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A Coincidence? Or Just a Really Boring Article?
08/10/2002

The New York Times has a very very very long and boring article by Lisa Belkin that attempts to explain that there is no meaning in life. Well, it doesn't go as far as that, but it does attempt to explain away coincidences. You can read the article, if you want, although I don't recommend it, but I just wanted, although I don't have much time to debunk the debunkers, to point out a couple things that struck me about this ode to the grand faith in nothing.

Mrs. Belkin makes a statement regarding a 9/11 numerical "sign" (which is, I'll admit, far fetched) that pretty well points to my objection: "This seeming numerical message is not actually a pattern that exists but merely a pattern we have found." Since she isn't talking about hallucination, I'd suggest that the pattern would have to "exist" in order to be "found."

Finding a reason or a pattern where none actually exists ''makes it less frightening,'' [mathematician John Allen Paulos] says, because events get placed in the realm of the logical. ''Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen."

I don't think that many people would dispute that sometimes things just happen. However, the existence of random events does not mean that some are not random. And notice the implication that believers are just cowards. The suggestion is that reality is just a bunch of numbers, and anybody who believes otherwise is just afraid to admit it.

The problem is that mathematically minded people are even more afraid of that which cannot be explained. As with Jonah Goldberg's postmodernists, having adopted their useful tools as a belief system, they explain away anything for which they have an equation or believe them away if they do not have adequate tools. ("Yet," they would say.) According to Mrs. Belkin, people's having unusual circumstances make them late for work in the World Trade Center on September 11 "certainly looked like miracles but could have been predicted by statistics." Really? Statistics could have predicted that an alarm clock would stop working suddenly or a car would have a flat tire or an individual would have even the most mundane-but-unusual delay? No, what they mean is that they 1) could predict that strange things are possible and 2) could predict that a certain number of people on 9/11 would be late for work for strange reasons. However, they can't tell us what that number ought to be or why they happened to be the people whom they were... except for chance (remember, people are just statistics, so the fact that one lives and another dies is immaterial to the equation).

Look, I'm not calling a flat tire a rift in reality, just a meaningful instance. Of course it's possible, but what are the odds? Belkin: "The mathematician will answer that even in the most unbelievable situations, the odds are actually very good." This means that the odds of somebody winning the lottery are pretty good, but it doesn't tell us that the odds of you or me winning it are very poor. In other words, the answer to the question is that there certainly are odds. Thanks.

Hebrew University psychology professor Ruma Falk makes the stunning suggestion that we care more about our own stories. No! You don't say. Actually, she suggests that we'll notice when we win the lottery, but not really care when another person does. Again: so? The example in the article is Belkin's "how I met my husband" story. I have a similar tale. Falk suggests that they seem meaningful to us because they are our stories, but this ignores the fact that, for Mrs. Belkin and myself, of all the people we've met in perfectly ordinary circumstances, the ones whom we would wind up marrying we met amid memorable circumstances.

I know I'll never convince a statistician that my meeting my wife was "meant to be." A statistician will never convince me that it wasn't. I just want people to admit that this constitutes a difference of belief, not one of the certainty versus delusion. But it seems that is what Mrs. Belkin would have you believe. The one person whom she cites who believes that coincidences have meaning, SQuire Rushnell, seems hand picked for his flakiness. Even so, we never do get even his view, just that it's likely that he's a con artist.


Posted by Justin Katz @ 06:12 PM EST