Education

Coincidences– Signals of the Universe or Simple Mathematics?

Violet Jessop, often known as “Miss Unsinkable”, survived the collision of RMS Olympic. She was also one of the few survivors of the ill-fated Titanic disaster in 1912. She even survived the explosion that sank HMHS Britannic four years later. The digits in the speed of light are exactly same to the latitudes of the Great Pyramid of Giza. What does all of this mean? Are they just mere coincidences or ‘great powers’ in action? Why does a mere coincidence give us chills?

Coincidence is a striking concurrence of events that appear meaningful, but in reality, occur only by chance. As far as the history and the origination of this concept is concerned, it can be seen that ‘coincidence’ is derived from a medieval Latin word, coincidere, which means “exact correspondence in substance or nature”. The first usage of the word can be traced back to 1605. The definition evolved in 1940s to “occurrence or existence during the same time”. Sir Thomas Brown, in his writings in 1980s, gave what is now a widely accepted definition of coincidence as “a concurrence of events with no apparent connection”.

The definition of coincidence itself, points out to the probability of the existence of an explanation. This creates an opportunity to put forth the idea that ‘there are no coincidences’. Many people attribute coincidences to fate, the universe, God or some other mysterious forces operating in nature. So, according to them, these are some of the possible explanations for coincidences and therefore, this idea of providing a valid explanation completely does away with the existence of coincidence. Associating coincidences to universe or God takes away the responsibility from an individual to delve deeper into its understanding. It also forecloses individuals to rely on specific unscientific explanations which in no manner provide satisfaction to people.

Albert Einstein quotes, “Coincidences are God’s ways of staying anonymous”. People who hold such beliefs also come to believe that each coincidence is a form of ‘personal message’ or ‘signal from the universe’ which is meant for them. However, these people simply end up becoming delusional. “We reside in a random universe which has nothing to do with creating coincidences. They just happen and have nothing to do with an individual”, states Bernard Beitman, former chair of University of Missouri-Columbia, department of psychiatry.

Everybody has instances in which one is thinking of a friend or acquaintance, whom one hasn’t met for a long time and immediately the phone buzzes. And guess what? It’s that friend.

David Spiegelhalter, professor of Public Understanding of Risk in the University of Cambridge proclaims, “A coincidence itself is in the eye of the beholder.” By this, he means that if a coincidence occurs in a place where it goes unnoticed and unheard of, it can’t really be called a coincidence. According to him, coincidences occur because people notice them. One never actually takes into account the times when a surprising event could have happened, but didn’t.

It is seen that when such events are analysed on a purely statistical basis, it seems that such events are extremely random and should not be surprising because they take place all the time. They appear as coincidences because people are just not able to understand probability. “Extremely improbable events are commonplace. But humans generally aren’t great at reasoning objectively about probability as they go about their everyday lives”, mentions the statistician David Hand, in his book The Improbability Principle. It is merely because of the Law of Truly Large Numbers which puts forth the idea that with a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. A very famous experiment conducted to prove the same, states that a mere 23 people are required to be present in a room in order to have a 50% chance of an individual sharing his birth date with another. Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung was never satisfied with the statistical approach to explanation, so he came up with an alternative theory known as ‘Synchronicity’, which posits that the occurrence of series of such events does have a meaning to the person who observes them.

Therefore, psychology tries to explain why and how a human mind notices coincidences and indulges into them, thereby extracting meaning out of them. On the other hand, probability and statistics focus on another important question. Why is the frequency of such events so great? Despite having these two ideas by one’s side, one can never satisfactorily explain as to why a certain coincidence happens. This is because, in order to do so, one requires an understanding of the chain of events that occurred and the decisions involved. Coincidences have their own beauty. A mysterious wardrobe full of unsolved ends, surprising and exciting every individual every now and then, and taking him on an adventure to discover truths. It’s about decoding hidden messages and even though it is not the most comfortable thing to do, it is definitely an interesting one.

Picture Courtesy- The Epoch Times



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