On Coincidences

For those interested in following me on a short excursion into philosophy and theology, click here.

14 Responses to “On Coincidences”


  1. 1 Richard Ebeling March 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    David,
    Very interesting piece. It seems to me that whether or not God or “nature” predetermines all that happens in the world, from man’s perspective choice does exist.
    Having neither God’s nor “nature’s” mountain top-view of all that happens, man must decide: shall I select the blue shirt or the white shirt today? Shall I use a specific period of time to leave a comment on David’s blog or read another article I’ve been meaning to go through?
    Do I not “really” have a choice on these matters? I have no “ultimate” idea. Nor does anyone else.
    In addition, we run into Karl Popper’s argument that it is inherently impossible for us to completely predict the future, including our own future choices. Because to do so would imply that we already know “today” knowledge we may only learn “tomorrow,” when what we may only know “tomorrow” will influence the decisions we make in the future.
    Thus, from man’s perspective things never seem fully predetermined. So, perhaps, coincidences really do seem to happen to us.

  2. 2 dajeeps March 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    This piece you have linked reminds me of an episode of Carl Sagan’s “The Cosmos: The Edge of Forever.” In that episode, he talks about the differences between a 2-D world and a 3-D world, then stretches it to differences between a 3-D world and a 4-D world; and he says that we may not be aware of or able to understand of a 4th dimension, but we can deduce it. Of course he was more of a classical physicist, but he does a very good job of explaining how ordinary things may seem quite extraordinary – and perhaps they are connected to the concept of fate and other things we can’t see, but can feel.

  3. 3 Becky Hargrove March 6, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    I enjoyed your essay very much. For me, the thought of free will represents a world that still has a degree of possibility and flexibility.

  4. 4 Donald A. Coffin March 6, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Comments on coincidence from other sources. Rex Stout, in one of his Nero Wolfe novels, has Wolfe say “In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected.” In another of his Nero Wolfe novels, he has Wolfe say “In a world of cause-and-effect, all coincidences are suspect.” Which has always left me wondering which it is…

  5. 5 bleikind March 7, 2013 at 5:44 am

    Dr. Glasner,

    Your argument seems premised upon the idea that in all of Nature, only humans have free will; that God created humans in his image, with God-like free will, but all other living things are automatons, subject only to the laws of nature. But aren’t humans but one small twig in nature’s great creation?

    Is it your belief that somewhere near the base of humanity’s evolutionary twig there is a discontinuity that separates us from the rest of living nature? A kink that gives us a property that is unique to us? That before that kink occurred a few million years ago, there were no coincidences, but they appeared only after that moment when an ancient primate first exercised free will?

  6. 6 Farid Elwailly March 7, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I enjoyed your article quite a bit. It led to a lengthy discussion with my wife. One reason it resonated is that I come from an Islamic background and it’s very common there for people to say “God willing”, implying nothing will happen unless it’s God’s will.

    I never liked that, as it seemed to sanction not taking responsibility because we really have no free will.

  7. 7 Benjamin Cole March 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    1. But I thought monetary policy was theology.Why is this a new topic?

    2. Okay, strange-o time: I just finished reading Grant’s Memoirs. It finishes with the siege of Richmond. For kicks, I decided to start reading (on my Kindle, all of this) “Mysterious Island” by Verne. Opening scene: Men escaping from the siege of Richmond.

    I e-mail an old friend, make joke about coincidences and God etc.

    I then open up Uneasy Money. The topic is coincidences and God.

    Maybe I will convert to Orthodox. My Dad grew up in Crown Heights but back then it was secular…..but who knew? Is it another coincidence?

  8. 8 David Glasner March 8, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Richard, Yes from our perspective choice certainly does exist. What philosophers and theologians and brain scientists are trying to figure out is whether we really do choose or are simply kidding ourselves. Thanks for bringing up Popper’s point about knowledge and unpredictability. I think that he argued very powerfully that the discovery of new knowledge makes determinism untenable.

    dajeeps, Thanks for the reference to Sagan. I never cared for his work that much, but maybe I need to go back and have a look.

    Becky, Yes, that’s very much how I see it.

    Donald, I think Rex Stout is very much on target. I need to find those quotes. The answer is that’s it’s a bit of both.

    bleikind, I think that you are reading too much into what I wrote. I am taking human free will as a premise or an axiom. I don’t mean to deny that non-humans may also exercise something like free will. Nevertheless, I do think that there is a huge discontinuity between humans and non-humans. Can you imagine chimpanzees or whales having a discussion about free will and consciousness? I was only arguing that the premise of human free will implies the existence of coincidence, not that it is the only possible source of coincidence.

