Coming to Terms With Coincidence
The brain abhors randomness; it seeks patterns and craves control. But understanding the world as it really is—fundamentally random—can liberate and empower us.
By February 13, 2020 - last reviewed on March 6, 2020published
In August 2001, Elise O’Kane, a United Airlines flight attendant, signed up to work her usual trip from Boston to Los Angeles in September. But she accidentally entered an incorrect code into the airline’s computer system and was assigned a different schedule. She managed to swap flights with other attendants for all her trips except Flight 175 on September 11th. She tried again to request that flight on the computer system the night before. But the system froze, and by the time it finally processed her request she’d missed the airline’s deadline by one minute. Her request for Flight 175 was denied. She resigned herself to flying to Denver instead of Los Angeles.
Elise’s Denver-bound plane left Logan Airport between American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, and United’s Flight 175, which struck the South Tower.
When her colleagues found out that she was not on board, they showered her with tears and hugs, telling her repeatedly: “God has a plan for you.” “You were meant to be here.”
After taking the time to consider what such a meaningful plan might be, she eventually entered a career as a nurse, feeling a “need to give back and fulfill myself.”
Writing about stories like this and how trivial decisions spared people’s lives or sealed their fates, Garrett Graff, the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, wrote: “After reading and hearing thousands of these stories, I am overwhelmed by the unfair randomness of the day—epochal circumstances and fatal or life-saving decisions so ordinarily meaningless that it’s simultaneously easy to see either the supernatural guiding hand of a higher power or the sheer banality of chance.”
Needless to say, there was nothing random about the actions of the terrorists who plotted and perpetrated the attacks—they were acting entirely purposefully. What was random: The fates of individual victims.
As a hospital psychiatrist, I am interested in how my patients grapple with the randomness of adversity and the lack of control over life’s outcomes. I have counseled many whose experiences with illness or calamitous events leave them struggling to come to terms with randomness.
We are a meaning-seeking species. We tend to process events in light of what they mean to us. We make a value judgment: Is it good or bad in the context of my life? And it is a human habit to infer deliberate intention to events in self-referential ways.
We are also a storytelling species. The brain’s language centers have a natural proclivity for coherent stories—grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end. Things must happen for specific reasons; they must have a point. The brain is not satisfied with pointless randomness.
Many people are inclined to wonder if they are being punished by God for some past transgression or to ponder if there is some intended mysterious plan or higher reason for their misfortune, perhaps some intended lesson in their suffering. It is hard to imagine what the purpose of suffering could possibly be.
Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
My wife Karin is much more practical and down-to-earth than I am, and when she was diagnosed in 2005 with a very aggressive life-threatening cancer, she never dwelled on questions like Why did this happen? or Why me? When people asked her if she struggled with such questions, or if she felt a sense of cosmic injustice, her characteristically matter-of-fact reply was, “Why not me?”
She and I had experienced adversity and big life challenges before, but nothing like this. Not that we were really surprised to be facing such a crisis: Neither of us had illusions of immunity to the kinds of adversity we had all too often seen hit others. Like me, Karin worked in a helping profession, and we had both witnessed much tragedy in our work, as well as among friends and relatives. Severe adversity seemed almost overdue for us. It seemed obvious that there was no reason we should be exempt from misfortune and tragedy.
Thanks to dumb luck, and some remarkable medical breakthroughs, we made it through—if one is ever really out of the woods with cancer.
In the initial phases of her illness and treatment, the time of greatest uncertainty and vulnerability, I found myself grasping for reassurance and desperately wanting to believe that everything was somehow cosmically meant to turn out favorably. But my clinical work had honed an ever-present awareness of the power of denial and wishful thinking as defense mechanisms. I had seen how these get deployed by people facing serious threat and uncertainty—all the more so when those people’s fates are being arbitrarily determined by random and trivial factors that seem to mock the significance of their lives.
Despite all I knew and had seen, I was still trying to come to terms with the extent to which randomness rules. The theological problem of trying to explain why evil and suffering exist in the world is referred to as “theodicy.” The central quandary: Why do terrible things happen in a world governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, suggests that the bad things that happen to us don’t have inherent meaning. We can, however, redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. The rabbi poses a better question: Now that this has happened, what am I going to do about it?
