At some time or another it’s happened to all of us. There’s that certain number that pops up wherever you go. Hotel rooms, airline terminals, street addresses — its haunting presence cannot be escaped. Or, you’re in your car, absently humming a song. You turn on the radio. A sudden chill prickles your spine. That same song is now pouring from the speaker.
Coincidence, you tell yourself. Or is it?
For most mainstream scientists, experiences like this, however strange and recurrent, are nothing but lawful expressions of chance, a creation — not of the divine or mystical — but of simply that which is possible. Ignorance of natural law, they argue, causes us to fall prey to superstitious thinking, inventing supernatural causes where none exist. In fact, say these statistical law-abiding rationalists, the occasional manifestation of the rare and improbable in daily life is not only permissible, but inevitable.
Consider this: from a well-shuffled deck of fifty-two playing cards, the mathematical odds of dealing a hand of thirteen specified cards are about 635,000,000,000 to one. (This means that, in dealing the hand, there exist as many as 635,000,000,000 different hands that may possibly appear.) What statisticians tell us, though, is that these billions of hands are all equally likely to occur, and that one of them is absolutely certain to occur each time the hand is dealt. Thus, any hand that is dealt, including the most rare and improbable hand is, in terms of probability, merely one of a number of equally likely events, one of which was bound to happen.
Such sobering assurances don’t necessarily satisfy everyone, however: many see coincidence as embedded in a higher, transcendental force, a cosmic “glue,” as it were, which binds random events together in a meaningful and coherent pattern. The question has always been: could such a harmonizing principle actually exist? Or are skeptics right in regarding this as a product of wishful thinking, a consoling myth spawned by the intellectual discomfort and capriciousness of chance?