    Farid, Thank you for your comment. “God willing” is a phrase that many religious people like to use, sometimes as an expression of piety, sometimes as merely a rote phrase having no particular significance other than as a formal acknowledgment of God’s supremacy. I don’t attach to it as much significance as the assertion that there are no coincidences, but perhaps that is because it is so familiar to me that I never thought about what it really means.

    Benjamin, So did Grant’s memoirs live up to their reputation? I have thought about reading them. Maybe with all the Civil War commemorations now is the time to finally read them. As for all the rest, you will have to sort it all out for yourself, but let me know what you decide.

  9. 9 Benjamin Cole March 8, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    David-

    No, I think Grant’s memoirs were a bit of a disappointment. He has many descriptions of battles, but without a map and close study they are nearly indecipherable.

    Aside from battle descriptions, Grant’s writing style is clear and effective, and there are interesting incidents and facts related—one is reminded that back then a healthy 45-year-old might get sick and die.

    Or how the location of even large bodies of soldiers could become unknown for days, both enemy and friendly.

    Also, Grant relates there were a large amount of Confederate desertions during the last battles, something I had not known.

    However, his memoirs stop at the end of the Civil War—I was looking forward to his years as President, which perhaps wisely he did not chronicle.

    Possibly of interest to you is Grant’s take on the cause of the war. Lately, some revisionist have tried to say it was a “war between the states” and somehow slavery did not play into it. Grant was of the opinion slavery was art the heart of the war, plain and simple.

    On religious conversions, I will let you know. I envy the community and comfort that appear to be a part of some religions.

  10. 11 Marcus Nunes March 10, 2013 at 10:42 am

    I just experienced an incredible several prong coincidence. This is the story:
    I´m from Rio but for most of the last 28 years have lived in a condominium in Sao Paulo. It has eight 25 stories apartment buildings with four blocks each, for a total of 800 apartments. But if a sent you a picture from my window you would only see trees, grass, swimming pools..
    Living at this condominium for about the same number of years there´s a couple also from Rio. She is a Brazilian-born American and (first coincidence) he was a classmate of mine in high school in Rio.
    Second coincidence: My youngest daughter recently graduated from college in the US and is going to get married on September 14 in Kansas City. My high school classmate and neighbor´s nephew (son of his wife´s sister (who is married to a cousin of his)) we learned a few months ago is also going to get married in KC on Sept. 14.
    Last night his wife´s sister arrived from the US to stay for a couple of weeks and while chatting about these interesting coincidences we discovered a new one. Her husband was a classmate of mine in an American school in Rio where I went as a child (2nd 3rd and 4th grades). And we were good friends at the time because I only remember his name (John Callahan) and that of another girl in the class.
    Maybe it´s just that the world is too small!

  11. 12 nottrampis March 10, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Did Abraham find God or did God select Abraham?

    It is obviously the latter which means Abraham was pre-destined.

    Self-will takes god out of the equation. All religions do that. They put works as the only way to heaven.

    No wonder Jews could not recognise Jesus

  12. 13 David Glasner March 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Benjamin, Thanks for your take on Grant’s memoirs. I don’t that I have been able to follow a battle description in any book that I’ve read. I thought that the idea that the Civil War was not about slavery was discredited a long time ago, but I guess it all depends on the company one keeps and the stuff one reads. There are certainly advantages to belonging to a faith community, but there are also downsides. That’s life.

    teageageapea, No. Sorry, never heard of it. Thanks for the link. I’ll have to ask one of my physicist friends to try to explain it to me.

    Marcus, Remarkable. Thanks for sharing, but I have no idea what it all means.

    nottrampis, According to the midrash, Abraham was the son of an idol merchant, and at a young age decided that there could only be a single Deity. So, according to the midrash, Abraham found God, so I am not sure that your premise is as self-evident as you seem to think.

    I am not sure why you believe that self (or free) will excludes God. I agree that it requires a certain withdrawal on God’s part to give space to the exercise of free choice. But this concept is not foreign to religion (at least to some religious traditions).

    I don’t think I get what your final sentence is all about.

  13. 14 Eric March 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Popper’s arguments don’t argue against the notion of determinism that I’ve seen bandied about most frequently. If you view determinism as simply the statement that all events are consequences, then Popper is arguing against a more constrained version of determinism, in which it is necessary to show that a hypothetical set of antecedents must produce a given consequence, ceteris paribus. But the broad notion of determinism only requires that GIVEN perfect knowledge, such antecedents produce given consequences. That is a different statement that does not require perfect knowledge to actually be attainable.

    Rather than a philosophical argument against the notion of determinism, Popper’s arguments are stronger as an argument against the practicability “perfect” causal analysis. Perhaps analytical methods will run into sum Popperian limits, but it would be interesting to see, as predictive tools grow more robust, how Popperian free will looks in a world of shrinking errors.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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