Another WordPress blogger, BlackSheep, was posting last week about “weird coincidences.” He posed the question, “Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”
When I thought about this question, I realized that such coincidences happen to me regularly. This is especially strange because I don’t believe in them.
In fiction, I expect thematic unity. If coincidences happen, I expect there to be a good narrative reason for them and I expect them to move the story forward. But this is not fiction, this is real life. Coincidences don’t happen, and events don’t organize themselves according to theme.
Except that they do, and … they do.
I have come up with the following handy taxonomy of weird coincidences for your enjoyment. Afterward, we’ll talk about possible causes.
1. Striking But Trivial
Often, like BlackSheep’s example with the pizza, coincidences might be striking but they seem trivial and they lead nowhere in particular.
For example, once I was passing through Yellowstone and I knew I’d be seeing my sister soon. On a whim, I bought her a stuffed raccoon. There was absolutely no history involving raccoons between her and me; I just thought it was cute.
When I saw my sister, I said to her, “I have a gift for you in the car.”
And she said, “Is it a raccoon?”
You can’t tell me that wasn’t weird.
Nor could you convince me that it means anything. (Other than that maybe my sister is a mind reader. But why did she read my mind about that, and not about much bigger things that I’d rather have had her instantly understand? Who knows?)
2. Foreshadowing Life Events
Perhaps, while reading above, you objected to the phrase “trivial.” “How can we know which events are trivial?” you ask. Well, good point. Sometimes a seemingly minor coincidence looks more significant (though still kind of baffling) in retrospect because of how things turn out.
When I was young and eligible, I met this guy. He heard I was from Idaho (a relatively rural state with a relatively low population). He said, “Oh, you’re from Idaho? Do you know ____________?”
And just as I was preparing to say, “Not all Idahoans know one another, you know,” he said the name.
And it was of a writer I admired and had actually met.
Furthermore, I ended up marrying the guy who asked the question.
And his first name is the same as my father’s.
Now, the tricky thing about these foreshadowing coincidences is this. They don’t tell you as much as you’d think.
They don’t serve very well as guidance from God, at least not if they are your sole source of it, because they don’t happen often enough to guide you through every important decision in your life.
They are not a substitute for wisdom. You still have to take into account Reasons. I’d’ve been a fool to have married the guy on the spot.
Sometimes these coincidences do, along with a host of other factors, seem to confirm you are taking the right path. But even then, it is possible to start down the right path and at the same time be making serious mistakes that will come back to bite you later. And the stupid coincidences don’t give you any warning about your blind spots. At least not in any form that you can use.
So what are these foreshadowings for? I don’t know. Perhaps their occurrence is not intended but is more of a natural law analogous to the laws of physics … “Future events cast backward shadows” or something like that. But that’s getting into causes, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
3. When a Theme Emerges (over a short period of time)
This is when your attention keeps getting drawn to a particular theme, but it’s coming from different sources that are unrelated to each other. For example, you are reading (or writing) a novel that has a particular theme, and then you also hear a radio broadcast on the same topic, and a friend also brings up the theme over lunch.
Granted, you are the missing link between all of these. Maybe the reason the theme keeps coming up is that you keep bringing it up, or seeking it out. But I think we’ve all had experiences where the theme keeps pursuing us, as it were, from the outside.
Christians will tell you that this happens a lot with Scripture. The Bible has a lot of verses and a lot of themes, as anyone who studies it knows. So it does seem striking when, say, you have been memorizing a passage with your kids one week, and then on that Sunday, the sermon includes a quote from that very verse. But this happens often.
The Psalms, by the way, are great for this. There are 150 Psalms, most of them short. This means that if you read five a day, you can read through all of them in a 30-day month (skipping most of Psalm 119, the really long one). And I can tell you that if you do this, on about 25 days of that month (or possibly all 30), one of the Psalms you read will have a direct bearing on a situation you are in. And this is not because the Psalms are filled with a lot of vague language that could be applied to anything. I mean, some of them are worship, some are laments, some are imprecatory (calling down vengeance on one’s enemies), some are historical or prophetic. Many are cries for help. But these different types are not evenly distributed throughout the book in such a way that you’d be sure every day to get one of each.
