Cosmic Coincidence

Take what you have gathered from coincidence.

— Bob Dylan,”It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

The nightclub owner sits disconsolately in his darkened establishment after hours, nursing a bottle. He pounds a fist on the table where he is sitting. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” he tells his piano player, who is hovering in the shadows nearby. The owner is referring to a lady friend who had failed to turn up at the train platform as they prepared to evacuate Paris in the chaotic final days before the German occupation in World War II. Then, after dropping off the face of the earth, she shows up earlier that evening at his nightclub in Casablanca on the arm of her husband, a Czech resistance fighter who had supposedly died trying to escape from a German concentration camp.

This incident is, of course, pure fiction, taken from the 1942 Hollywood film Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart as the jilted nightclub owner, Rick Blaine, and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, his love interest. We willingly suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story, not pressing too hard to ask how lovers separated in wartime Paris could reconnect by chance a year and a half later at a nightclub in North Africa. On top of that, the nightclub owner just happens to be in possession of two letters of transit that his former lover and her husband will need to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

What are the odds? Rick, being a man of action, doesn’t waste time trying to figure out why of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa walked into his. Did she show up by pure chance, or did an unseen hand take hold of his life and turn it upside down? In this case, of course, there was an unseen hand of scriptwriters who needed an unexplained coincidence to set the story in motion. Yet which of us has not experienced something similar in our own lives or knows of someone who did? Maybe it didn’t turn anyone’s life upside down, but it was uncanny enough to make for a good story.

Another story, this one absolutely true: A soup kitchen where I volunteer was rapidly running out of food on a Sunday evening, with a line of hungry people still stretched out the door. The crew chief was starting to panic. How was she going to feed everybody? At that moment, a van pulled up by the side door and started unloading trays of sandwiches, chips and drinks. It turned out a PGA tournament was finishing up at a nearby golf course and had unsold food to donate. To the crew chief and those of us who witnessed this small incident, the arrival of the van was a latter-day miracle of the loaves and fishes.* To officials at the golf tournament, this timely act of charity was surely nothing more than a way to get rid of surplus food that otherwise would have gone to waste.

Was this incident mere coincidence, or was there a hidden pattern at work here that might inspire some Hollywood screenwriter? The striking thing to me in such circumstances is that the facts of the matter are rarely in dispute. A congruence of events has occurred without an obvious causal connection. This may or may not be meaningful, depending on how you look at it. David Spiegelhalter, a statistician and professor at the University of Cambridge, puts it this way: ““A coincidence itself is in the eye of the beholder.”

Skeptics insist that the issue often boils down to mistaking the improbable for the impossible. According to the Law of Truly Large Numbers, even exceedingly unlikely events will happen sooner or later, given a large enough sample size. My favorite example occurred at a casino in Monte Carlo in 1913. Black came up the winner 26 times in a row at a roulette table, defying odds of 67 million to one. Had any bettor believed in Lady Luck and left his winnings on black throughout the run, he would have easily broken the bank. However, the casino collected millions of francs from players who bet against black because they assumed the law of averages would somehow alter the odds on the next spin of the wheel. What were the odds? On any given spin of the roulette wheel, they remained 50-50. But with all the roulette wheels in all the casinos in all the world, the ball was bound to land on black 26 times in a row soon or later. The game didn’t have to be rigged — as it was, for instance, in Rick’s backroom casino when he needed to let Casablanca’s police chief win so he wouldn’t close the place down.

Cheating aside, is there any explanation other than the laws of probability to account for the uncanny congruence of seemingly disparate events? The depth psychologist Carl Jung thought so. He coined the term “synchronicity” to describe an “acausal connecting principle” that pointed to some underlying pattern or principle at work. As an example, Jung cited an incident involving a highly rational patient who related to him a dream about an expensive piece of jewelry in the form of a golden scarab. At that moment a gold-green scarab beetle buzzed against his window and then flew into his office. Jung was able to overcome his patient’s excessive rationalism by handing her the insect and telling her, “Here is your scarab.”

Jung had an unlikely collaborator in the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who had been one of his patients. Synchronicity cannot easily be reconciled with the laws of classical physics, since there is no discernible causal link between events that appear to be meaningfully related. However, this would not necessarily be disqualifying for quantum physicists like Pauli. In the quantum realm, which governs the behavior of subatomic particles, traditional notions of cause and effect do not apply. They are not so much inoperative as impossible to isolate in a world in which everything is connected to everything else.

The scientific community is wedded to the notion that physical laws can only operate randomly, ruling out any hidden pattern or purpose. Yet scientists find themselves increasingly hard-pressed to explain how many of the physical parameters of the universe seem precisely engineered to support life — a phenomenon known as the anthropic principle. For starters, we might ask how carbon-based life forms arose in a universe that was once almost entirely composed of hydrogen and helium atoms. Cosmologists suspected that heavier elements like carbon were synthesized in the crucible of dying stars. Yes, but how? Carbon synthesis required the near-simultaneous collision of three helium nuclei at extremely hot temperatures under very exacting conditions. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle figured out that this could only happen if the energy state of carbon 12 exactly equaled the energy of the three helium nuclei, which proved to be the case.

Carbon synthesis is merely one of dozens of “cosmic coincidences” that had to occur for life to arise at all. According to mainstream scientific thinking, the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is actually the result of a selection bias, since no one would be around to observe the phenomenon if the universe were not exactly as it is. However, philosopher John Leslie likens this argument to surviving a firing squad and being told you shouldn’t be surprised that 50 expert marksmen all missed, since otherwise you wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.·

The odds of life arising in the universe from the random action of physical processes alone would appear to be vanishingly small. If blind chance alone can’t explain the fine-tuning of the universe, Leslie says, then it is either God’s handiwork or our universe is only one of many, and we just happen to be living in the one that is compatible with life. Indeed, as more and more anthropic coincidences come to light, the scientific community has gravitated toward the multiple-universe hypothesis, which is permitted under the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Then the question becomes: why in all the universes in all the permutations of the multiverse, did life arise in this one? What are the odds?

*A reference to a story in all four New Testament gospels in which Jesus fed a multitude with only a few loaves of bread a some fishes.

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