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The Meaning Of Coincidence

It was Tuesday night, and the lecture hall was filled up completely with an eager and enthusiastic audience. Everyone was about to become a lot wiser on the nature of chance. Mathematician Klaas Landsman, from Radboud University, his main message sounded a little bit depressing: our lives depend on chance and therefore have no meaning at all. But according to him there was nothing sad about this. In discussion with philosopher Carla Rita Palmerino, from Radboud University, the further implications of this world view were explored. The discussion was led by philosopher Mathijs van de Sand from Radboud University.


According to Landsman, chance is a surprising turn of events, conceived of as meaningfully connected, but seemingly without a causal connection. If it were the case that there was a causal connection, then the events would not be coincidental at all. Now, there are two perspectives on this: one is a scientific view on chance, and the other one is a view on chance related to purpose. This is the point of view of Swedish psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who states that scientific theories lack explanative power because a sense of purpose is missing. Chance however, allows for a mystical side of life that leaves room for purpose. As we are going to find out, Landsman disagrees with Jung, and most mystical explanations of the universe for that matter. Landsman prefers the scientific worldview.


Is there really something like chance in the world? Well, there are ways to unravel some event that appears as chance. First is to really examine the mathematics behind it. For example, there is this puzzle called the birthday problem, which asks: what is the probability that two individuals in a room share a birthday? It seems like the chances would be very implausible, but the mathematics show that with only 23 persons in a room, the odds are higher than 50%. Next, even improbable events do happen occasionally! It is a big world which has been around for a very long time. Finally, things that appear coincidental, can be unveiled by finding a direct influence or common cause. So far, chance is but a mere appearance, and science serves as the agent that unmasks these illusions.


However, there are still things in a deterministic universe which are unpredictable. Landsman names the example of the collision between two protons in the Large Hadron Collider. The final configuration of the particles is completely unpredictable according to quantum mechanics. Einstein once said that God does not roll dice, meaning that in the physical reality as we know it, there are no chance events. But this might not have been a good metaphor according to Landsman, because the throwing of a dice is in a sense still predictable. The collision of protons, however, is not.


But the role science plays in the unmasking of illusions of chance has an unintended side effect: the more cognizant we are of the universe and its working, the more it appears meaningless to us. This was already noticed by Weber in 1922. Thus, our modern way of thinking shudders at the idea of purpose in the universe. But mankind is still persistent and tries to attach meaning to events and seeks for purpose in life. It is simply in our nature to do so.


At this point, Landsman and Palmerino sit down to enter in a discussion together. Palmerino has written a lot about chance, and she mostly analyzes it from the perspective of the history of philosophy. Chance has many different meanings, and we can learn a lot about a word by looking at its polar opposite. With chance, its opposites can be determined or unsurprising. But surprising is a subjective notion. We are surprised because we cannot understand the underlying reason. Or perhaps the events in fact occurred without reason. Can there be such a thing as objective coincidence? Spinoza and Laplace used to think not.


This question goes back to the ancient Greek world, were Aristotle thought that nature was goal-orientated. Everything in nature has a goal. Spinoza disagrees with this and says that there are no goals in nature. We attribute goals to it, because we want to understand it. Nowadays, we kind of take the side of Spinoza, and concede that the universe might be meaningless, but we also acknowledge that attribution of meaning is a psychological phenomenon that humans must do, because we are goal-orientated creatures ourselves.


In short, Landsman’s main point was that the universe has a sort of meaninglessness attached to it. However, he emphasized that we must not consider this as something negative. It is in fact something neutral. We can use this fact to build a new perspective. Science can aid us in building this veritable world-view. Palmerino agrees for the most part and adds to it that complex events can become meaningful because humans are narrative creatures and construct meaningful explanations to make sense of the world. Landsman agrees but emphasizes that this meaningfulness is a purely internal process, and it is not objectively attributable to the world.

This report was written by Nico Heidari Tari, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.