What a lucky man he was…? A post about luck and coincidences

Dec. 5, 1660, a ship sank in the Straits of Dover. Lucky man Hugh Williams was the sole survivor.

Dec. 5, 1767, another shipwreck in the same place caused 127 people to lose their lives. Once again, only Hugh Williams lived to tell the tale.

On Aug. 8, 1820, a picnic boat capsized on the Thames. According to historic records, all passengers but Hugh Williams drowned.

July 10, 1940: a German mine destroys a British ship. Two men survived: Hugh Williams and his nephew, Hugh Williams.

Why are coincidences so gripping? Is it just because they fill our pool of party trivia?

Is it that we are so compelled to find the causes of events in our surroundings that stories of synchronicity short-circuit our wiring?

The usefulness of such stories is obvious for anyone who is looking for evidence of a cosmic plan in action—a plan that might stack the odds in humanity’s favor as we tumble through space.

Certainly anyone named Hugh Williams would welcome the above as an indication that the old man in the sky has got his back.

But before waxing poetic about sentimental, fortuitous and life-saving coincidences, the sobering thoughts of Robert Novella from the Web site Quackwatch should be brought to mind.

“Coincidences occur in everyone’s life. Some are trivial, like being dealt a flush in poker, but others really grab our attention, like thinking of a friend you have not seen in years only to have them call on the phone moments later,” writes Novella. “What most people do not know or do not want to believe is that coincidences, even remarkable ones, are not all that surprising. In fact most are inevitable occurrences with no special significance at all.”

Novella points to many reasons why people “misinterpret coincidences,” like a poor grasp of probability when it comes to large numbers or the tendency to remember only positive correlations – in layman’s terms this means that we are more likely to remember the time we got a phone call from a friend that we were just thinking about than the numerous times we thought of them and got no such call.

Novella cautions against humanity’s mystical leanings and urges readers to put “focus where it belongs, on science.”

Maybe. Or can coincidences point the way to a different kind of truth—one that reveals science to be just a collection of beliefs?

Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) thought even the empirical sciences were built upon a questionable foundation.

A fundamental flaw exists in scientific method, according to Hume. The tried and true approach of testing beliefs by correlating a cause with an effect is unreliable.

“From the mere repetition of any past impression, even to infinity, there will never arise any new original idea, such as that of a necessary connection,” he posited.

Hume argues that since the connection between cause and effect cannot actually be witnessed in many cases, like the earth’s pull on the moon or gravity causing an apple to fall to the ground, how is habitual man to know if he is trading in one superstitious way of thinking for another?

Along these lines Jan-Erik Jones in “Star Wars and Philosophy,” writes, “we have no knowledge of causation, just a habit of certain kinds of events to be followed by other kinds of events.”

Determining the relationship between cause and effect is an invaluable tool in our search for meaning.

But it can also be the comfort food of reason—a crutch that is leaned on and not questioned enough.

Meanwhile, aren’t coincidences miraculous?


About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
This entry was posted in beliefs, cause and effect, Coincidences, David Hume, fate, Hugh Williams, luck, mystical, odds, probability, science, scientific method, The Joy of Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What a lucky man he was…? A post about luck and coincidences

  1. Allan says:

    Hmmm. I have a lot of trouble with some of the things in this column. In my own understanding, parts of this are seriously misleading, in terms of “science,” in terms of general dealing with life, and even theologically. It deserves a serious response, and that’s going to take some work. But here goes.

    Re coincidences:

    Yes coincidences happen, and Robert Novella’s comments in Quackwatch are right on. I got a crash course in coincidences in my nuclear physics days when I listened to the clicking of a radiation counter for more hours than I care to remember. I was using it to see whether I had slimed my (gloved) hands with bad stuff while I was preparing radioisotope samples. Each click might represent a gamma ray from the hand I was holding next to the counter, a gamma ray from the bottle of the isotope a couple of feet away, or maybe a cosmic ray trucking on through the earth.