A Cosmic Purpose
From science’s point of view, any version of God is superfluous, an unnecessary addition to the scientific explanation for the existence of the universe and everything in it. The single most fundamental conclusion of modern science: The universe has no inherent purpose or design.
The idea that the universe, complex as it is, is inherently random feels implausible to most people. To humans throughout history, the world has seemed to be designed and controlled by some form of intentional higher power. Even many well-educated people have found it hard to keep up with science’s difficult-to-grasp and rapidly expanding knowledge and, as a result, are still perplexed as to how spontaneous, self-organizing processes could explain our complex world.
Despite our intuition, science tells us that the universe is random. This does not mean that there is no order to it. Random processes can actually give rise to nonrandom processes: Natural selection is actually not random. However, it is completely unguided. And certainly, once intentional living agents have evolved through such processes, especially conscious agents like us, then the deliberate actions of those agents are not random.
Once we have fully grasped the scientific consensus that the universe has no inherent purpose, then the mystery of why bad things happen to good people simply evaporates. It becomes obvious that bad things happen for the same reason anything happens: the same laws of nature that underlie all causes and effects. There is nothing special about the causation of things that humans judge as “bad.” Therefore, why would bad things not happen to good people?
Adopting a secular worldview entails recognizing that meaning and purpose are human attributions and that events do not have inherent purpose—unless of course the event is caused by the actions of an intentional living agent.
It’s Meant to Be
TREVOR NOAH, The comedian and Daily Show host, did not have an early life filled with cherries and roses. Raised in South Africa, he had to contend with an abusive stepfather, a man so violent that he shot Noah’s mother in the head. The stepfather blamed his wife for all that went wrong in his life, even though it was she who supported the family.
The bullet entered the back of her head, missed her brain, missed the arteries, and shot out of her nose. From her hospital bed, she said with conviction that Jesus was to thank. Noah challenged her thinking, pointing out that God had not, after all, been so caring. Yet she kept steadfast in her beliefs.
It’s common for people to believe that “everything happens for a reason” and that things are “meant to be.” The need to feel in control contributes greatly to our propensity to believe that the universe is governed by a higher power with a higher purpose.
Furthermore, humans are intentional agents who must interpret the actions of other intentional agents. As social animals, we are very adept at recognizing the purposeful acts of other humans, as well as those of predators and prey. The problem is that we detect patterns and agency so instinctively that we overshoot, seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless noise and attributing purpose to random natural events, believing these to be caused and intended by unseen or supernatural agents.
Interestingly, mental disorders often amplify or distort these normal cognitive processes, rendering bias and error all the more obvious—human nature is writ large in mental disorders, and in illuminating ways. Psychosis and mania, for example, magnify ad absurdum the human tendency to over-identify patterns and to perceive deliberate intention in random events.
Harold Humes, called “Doc” after a wacky genius in the Buck Rogers comic strip, is remembered by those who knew him as a charming and much-admired figure of the Paris and London literary scenes. He founded The Paris Review with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen and published two acclaimed novels, The Underground City and Men Die. By the late 1960s, however, he had stopped writing, was estranged from his family, and was suffering from mental illness. He turned up on the Columbia University campus and within a few days handed out an estimated $40,000 to astounded passers-by, mostly students, who thought this was an act of political theater or a strange marital spat. Once out of money, he began couch-surfing in the neighborhood.
He was both paranoid and loquacious, and at twilight his illness became full-blown. He would sit by a window for hours, watching the lights across the Hudson River for signals from the FBI, the CIA, even intergalactic aliens—all were focused on him and decipherable only by him. Certain patterns warned him to stay indoors to avoid capture by “The Man,” and he followed their advice. Doc was generally so affable that it was hard for his hosts to rid themselves of the notion that he was just being entertaining. Ironically, his paranoia was not entirely misdirected: The FBI had begun keeping a file on him in the 1940s, and his friend Matthiessen had been a CIA operative.
