Opinion: There are no coincidences

POSTED: 07/22/13 11:42 AM

Is everything that happens subject to the strict rules of causality? In other words: does the principle that everything has a cause hold up under all circumstances? If that is true, there are indeed no coincidences. The Scottish philosopher David Hume put it this way: “I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something could arise without a cause.”

Not everybody likes this idea, because it seems to be at odds with the principle of free will. Opponents of strict causality doubt that a complex of causes must necessarily lead to one effect. If this is not the case, there is a coincidence.

We have written in the past that there is a simple formula to say something about a given result. That formula is: intention + action = result. The beauty of this formula is that results never lie.

If for instance someone said that he intends to buy flowers for his wife and he comes home empty handed, we know that he did not add action to his words. The wife never received the flowers. It is a classic example of an empty promise, but it is also an example of cause and effect – in this case of course with a negative outcome.

A Dutch blogger called H.P. Winkelman argues that strict causality excludes the possibility of coincidence. We think the man has a valid point. Coincidence only exist it something happens that is not caused by preceding causes or that is at odds with preceding causes, Winkelman reasons. If an event does have a cause, then it is logically not coincidental.

Some things seem coincidental while in reality they are not, Winkelman presents an interesting example: throwing dice. The result of a throw with a pure dice is unpredictable, but it does not mean that the result has no cause. A dice behaves neatly according to the laws of mechanics. That the result of the throw is unpredictable is only because we are unable to see the whole complex of causes that determines the movements of the dice in the cup. If we were able to see all this, we would be able to calculate the outcome. However, our analytical powers (or the lack of them) are not relevant for the question whether a certain movement is with or without a cause.

If we now look for instance at the situation at our national security service, it is obvious that the irregularities that have been discovered must have happened for a reason. The effect is that a large sum of money is not substantiated as having been used for the work of the service. The cause is for the time being shrouded in mystery.

Maybe someone put his (or her) hands on the money for an illicit early retirement plan. Maybe somebody had gambling debts – the possibilities are endless. But that it is no coincidence that irregularities occurred at the national security service is a given. There is cause and effect. As long as we do not learn more details about the cause, we won’t be able to explain why this really happened. It could be greed, or it could simply be extremely sloppy bookkeeping.

Winkelman brings in another argument for strict causality with the example of billiards. This game is predictable, the argument goes: if apart from the orders that determine the movement of the billiard ball a factor X of coincidence would be involved, billiard would become pointless. Instead, knowhow, insight, experience and feeling enable a player who considers all circumstances, to direct the billiard ball in such a way that he makes the cannon he has in mind. Given the orders that determine the movement of the ball on the felt, it is already certain that a cannon will be made the moment the player hits the ball. That viewers are uncertain about the outcome is another matter altogether. That uncertainty is due to insufficient insight and not to coincidence.

Winkelman notes that life plays out somewhere between the throwing of the dice and the billiards game: nothing is undetermined, some things are predictable and others are uncertain. With some glee, he adds that he is happy he does not have to live in the complete madhouse the world would be if coincidence played a role.

With David Hume, Winkelman notes that we never assume that an event does not have a cause. It takes more belief to accept the existence of coincidence that it does to accept the existence of causality. For people who think that strict causality is a creepy idea, Winkelman has a supportive message: it would be much creepier if life were ruled by coincidence.


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