    I saw coincidences and patterns all the time. Sometimes when I moved my hand close to the counter, the clicking increased. Contaminated? Maybe. Sometime when I moved my hand close the clicking DECREASED. Was my hand magically repelling gamma rays? Not very darn likely. Was it a random fluctuation? Quite possibly. Sometimes the contamination was so large that the counter went wild. That was unambiguous and I had my answer right away. But usually I had to move the suspect hand close, away, close, and away over and over again to see if a clear pattern developed. It the increase in click rate was repeatable, I went through the hassle of peeling off the glove and doing whatever other cleanup work was appropriate.

    But also, I saw patterns that didn’t exist. Sometimes I would hear the rhythm of a few bars of some music I liked. Or Morse code. Or whatever. That sort of thing was routine. I got used to it. Years later I read studies that showed that the human brain is so well wired up to recognize patterns and causality, that it can easily see things that are not really there. This is well-documented in experiments, and evolutionary biologists point out that the tendency to look for and act on apparent patterns is such a strong survival trait that it will arise naturally in any species with enough neurons to attempt it. (I presume that that is what we rely on in training a dog.)

    Re theology / “cosmic plan”:

    Maybe the Old Man In The Sky really does have the back of all the Hugh Williams in the world. Lots of good Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or…) folks want devoutly to believe so. Many are the people whose religious faith is strengthened by (or based on?) a prayer that is followed by a good result. But many also are the people whose faith has been destroyed because the Old Man In The Sky didn’t come through for them. That is very flimsy evidence for or against religious faith.

    I personally don’t believe in magic, even magic done by God. Years ago I was shocked when a pastor friend loaned me a theological journal discussing the problems with intercessory prayer, and counting on God to pull the strings. That lit a fuse for thought.

    Do I pray? You betcha. But I don’t for a moment think that I’m persuading God to pull the strings. (Since I’m not a theist, that wouldn’t make any sense anyhow. That’s another discussion.) Our pastor, Mark Twietmeyer, is extremely careful about how he words the public intercessory prayers requested by our members. (People jot prayer requests on the attendance card at the start of the service, and they are passed to Mark during a hymn. Then he does some careful pondering before leading the prayers from the alter.) Even one of the gospels (I’m not sure which) has Jesus put an escape clause in his prayer before he was arrested and crucified. After asking “that this cup might pass away from me,” he says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

    Re “science” as just another arbitrary belief system:

    I am no expert on what all is encompassed by the term postmodernism, but this particular idea deeply discredits it. Likewise, elevating “science” to some kind of god-like status is ludicrous. Most of the Philosophy of Science stuff that I’ve read is uninteresting to me, and some of it is meaningless. I have never seen the scientific method as being anything more (or less) than normal everyday problem solving, thought through very carefully and consciously.

    When you or I encounter some new question or problem, we may react intuitively, without being particularly conscious of how we reached our decision. Or, we may act according to what our friends say, or maybe according to what some Authority that we honor says. Or maybe we’ll try to puzzle it out for ourselves, using the best information we can find. And if we develop some experience doing the puzzling out, and especially if we hang out with other similarly experienced people, we develop some tried-and-true approaches. The accumulated experience IN ESTABLISHED FIELDS can fill thick text books and complicated-looking college curricula. But in any active new field it just looks like intelligent people following their noses. There is no official rule book. People just use the techniques that seem to work reliably.

    Did David Hume REALLY say what the statements in the column say? I doubt very much that he would seriously suggest that “the empirical sciences were built upon a questionable foundation.” It certainly IS true that drawing conclusions from “correlating a cause with an effect” is tricky. Which one is the cause? Which is the effect? Are BOTH things effects of some different cause? It could be that Hume was writing at a time when this issue was just being sorted out, but there is a huge amount of experience with it by now.

    I don’t know what Hume meant by the statement, “From the mere repetition of any past impression, even to infinity, there will never arise any new original idea, such as that of a necessary connection.” Taken out of context, this can sound like stuffy old Science suppresses new original ideas. It does suppress wishful thinking, or fuzzy thinking. But the greatest honors go to those (e.g. Einstein) who can look at well-established “truths” and find an even more powerful way to understand them. And because the players acknowledge the principle that empirical observations trump opinion or authority, they (eventually) end up accepting the new knowledge.

