Coincidences and the Meaning of Life

Coincidences and the Meaning of Life

by Julie Beck

“This is where we start to leave the realm of science and enter the realm of belief. Coincidences are remarkable in how they straddle these worlds. People have surprising, connective experiences, and they either create meaning out of them, or they don’t.

Leaving a coincidence as nothing more than a curiosity may be a more evidence-based mindset, but it’s not fair to say that the people who make meaning from coincidences are irrational. The process by which we notice coincidences is “part of a general cognitive architecture which is designed to make sense of the world,” says Magda Osman, an associate professor in experimental psychology at Queen Mary University of London. It’s the same rational process we use to learn cause and effect. This is one way to scientifically explain how coincidences happen—as byproducts of the brain’s meaning-making system.”
““Small children are justified in being conspiracy theorists, since their world is run by an inscrutable and all-powerful organization possessing secret communications and mysterious powers—a world of adults, who act by a system of rules that children gradually master as they grow up,” write the cognitive scientists Thomas Griffiths and Joshua Tenenbaum in a 2006 study on coincidences.

We retain this capability, even when we’re older and have figured out most of these more obvious patterns. It can still be very useful, especially for scientists who are working on unsolved questions, but for most adults in their daily lives, any new coincidental connection is likely to be specious. From a scientific perspective, anyway. If we realize that, then we wave it off as “just a coincidence,” or what Griffiths, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, calls a “mere coincidence.” ”
“Meaningful connections can seem created by design—things are “meant to be,” they’re happening for a reason, even if the reason is elusive. Or as Beitman puts it, “Coincidences alert us to the mysterious hiding in plain sight.”

I suppose no one can prove there isn’t such a thing, but it’s definitely impossible to prove that there is. So you’re left with … not much. Where you fall on the continuum of explanation probably says more about you than it does about reality.”
“But I disagree. It may be that researching the paranormal is partly an act of hope that you’ll find something where no one has found anything before. But it seems like often, experiences are the building blocks of belief in the paranormal, or in an underlying force that organizes reality. Even if they’re not doing formal research, people are seeking explanations for their experiences. And structure is a much more appealing explanation than chance.

Where you fall on the chance-structure continuum may have a lot to do with what you think chance looks like in the first place. Research shows that while most people are pretty bad at generating a random string of numbers, people who believe in ESP are even worse. Even more so than skeptics, believers tend to think that repetitions in a sequence are less likely to be random—that a coin flip sequence that went “heads, heads, heads, heads, tails” would be less likely to come up randomly than one that went “heads, tails, heads, tails, heads,” even though they’re equally probable.

So we have psychology to explain how and why we notice coincidences, and why we want to make meaning from them, and we have probability to explain why they seem to happen so often. But to explain why any individual coincidence happened involves a snarl of threads, of decisions and circumstances and chains of events that, even if one could untangle it, wouldn’t tell you anything about any other coincidence.”
“This is supposed to be unappealing (surely these things should be put in order!), but I rather like the image of coincidences as a curio cabinet full of odds and ends we couldn’t find anywhere else to put. It may not be what we’re most comfortable with, but a “chaotic collection of curiosities” is what we’ve got.”

From The Atlantic


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