Friday, September 11, 2009

Matters Of Probability

I'm not one who believes that there is an old man looking down on us from the sky and judging our every thought and action. I don't believe in magical trinkets, sacred sites, or holy scriptures. I'm definitely not one to pay for a palm reading or a tarot session.

I do believe in scientific method, observation and hypothesis, and rigorous testing. I believe that altruism and biophilia are wonderful evolutionary gifts that should be revered more than holy wars and televangelism, and I believe that it's possible that life is, somehow, the Universe trying to understand itself.

Now, having said that, I am also really intrigued by the idea of coincidence. I know that most "coincidences" are just matters of probability, but I do seem to have an unusually high incidence of these matters of probability. Possibly lots of us have unusually high incidences of coincidence, which, of course, would make coincidence not unusual at all. Still with me?

Carl Jung, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the early twentieth century, explored ideas of "collective unconscious" and "synchronicity." He posited that coincidences that are not causal in nature, are actually a sort of manifestation of an underlying framework of collective unconscious human experience and thought. I wonder a lot about this.

Let me just share a few odd, but true, stories of coincidence in my fairly recent experience...

* I've shared my personal adoption story here at the Lair. But there are a few really strange details that I haven't shared. Back in 2000, when I decided that I really wanted to know something about my biological parents, I began my search by using a name search website. I knew my biological parents' names, and I decided that it would be easier to find my father, because my mother's last name might well have changed due to marriage. I input my father's name, and the website generated 14 possible matches all with different addresses. I composed a letter, and sent a letter to each of the 14 addresses. A few days later, I received a call from a woman who told me that she had received my letter, because her father had the same name. She assured me that her father was not the man that I was looking for, but that, coincidentally, she was employed by the Children's and Family Services office in Pittsburgh, and that her job was to help adoptees find their birth parents. And she proceeded to help me find my biological father, who has the same name as hers. Let me just point out that the last name is Kress...not exactly Smith or Jones.

* To add to that coincidence...that wonderful lady lives and works in Pittsburgh, which is the city that I grew up in - though I was living in Miami Beach at the time. My biological father lives in Washington State.

* But the adoption story coincidences don't stop there. When my biological father was contacted, and informed that I wanted to speak with him, he refused to have any contact with me. I wrote to him, and never received a response. So, the agency then assigned someone to find my biological mother. A few months later, I received a call from the agency in Pittsburgh, letting me know that they had found her, and that she wanted to talk to me. We spoke, and I found out that she lived in St. Pete Beach, less than 5 hours from me in Miami Beach. And, she went on to tell me how she actually grew up in Miami Beach, in a house about a mile from where I was living. When I finally met her, she showed me pictures of me when I was 2 years old in Miami Beach...and I thought that I had never been to Miami Beach before I moved there when I was 23. It seems that she and my father were married, and living in Pittsburgh, when I was born. They took several extended trips, with me, to visit her parents in Miami Beach. When I was 2 years old, they got divorced and she moved back home, to Miami Beach, and left me with my father. He took me to a babysitter, and just never came back. So, I grew up in Pittsburgh, with an adoptive family - but I ended up moving to her hometown and was living there when I met her.

* Last September, Tony and I had a fantastic time on a trip to Italy. We started off the journey with a few wonderful days in Rome. On our third day, I stopped at a very small internet shop on a small side street near our hotel, to check e-mails. There was just one other person in the shop, and I couldn't help but to notice how much he looked like a guy that I knew back in Miami. As he gathered his things, and walked towards the door, I couldn't help but to ask if he was possibly from Miami...and of course, he was. We talked for a bit, and wondered together what the chances were of running into someone that you know in another country, thousands of miles away, in a tiny internet shop, at 8 in the morning. Coincidentally, we ran into him again the next day int he train station.

* So, back to Pittsburgh for the background of this story. I actually grew up in the south suburbs of Pittsburgh. Our high school had about 1,000 students, and my grade had less than 250. Not very big. In 1992, I moved to San Francisco. In 1994, I moved to Miami, and just this past April, I moved to Atlanta. Shortly after moving here, Tony and I started going to the Unitarian-Universalist Church, just to check it out, and possibly meet some like-minded folks. On our third visits, at the end of the service, I noticed a woman in a red shirt walking ahead. I turned to Tony, and said, "See that woman in the red shirt? I think I went to high school with her!" Of course, he looked at me like I was insane, but I darted off to get a closer look. I walked up beside her, and asked if her name was Laurel. Now, of couse, you know it was, and we fumbled around for the right words to say to address the weirdness of the situation. I think it needs to be pointed out that the Unitarian-Universalist Church here in Atlanta is not an 8,000 member mega-church. It's a small congregation, and there couldn't have been much more than 100 people there. It's also probably interesting to point out that she and her family live about 30 minutes north of the church, and Tony and I live about 20 minutes southeast. It's probably also interesting to point out that Laurel's husband is from Albany, New York and went to school in Syracuse....and Tony is from Syracuse, and went to school in Albany. AND...two weeks later, Tony and I ran in to Laurel at Piedmont Park. Did I mention that there are over five and a half MILLION people in the Atlanta Metro Region?

I won't bore with more stories, but I do have these types of "coincidence" more often than seems possible. Of course, it could be that I just don't understand the probability of the simultaneous occurances, and I feel some need to place a deeper meaning on, what are essentially, non-meaningful events.

Tell you have similar stories of coincidence? How do you see synchroncities?


spam eckman said...

I certainly don't believe in God per se either. But I wonder, if there is collective consciousness and coincidence, why can't there be some validity to things such as tarot, sacred sites, or palm reading? We are all made of energy. Can't that energy be affected by fluctuations in the energy of the Earth? Can't that energy transfer to objects, possibly in traces so minute that they are undetectable with the scientific means currently available to test them? Or perhaps a tarot deck is just a medium to temporarily hold the energy of the person using it.
I believe in the scientific method also. One thing I've learned from the history of science is that there are many things that are understood clearly and scientifically now that where thought to be voodoo or witchcraft a hundred years ago. It would be fascinating if we could see where science has taken us in a hundred years. I think we would all be shocked.

Andy Heath at Preston Book said...

I would go a step further and say I don't fully believe in coincidences. It seems that such occurrences happen for a reason, even if we do not know what it is for a long time. I have had some wonderful coincidences with the Tarot cards (which you do not believe in) where I will occasionally draw the same card twice in a row when asking the same question, or whenever it gives me some information that I really need in my life at that time. I think coincidences are gifts from God, Goddess, Buddha, whoever is on shift.