One of the starkest and most symptomatic divides in our culture between rationalist skeptics and what I guess you could call spiritual hopefuls, or optimistic agnostics -- optimystics! -- is their take on coincidence. In the new-age worldview (I use small letters to distinguish it from the self-identified New Age movement, far beyond which it's spread), significant coincidences are taken to be signatures of a loving and meaningful intelligence permeating the universe. They succor the unchurched with some of the solace and guidance more traditional folks get from organized religion. (UPDATE: And they succor the churched, too: note this moving recent post at Kobayashi Maru, and these marvelous, marveling, afterthoughts on it.) They're messages that someone/something knows and cares we're here; that we're on the right track; that we were destined to meet the significant people in our lives. Deepak Chopra had a bestseller devoted to the subject, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire: Harnessing the Infinite Power of Coincidence. Some of the farther reaches of this worldview (which I'd quarantine under capital N capital A New Age) are at this website.
On the other side, here's a typical debunking article from Bruce Martin at CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Skeptics like Martin say that what appear to us to be highly unlikely and personally mind-blowing coincidences -- God's mouth to our ear -- are actually confections of probability and psychology. They show that a) occurrences we think are rare, such as two people discovering they have the same birthday, actually have a high probability, and b) that, in Martin's words, "we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity."
Martin does a probabilistic analysis of the likelihood that two or more people in a group will have the same birthday.
In a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthdate. . . .[On a] plot of the probability of at least one common birthdate, P, versus the number of people, n . . . [t]he curve shows that the probability of at least two people sharing a common birthdate rises slowly, at first passing just less than 12% probability with ten people, rising through 50% probability at . . . twenty-three people, then flattening out and reaching 90% probability in a group of forty-one people. This means that on the average, out of ten random groups of forty-one persons, in nine of them at least two persons will celebrate identical birthdates. No mysterious forces are needed to explain this coincidence. . . . The same principle may be used to calculate the probability that at least two people in a random group possess birthdates within one day (same and two adjacent days). This condition is less restrictive than the former, and 50% probability is passed with just fourteen people.
Martin does admit that if the birthday in question is specified -- the usual case naturally being, "What is the chance that someone in this group of people shares my birthday?" -- the probably is far less, if still a lot higher than the "one in a million" it feels like:
If we specify a particular birthdate, such as today, a crowd of 253 people is required to have an even chance for even one person with that birthdate. For at least two persons to possess a specified birthdate, the 50% probability is not reached until there is a mob of 613 people. This huge difference of twenty-three versus 613 for 50% probability of at least two persons with a common birthdate is due to the fact that the date is unspecified for the group and specified for the mob. That some improbable event will occur is likely; that a particular one will occur is unlikely.
If coincident birthdates are so much more common than we would have guessed, isn't it likely that many of those other striking coincidences in our lives are the outcome of probability as well? We should not multiply hypotheses: the principle of Occam's Razor states that the simplest explanation is to be preferred.
As is my rather tiresome wont, I come down somewhere in the middle. Seeing meanings and messages EVERYWHERE is not only exhausting and ultimately meaningless, it's a symptom of paranoid psychosis, or short of that, of severe New Age poisoning. (Or just of being Thomas Pynchon.) On the other hand, I enjoy the mysterious and penetrating thrill of a good coincidence as much as anyone -- the way it makes you feel like God just nailed you with a glance and a chuckle; the way it momentarily renders the universe radiant and transparent, revealing what appear to be its connecting nerves and veins. Is this merely self-comforting delusion, a kind of intellectual thumb-sucking that deforms your mind's bite? I don't know.
What's missing from the analysis of birthday coincidences above is an explanation of why the people you meet who do have the same birthday as you are so often connected to you in other momentous ways as well. Martin would say that you've also met a number of people with your birthday whom you promptly forgot because they bored you silly, and bore no messages. I'm sure that's true. But how do you explain these four of my birthday coincidences? I was born on April 12. (I originally had the year here, because it is significant in one of these stories, but I was kindly advised by blogfriend Kobayashi Maru that this is an invitation to identity theft.)
-- When I was 11 or 12, Marta Dagestad, a Norwegian nanny who had cared for my father when he was a child and also helped with the next generation, set out to find me a pen pal in her home town, Voss, who was involved with the Norwegian equivalent of the Girl Scouts. Gurid Haaland and I began writing to each other, and discovered almost immediately that we were both born on April 12; she was one year older than me. We remained close friends for the rest of her life, finally meeting in our 20s when she became a flight attendant for SAS. (She died suddenly at age 54 of a ruptured brain aneurysm.)
-- When Jacques' former wife, who'd remained his friend, remarried in (I think) the late '70s, we found out that her new husband was also born on April 12. What's more, like me, he was one of six kids. He was the youngest; I was the oldest. The oldest in his family was named Ann.
-- In the mid-'70s, while writing capsule book reviews for a pre-publication service, I happened on an essay called "Peaks and Vales" by a psychologist I'd never heard of before, named James Hillman, in a book called On the Way to Self Knowledge, edited by Jacob Needleman and Dennis Lewis. The essay absolutely ran me through; it was like nothing I'd ever read before, and it talked to me, baby. I loved it so much that, paradoxical as it may seem, I didn't pick up another book by Hillman for over a decade. Then, in the mid-'80s, I burned through most of them -- at just the right time to save my life, by getting me to recognize what could have been a very destructive literal adventure as a soul adventure that did not need acting out. I was enough of a fan to attend an "Archetypal Psychology" conference in Hillman's honor held at Purdue University in, I don't know, the mid-'90s. One of the workshops was on "the horoscope of James Hillman." I walked into the classroom and Hillman's birth date was chalked on the blackboard: April 12, exactly twenty years before me.
-- This one may be the strangest of all. In 1962 a boy named Carl Nagin who loved flamenco ran away from prep school and came to Greenwich Village, where a flamenco coffeeshop owner named Jacques took him under his capacious wing. In 1965, Carl was in the college theatre world at Boston University when I was in the college theatre world at Harvard, and I went to a party at his apartment, where I met a guy I liked. (Trial run.) In 1972 in New York, my college theatre friend Francine Stone, who had been introduced to Jacques by Carl, introduced me to Jacques. The rest is history.
Jacques had a connection to a bargain student travel organization, and in maybe 1973 or '74, Carl asked us to get him a student travel card. He had to send us his date of birth. It came, and I opened the envelope. Carl was born on the same April 12, the exact same day as me. (On that date, Jacques was a prisoner in Russia.)
UPDATE: I just realized that this is a post about Intelligent Design.