Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How Awareness and Coincidence Intersect

Why we should accept that there are some things we can't understand.

Key points

  • From time to time, most of us have strange experiences that defy common sense and can't be explained.
  • Some observers are too ready to explain such experiences away as coincidence or self-delusion.
  • There is a limit to human beings' awareness of reality. There must be forces and phenomena that are beyond our awareness.
  • We should remain humble, knowing that our awareness is limited and that our lives will always contain elements of the inexplicable.  
Flickr/Lukasz Szolc
Source: Flickr/Lukasz Szolc

As we go about our lives, most of us operate under the assumption that we have a basic understanding of how the world works. At school, we learned that the world operates according to laws of cause and effect, and that time runs in a straight line from the past through the present to the future. We learned that human beings are biological machines whose consciousness is produced by the brain and will cease to exist when our brains stop functioning. People in previous centuries – or in less rational cultures – may have believed that there are hidden dimensions of reality, and that the world contains forces and phenomena beyond those of which we are normally aware. But we assume that the physical world perceived through our senses is all there is. This is what you could call the ‘common sense’ view of the world that most of us accept as the truth.

However, from time to time we all have experiences that seem to contradict this common-sense view of reality. Here are three of the many that have occurred in my life.

My Father's Prediction of His Death

My father died 18 months ago, at the age of 79. He had Parkinson’s disease and was quite weak and a little confused, but no one expected him to die at that particular time. A week before his death, he told a friend, “I’ve found out when I’m going to die – it will be a week today, next Thursday.”

His friend was shocked, but as my father didn’t seem seriously ill, he didn’t pay heed to his comments. My dad had only recently woken up after a doze, so his friend assumed he was more confused than normal.

Then my dad continued, “I’ve seen the book where all the dates of people’s death are written down. I can find out the date of your death if you like.”

“Oh no, don’t worry,” said his friend. “I’d rather not know!”

My dad’s friend was certain that he was in a state of delirium. But a couple of days later, my dad's health took a sudden turn for the worst. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and died on Thursday, just as he had predicted.

My Dream of a Soccer Match

In September 2001, England played Germany at soccer, in a World Cup qualifying match. I had arranged to watch the match at my friend's house, together with his German girlfriend. The night before the match I had a dream where I was sitting in my friend's living room watching the match, which was still in progress. The score on the TV screen read 'England 4, Germany 1.'

The dream was in my mind when I woke up in the morning, and I remember thinking 'England 4, Germany 1—that's impossible!' Germany had the best soccer team in Europe, whereas England had a long history of underachievement. England had only beaten Germany once in 35 years. But as it turned out, England outplayed Germany and after 66 minutes, they scored their fourth goal, to take a 4-1 lead. I had been thinking about my dream all the way through the match, and as the screen switched to the same score I had dreamt, I was filled with a very eerie feeling. About 10 minutes later, England scored again, and the game finished 5-1. The score was 4-1 for those 10 minutes or so, and it seemed logical to conclude that I had somehow caught a glimpse of a moment during that period. (Just to get the scoreline into perspective for those who aren't familiar with the world of soccer, it was the first time in 45 years that any team had scored 5 goals against Germany.)

An After-Death Communication?

In 2013, I accepted an invitation to be a keynote speaker at a psychology conference in Brighton, UK, about 200 miles from my home city. Two days before the conference, my wife’s father – whose name was Ian Smith – died after a short illness. I was upset by his death and considered cancelling, but I didn’t want to let the conference organisers down. I began my talk with a dedication to my father-in-law, saying “I’d like to give this talk in memory of my father-in-law, Ian Smith, who died two days ago.” Right at that moment, there was a sudden “boom” noise through the sound system, like a peel of thunder. I was speaking towards the end of the day, and up till that point, the sound system had worked perfectly, without any such noises. The audience laughed nervously, and I continued jokingly, “I don’t think Ian believed in life after death, but maybe he’s found out that there is something after all. Maybe he’s here with us!” At that moment, there two further loud “booms”, one after the next. Now the audience was spooked and there were some audible shrieks and shudders.

It could have been a coincidence, of course. But afterwards I spoke to the sound engineer and asked him what had caused the boom noises. “No idea!” he said. “Everything was working fine. That was freaky!” At that particular moment, it really did feel my father-in-law was somehow making his presence felt.

The Spotlight of Awareness

There could be simple explanations for these experiences. A skeptic would probably say that they were a coincidence, and that out of all of the millions of events that occur in our lives, there are bound to be a few extremely improbable events that appear to be miraculous and inexplicable. But I don’t think this is the case. I’m not sure how these experiences can be explained – perhaps they can’t be explained at all. And in a way, that is the important point. Such anomalous experiences illustrate that our knowledge of the world is far from complete and that there are aspects of reality that we cannot understand, and perhaps never will. In my view, some people are all too ready to explain away such experiences, in an effort to maintain their common-sense view of reality.

This is a highly irrational approach. It makes no sense to assume that we have a reliable or complete awareness of reality. Our awareness must be limited, just as the awareness of any living being – such as an insect or sheep – is limited. Consider our awareness of reality compared to an insect’s, for instance. We are aware of many phenomena and concepts that an insect is probably not aware of – for instance, the concepts of time, death, and of our own existence as subjective, self-conscious beings. We probably have a more intense awareness of reality than most other animals. Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely that our awareness is complete – or even close to complete. To believe otherwise is a form of anthropocentrism, tantamount to seeing human beings as the endpoint of the evolutionary process.

It is probable that, at some point in the future, other living beings will come into existence who have a more intense awareness than us, just as we have more intense awareness than insects or sheep. These hypothetical beings may be more intensely aware of the world around them than human beings. They will probably be aware of forces, energies, or laws that are beyond our present level of awareness.

To use a metaphor, our normal awareness is like a spotlight that illuminates a certain area of reality, with vast ranges of darkness all around it. As living beings have evolved and become more physically complex - with increasing numbers of cells organized in ever-more intricate and complex ways – their awareness has become wider and more intense. Our spotlight of awareness is certainly wide and intense compared to most other animals, but it would be absurd to claim that it’s so wide that it illuminates the whole of reality or even a significant part of it. There must still be vast ranges of darkness around us, full of unknown aspects of reality.

So in my view, it is almost certain that there is, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “more in heaven and earth that is dreamt of in [our] philosophy.” There are almost certainly forces, energies, and phenomena in the world beyond those which we can presently perceive and understand, or even detect. From time to time, such phenomena may manifest themselves in our lives, causing events that seem improbable and inexplicable.

It is very tempting for us to believe that we have a sound understanding of the world. It gives us a sense of order and control. But, as the great psychologist William James suggested, it would be foolish to “close our account with reality.” We should remain humble, knowing that our awareness is limited and that our lives will always contain elements of the inexplicable.