The Coincidence Problem

I was walking north down Commercial Drive when I began to think about a friend I hadn’t seen for some months. I crossed Grandview Highway as the Skytrain passed overhead, and there was the friend I had been thinking about standing at the corner with his wife, and he was looking at me in some surprise, for, as it turned out, he and his wife had been talking about me in the same moment that I had been thinking of him, and so we congratulated ourselves on having arrived at the corner of Commercial Drive and Grandview Highway at just the right moment for these facts to be revealed to us.

None of us referred to our meeting as a coincidence, which is what it was, of course. Coincidence is a word too easily distrusted, a label employed by grown-ups to dismiss the marvellous: “only a coincidence” is what grown-ups say, thereby limiting the real world to non-coincidence only, for a world that includes coincidence is complicated and weird, and, like the world of quantum physics, entangled in our own perceptions.

A few months ago I met with some new friends from out of town in the bar of the Sylvia Hotel and in the course of the evening I recounted several anecdotes about an old mentor of mine who had been an art critic and was once the director of the VAG. We noticed that the music playing on the sound system had become morose and rather dirge-like, and when we asked the bartender why, he made a lame joke about funerals and drinking. I came home late and picked up a magazine from the stack of reading matter in the bathroom and it fell open at a poem written in memory of my old mentor, the same man I had just been telling my friends about in the bar at the Sylvia, and I understood at that moment that my old mentor was no longer alive.

In 1972 my old mentor gave me his 1958 Pontiac in return for a small favour that I had done him; I drove the Pontiac for six months before selling it for a dollar in the Cecil Hotel beer parlour when I didn’t need it any more. The Cecil I should say, was a literary beer parlour at that time. That summer I used to go to the Hastings Park racetrack with my brother to place bets on the advice of an astrologer who had worked out a way of predicting winners based on the positions of the planets and the timing of the starting gun. It took a few weeks to adapt to his system, and when we were ready and had chosen our day, the astrologer, whom I had befriended during a graveyard shift at David Ingram’s tax preparation company, calculated that the first race, if it started on time, would bring in horses 6 and 3, which, as I recall, were controlled by Mars and Mercury, and after that the following races would come in according to the pattern that he wrote down in the margins of the horoscope. My brother and I set out in the Pontiac with our astrological charts and my girlfriend, who became unpleasantly negative as we drove along Hastings Street; eventually I had to pull over across from the Waldorf Hotel and ask her to get out of the car. She had no money so I gave her cab fare from our supply of gambling cash. The astrologer had told us that everything depended on our being there for the first race. A few blocks from the track the Pontiac ran out of gas and we had to push it into a gas station and pour a few gallons into the tank; we got into the parking lot at the track but it was full, so we had to drive onto the street to park, and then run back through the parking lot to the gate to pay the entrance fee. We were within a few feet of the betting window when the bell rang, and the first race went off before we could place our bets. Mars and Mercury came in, back to back, just as they were supposed to do.

We could see then that the astrologer’s system worked, but we didnt understand that it might not work for us; we followed up the result of the first race as the astrologer had directed us, and broke even in the second and third races. The fourth race was a big one, the astrologer had warned us, and Mars and Mercury would play a part in it. My brother took our money to the wicket to bet on 6 and 3 both ways. I looked out at the track as the horses came up to the post; among them was a white stallion, a rare sight at the races, and it carried the number 4 on its back: four was the number of the moon, which according to the astrologer always played a role in the fourth race. It was also an extreme long shot. I looked out to the east where the moon, nearly full, could be seen hanging in a blue sky. I said to myself: white horse, white moon, 4 in the fourth race, and then I said: it’s only coincidence, and manfully, rationally, I resisted the impulse to call my brother back (I was the eldest, and perhaps the more addicted to the unbending lever of logic). The white stallion won the race handily, separated from the pack by 6 and 3, who seemed to be running interference for it, and my brother and I failed to win several hundred dollars. Thirty years later, I read in a layman’s book on quantum mechanics that what we experience of the world is not the world at all, but only our interaction with the world.


Last Friday night, after presenting this 5-minute version of the Coincidence Problem to a gathering of interested people at an event called Interesting Vancouver, I found a copy of the New Scientist in my mailbox bearing on its cover (by coincidence) the following spurious claim:

We wouldn’t be here without a chain of coincidences that’s led from the big bang to our big brains.

The New Scientist is forever confusing the process of cause and effect with its outcomes (such as evolution and coincidence).

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  1. Shadeburst
    Posted 17 October 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Note on the afternote:

    Never bring the “power of words” to bear on a logical argument. Words can mean anything you want them to. That’s called Humpty-Dumptyism. Your claim that the claim is spurious can be said to be equally so.

  2. jso
    Posted 20 October 2010 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    I see that the Humpty-Dumptyism page on Wikipedia has been deleted, a fact that may or may not be significant!

  3. Posted 20 December 2010 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    “Words can mean anything you want them to. That’s called Humpty-?Dumptyism. Your claim that the claim is spuri­ous can be said to be equally so.”
    How much is it possible?