In states of psychosis, people tend to develop blatantly false, unshakable beliefs or delusions, which can range from the plausible yet mistaken to the extremely bizarre. The most common are referred to as “delusions of self-reference.” These self-deceptions involve the belief that unrelated, coincidental, or innocuous events, actions, or objects refer to the individual in a personal way. In psychotic states, people have difficulty dismissing unremarkable events as merely coincidental—everything seems loaded with personal significance, leading to paranoia or grandiosity. They present all kinds of evidence that they consider irrefutable. The problem is that they’re connecting too many dots.
We are more aware of that which is personally relevant. For example, a woman who is pregnant or trying to conceive may notice an increase in baby product advertisements as well as references to babies, childbirth, and pregnancy. For most people, an automatic reality-testing ability stops them from believing that someone in the broadcasting studio deliberately placed the ads on TV for them—that would be delusional. Some, however, may believe that it is some sort of “omen”—a sign that a fertility treatment is about to be successful perhaps. Curiously, this does not seem bizarre to many mentally healthy people.
Synchronicity and Serendipity
The story of Esther Grachan’s dollar bill has turned into an internet legend—it’s an against-all-odds tale of romantic serendipity. Esther and Paul had been dating, and he felt it was time to discuss exclusivity. He was preparing to do so after he had a bite to eat at his usual deli. When he was about to pay his bill, he saw that the dollar in his hand had the name “Esther” written in pencil. He kept that dollar, framed it, then gave it to Esther.
She, however, was very quiet when he presented her with the gift, remarking that she would tell him something later. It wasn’t exactly a passionate reaction.
Paul was reminded of the dollar bill many years later when they moved into a new home. He found it in a box and he asked her about it. She shared a story that was unexpected: At age 19, she was in an unhappy relationship and wondered how she was supposed to know the right man if she met him. She wrote her name on a few dollar bills and decided that she would marry the man who brought one of those dollars back to her.
She couldn’t share this when he gave her the framed gift, she didn’t want to scare him off. That framed dollar still sits cozily on their dresser.
There are no coincidences or accidents. Everything is connected. The universe is sending you a message. These are typical assertions from people who believe in synchronicity, a term coined by Carl Jung to describe seemingly meaningful coincidences supposedly not accounted for by random chance or natural causes. Jung, a believer in paranormal phenomena, thought that such events are telling us something about the ways we’re all mysteriously connected to each other and to the universe.
Take the perilous flight of Apollo 13; it was marked for doom from the very beginning. It was scheduled for a journey on April 11, 1970, or 4/11/70. Add the numbers 4+1+1+7+0 and behold the number 13. Plus the flight was to launch at 1:13, or 13:13 in military speak.
There are many cognitive biases that contribute to the unfounded eerie feeling of a seemingly unlikely and meaningful coincidence. One of them is hindsight bias: You’re judging the probability of the event after the fact, pondering the odds backwards.
Consider the fluke of your existence: It all began with your fertilization. What were the odds? If that particular sperm, one among millions, hadn’t fertilized that particular egg on that particular occasion, you wouldn’t exist. If a different sperm from your father (even a split-second later) or a different egg from your mother (a month later) had been fertilized, then your hypothetical sibling would exist instead of you. You are absurdly improbable.
For a coincidence to truly be remarkable, we should have made a prediction ahead of time that this particular event would occur at this particular time, as, perhaps, did Esther. Without an a priori prediction, you have merely observed the probability of any subjectively resonant coincidence occurring at any time, not the probability of that specific coincidence occurring at that particular time.
The Allure of The Paranormal
I was recently consulted by the parents of a 30-year-old man who dropped out of a promising career path and is spending all his money on an online life coach, or guru, who is teaching him how to use his mind to influence events remotely. He believes he is helping his family attain financial success and assisting in small but meaningful ways to achieve world peace through the focused power of positive thought and meditation. To acquire this mind-over-matter ability he has spent hundreds of hours practicing over the past few years and nearly $100,000 on the guru’s “consulting fees.”
Is this man delusional? Quite possibly. But he could also just be suggestible and credulous, subscribing to a popular New Age belief. He is otherwise normal in his appearance and behavior. There could be other explanations for the derailment of his career. He shows no other signs of psychosis and has no family history of mental illness.
