Probable Cause (Part 3)

Posted on May 21, 2013


WinnerI reach for a book in my office, and I get that weird tingly feeling, something like an invisible finger tapping me on the brain. I turn and walk over to another bookcase, pulled along as though I were a migrating insect, and not one of the smart ones either. I’m heading somewhere, but for a reason I can’t quite identify. And then I see it, sitting just left of center on the third shelf from the top: it’s the same book. I must have bought two. I find myself doing a mental re-enactment. At some forgotten moment in the past, I had stood in a store, leafed through some pages, decided that this book was worth reading, paid for it, and took it home. Weeks or months later, I went through the same process, with no inkling that I’d done it all before. It’s the opposite of déjà vu. There’s no vague, nagging sense of repetition, no silent alarm going off in my head, but rather a complete lack of awareness. What are the chances that I’d unknowingly buy a book twice?

One answer is that the chances are excellent. I know this because I’ve done it a half dozen times. But also because I have two copies of the book, and I wouldn’t knowingly do that. It’s like asking, “What are the chances that my windshield wipers will stop working while it’s raining?” It’s almost a sure thing. I rarely turn my wipers on unless it’s raining.

I disclosed those little stories about the books and the windshield wipers because I wanted to convince you that I’m at least capable of logical thought. Maybe you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt when I tell you about these other strange experiences. They’re minor events, I realize, probably not worth noticing. However, my inability to concoct any kind of explanation makes them impossible to ignore. These things happen a lot, and I can’t get used to them.

* * * * *

RadioThere’s a song playing on the radio. I almost never listen to the radio, and this song grabs my attention because I haven’t heard it in at least ten years. The next day at a different time, and again compelled by the insect migration instinct, I turn on the radio and change the station. I hear the same song playing.

I understand that these stations play hundreds of songs in a twenty-four-hour period, so there’s going to be repetition. But these are two different stations, at two different times of the day, playing a song that was mildly popular several decades ago. And as I said, I don’t listen to the radio much, yet I managed to hear it both times.

It happens with television, too. There’s this show that everybody loves. I’ve never seen it, but people insist on telling me how great it is, so I watch part of an episode. (I don’t like it, although I keep that to myself, because it’s like saying you don’t like brownies — you just never hear the end of it.) A couple of years later, I turn on the television and that same show is on. Not only the same show, but the same episode that I watched the last time. Not only the same episode, but the same part of the same episode. Now I’ve seen the show exactly twice, and it was the identical ten-minute segment.

One more.

I’m reading a book or a magazine, or doing a crossword puzzle. Someone else in the room is watching the news, and the newscaster says a word at exactly the same moment I’m reading that word. I don’t mean a common word. I mean a word like equinox or valedictorian. A word you come across maybe once in six months. And this doesn’t happen occasionally. It happens almost every time I read.

CoincidenceMathematicians tell me these are all just examples of coincidence. Non-mathematicians tell me there’s no such thing as coincidence. Sometimes I’ll even hear these opposing theories about coincidence expressed two or three times, from different sources, on the same day. Then I begin wondering if that’s a coincidence, or if I’m wasting limited brainpower wondering about something that may not even exist.

According to probability, the mistake I’m making is that I’m starting with the end result. When you consider all the necessary steps that led up to an event, it often seems highly unlikely that it should ever have happened. If you shuffle a deck of playing cards, then line the cards face-up on a flat surface, the number of potential sequences is equal to more than eight times ten to the sixty-eighth power, an incomprehensibly enormous number. In other words, any sequence of fifty-two cards has very likely never existed before, and as measured by probability, should never appear. And yet, you shuffle the cards and there it is, on the first try.

It’s similar to a thought I have when I go out to eat. I’ll look at my meal and imagine the ingredients that had to arrive from so many different places, all converging at the exact time I was there. It doesn’t seem possible. If I could travel into the past and visit each of those separate foods, and then announce that on a specific day and at a specific time in the future, they would all meet up on a plate at a certain table where I was seated in a restaurant – a restaurant I have yet to choose — you’d surely react with some skepticism.

DinnerWhen you consider the overwhelming odds in a typical lottery, it’s easy to conclude that no one will ever win. Yet, frequently, someone defies those odds. A few individuals have won more than once.

Which all leads us to questions about luck. Do some people have more luck than others? It sure looks that way. Of course, it depends on how we define our terms, and which circumstances we choose to examine. But there’s no reason to expect that luck will be spread evenly among the world’s population. If it’s truly random, then it will occur in little clusters, just as, when you toss a coin a hundred times, you’ll get strings of heads or tails. Some people have strings of luck, both good and bad. When those strings run longer than we think they should, we may begin to assume those people are blessed, or cursed.

I believe it’s more about the numbers, and that elusive force called probability that lives among them. Create enough connections, or wait long enough, and anything can happen. The extreme example is one we’ve all heard in some form. It says that if you give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, it will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. I don’t know. I would think a computer would be a better idea, although that creates its own problems. Would the monkey know how to upgrade the operating system, or change the toner cartridge? And what if he joins an online chess club, or discovers Solitaire, or starts a blog? He could end up squandering centuries, and get nothing useful done. Then again, I suppose it wouldn’t really matter. Besides, I already have the complete works of Shakespeare. It’s a two-volume set that I bought right after college. In fact, I’m pretty sure I bought it twice.


Posted in: In Over My Head