4. When People Become Magnets for Certain Events
This can be a really tragic one. We’ve all heard anecdotally that once someone is struck by lightning and survives, they are more likely to get struck again – and again. I don’t know whether that’s been verified, but I do know of two families each of whom experienced two or more horrible, life-changing car crashes within a few years. And it wasn’t because they were drunk driving or anything like that. And they lived in rural, non-high-traffic areas.
You often hear about this phenomenon in cases where someone repeatedly runs into abusive situations – say, at home, then in another home, then at church, then at work. Or at job after job. The temptation is to seek the reason for this recurrence in the behavior of the victim: to say “She keeps marrying the same kind of guy” or “He has problems with authority.” And there might be something to that, sometimes, sure. But after looking at the families with the car crashes, I think there might be more going on. It’s as if there is such a thing as a luck switch, and God help you if yours gets flipped in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately, all the examples I could think of for people being “event magnets” were bad ones. Does anyone know of a case where a particular person seemed to attract a particular kind of event that was either good, neutral, or just funny?
Causes for Weird Coincidences
Ok, now back to the question asked by BlackSheep.
“Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”
Mathematical Odds plus Pattern Recognition
We all know that the human mind is predisposed to detect patterns. This is useful, as patterns occur in the actual world and we couldn’t act if we couldn’t detect them. In fact, experts on culture crossing will tell you that it is difficult to really see an object unless you know what you are looking at, and it is difficult to repeat back a string of sounds unless you know what they mean. Our very perception is tied up with patterns. We literally can’t function without them.
But equally, we all know that this urge to detect patterns is so strong that it sometimes leads us astray. Every pattern that we perceive also forces us to ignore data that don’t fit it. Everyone has heard of Confirmation Bias. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that even scientists, supposedly very data-driven, will not give up on a previous theory unless they have been presented with a compelling alternative. In other words, we’re not willing to say “there’s no pattern here” once we have seen one. Instead, we will refuse to abandon a previous pattern unless there is a new one for us to hang our data on.
In some cases, our expectation of a pattern will actually cause us to perceive data that isn’t there, simply because it fits the pattern. This is especially true when interpreting our spouse’s tone of voice.
I think pattern recognition plus mathematical odds might account for some of the weird coincidences we’ve discussed, particularly the thematic ones. Once our minds have been awakened to a topic, we start to notice it more often, or even read it into things that are only tangentially related to it. Perhaps such “coincidences” were happening around us before, but we didn’t perceive them.
Pattern Recognition Ain’t the Villain, Though
However, let’s not go crazy with assuming that pattern recognition can only serve to deceive us as to the nature of the world. It can start to sound like this whenever people get talking about Confirmation Bias. It’s as if this weird quirk of the human mind keeps us from seeing the world “as it really is.” But actually, pattern recognition often helps us to perceive things, as when we notice that our kid is always grumpier when he’s hungry or that the sun always rises in the East. Just because the drive to perceive patterns sometimes deceives us, does not mean that the world does not operate according to regular rules. It is not a completely random world we live in. So, our pattern-recognizing minds are not alien to this world, but are designed to operate well within it.
Also, despite our strong predisposition to see only what we expect and understand, we also have minds that are designed to meet and grapple with the unknown. (Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about this. According to him, the left brain basically handles the known, and the right brain the unknown.) We know that we are capable of learning surprising new facts, and sometimes we even seek out this experience. In fact, that is almost the definition of the “weird” in “weird coincidences.”
The Universe is Mind, Not Matter
Let’s review two facts: our minds are capable of moving out into the unknown, and our minds are predisposed to seek patterns. This opens up the possibility that our experiences, including weird coincidences, might represent previously unknown patterns. That is, patterns not coming from our own minds but from somewhere else.
Now, this will be hard to swallow if you believe that the only real thing is matter. On this view, all of matter is controlled by random movements at the quantum level. On this view, the universe really is a random place and patterns are not real EXCEPT in the human mind.
All of us who have received a modern Western education believe that at some level. That’s why I said above that coincidences happen to me “even though I don’t believe in them.” I got a normal public-school education, so there are some materialist assumptions baked into my thinking.
So that’s one level of our thought.
But on another level, none of us really believe the materialist/randomness/mathematical odds explanation. We know that minds are real. This is confirmed by our daily experience.
