Coincidence, chaos, causation, connection, correlation?

Through the years, I’ve done a lot of pondering about the phenomenon known as coincidence. It seems like I always react subversively when someone exclaims, “There’s no such thing as a coincidence!,” suggesting that the two “coincidental” events are actually somehow connected via cause-and-effect, God having a sense of humor or sending us a message, the universe understanding some sort of relationship that we can’t readily see, or whatnot—“whatnot” standing for all the other ridiculously superstitious, naive, and inane explanations people use to explain inexplicable coincidences and events.

Essentially, I believe the world holds a lot of secrets, most of which we can’t understand and will never even catch a glimpse of. There’s an underlying order we can’t grasp at any level other than, sometimes, the molecular. But that doesn’t preclude the existence of pure, unadulterated coincidence, either. Seems to me, the world is so big, there’s room for randomness, in addition to order. Random, bizarre things happen all the time.


But even chaos theory states that seemingly random events (“chaos”) are predictable using some pretty simple deterministic equations. And that systems can achieve radically different outcomes, if their initial circumstances are even slightly, imperceptibly different.

The butterfly effect, first described by [Edward] Lorenz at the December 1972 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., vividly illustrates the essential idea of chaos theory. In a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences, Lorenz had quoted an unnamed meteorologist’s assertion that, if chaos theory were true, a single flap of a single seagull’s wings would be enough to change the course of all future weather systems on the earth. 

By the time of the 1972 meeting, he had examined and refined that idea for his talk, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?” The example of such a small system as a butterfly being responsible for creating such a large and distant system as a tornado in Texas illustrates the impossibility of making predictions for complex systems; despite the fact that these are determined by underlying conditions, precisely what those conditions are can never be sufficiently articulated to allow long-range predictions.

–Which means, I guess, that there might be no coincidences, but that some relationships are so complex, and so impossible to test, that we’ll never be able to tell the difference most of the time, anyway. We’ll never really know.

None of which really helps when I tell my latest story, then, which is admittedly uninteresting but disturbingly odd:

Yesterday afternoon, I took a nap. As I was drifting off, I was thinking about what I had to do later in the day. I needed to prepare dinner when I got up—chicken curry. I thought about chopping up onions. It was all unconscious, but I thought/dreamed that I was chopping up onions in my kitchen and I cut my finger.

I got up from my nap an hour later, and didn’t remember anything about this dream/imagination/unconscious thought.

Two hours later, I really was chopping up onions in my kitchen and I really did cut my finger.

Did I cause myself to cut my own finger? Was I more susceptible to cutting myself since I’d dreamed/thought about it earlier? Shouldn’t I have been less susceptible, since I saw the ill effects of cutting myself and could thus be more careful? Is this a pure coincidence? But according to chaos theory, there are no pure coincidences.

Click here for a simple but fascinating summary of Lorenz’s study, in plain English for you non-physics majors out there.

For all practical, day-to-day purposes, it’s a coincidence that I cut my finger. It’s really all that matters.

However, let me take a stab at connecting these two events. I’m not saying I’m clairvoyant—that’s a different post—but if you agree that all “psychological” states are really just physical states, my brain could have misread the dream as an instruction or a guide. Although this would still be a horrible mistake, it would make more sense than just chalking it up to pure coincidence.

I’d love to know what else happened, if anything, but there’s no way to test it or do anything about it. There are far too many variables to capture, measure, and analyze within my lifetime, assuming we even had an established method to do all these things (including recreating the entire scenario). It’s a very anticlimactic way of concluding this narrative. We’ll just never know.

A couple of other conclusions:

1) The term “chaos theory” is a misnomer. Chaos theory posits that there is no such thing as chaos—that patterns and order can be found in what appears to be chaos.

2) I submit that physicists have stuck with the phrase “chaos theory” to confuse us all and to prevent the general public from learning that there may be no such things as chaos.

3) If we could learn to predict more things based on patterns and evidence, maybe we would no longer be destined to do stupid things. If I could have recognized the pattern, I could have trained myself to not cut my finger with such ease and lack of worry.

But thanks for nothing, Lorenz attractor. My finger is very sore and I bled all over the kitchen. –However, it got me thinking, I’d like some red in my bland kitchen. Maybe a new coat of paint, red cupboard handles, or replacing the white lamp coverings with red ones? More “chaos” certain to follow.

Final analysis:  Maybe I really don’t believe in coincidence. I have been taunting people all along because they believe there are no coincidences, and I am beginning to agree with them.

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