U.S. Network TV Does Coincidences

CBS News got into the coincidence debate on October, 12, 2014 by introducing Bill and Hillary Solomon who attribute their 16 year marriage to coincidences. Hillary believes that they would not have been married if not for this string of coincidences.

Bill’s mother and Hillary’s father were out-of-touch high school friends who reconnected through a coincidence 40 years later. (The details of the coincidence are not mentioned.)

They thought it was funny that one had a son named Bill and the other had a daughter named Hillary since the Clintons were in the White House at the time. Both children lived in New York City so they decided to encourage a date.

Turned out that Bill and Hillary lived in the same apartment building seven floors apart.

Bill did not follow his mother’s suggestion to call Hillary until he ran into a former co-worker in the lobby of the apartment building. She was visiting a really good friend—Hillary! So Bill called.

The statistician Jay Koehler argues that it’s all due to Chance. Person of faith SQuire Rushnell insists that it’s Divine Intervention. Science writer Matt Hutson says that the feeling of destiny makes us feel good but coincidences are destined only because of random chance. 

The Bill and Hillary coincidences then served as springboards for each expert to proclaim the correctness of his cherished beliefs.  Because their beliefs are dearer to them than actually examining the facts, they miss some important ideas.

No marriage stays together only because of coincidences. There are many marriages that start because of coincidences and the belief that “we are meant to be together.” Some couples find that they are incompatible despite the apparent promise of Fate. Successful marriages take more than coincidences to work. Bill and Hillary had much in common, starting with the fact that one of their parents came from the same place, that they could afford the same kind of apartment, and that they each found something attractive about New York City. And there had to be even more personal compatibility to keep them happily married. Coincidences can set the stage but do not determine the outcome. The people involved do.

Hutson further claims that the human tendency to be amazed by coincidences is “irrational.”  Au contraire! Coincidences can be entertaining, humorous, and thought provoking.  What’s wrong with that? I think he means that humans irrationally attribute causation where there is none. That claim flies in the face of scientific discovery and basic human adaptation to reality.  Without a meaningful coincidence penicillin would not have been discovered; the same is true of hundreds of other advances in science.  Babies learn how to maneuver in their world through finding the causal elements of some coincidences. For example, they learn that their cries are coincident with a caregiver’s coming to help them so they learn that their cries bring help. 

Coincidences can provide clues to underlying causal possibilities.  What made Bill go to the lobby of his apartment building just when his work colleague was coming to visit her friend Hillary? Random chance? Divine intervention?  I will guess that Bill felt an urge to be there at that time—an urge that he could not explain.

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