This doesn’t directly relate to any particular skeptical topic, but it seems to come up somewhat obliquely in reference to many different ideas, so I thought it’d be good to gather a few thoughts into one place.
It’s a common mantra among some people that “There are no coincidences”. What this generally means is that, whenever something seems serendipitous, or appears to have come about by chance in a particularly orderly way, or contains an unlikely pattern reminiscent of something else, or is in any other way quirkily coincidental, then you can bet that there’s something deeper going on, something we’re not seeing but which has caused things to align themselves in such a pattern, something that deliberately made things this way. Anytime something seems oddly out of place, or circumstances are just a little too “convenient”, you should be suspicious, and try to find out what’s really going on under the surface. There are no coincidences.
My position, however, is that if there really were no coincidences, this would be the most phenomenal coincidence imaginable.
Well, think about it. Imagine there are no coincidences. Not a single one. If you ever get talking to someone at a party, and find out that you both have the same birthday, then the two of you must have been brought together for a reason. It’s impossible for anyone to ever just stumble across any one of the millions of other people who were also being born around the same time that they were (or even on the same day on a different year), simply by chance. It could only happen when some underlying force makes it happen.
Of all the thousands of fleeting thoughts that pass through a person’s head each day, nobody could ever find any possible correlation between the vague and unprompted recollection of a person or place they haven’t thought about much in a while, and a phone call or other physical reminder of that same person or place, unless the thought was deliberately put in your head by some force that knew you were about to get that phone call. It could never happen that your idle musings just happened to overlap with reality by chance.
Out of the entire human history of bits of fruit that have gone slightly mouldy, or bits of cheese that have got burnt, not a single splotch of scorched dairy or unripe tomato could ever possibly have naturally curved itself into a pattern that sorta kinda looks like a person’s face a bit. You only need to look at the ubiquity of emoticon smileys to realise how low the human brain’s threshold is for spotting another human face (more on pareidolia soon), but even so, any simple pattern with elements that seem to remind us of facial features, like a couple of dots for eyes and a bit of a curve for a mouth, could never ever have simply come about by a random process of creating splotchy patterns, like burning a bit of cheese or letting mould grow in a tomato. It must have been placed there for some deliberate purpose.
Nobody could ever stand in front of an audience of people who are all hopeful to hear some good news about their dead relatives, and just happen to guess that the name John might mean something to someone. If anyone in a crowd of several hundred people is called John, or knows someone called John, or ever did know someone called John, then there’s no way it could just be a coincidence that a psychic happened to pick that specific name. Clearly whenever someone has such knowledge, it can only be through true spiritual intuition and guidance.
However often millions of people check their bank balances, at no point will any of them ever discover that the number happens to be in some numerical sequence that stands out to us, like £666.66, or £1234.56, or any of the other uncountable ways we could find patterns in such a string of digits. It’s just not plausible that a massive sample of random numbers constantly fluctuating up and down in varying degrees could ever land on any of the possible results that look pleasing to us. It must be portentous of something.
Oh, and those Rorschach inkblot tests? No way is it a coincidence that a bunny with a chainsaw was staring right at me in three consecutive cards. Whatever I’m getting an image of amidst the random visual “noise” of the inkblot, someone must have put it there deliberately.
Coincidence can clearly take an extremely wide range of potential weirdness, and at the mundane end we’re unsurprised to bump into them all the time. I don’t freak out about cosmic synchronicity every time I meet someone who shares my first name; it’s a pretty common first name, so obviously it’s going to happen a fair bit. Less likely is that I’ll find someone who shares my birthday, but 1 in 365 (ish) still isn’t exactly suspicious, and you only have to put 23 people in a room together to make it more likely than not that some of them will share a birthday.
On the other hand, there can be some big coincidences, that really do seem too good to be true, too profound and improbable to be simply down to chance. Lightning is a perfectly natural phenomenon, but if a bolt of it came crashing down through my roof and vaporised me the very moment after I declared “I swear, I was only holding that porn for a friend, and may God strike me down where I stand if I’m lying,” then this might raise even the most skeptical of eyebrows. If such an unlikely coupling of events did coincide, then we might really be persuaded to look for a deeper cause, which could have brought things about more plausibly than plain luck.
But the very fact that you can see a difference between the nature of these two situations – the former of “Hi, I’m Steve,” “Hey, me too”; the latter an impeccably timed lightning bolt – clearly demonstrates that some kind of judgment call has to be made here. We all expect some level of freaky coincidence to just happen, and we have every reason to expect the random noise of any media to produce some unlikely-seeming patterns now and then. Look far enough into the digits of pi, and you might find your telephone number. Flip a coin often enough, and eventually you’ll get ten heads in a row. Nearly every week, someone in the country overcomes millions-to-one odds and wins the lottery. And if any of these is simply a silly example, and your personal preferred coincidence is much less frivolous, then you’re performing some sort of evaluation to determine the weirdness, and to assess just how implausible the “coincidence” explanation is.
If you find conspiracy in every purported coincidence – literally any time two or more artefacts “coincide” – then you’ll never have the time to notice anything else. What’s important is to have enough of a mathematical understanding to distinguish genuine weirdness – where random chance truly becomes less likely to have caused something than deliberate intent – from the times when slightly kooky stuff just happens in an entirely expected way. We all make those judgment calls. It’s just a matter of whether you’re sufficiently informed and equipped to make them well. Actually looking at the odds and figuring out how suspicious to be of something is always better than trusting your gut and going with what feels more likely. Just ask Monty Hall.