A coincidence of views

December 9, 2015

Like many humans, I am interested in the ideas of coincidence and synchronicity because they stretch the way we look at the world.

When events occur successively, the instinct is to search for cause and effect, and from there to form a rational, reasonable opinion. Scientists particularly dislike the idea of coincidence; they look for connections where an action leads to a reaction. Biologists will say this is how our muscles work, constantly flexing and contracting to counterbalance movement. Chemists will point to counter-reactions as elements collide.

Moralists also dislike coincidence, for a more decided reason. They demand that actions are willful, and reactions deserved, whether they come as a reward or a punishment. Moral codes across the world’s different societies have been built on this notion that our behaviour always dictates our lives.

But philosophers do not see the world in such black and white, judgmental terms. They are open to the idea of spiritual accidents which may offer pleasing or disturbing synchronicity.

In the Taoist writings attributed to Lie Yukou or Liezi (the Chinese philosopher who lived during the period of Warring States, possibly around 400-350BC), the question is posed: how can we explain coincidences?

Liezi suggests our view depends on the wider way we see the world. Do we believe everything is connected, so that events create resonances like ripples across a net? Or do things merely co-occur and we give meaning to these co-occurrences based on our belief system?

While science teases out chicken-and-egg ideas about cause and effect, the arts glories in so-far inexplicable events which our minds can only accept if we embrace coincidence. The works of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare delight in the accident as plot device –and it makes us smile, gasp, cheer and, most of all, wonder.

We humans may not be able to rationalise coincidence but we instinctively feel comforted by spiritual alignment. In my own life, I have experienced many coincidences which I could not have predicted, but have not felt the need to delve into and find a rationale for. For example, whenever I attend a function, I send out a prayer to the universe to connect me with someone who is in agreement, to share friendships and inspiration for our next stage of evolution. Ninety per cent of the time, the first few people I speak to after arriving end up sitting next to or opposite to me. We always find something in common or exchange information we happen to be seeking. Afterward, my heart is filled with sense of wonder and gratitude.

So perhaps coincidence as a concept is not so much an escape for humans unable to accept that every mystery has a solution. It could be more of a comfort and pleasure: a shield against fear, a buttress against the dark matter which eludes our comprehension.

Then again, that frisson of fear may be what drives scientists. The physicist Professor Brian Cox has said: “I think if you’re not comfortable with the unknown, then it’s difficult to be a scientist… I don’t need an answer. I don’t need answers to everything. I want to have answers to find.”

Here science, arts and philosophy meet in a synchronicity of curiosity, a debate in perpetual motion.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation