There are those who insist there is no such thing as coincidences. And not by coincidence, most of these people are largely unfamiliar with concepts like the Law of Truly Large Numbers, subjective validation, selective memory, and post hoc reasoning. Additionally, they prefer to feel that they are in control, or that they at least have a benevolent higher force acting on their behalf.
This need to feel in control hampers the acceptance of randomness and downplays the role that luck, both good and bad, plays in everyone’s life.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Lewis told of a flight attendant who, through a series of mishaps, was unable to get onboard one of the ill-fated Sept. 11 flights. While this no doubt had deep personal meaning to her, there is no need to tie any cosmic force or higher power into it, any more than there is reason to put the blame for the lives lost on anyone but the terrorists.
Lewis works as a hospital psychiatrist, where he sees “patients grapple with the randomness of adversity and the lack of control over life’s outcomes.” Indeed, we as a species naturally seek patterns in life, to the point of finding a face in our Honey Nut Cheerios. This has often been beneficial, such as when our hominin ancestors recognized a trend that going near large-fanged beasts leads to ill results. Or their realization that a certain stripe or color meant a plant can be safely consumed.
But Lewis writes that we notice patterns so frequently that we detect them where none exist, and therefore erroneously tie together disparate occurrences. In some cases, that further leads to deducing that invisible entities conspired to make this happen. These forces can take the form of a god, demon, karma, or even vaguer concepts like spirituality, oneness, or there being “something more.”
A related factor is mankind’s love of stories. Lewis explains that we prefer “grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end.” It’s bad enough when we are deprived of this at the movies. But when we are left without a satisfactory explanation for why a Kindergartener gets leukemia or why a man is wrongfully convicted, it’s much more difficult to grapple with.
Also coming into play is the Law of Truly Large Numbers. With billions of people undertaking hundreds of actions every day, it would be incredible if there were NO instances of amazing coincidences and occurrences. These can be explained with the Law and there exists no reason to infer into a higher meaning to it, no matter how much subjective validation may lead one to wish otherwise. Subjective validation refers to thinking something powerful is at work because it has personal meaning or connection. But the amount of emotion felt is unrelated to whether a fortuitous occurrence has a cosmic cause.
One reason people may think a hidden power is at work is because humans take more notice of events or items that impact them or that they find interesting. Lewis offered a hypothetical example of a woman who is contemplating motherhood.
She will likely pay more attention to baby product advertisements and may even interpret them as an omen. Similarly, when facing adversity or a serious illness, people can recoil at the idea of it being determined by random chance instead of a plan that needs to be foiled. A lifelong smoker who contracts lung cancer is unlikely to feel this way, but someone who has never lit up and becomes afflicted with the disease just might. While the feeling that our life and universe are being controlled can bring comfort and reassurance, in cases such as the non-smoking lung cancer patient, it can instead cause feelings of being abandoned and spurned.
But Lewis writes that when people understand that the universe has no inherent purpose or grand design for our lives, the mystery of why bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people vanishes. And anyway, our species’ evolution and its development of technology and civilization is more captivating and inspiring than assigning that history to supernatural forces.