If this is a universe in which human minds exist, then it must be a universe in which mind is a real thing. Therefore patterns are real. Therefore themes are real. Even if they exist “only” in human minds, they are still real. They are in the universe.
I would go so far as to say that the basic unit of reality is not molecules, but mind. (That alliterates, which is why I chose it rather than “not atoms but mind” or “not quarks but mind.” Or whatever tinier thing down from quarks has since been discovered.)
In the video below, you can see Stephen Meyer make this case to Ben Shapiro. (It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. If you don’t have the time, he makes his point about mind in the teaser in the first few seconds of the video.) Our genes are, essentially, extensive libraries of information, digitally coded. In all our experience, nothing has ever produced a digitally coded message – let alone a library’s worth of messages – except for a mind.
Now, Christians would say that the ultimate mind – the Mind behind all minds – the medium in which the universe exists – is the Mind of God. I think, for many different reasons, that this is a better explanation than trying to say that “the universe” itself has some kind of emergent mind. But for the purposes of our discussion about coincidences, it’s doesn’t really matter whether you call the Mind God. It’s enough that you accept that mind is a real feature of the universe.
Because if you accept that, then it follows that embedded in the universe itself could be things like: themes, goals, purposes, design, patterns, intent. Stories. Maybe even jokes, which is what some of these weird coincidences resemble more than anything.
I said above, “This is real life, not a novel.” But – surprise! – real life is actually a lot like a novel after all. It has mind and meaning. It might even be one big story, too big for us to perceive. So maybe that’s why things sometimes happen to us that, if you saw them in a movie, you wouldn’t believe them.
7 thoughts on “When Life Organizes Itself Thematically”
This is fascinating. I agree that a lot of it is pattern recognition and selective attention, like when you’re thinking of buying a certain make of car and suddenly begin seeing them everywhere. But then there are the other coincidences that aren’t explained that way. I’ll have to come back and watch the video when I have time. Thanks for this.
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Thanks for your comment, Beth. I agree … I really don’t think that pattern recognition was responsible for the raccoon thing. 🙂
You put some deep thought and research into this. Great work.
I have come to wonder if coincidence, pattern, and repetition are memory-saving references, as in computer programming.
If you play Grand Theft Auto for a few hours, you can see this in action. Things repeat, not because the programmers were unimaginative, but out of the necessity of conserving RAM.
I think this occurs in nature too. If you think of the moment before the Big Bang as a compressed (zipped) computer file, it would include the mathematical algorithm needed to expand into what we have today, but out of necessity there would be patterns.
Just another new thought, not my overarching belief…
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I agree with your theory, BlackSheep. Whenever anyone designs a world, it has to have limits and parameters, and this will lead to things repeating if you, so to speak, run the program long enough.
Note that all your examples and metaphors (computer game, zipped file, algorithms) imply a mind designing something. And in the case of Grand Theft Auto, it’s a storylike something too.
I think these unavoidable repetitions are part of the story, but not the whole story. I don’t think they account for some of the most striking coincidences. I could be wrong.
This in a tangent, but it’s definitely true as well that redundancy helps memory. It helps memory in individual human minds, where the same info is stored in multiple places in our brains … it helps us socially – I have read that we tend to “store” some of our memories in our loved ones. And, it helps in long poems that need to be memorized. Poets will use refrains, repeating structures, and stock phrases (“the wine-dark sea”) to help hearers and reciters organize the thing in their minds.
I don’t think that’s quite the point you were making, but your point reminded me of it.
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I think the reason I use computer and math examples is because I was working as a computer programmer before my mind broke.
As an author, you used some literary/thematic examples. That makes sense. In Grand Theft Auto, there is a story component, but I was thinking more about the recycling of game components like cars. I’ve noticed in the game when you enter a vehicle, you start to see the same vehicles in your vicinity. I believe this is to save memory, but it could just be the “new car” effect that Beth mentions above.
I believe there is a mathematical basis to the universe. I think this is evidenced by fractal math and constants like Pi I don’t know if this means it was designed, but it can certainly explain the patterns.
The trouble is, if the universe was designed, who designed the designer?
It’s nice to have a math person giving input on this blog!
Certainly if you follow the design argument far enough back you eventually have to invoke an uncaused cause. But that is true of any theory of the universe.
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An uncaused cause. I like that.
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