    That’s the magic. Using basically disciplined common sense, the whole enterprise creeps (or lurches) closer and closer to TRUTH. Despite the fact that it is populated by very human humans, with all of the associated quirks. Ignore occasional pompous statements about The Scientific Method (and maybe the implied superiority of Scientists). But do recognize the power and legitimacy of the basic approach. It is the same one any of us uses when we solve a new problem.

    Re: Comfort food of reason / miraculous coincidences:

    The wording is quite striking, but I’m not sure just what you meant. We need to discuss.

    Boy, this has gotten long-winded. So I hereby wrap it up and send it off. Let’s discuss at your leisure.


  2. eebrinker says:

    the only problem i have….is that if mankind is well aware of the probability and penchant for a mind to create patterns or acknowledge patterns where they don’t exist, or where their meaning is limited……why is that considered mental illness?

    you see….it’s OK if you’re terribly unoriginal…..and get off on finding Jesus in the knots on trees or in your bowl of lucky charms.

    but if you have greater ability within the realm of imagination…..the correlations one can establish as a single entity, for the purpose of a wider comprehension of ones demesne…..those are considered to be “delusion” and cause for removal from society as well as forced injection of mind altering substances.

    and that is a punishment pronounced and carried out by those working to get every member of the populace “believing” in the status quo or establishment’s “idea” of how each person should be perceiving their reality. it’s NOT about TRUTH…..it’s about control.

    and what the heck is wrong, if a person DID have such propensity to ward off radiation? (in addressing the comment above). what do you KNOW? perhaps the burrito you ate for lunch, caused the puzzling reaction. talking about numbers….and the ability to quantify the probabilities for coincidental correlation….how many DIFFERENT things did you do that day? and then next, is how many different things did your lab partners do that day? what is the weather like…..what news do you have on the latest sunspot activity? hell…..there’s a million. but THAT is NO REASON to DISCOUNT your result. if there is a lessening of radioactivity….something is blocking it. unless you believe in ghosts or something…..the more LOGICAL choice is to NOT write off unusual results, and rather explore the possibilities for cause. JUST BECAUSE those possibilities are too numerous to wrap your head around….does not mean that “it’s crazy and there is no cause.” hello? unless you have some reason to believe that your equipment itself is on the schizophrenic side, or a thousand years old…..there HAS to be quantifiable, a justifiable…a reality that explains a change in result. and the thing is…..when the possibilities that could have created an instance, are too numerous to explore…..that doesn’t “erase” the instance.


    and yea….the fun explanation is that you have superpowers that day. and it is natural to gravitate to reasoning that bolsters one’s concept of “self.” so what…..that doesn’t discount it as a possibility. but it also doesn’t erase other probable reasons for the results of your findings.

    the fact that you were curious enough to note changes….well, that’s like a normal function of a mind that wants to learn, and establish its own set of boundaries for the reality considered.

    but your reaction….to discount any findings that do NOT COMPUTE to established RULE…..that right there….is programmed into you by society.

    just because you can’t find an answer, doesn’t mean one isn’t there. and it DOESN’T erase the question. the thing is…..we are taught to believe there are to be no questions without answers.

    and so….if you can’t find an answer, you conclude your question is wrong…..lol. i mean, it’s kind of funny…..that a person will be MORE willing to completely discount the SOLID nature of their own observations….rather than to face the “HORROR” of a question left unanswered.

    and sorry for butting in there…..i know it’s a boys club…..and i don’t normally take into account other comments on a blog, and apologies for that.

    thing is….your topic is right on……and it’s VERY important to sort out these definitions. when our society can call “psychology”….which is one step over from astrology and crystal ball reading….when society can call psychology a “science”…..that rather dilutes the meaning of the term.

    and then, of course…..we get down to the nitty gritty….which is “agreed meaning.” we have all come to some sort of consensus on what “science” means.

