that you never see, in a sort of “if a tree falls in the forest” sort of way. What makes these unknown “miracles” any different than the ones you notice?
Like human concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, Kirk or Picard, meaning only arises because of us. If humans were extinguished from the universe, would it still make sense to call an action on Earth good or bad? Similarly, when a bunch of particles interact with another bunch of particles, it takes one of us to grant it meaning. And coincidences have their own special kind of meaning. There is poetry to them; they seem special. If you notice, you hardly ever have coincidences (at least the ones worth telling everyone about) with strangers. The most meaningful coincidences seem to happen between friends or family, or between significant others (or potential ones). I find that coincidences are even a metric for friendship: when is the last time you had a wonderfully meaningful coincidence with your worst enemy, and how many have you had with your best friend?
Coincidences are meaningful. They let us share experiences and come closer together. Great coincidence tales can span generations, or create a family narrative that everyone rallies around. But coincidences are not cosmically meaningful in the way many are taken to be. Coincidences aren’t portents of fate or the cosmos slapping you around, and it is still mistaken to assume that a coincidence was too miraculous to have happened if it did indeed happen. Connecting A to B can make for a great story or experience, but remember that you connected those events, not the universe.
As long as we can keep out the egocentric idea that the universe has a plan to connect me with my long lost friend who “was just thinking about calling me,” I see so reason for coincidences to be on the same list as ghosts or “The Secret.” Ease off that hair-trigger skepticism a bit if it’s just a story.
The particles that make you up are bound to bang and bounce against the universe in interesting ways, but the only thing that makes this special is you. Coincidentally, that’s a wonderful idea.
Kyle Hill is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation and science writer who contributes to Scientific American, Wired, Nature Education, io9, and Popular Science. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog, and you can follow him on Twitter under @Sci_Phile.