I had been trying for a couple of days to remember the first name of someone I knew but had not met for a while and it had slipped my mind. I find it frustrating when something is on the periphery of my brain but I cannot quite haul it in. The name I was seeking was Shira, which is not a common one. Then I got an email from one of the many advocacy mailing lists that send me stuff and the first name of the sender was Shira. If I were one of those people who think that there is some grand cosmic plan at work and that there are messages revealing its secret workings that could be decoded, I might have thought that this coincidence had some secret meaning, though the only one I could come with was that the universe felt it was important for me to recall the name.
Of course, I dismissed this as just a coincidence but some people tend to be impressed when, for example, they dream about someone they had not been in contact with for a long time and then they hear from them or learned that they had died. There is a tendency to give enormous weightage to events of this sort, seeing them as premonitions.
But such coincidences happen all the time.
For example, Last Sunday night I was doing a crossword puzzle and one of the clues involved a ‘charcuterie tray’. I had never heard of this and did not know what it was. The very next morning, I was reading the comics page of my local newspaper and one comic had the words ‘charcuterie tray’ as part of the joke. Because it involved something so esoteric and trivial, I would have been hard pressed to find any meaning in this coincidence but true believers might be able to come up with something. In fact, this coincidence occurred on the very same day as the the day I learned the sought-for name, giving me two coincidences is quick succession.
What was the probability that the words ‘charcuterie tray’ would appear on consecutive days? It is unquantifiable but likely to be tiny. Indeed, it is such small probability conjunctions of events that we call coincidences. But since there are a massively large number of potential coincidences that can occur, we should not be surprised if one of them happens from time to time, or even more than one as in my case. As long as we have not specified in advance the conjunction, the fact that a conjunction occurs cannot be used to draw any conclusions. Now if, after doing the crossword puzzle, I had expected to encounter the words ‘charcuterie tray’ the next day, then its appearance would be remarkable, though even then I would put it down to a lucky guess.
It is like the lottery. The chance of any one pre-selected person winning is tiny (zero actually in my case since I do not buy tickets) but the chance of someone winning is quite high and we are not surprised when that happens.
Coincidences happen all the time. We just tend to remember those to which we can assign some deep meaning and forget all the meaningless coincidences that frequently occur. We also ignore the coincidences that do not occur, such as dreaming of someone and then never hearing anything about them.