You Can Never Be Sure


This is a post from early 2015. It’s a good one to put up again, since it looks  at the issue of coincidence and statistical analysis. It’s at the heart of the question of whether there’s a deeper meaning underlying our everyday world or the universe is random and meaningless. I also like the comic above…9 9 9 9 9…

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Just as there are people who write books about synchronicity, there are others who write books attesting that there is no such thing, invoking randomness, what I prefer to call randomania.

A few such writers discussed their ideas in a recent article in Men’s Health Magazine. The article, called COINCIDENCE, actually is generally favorable to meaningful coincidence and included an interview with Dr. Bernard Beitman, a proponent of synchronicity, whose work we’ve written about here on a few occasions. His comments are both near the beginning and the end of the article.

However, underlying all the good stories and the belief that something unusual and special is taking place when these events happen, is the other point of view that it’s all quite meaningless, and people (silly us) seem to need to search for meaning, even when there is none. To the question of how an extraordinary coincidence with outrageous odds happen, the answer is simply: it was bound to happen.

Instead of ignoring this point of view, let’s take a closer look. After all, these anti-synchro scholars are bright people, even if their contentions take away all the magic many of us find in these experiences.

I’ll quote from the article.

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With 7 billion increasingly interconnected people on the planet, sooner or later things are going to intersect. In fact, as the world becomes “smaller,” expect the unexpected to happen more often. In his book The Improbability Principle, statistician David Hand explains that “with a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. No mysteries are required to explain [coincidences]—no superstitions, no god. All that’s needed are the basic laws of probability.”

David Spiegelhalter, a University of Cambridge statistician, reached the same conclusion after reviewing 3,500 stories of coincidence submitted to his website. “Lots of people believe some external force leads to all these bizarre events,” he explains. “But they’re what we would expect by chance patterns.”

Do you think being killed by lightning is an unfortunate coincidence? Your odds are actually 1 in 136,011, according to the National Safety Council. That’s just slightly less probable than dying from a dog attack (1 in 103,798). Believe a par-3 hole in one is a rare mark of good fortune? Actually, in a 100-person amateur tournament on a course with four par-3s, the odds of an ace are 1 in 32.

Despite the irrefutable laws of probability, it’s still hard for most people (read: non-mathematicians) to accept that life and lightning strikes are entirely random. Indeed, it takes effort to act randomly. (Admit it: devising secure passwords isn’t easy.) That’s because accepting the concept of a meaningless world requires accepting the fact that maybe we’re meaningless too. “The basic human drive for safety and security induces a fundamental unease with the notion that events happen by chance,” writes Hand.

“…So the brain continually searches for patterns. It even cross-checks information while we sleep, which occasionally enables us to wake with fresh insight. And it seizes on coincidences as possible clues to a new order or way of understanding the world. Linking cause and effect is a basic evolutionary process that helps us adapt. “By creating self-referential meaning out of coincidence, we build a sense of personal order and control in our lives,” says Steve Hladkyj, Ph.d., a psychology researcher at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. “This, in turn, may reduce stress and may increase the functioning of the immune system to fight disease.”

The article’s author concludes: “So the woeful state of your apartment or office aside, you are wired for order. We all are. It makes us healthier and, by inflating our egos with the air of self-importance, more assured. Little wonder, then, that we want to believe in something more.”


Interesting how the scientists turn around the question of cause and effect. A synchronicity, as we use the term here, is when two similar events come together outside of cause and effect and the resulting coincidence is meaningful to the experiencer. But the scientists say that by applying ‘meaning’ to coincidence, we are searching for the missing cause and effect when, in fact, we are recognizing that a deeper reality exists outside of the everyday world of cause and effect, a reality where everything is connected. The scientists, of course, don’t address that matter, because they don’t believe in any deeper reality outside of the mundane world where there are no mysterious connections outside of cause and effect—except synchronicity, which is what they are dismissing.

At the heart of their randomness argument is the curious theme that more people means more coincidences. Okay, maybe statistically that’s true. Let’s say it is. But what about when there are no people, zero? How did we appear out of the random, meaningless universe? What were the chances of specs of stardust drifting through a black void forming humans, who could ask such questions?

Here’s Hand’s answer, in short: “The tendency to synchronize is one of the most pervasive drives in the universe, extending from atoms to animals, from people to planets.”

Hmm, if there is such a ‘tendency,’ that would indicate consciousness underlying all matter. And consciousness suggests meaning, not randomness. As the cartoon at the top tells us: “That’s the thing about randomness. You can never be sure.”

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3 Responses to You Can Never Be Sure

  1. Rob MacGregor says:

    It’s like the wind. We only see the effects of it, but not the wind itself. So the answer is truly blowing in the wind.

  2. bh says:

    The canonical answer to the question of how we arose out of the randomness of the universe lies in quantum physics and multiverse theory – that we arose out of the randomness of this universe only because we are here to ask how we got here; and there are an infinite number of other universes in which we both do and do not exist.

    Yeah. Way too early in the morning to go there.

    But anyway, the engineer and mathematician in me depends heavily on probability and statistics to do my job, but the mystic in me leans heavily in the other direction.

    I just hope we get all the answers when we die – if not, I’m gonna be pissed 🙂

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