Can Mainstream Science Be Expanded to Study Coincidences?

Are coincidences random or meaningful? Two psychiatrists debate.

Posted Apr 30, 2020

 Courtesy of Ralph Lewis, M.D.
Ralph Lewis, M.D.
Source: Courtesy of Ralph Lewis, M.D.

Coincidence was the subject for the lead article of the March 2020 edition of Psychology Today. Its author, Ralph Lewis, M.D., is a psychiatrist who strongly believes that the current views of mainstream science offer the best explanations for coincidences. He kindly consented to be interviewed on my radio show.

During the interview, I described a coincidence in which I was controllably choking. The day after this choking, my brother told me that while I was choking, my father, 3,000 miles away, was choking on his own blood and dying.

I found this coincidence in hindsight. Dr. Lewis does not see the value of hindsight in coincidences because it can be a source of bias. He asked me to give him a prediction for a coincidence. I did. I described two situations in which I made predictions that I could arrive at the home of two different friends at two different times as each of them walked out of their houses without my contacting them beforehand.

Even though I had provided what he has asked, he insisted upon the next level of investigation. When mainstream scientists hear evidence that contradicts their beliefs, they do what Dr. Lewis did—insist on more rigorous study.  {In a follow-up email exchange, Dr. Lewis did offer some helpful specific suggestions for how to proceed with further investigations.]

To listen to our spirited discussion, please click here.

The following dialogue will give you an idea of what transpired.

Dr. Beitman: On page 59 of your Psychology Today article, you write: "The single most fundamental conclusion of modern science is that the universe has no inherent purpose."

This declarative sounds more like a belief than a demonstrated fact. How has science drawn this conclusion?

Dr. Lewis: Science does not definitively prove anything, but it can and does establish things with high degrees of confidence. Different fields of science are at different stages of development and levels of confidence. Cosmology is at a relatively earlier, more speculative stage of development. Evolutionary biology is at a far more advanced, highly confident level of development based on mountains of evidence.

Cosmology does not have the answers to the ultimate origins of the universe and its "laws" of physics. But cosmologists have been able to devise very plausible hypotheses/models that, while speculative and likely to be much revised with time, come surprisingly close to such ultimate explanations, and in so doing render the "God hypothesis" redundant.

Evolutionary biology is unequivocally incompatible with any notion of intelligent design, planning, or foresight. If one prefers to imagine evolution as teleological or guided ("theistic evolution"), then one is forced to concede that the intelligent designer must be cruel, indifferent, or incompetent. Evolution is non-random but unguided. 

We now understand a lot about human cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, hindsight bias, over-identification of pattern and purpose, over-attribution of agency, and self-referential bias (egocentric bias). And bearing in mind the general unreliability of subjective perception, beliefs based on personal experience should be given very low credence indeed. And add the ways in which belief in a higher power and higher purpose transparently meet very obvious psychological needs for comfort/solace, death denial, feelings of control, certainty, etc. Altogether, then, a pretty compelling case emerges for skepticism.

Dr. Beitman: I am focused on the idea that our minds are like fish in a sea of a larger mind, which I call the psychosphere—the Earth's mental atmosphere. Is there any tolerance in your views for ideas like this?

Dr. Lewis: I don't see consciousness as universal or collective or as a primary property of the universe.

But of course, I concede that science is only at the very beginning of the process of understanding consciousness (though neuroscience is much further ahead than most people realize). Scientists must be open to following whatever evidence is found, including potential evidence supporting the hypothesis of interconnected minds.

All evidence points overwhelmingly to consciousness being a secondary and late phenomenon in the universe, having evolved secondarily to biology, shaped by natural selection. And all the evidence points to consciousness being entirely separated between individual people/animals—as separate as the brains that generate it.

Dr. Beitman: I read a reviewer's critique of a psi experiment paper—"good methodology, good statistics, well-substantiated conclusion. I reject it because I don't believe it." Easy to find fault with things one does not believe.

Dr. Lewis: I agree that's a most unscientific critique the reviewer provided for that psi paper.

Dr. Beitman: How do you handle knowledge that could not have come from personal experience? For example, one savant knew the number of rooms and locations of 2,000 leading hotels in America.  (Dossey L One Mind, chapter 14).

As for biases, you strongly advocate for the science of evolution. Following this reasoning suggests that the biases we have are with us for survival. Hindsight bias is necessary for learning from mistakes. Biases do not always cause trouble, which seems to be your implication, although I believe you would also see the evolutionary advantages.

Your dismissing of subjective knowledge is difficult for me as a psychotherapist because I rely on my trained intuition and current experiences to respond to my patients. Humphrey Davies, among others, experimented with nitrous oxide on himself. And the first ingested dose of LSD by Albert Hofman brought it to our scientific interest in it. 

Dr. Lewis: Subjective perception, intuition, and even biases are often helpful, having been honed by evolution. Trained intuition can be especially helpful, and is very often correct. But it can also be completely off-base and lead us astray, getting us locked into incorrect assumptions—this has happened to me many times as a clinician and therapist, only to realize it much later in each of those cases. We have to be aware that our intuitions and most cherished assumptions may be wrong.

Cold, hard, objective data must be the ultimate arbiter when evidence obtained through obsessively rigorous methodology contradicts our intuitions. Evidence should be given still higher credence when it has been expertly, independently, skeptically critiqued, and reliably replicated.