I’m not a philosopher. The contortions of academic philosophy as a discipline leave me, alternately, gasping for breath or rolling on the floor laughing. I’m just a reasonably bright guy who likes to think about stuff.
Lately I’ve been thinking about things that happen (occasionally) in my life that seem to have no detectable cause. I’m pretty sure most people encounter these odd events from time to time. One popular term for them is “coincidences.”
The notion behind the word “coincidence” is that when two events happen in conjunction with one another for no detectable reason, it was just pure dumb luck. Randomness in action. In the course of your daily life, thousands and thousands of events will occur; the probability that a few of the concidences will seem meaningful is actually quite high.
My own experience, however, suggests that meaningful coincidences seem to occur preferentially (though not reliably) at moments of heightened emotional significance. I’m driving along a road, thinking profound thoughts about the nature of the universe, stumble upon an especially pregnant insight — and at that moment I pull up at a stop light behind a car whose license plate comments in a very specific and personal way on my insight.
That actually happened to me, by the way. Such things — all different, all unlikely, all meaningful — have happened half a dozen times in my life that I can recall offhand.
One essential point to understand about such moments is that they cannot be investigated scientifically. They can’t be taken into a laboratory. You can’t run a double-blind study while repeating them with controls. They’re essentially one-off events.
Here’s the big question: Is it possible that the universe occasionally produces meaningful constellations of events for which there is no cause? Or rather, for which there is no cause other than the fact that the events are being experienced together by somebody who finds them meaningful?
The reductionist physicist view of this idea is that of course it’s nonsense. Events cluster at random, that’s all. Each individual event is caused by simple physical processes involving molecules, and that’s the whole story. Sometimes we perceive meaningful connections between events, but the meaningful connections exist only in our minds.
The difficulty with the reductionist explanation is that it presupposes that all events in the physical universe have physical causes, and that the physical causes are entirely sufficient to explain why a given event occurs. This is a form of the First Cause argument in philosophy — a thoroughly pondered but quite silly argument for the existence of God. The First Cause argument starts with the thesis, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.”
That thesis is suspect on at least two grounds that I can summon up without being a philosopher. First, physicists assure us that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So in fact nothing ever “begins to exist.” It’s all already in existence. Second, and perhaps more alarmingly for the philosopher in his ivory tower, how do we know that that statement is true? What if it’s not true? What if there are millions of uncaused events going on around us all the time?
The human brain likes to find causes, and there are profound evolutionary reasons for that. If your ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, it was darn well important for their brains to jump (and quickly) to the conclusion that something was hiding in the bushes. Could be a lion, could be something tasty — but if they didn’t think about the cause of the rustling, they were a lot less likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.
The fact that we’re hard-wired to look for causes does not imply that everything in the universe necessarily has a cause.
The universe doesn’t know the difference between male and female. The universe doesn’t even know the difference between 1 and 2. (Conjoined twins are a fine example of this fact. Not one baby, and not two babies. 1-1/3 babies, or 1-5/6 babies.) The universe, I would argue, is not bound for a moment by human ideas of logic or causation. Those are just human ideas.
Think about electrons for a moment. There are untold trillions of electrons whizzing around in your body at this very moment. The physicists will assure us that all electrons are identical. They all obey the same simple set of physical laws. But why? Well, because they do, that’s all. There is no outside force compelling electrons to interact with other particles the way they do. If there were such a force, the same question would have to be asked of it: Why does this force behave the way it does?
The short answer, as unsettling as it may be, is that there is no cause. Electrons just do what they do, that’s all we can say about it. We can investigate their behavior, but we can’t explain it. If we try to explain it, we’ll find ourselves hunting for the philosophers’ elusive First Cause. We’ll tumble down the rabbit hole into an infinite regression.
Maybe electrons are like mushrooms. They just pop up. (Yes, I understand that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium. I’m using a metaphor here. Cut me some slack.) And maybe larger events, events that we can observe with the naked eye, sometimes just pop up too, without being caused.
The universe doesn’t know about logic. It doesn’t know about the difference between 1 and 2, or between true and false. It just is. We only expect it to adhere to the “laws” of causation because evolution trained us to look for causes. Sometimes there are causes, yes. Sometimes it’s the mycelium creeping along under the ground. But what outside agency would force the universe to always have causes for things?
Meaningful juxtapositions. Two or more random, independent, juxtaposed occurrences are observed together and suggest something meaningful to the observer. The events, producing meaning to that observer. are seemingly interrelated and purposefully juxtaposed simply because there occurrence produces a meaning. This happens o me often, the meaning usually not being of life shaking significance, but maybe bringing on a chuckle or a tear that escapes everyone else present. Contrarily, I often find that when I am in a life changing mode very meaningful and significant juxtapositions occur a lot. I think this may have to do with looking for meaning in one”s surroundings and experiences to help process he changes one has chosen to pursue.
Selection bias and attribution bias are good hypotheses — but they’re just that: hypotheses. There may be a way to design a well-controlled, double-blind experiment to test whether seemingly meaningful coincidences happen more often than would be expected by random chance, but I’m not sure how the experiment could be designed, because what would constitute a “meaningless coincidence”? There’s no base-level control with which to do statistical analysis.