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?