Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Science Of Coincidence

Are certain events connected? Is there some universal force at play showing us that everything is linked or do things only happen because of chance? The doctrine that everything happens for a reason has intellectual variants stemming all the way back to Greek philosophers. Aristotle believed that learning brings about the coincidence of the knowable by nature with the knowable to us. Since synchronicity cannot be explained by classical means, scientists have recently looked to Quantum physics for an explanation. The theory called Quantum entanglement could explain connections which happen between mind and matter and between the minds of multiple people. Quantum physics sees the unconscious mind as similar to an electron, in various potential states. This brings us full circle back to Aristotle and points us right back to evidence that actions extend beyond the individual mind and that our bonds are more than chance. 

Coincidences are also described in physics as function f(X) of a random variable X which obeys an arbitrary probability distribution P(X). What this math equation boils down to, is for instance if your friend lives at house F, while you set out from house A. Unbeknownst to you, your friend also sets out to meet you at house A. If all the possible paths you and your friend could take are both equally likely, what is the probability that the two of you will meet? Mathematicians with say that all coincidences are constrained by the nature of the underlying random probability distribution. However if it happens more than once, it is not considered a coincidence. In the language of statistics the hypothesis claims that the underlying distribution is random,whereas the alternative hypothesis is the claim that it isn't. The Z-test calculates that if a random chance is more or less than 5% - if not the null hypothesis is considered highly unlikely.


Well, its hard for me to fall into the camp of "Z". My experiences just don't seem to fit inside the math of "X, Y and Z". For instance recently after hiking to a large waterfall called Veil falls with my sister on a hot summer day we headed back down a long trail to her car parked a few miles away. Alongside of to our left was an expansive cold river that swept along rocks, that became still or rushed fast and deep depending on the area. Suddenly we heard a woman cry out for help in the river to our left.  My sister stopped and called out to lend a hand, pushing through the tall reeds along the bank. The woman grabbed her hand and as my sister helped pull her from the river to the embankment the woman recognized my sister, and said dubiously, "Kris?" Latched behind her were her two daughters also in tubes. She had panicked because they couldn't control their floats to get to the landing area on the other side of the river, and were headed into a rapids. As I helped pull the three of them out, this did strike me as odd. That the one week I was there, and the one day we had escaped to see the falls, and at that the very second we were close to the rivers edge - that she had called out for help, and that we would hear it. Just a minute before or after and we wouldn't have been in the same section of the trail or the river. But wait, theres more. It also just so happened that this colleague was from a job my sister had at one time, and my sister was due to interview and possibly return to this same job the following Monday. Well if you are curious, she was hired.


Coincidences like this to me seem to fly in the face of reason and even suggest the mysterious. Believer or not, the study of coincidence puts people into three camps, although coincidences are not predicted by age, gender or occupation. Skeptics - the first group, believe a coincidence is just a statistic. "Believers", are those inclined to understand that such occurrences are evidence of something more mysterious and hidden than beyond the end of your nose. And then there is also someone called the "Rational" which argues that coincidences are the product or rational cognitive processes, and are an unavoidable result of our mind searching for causality in reality. 


A study by Robert Brotherton at Goldsmiths University of London and Christopher French at Goldsmiths University of London shows that people who hold strong beliefs in conspiracy theories tend to make more errors in understanding statistical concepts. Susan Jane Blackmore at the University of Plymouth and her colleagues have shown that people who tend to hold strong beliefs in the paranormal also tend not to be good at tests of probabilistic reasoning, or generating and spotting randomness in series of numbers. 


I tend to believe that if a mathematician or a researcher puts numbers into this equation, and even to say, that certain people are short on reasoning because they believe there is something more than the eye perceives, maybe they are in fact, just a bit too cynical. If you want to describe everything in numbers and equations, you may just by coincidence, resolve the meaning of the universe or connect the dots to quantum entanglement.