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“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys” – Emma Bull
Post-modern investigators of strange phenomena obsess over narrative. This makes sense as narrative is largely the human way of attributing meaning to any significant occurrence, but it is a subjective exercise. A house is haunted. The skeleton of a murdered homeowner is unearthed in the basement. Murder is a traumatic experience, or so I’m told. That trauma is somehow expressed in breaking dishes or sucking people into the television. A causal (and teleological) relationship is assumed. If anomalistic phenomena can be situated within a narrative “the case is solved”, and we just need to get busy moving somebody on into the light. This subjective meaning-making is in no way inappropriate, and makes for compelling articles, books, and television, but what if, in our haste to find any meaning, we have set aside the search for objective meaning in any given phenomenon?
Many strange phenomena exhibit characteristics that suggest the philosophical absurdists are correct, that is, there is an epistemic inability of reason to penetrate and understand reality, but as Camus said, “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said, but what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart”. Hence, when causality is absent, we fall back on narrative. This of course, opens up the anomalist to the favorite tropes of skeptics that suggest chance events have been misinterpreted by confirmation biases, spurious correlations, conspiracy theorizing, or underestimated probability.
And in some ways, perish the thought, the skeptics are partially right. The fact that strange phenomena often conform to the background, beliefs, ideologies, or narratives of those that experience them, does seem to suggest either a malleability or subjectivity to the occurrence. The skeptic axiom is that we are irrational creatures living in a rational universe. Do we need to re-orient our philosophies with the notion that we are rational beings in an irrational universe? This being a philosophical question, and likely unanswerable in the definitive and mostly good for an endless stream of academic musings and graduate theses over the millennia, one might be inclined to abandon all hope.
Well maybe we should attack the main skeptic bugaboo – that anomalistics is a ridiculous science as it is primarily concerned with irreproducible phenomena. But historically we have countless examples of bizarre phenomena that cluster, repeat, or seem to involve such an implausible chain of coincidences that it begs the question of whether the claim that such occurrences are as truly unitary as a superficial analysis might maintain? Skeptics love coincidence as an explanatory term, as it steadfastly holds that there is no causal connection between chains of strange and improbable events. Although, coincidence is really a statistical phenomenon of falling outside the traditional .05 level of hypothesis testing. The method describes the madness. Nonetheless, we are still talking about non-causality as an explanatory principle, that if we are looking for objective meaning has little to no value either ontologically or epistemologically. Effectively, it is equivalent to saying “shit happens, and sometimes it’s weird”.
Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity has been another popular foundation for explaining chains of bizarre phenomena, and while initially an acausal principle, after working with physicist Wolfgang Pauli, was refined into the idea that the universe not only displayed causality, but also could demonstrate an “acausal parallelism”, that is as Jung said, “meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved”. While a little more robust than mere coincidence, it still amounts to “something’s going on, it’s meaningful, but we don’t know how it operates”. Only slightly less unsatisfying, but acknowledging the possibility that there is something deeper than a roll of the dice afoot.
A short story is written in 1898 about the sinking of an enormous ship called the Titan in the North Atlantic by an iceberg, before anybody had the notion of building the Titanic. Many uncanny correspondences and details are identified in the story when the Titanic sinks in April 1912. Mark Twain’s birth and death coincide with the arrival of Haley’s Comet. Without any planning, the first and last British soldier killed in World War I are buried facing each other. “Dog,” in the lost language Mbabaram, is “dog.” Airship flaps in the 19th Century. UFO flaps in the 20th Century. UFO’s and Bigfoot sightings happening simultaneously in the same area. Weird “name games”. There is an endless supply of these in the annals of anomalistics. It’s awfully easy to yell “coincidence” or “synchronicity” and move on.
In looking for a more appealing theory – you know, the kind that you can chew on and spit out as an epistemology – it seems prudent to revive Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer’s “Theory of Seriality” to explain our strange chains of coincidence and improbability. Kammerer hypothesized that all events are connected by waves of seriality. The unknown forces would cause what is perceived as just the peaks, or groupings and coincidences. That is, at the peaks we start to notice them. He was somewhat obsessive about coincidences and spent an inordinate amount observing seemingly mundane things and recording them, anything from how many people were carrying umbrellas in a public park to places and times that people dropped things. He believed that coincidence was a non-obvious property of the universe that moved in waves, much like light, but nonetheless an objective property of reality worthy of investigation, particularly useful as a causal explanatory theory applicable to anomalistics.
Vincent Gaddis, in his book Invisible Horizons, wondered, “Are there forces at work that automatically or deliberately juggle with time, producing what we call coincidence? If so, what are these forces and what, if any, are the limits of their influence? In any event, incident, or coincidence there are so many separate unrelated but interlocking of other events that we, with our limited grasp of reality cannot predict anything with surety? Perhaps there is a law of coincidence. But is this all that is needed to account for what we mundanely call coincidence?” Maybe we are awash in waves of seriality, and hidden in the ebb and flow of these waves are the roots of anomalistics, or perhaps, as Camus suggested, “the absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” Of course he also said, “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”, so take it with a grain of salt.