I admit to a fond wish to impute significance to coincidences. Cynics such as Matthew Cobb
writing at Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True
, explain away such things, like they do absolutely everything, as a function of survival value tucked into our genome from ancient days. In some recent posts
, Cobb was full of mockery for people like me:
Animals are very good coincidence detectors. It’s how we learn. Bell rings, food comes, dog salivates. Light comes on, floor is shocked, rat avoids light. Humans are particularly good at it, so much that we end up feeling spooked when banal coincidences happen. “I just thought of you, then you phoned/mailed/turned the corner.” (Of course, we’re never struck by all those times that we thought of someone and they didn’t immediately hove into view). This capacity is at the root of all religions.
Uh huh. So the human feel for synchronicity (Carl Jung’s term for meaningful coincidence) is nothing more than the continuation of a warning instinct that would alert an animal to possible dangers to life or opportunities to gather food. How such a profound thing would be coded in your DNA — which is the thing Darwinian natural selection has to work with, DNA which itself codes for constructing proteins — is always left conveniently vague in such explanations.
Confronted with simplistic views like this that obsessively try to squash human experience as flat as the flattest pancake, I wonder why my own predominant response to synchronicity is not to feel “spooked” as Dr. Cobb says (another way of saying that we feel somehow on alert to danger) but rather to wonder at the hidden orders of existence, underlying our own, of which Judaism and other faiths speak. It’s the feeling of endless hidden vistas unfolding before you, of something vast and yawning under your feet. There’s an eerie satisfaction in detecting an apparently meaningful coincidence, but I get nothing out of detecting what seems a meaningless coincidence, however unlikely the genuine chance event might be. I fail to see how my capacity for taking delight in such things reflects any evolutionary advantage that might have accrued to my ancient ancestors. Surely there’s much more to it.
The Hebrew Bible certainly suggests as much. As my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin
points out, the Bible lacks a concept of “coincidence” to match our familiar idea of what that word means. Yes, you have a case like Balaam, the wicked prophet who hoped for a lucky encounter with God: “Perhaps the LORD will chance upon me and will show me something that I may tell you” (Numbers 23:3). But Balaam’s belief in coincidence is held by Biblical tradition to be a mark against him, reflecting his own shame and disgrace.
So too when God advised Moses on how to address Pharaoh. He should do so in terms of God’s having “chanced upon” the Israelites (Exodus 3:18). As a pagan, and much like Matthew Cobb, Pharaoh is committed to a picture of how the world works that misunderstands an encounter with divine reality as nothing more than chance. Samson Raphael Hirsch
explains that this is why the Hebrew word for coincidence (mikreh
) is related etymologically to the word for calling (kara
). Subjectively, what appears to the heathen as chance can be, in reality, a call from outside us — “the product of divine providence which by this mikreh
, this ‘chance,’ calls us into the direction intended by it.”
I’ll give you an example, an apt one, from last night. My wife was going to be out for the evening with a girlfriend so I consoled myself by picking up a DVD from our local public library’s small selection. The movie I chanced upon was The Squid and the Whale
, which was quite good as I can now report. Jeff Daniels (heavily bearded) and Laura Linney (lovely) are highbrow artistic writer types living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. They are in the process of divorcing, with their two adolescent sons caught in the middle.
The title comes from the eerie display at New York’s Museum of Natural History
, in which a giant squid and a sperm whale battle “in near total darkness,” in the phrase from the explanation under the display that I myself remember well from visiting many times. In the film, we learn that when he was a little kid and his mother would take him to the museum, the couple’s older son had felt scared of the squid and whale depiction. Now, it seems from the way the movie ends, he associates it with his mom and dad’s battling each other, and with his own clumsy wrestlings with sexuality.
Back when I lived in New York I always loved that particular undersea diorama, fake-looking though it is, for the way it evokes the mystery of existence far below the surface of the ocean — and of reality. I adore the phrase about its all happening “in near total darkness.” From our perspective, that’s sure how it seems. This all came back to me as I was watching the movie. But so too did a funny coincidence.
Just that afternoon, I’d done a fruitless web search, looking for photos that I wanted to share with you. I was hunting for pictures of some other fake looking but strangely stirring underwater dioramas from the museum I associate most with my own youth. That was the Cabrillo Marine Museum, at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, California, long since defunct in the form I knew it. My mother would take me to the museum when I was a little kid. I was always drawn to and stirred by, yes, the undersea dioramas. One, I remember, was of a diver searching for pearls, another was a dimly blue-lit grotto with various fish. Unlike the character in the movie, I wasn’t scared but rather just, as I say, weirdly stirred. I remember being similarly struck by another undersea diorama, this one of a whale shark at the Kon-Tiki Museum
in Oslo, where my parents took me when I was five or so. That actually does still exist (see above).
OK, all this about dioramas of ocean animals in one day can very easily be dismissed as coincidence. Obviously I’m not going to try to mount a serious argument to the contrary. But the image of what goes on beneath the surface of the ocean is oddly appropriate, isn’t it? Because when it comes to synchronicity, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. The orders of existence that elude our normal senses and ordinary intellect, yet seem to make themselves fleetingly apparent now and then.
Sensible folks know the difference between synchronicity and mere happenstance that signifies nothing. I’m not the first to have suggested this is exactly what draws so many people to contemplating the ocean, and I agree with Dr. Cobb that it has something to do with the religious sensibility as well. Freud associated the religious instinct with what he called the “ocean feeling.” Whether the intuition of hidden existence is illusory or not is the question that separates a religious believer from a pancake maker like Matthew Cobb. The question can’t be satisfactorily resolved with yet another easy Darwinian just so story.