    and i’m trying to communicate here…..what am i communicating? why is it important to me? why should i give a rat’s ass, to sit here and take this much time out of my day, while trying to get people i don’t even know, to see what i see?

    because i don’t see things the way the rest of the world wants me to see them. and i’m looking for my own answers…..

    like is there some sort of need i don’t recognize, for people to all be following like sheep and not creating their own deductions? i see it as wrong, but perhaps it is a necessity for a cohesive society.

    but the follow up question, is what bright minds have come up with the current reality presented and forced upon the public? because there is a lot of shit that’s wrong…..just plain wrong, like in any universe, under any sun or god or logic or down right plain ass sense. lol…..

    so i don’t like what’s going on…..i believe commerce and profit are limiting the abilities for intelligence, and working to create some sort of mailable body that suits their design for power, money….we all make good little consumers, and the ants go marching on….

    so i don’t have answers…..but i know from enough of my own observation….that a good number….a very large number, of those being fed to the public, are incorrect.

    and THEN you get into the fun science, of determining objectives. my objective here, is to just continue the thinking. show you that there are steps even farther past the ones that you have considered.

    i don’t believe in “arts” and i don’t believe in “science.” and i believe theology to be an interesting form of entertainment. what i DO believe in….is PROGRESS. and that is placing one’s theorems, within the realm of society and mankind, and our ability to create and define “better.”

    my “contribution” to this “world” is that there should be a THIRD school of thought on university campuses. a THIRD school. we have the arts, and we have the sciences, with their respective degrees. but we NEED a school of PROGRESS. a master in that school, would then be an MP. there would be subdivisions for communication, technology, and public content. and whereas current schools of communication focus on the “how”….the school of PROGRESS would always be focused on the “what and whys.” what can we do better? because if you notice….i type with myriad of dot dot dot….and it would be nice if these idiots would develop some NEW and handier, punctuation. progress would look at the RULES of our society, and determine their feasibility for bettering the state of mankind. hell, we are using the SAME shift key on our ELECTRONIC keyboards, that was first develop like a hundred years ago for MANUAL typewriters. and it’s still as annoying and slowing and inconvenient as ever. but does anybody ask “why” we’re stilling doing that? and how retarded do we really have to prove ourselves to be?

    in technology……who the hell decided on the shape and usability of the cell phone? and when they determined that there is a possibility for brain tumor or problems arising from the em field….why in the hell are they still making them the same? that’s like majorly f-ed up…..they should be designed now as a unit with a line or feed for headset as the only form of use. unless those scientific studies were complete bullshit….and THAT is what a school of PROGRESS could work to determine. it would OVERSEE the results generated by the sciences that are fed to the public. it would oversee the ramifications and appropriate nature of various arts, based on OUTCOME….not somebody’s idea on how to make the most money (case in point, taking dead bodies and filling them with plaster). it would find ways to present news items, for example….stats ….without the “less than/more than” spin…..

    and this would be done by STUDENTS…..people of THOUGHT with no vestment in the results. CURRENTLY…decisions of these nature are being made…..by those with POWER, not KNOWLEDGE.

    we need a third school…..and i don’t care what they call it, i just decided upon the name “progress” as the best fit. but we need something…..because it’s going beyond ridiculous, and i’m tired of every single game on this planet, being rigged. and i’m tired of the populace appearing to have no mind of their own and no understanding of their right to ask questions…..their RESPONSIBILITY to ask questions.

    i’m tired…..and my tired’s tired too…..people need to wake up. yes, you’re starting to think, but don’t stop there…….which is better for mankind…..to believe in the miracle of being a survivor…..or to comprehend the complexity of random execution?

    and what I’M asking….is what the hell makes YOU think YOU have the RIGHT to determine for others, what their perceptions for that will be????

    THAT is called, a real question. and my answer is, you don’t. you all try to work an elitist foundation of superiority via knowledge. in other words….you come up with theorems of a complexity that only 5 percent of the general public could grasp. then you crown yourselves correct…..and easily dismiss ANY contest as the workings of a lesser mind.

    and that’s another thing i see……progress, gentlemen…..how do we get from “here” to there…..

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