NEVER READ ANYTHING INTO A COINCIDENCE
"Nobody is immune to wishful thinking. It takes scientific discipline to protect ourselves from our own credulity, but we’ve also found ingenious ways to fool ourselves and others. Some of the methods used to exploit these urges are easy to analyze; others take a little more unpacking."
~Daniel C. Dennett, "Show Me the Science," New York Times, August 28, 2005.
I live in the south, where news events usually contain testimonials to divine intervention in all manner of human affairs. It can be positive news (winning a lottery, for instance) or bad news (the house burned down but somebody was rescued)—it won’t matter: God will get credit for helping out. Judging from the local papers, God (or Jesus or unnamed angels) is active in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Anecdotal accounts have "Him" making guest appearances during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Biloxi. (Never mind that he also must have allowed Katrina to make landfall in the first place.)
While the hurricane, the attendant floodwaters and FEMA wreaked havoc on the entire region, God evidently had nothing to do with that. In the South, God is never faulted for the bad stuff. Nobody asks why He stood aside and allowed Satan (in the form of nature) to blow, decimate, devour, rip and plunder. No, the Deity and his agents are credited with the good stuff, like saving someone’s photo album. These little favors evidently are signs to the faithful that prove God is compassionate and cool. To the simple folks on the ground talking to reporters, nothing else explains a bright side to the gloom save the hand of the Lord. When these folks say, "Thank you, Jesus," they mean it, literally. If I were a believer living in some godless place, like San Francisco, for example, I would move to a Southern state—I’d want to be in an area where Jesus is most active in human affairs.
I thought about this Southern phenomenon while reading a review of a book called Beyond Coincidence by Martin Plimmer and Brian King. (See "The Quirky Moments When Lightning Does Strike Twice," NY Times, January 20, 2006). The book is labeled "a collection of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes wrapped loosely in colorful intellectual tissue paper."
A coincidence is defined as "the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection" (Merriam-Webster Online). Arthur Koestler once referred to uncanny coincidences as "puns of destiny." If everyone in the south read Beyond Coincidence, news stories might become less entertaining (not good) but the level of critical thinking would improve by leaps and bounds (good). Here are some interesting excerpts from Beyond Coincidence:
Coincidences are unusual but not mysterious—they are logical outcomes of the laws of chance. Such laws operate strangely in accord with the nature of psychology and mathematics.
Humans resist the idea that things occur in random fashion, but that does not affect reality, which functions in this manner. A world without "remarkable" coincidences would be much more amazing than the reverse. Plimmer and King: "Something deep in the mind resists the explanations of the statisticians. Evolution may be to blame."
A poor grasp of statistics explains coincidences that are, in fact, unremarkable. For example, odds against meeting someone else at a party with the same birthday as your own is not 365 to 1. "In a room with just 23 people, the chances that two of them will share the same birthday are better than even."
"On average, everyone should have a prophetic dream once every 19 years, and the odds of a double hole-in-one, although apparently staggering at 1.85 billion to 1, ensure that this occurs about once a year."
The more people in the world, the more coincidences to expect.
I can’t recall who said this (I found it in my own notebook, written some time ago for future reference—maybe I made it up!) but it seems to fit this topic. "The extent of uncritical acceptance of nonsense is an unrecognized health hazard. This affliction affects not only the afflicted, but the entire country, in that it leads to grotesque political outcomes, none more strikingly pernicious than the presidency of GWB." I suspect it was Daniel C. Dennett, as part of the opening quote, but the sentiments are mine, as well.
What is really amazing, even miraculous, is that I was planning to write an essay for years on this topic when I came across the one (or two) Dennett quotes and the review of Beyond Coincidence by Martin Plimmer and Brian King. I know some may think it’s all part of the way things work, but I know better. I think Zeus reached out and made this info available, just for me.
Be well. Always look on the bright side of life.