Stuff That Makes Me Wonder

coincidenceNot too long ago my buddy and I happened to talk about how film maker David Lynch turned the book, Dune, into a movie. We’ve discussed it a number of times over the years; we both give it a low score (for reasons), but we also agree the book is a really tough film assignment. What makes me wonder is how, channel surfing that very evening, I stumble on the Lynch film just starting.

More recently, a chain of thought led to thinking about overly pragmatic people (of the sort many would consider ruthless). That sparked a memory of a Justice League of America story about how Batman completely alienates his teammates on the JLA when they find out he has files analyzing their weaknesses and describing ways to take them down. But what makes me wonder is how, channel surfing that very evening, I stumble on an animated movie based on that storyline.

And the thing is: coincidences like this happen to me a lot!

Coincidences happen. They can even happen — or seem to happen — often.

hot dogsOne thing to sort out is whether something is a coincidence or not. Actually, it’s not whether two events are merely a coincidence, it’s whether they are a remarkable coincidence. Any two events that occur roughly together coincide. That two baseball fans, both named Joe, buy identical ballpark hot dogs at the same moment in two different cities is pretty meaningless.

If two guys named Joe buy identical hot dogs at the same ballpark, that’s a little less meaningless. If they happened to be standing right next to each other, that’s at least a little bit interesting, but Joe is a common name, and ballparks sell lots of hot dogs.

If the only two guys in the country who shared the name Agamemnon Gregorovitch Smith happen to both vacation in the same city, happen to attend the same baseball game and happen to end up in line side-by-side simultaneously ordering the same least likely thing on the menu, now we’re talking remarkable.

I mean, what are the odds.

And that’s the key to (remarkable) coincidence: the odds.


When you wonder about a coincidence, you have to ask yourself, what are the odds? A big problem here is that odds are statistics, and statistics are math, and many people are very comfortable hating — and therefore shunning — math.

If you ask someone to pick a “random” four-digit number, very few will come up with “1234” or “7777” because it won’t seem “random” enough to them. But the reality is that, given a big hat with all four-digit numbers, randomly picking one out of the hat is as likely to produce those as any other “more random” combination.

Albert-2And coincidence can be a tricky thing. Suppose you go to a busy street corner and find the first 30 passersby willing to participate in a little experiment. Once you have 30 people, you compare their birth dates. Of those 30, what do you think the odds are that two share the same birthday?

Would you believe 7 in 10?  It’s true. In a random group of 30 people, the odds are 71% that two will share a birthday. If you go up to 50 people, the odds are greater than 97%.  And it takes only 23 people for the odds to be 50/50.

So you have to be very careful when it comes to “coincidences.”

I’m no mathematician, so it’s hard for me to calculate the odds of a given line of thought matching so precisely a movie stumbled on the same evening.

There are, by my quick count, 27 (commercial-free) movie channels available to me for surfing (I will not watch movies with commercial interruptions; ever). I don’t watch TV daily, and I channel surf even less frequently. I usually turn on the TV to watch something specific (“my shows” or baseball or OnDemand movies). In fact, I almost never channel surf looking for something to watch.

And yet, at a time when I’m doing a lot of reflecting on the nature of God and spirituality, I’m hit in a short time with two seemingly surprising coincidences. I have no way to calculate the odds of a given cable channel happening to run a movie from 1984 (given all possible movies). It wasn’t in their OnDemand selection, so it wasn’t a “featured” film. I’ve been keeping a bit of an eye on the listings, and haven’t seen it otherwise.

DuneHere’s a kicker for you: I only watched the first part of Dune, because that’s the only part that’s even somewhat good (the movie really is a piece of crap on most levels). But it’s been many years since I’ve seen it, and watching the first part kind of made me want to see the whole thing again.  Instead, I re-(re-re-re-)read the book(s).

And a few weeks after, again talking to my buddy, mentioned the coincidence and discussed the movie a bit more. And guess what I stumbled on that same evening: the latter part of the movie. (Which, sadly, is just awful and reminded me exactly why the movie is such a piece of crap.)

 Stuff like this happens to me frequently!

In younger days when I was out and about at night a lot, I noticed that street lights or other public lights would go off (or if off, would go on) as I approached. (You know how street lights sometimes have something wrong with them so they go on and off for no reason?) It got to the point that it seemed more than random coincidence.  I began to ask others if they noticed lights going on or off as they approached. Everyone thought I was weird.

