There are phrases and attitudes that belong to the spirit of an age. They get repeated so often that they take on the ring of truth. They also broadcast the attitudes and philosophy of the person saying them, helping them connect with like-minded people.
We’ve already dealt with the modern spiritual mantra ‘everything happens for a reason‘ but hardly less popular is the declaration that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.
The word coincidence, of course, just means two things happening at the same time. But when people say they don’t believe in coincidence what they really mean is two apparently meaningful things happening at the same time.
They’re at peace with the idea of it beginning to rain just as they scratch their nose for the 23rd time that day.
But if someone phones them a few moments after they thought about that person – that surely can’t be a coincidence!
This belief is worth looking at because it tells us a lot about how our brains have trouble understanding the world around us.
But sometimes really crazy things happen!
We all love stories. And the story of something really unlikely happening is always impressive. Maybe it’s the cancer patient who defied the doctors’ diagnosis. Or the person who had a dream of a natural disaster the night before it happened.
Stories like these often give a person faith in the supernatural. How else could something so extraordinary be explained if not for the existence of Higher Powers?
The psychologist, Carl Jung, left behind an idea treasured by spiritual people everywhere, that of synchronicity. The definition is a bit vague but essentially he referred to events related by meaning rather than cause and effect.
Jung implied that meaning is part of the fabric of the world and I’ve often heard people talk about synchronicities happening to them as proof that they’re on the right path.
Throughout history humans have looked for supernatural explanations for the things they didn’t understand. How could a hunter-gatherer tribe understand what makes a volcano erupt? It made more sense to them to imagine it to be the manifestation of an angry god.
In fact, throughout history we’ve blamed the outbreak of disease on recently-arrived ethnic minorities. Immigrants arrive and people start dying soon afterwards – how could it just be a coincidence?
That people so frequently blame bad luck on minority groups is certainly no coincidence. Monarchs and politicians have often seized or consolidated power by resorting to such racist tactics.
But still, it can’t just be chance!
As we’ve noted before, our intuition lets us down when it comes to big numbers.
And when it comes to thinking about the probability of something happening, most of us are quite lost. There’s a reason why casinos make such huge profits, after all.
For example, if we have a coin and we flip it up in the air 5 times, would you think it’s as likely to get heads, tails, heads, tails, heads or five heads in a row?
The answer is that it’s equally likely to happen. Both patterns are five 50/50 tosses of the coin and, on average, will be seen once every 32 times.
But it seems more improbable to us that we would get five heads in a row. It’s a clear pattern that we can easily recognize. But it’s not actually significant.
Likewise when we think of someone and then we get a message from them it seems significant. But most people don’t keep a list of the number of times we think of someone and they don’t write to us.
Or when someone gets in touch who hasn’t crossed our mind lately.
But eventually it’s pretty likely that one of the many, many people we think of every day will contact us soon after we’ve thought about them.
The mentalist Derren Brown make a performance piece out of this where he demonstrated his ability to flip a coin ten times and get 10 heads in a row. A 1/1024 chance. He used a filming process that didn’t allow for any editing tricks so the TV audience could trust that it had really happened.
So how did he do it?
He just stood there and flipped a coin all day on camera. Eventually it was likely to happen. Sounds exhausting? Boring? To him, is surely was. But for the audience that just saw the ten heads in a row it seemed like magic.
But what about the people who dream of the winning lottery numbers? Or have visions of natural disasters?
It’s the same thing. Just with bigger numbers.
When I was 14 I placed a winning bet on the Grand National, the biggest horse race in the UK. I hadn’t yet thought about the treatment of the animals etc – it was just something of a national tradition to make one bet a year.
To find the winner I took all the names of the horses and made an elaborate system involving dice and coins and bits of paper in a hat. My horse came in and everyone turned to me as though I was a prophet – had I just unlocked the code of the Universe?
Apparently not. The next year I tried the same thing and lost.
Every day people play lotteries around the world choosing numbers that match the birthdays of their loved one or the number of birds they saw in the trees that morning.
Sometimes one of those people wins.
But someone had to win the lottery eventually. However unlikely it is for any one person to win it.
Likewise with visions of earthquakes or boats sinking – thousands of people have these kinds of dreams every night. And they forget about them when they don’t come true.
Eventually it’s likely that one of them comes true. It would be really weird if they didn’t.
But what about the guy who was struck by lightning 7 times?
There was a park ranger in the US called Roy Sullivan who was reportedly hit by lightning 7 times in his life gaining him the nickname the Human Lightning Rod.
Would you walk next to someone like that if a thunderstorm was overhead?
If you live to be 80 years old it’s estimated that you have a 10,000 to 1 chance of ever being hit by lightning. But Sullivan worked outside and in a part of the US with more thunderstorms than the average.
It’s pretty freaky but the point is freaky things are likely to happen to someone somewhere.
There are close to 8 billion people alive as you read this. That means every day 8 billion days are lived.
Now think about the craziest day you’ve ever had. A day so full of meaningful encounters and amazing connections that just couldn’t be explained by coincidence!
Would you say that there was about a 1 in 8 billion chance that all those things happened by chance?
If so, then every 24 hours someone somewhere probably experiences such a meaning day as that.
In fact, when you think of the 8 billion days lived every day, the 2920 billion days lived by humans every year..it would be strange if really freaky things never happened…
But still, it all made so much sense, it fitted the pattern…
As we’ve observed before, humans probably evolved to notice patterns. We’re wired to find meaning. It’s part of who we are.
And so it’s only natural that we also tend to leave out the bits that don’t back up the story.
We bend the facts, we exaggerate and then as we tell the story over and over, we forget that we ever did so. Memories change and distort until we become sure that only an act of God could explain what happened to us.
All in all, there’s probably nothing more human than there’s no such thing as a coincidence.
But there is.