Repeated surveys have found that more than half of Americans hold at least one paranormal belief. Many people believe they have personally experienced such phenomena, not understanding that subjective experience is among the least reliable forms of evidence: There are a multitude of factors that can distort sensory perceptions. We find our own perceptions arrestingly compelling and are more willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds. People underestimate the capacity of the brain to create convincing realities. They underestimate how powerfully realistic some dissociative experiences, hallucinations, and other misperceptions can seem.
There are many factors that incline some people more than others toward paranormal belief. Jim Alcock, a Canadian professor of psychology and an expert on paranormal beliefs, has extensively reviewed the parapsychological research literature and its scientific critiques. Alcock has summarized the literature, identifying factors such as thinking style—more intuitive, less analytical—distrust of science, proneness to fantasy and magical thinking, and openness to experience. Difficulty understanding statistical probability is another characteristic, one that applies to most people who have not had advanced scientific training. People, some more than others, easily misunderstand random chance and overattribute meaning.
Coming to Terms With Randomness
Who Among us has not longed to be able to make things happen in our world just by wishing it to be so—just by thinking positive thoughts. Needless to say, no well-controlled scientific experiment has ever reliably found an effect merely based on the scientist’s earnest desire for it to be there. Indeed, the whole point of the scientific method is to ensure that such wishful thinking does not skew the objective evaluation of the true effects.
But more than just wishful thinking is at play. The desire to find meaning in a universe that otherwise seems soulless is likely the very human factor motivating many spiritual seekers, including some scientists who, despite their rigorous training, are still hoping to find evidence for paranormal phenomena.
Randomness feels meaningless and amoral. But, purpose, meaning, and morality are actually as real a part of the natural, material universe as the air we breathe. The scientific story of how they emerged and evolved, entirely spontaneously and unguided, turns out to be far more interesting than the supernatural mythologies our mystified ancestors dreamed up, to which so many people still cling.
The universe may not be purposeful, but humans are. Purpose and meaning emerged in the universe with life itself. Willful human behavior has evolved to become much more embellished, elaborated by consciousness, but it is driven by the same basic instinctual goals of all living things: survival and reproduction. Our sense of purpose is not at all dependent on the universe’s having a purpose.
Purpose and meaning have thus become complexified and elaborated, despite being about survival and reproduction—analogous to the peacock’s tail. This realization needn’t demoralize us: The beauty of the peacock’s tail is not diminished by its purpose to merely propagate mindless, selfish peacock genes.
I regularly see the harm that people suffer when they do not recognize the outsize role that randomness plays in their lives. They blame themselves for problems that are the result of bad luck—faulty genes, a blighted childhood, or unfortunate circumstances. People also hold others responsible for things that are beyond anyone’s control. The belief that life events are cosmically intended is a double-edged sword: It can be reassuring and comforting but can also lead people to feel anguish and abandonment.
Although coming to terms with randomness is frightening, it can be liberating. It can free us from irrational fears and unfounded self-blame. And recognizing that we have only ourselves and each other to rely on empowers and motivates us. This precariousness of human life focuses us on the imperative of social responsibility and engagement as we advance the collective project of making our world safer and better for all.
How to Override Your (Off-Base) Intuition
Seeing events as intended and imbued with personal significance seems to be our default form of thinking. Questioning and overriding these intuitions requires both skepticism and critical thought.
Here’s a tip: Write down your predictions and record both the hits and the misses. Be diligent in controlling for and excluding factors that could bias the outcome. Be rigorous with your methodology, and allow others to identify and pick apart the bias, confounding variables, and any other flaws that may have escaped your attention.
The methodological flaws that repeatedly show up in the claims of parapsychology studies in fact have educational value for students: They offer lessons in critical thinking, in how to design rigorous scientific experiments, and for understanding the ease with which one can erroneously over-identify a signal in random statistical noise.
Once you understand the roles of cognitive bias, emotion, and subjectivity (with its self-referent salience) you realize that the more eerie and spine-chilling a coincidence feels, the more skeptical we ought to be about our habit of thinking that the universe is intentionally designed for us.
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