Maybe I’m more observant?  I actually began to wonder if I possessed some weird energy field that affected lights that were marginally working.  As a field tech, more than once (many more times than once) machines that hadn’t been working started working the moment I walked in the door.

11:11... again!I’ve written previously about the strange coincidence of 11:11, and that has continued, although not as powerfully once I began really trying to track it.

Except for a coincidence involving 11:11 and an apparent water leak in my roof at a time when one more bad thing would push me over the edge… followed by a “miraculous” disappearance of that leak…  seemingly due to prayer.

Or, yes, coincidence.  Absolutely, it could be coincidence.

But I have to tell you that when you pray, “Oh, please, God, not now. Please take this from me; I can’t survive this!” And the water stain, in the space of an hour, vanishes (and has not re-appeared in a month-and-a-half), and you are so astonished and relieved that you commit to make certain changes in your life, and you then notice it’s 11:11 (which has tickled your sense of reality for years)…

Well, I gotta tell you that’s an extremely powerful experience.

sun-1I am not, by nature, a Theist. I am an Agnostic with (sometime) Deistic leanings. But this experience has kind of rocked my world. This, and many, many other experiences in my life, seem to point to the presence of god in my daily life.

Or, yes, coincidence. Absolutely, it could be coincidence.

But it sure is a lot of coincidences. At some point, it really makes you wonder.

I’ve written before about Drake’s Equation and the Rare Earth Hypothesis. If, contrary to science fiction, intelligent life is extremely rare, it leaves room for the idea that we could be part of something special. I’ve also written about how consciousness and existence itself are pretty amazing and special.

It’s not impossible that the probability of intelligent life arising in a galaxy is less than one. We might be the only ones in the Milky Way Galaxy. Even so, there are billions of galaxies, so don’t get too excited that we’re the only ones.

sun-2But could we be rare enough to actually, in some sense, be God’s children?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t have a clue. And the idea is astonishing and very hard to accept.

And yet… so many things really make me wonder.

[I’ll leave you with one more. I’ve been having major back problems for a week, so I’ve been taking doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen every four hours. But being a bit of a space case, I often forget exactly when I took the last dose, so I’ve been writing down the times. Last dose last night was at 12:18. Today, writing this post about coincidence I got up to take a dose, and the clock read 10:18. A one-in-sixty coincidence isn’t much of a coincidence, but when you’re mid-post on the topic, it is vaguely weird.]

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Stuff That Makes Me Wonder

  • dianasschwenk

    I read a quote once that said something like coincidences happen when you pray.

    Sometimes when the phone rings, I know who it is. Or I had just been thinking of that person.

    In other situations I sometimes wonder if I’m just more open to seeing something, because it’s been on my mind.

    Once, a long time ago, I awoke with a feeling of dread regarding my then boyfriend, so I prayed for his safety and went back to sleep feeling calm. At around that time he was coming home from the bar and ran his truck off the road. He decided he wasn’t fit to drive so hitch-hiked the rest of the way. The next day when we went to get the truck we saw it was just a few short feet from the edge of a cliff. A miracle? A coincidence? Who knows…

    Maybe it’s more important what these situations mean to us individually than it is to prove it as a miracle or mere coincidence.

    Good topic Smitty!
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you, and you raise an excellent point about our personal take. There is an element of choice in how we view reality. I choose to believe the universe just might be more wonderful than mere physics (which is pretty wonderful all on its own) suggests. I would rather live in a universe where faith is not necessarily a mistake.

      And therefore, I do.

  • Shakti Ghosal

    What is it really that shows up something as a coincidence for us? It is when we have been thinking or articulating about that aspect a short while back. The way it occurs to me is that as we become engaged or allow something to come into our consciousness, this also heightens our awareness selectively about the same thing or something which is closely related. Our perceptual lens, which selectively blanks our aspects which are of no interest at that point in time, steers us to all that for which we have a heightened awareness. Could this be the basis for what we call coincidence?


    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yep, that’s called “selection bias” and it’s why, for example, when you learn a new word you suddenly “coincidentally” start hearing it a lot. Previously, you didn’t know the word and filtered out hearing it. When the word is a shiny new toy, you start noticing all the other people who have the same toy.

      That doesn’t change that real (and weird) coincidences occur, but it does indeed make it much harder to separate out real (noteworthy) coincidences from apparent ones. Real coincidences involve separate very low-probability events with some clear (“coincidental”) connection occurring at the same time. The hard part is calculating the probabilities and demonstrating the connection.

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