Coincidence and Cause

Coincidence and cause are supposed to be polar opposites. Coincidence refers to events that are not connected to one another and cause refers to events where one is a necessary precursor to the other. Sometimes what seem to be coincidences are moved up into being causes. I would suggest to students that sunspots, which might seem unrelated to the course of human events, may in fact have been the cause of the modern world in that they led to what was called the first part of the Little Ice Age which lasted in Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and that the recovery from that, which led to longer growing seasons and crops grown at higher elevations, and the cessation of the illnesses that had lingered in cold and misty Europe during the cold period, as well as the efficiencies in farming made necessary by a cold climate, allowed a prosperous Europe to emerge, even if that movement was seconded by the intellectual and technical developments from the fifteenth century onward. So coincidence can be reclaimed as cause, though the two remain objective matters. I want to challenge that view and suggest that the difference between the two has to do with how the story of intersecting events is cast: if there is some dramatic conversion of events so that one casts light on the meaning of the other, then the events will be seen in terms of cause rather than coincidence. Let us review the issues so as to see that how we resolve this problem has a bearing on how we regard contemporary issues having to do with history and society.

Aristotle started the ball rolling, and perhaps said as much as could clearly be said about the matter, when he said that coincidence was like meeting someone unexpectedly in the agora, the market where Greeks congregated in number to do their shopping, this, supposedly, in contrast to the people you would meet on your own street because they also lived there. But that analysis is wrong. Think of the purpose of two people setting out from their homes to go to the agora. Even if they had not coordinated their decision, they both wanted to go shopping and so it is startling but no big deal if you run into someone you know who has made that same decision. It is like finding that a person you meet on a dating site has the same interests that you do because they are also young professionals from Ivy League schools. That is what you signed up for even if you could not have known that the particular person who might become your soulmate is the one of those who show up. The surprise arises out of going back and forth in your mind between a person being unknown to you and this particular person who has quickly become important to you by being actually there. Similarly, meeting someone unexpectedly in the agora depends on the play between them as people you know and people you actually expected to see. Coincidence is therefore a subjective sense of the comparison between what is and what might be.

So coincidence is the experience of bringing the general and particular into apposition. Cause, for its part, is seeing that two things regarded as very different are in fact related to one another on the level of meaning. Mass and energy had for centuries and maybe forever been seen as distinctive things until Einstein showed that one could be derived from the other. That is what science of all sorts do, but social science is different in that it shows coincidental connections are real ones on the level of meaning (although one can think of a mathematical formula like e equals m squared as also a way of tying meanings together).

The polar opposites on this issue are Leibniz and Spinoza. Leibniz thought there were no coincidences because everything was caused. You could find a reasonable explanation for everything in that you could always find sufficient cause for an event and so the whole history of the world and universe was of what had to be, God making it that way. On the other hand, there is Spinoza, who thinks that everything in human life is coincidence in that people can decide to do otherwise, the sense of the world that each of them carries to inform their choices being a more or less complex reflection of the way things are. If I love someone it is because of the complexity of the kind of love of which I am capable; if I turn down a job it is because I have a better or worse sense of where my interests, inclinations, and attributes lead me. People in Spinoza’s world certainly follow patterns but those are the result of their characteristics rather than because they cannot do otherwise. They most of the time cross the street looking both ways so as not to be run over.

Talcott Parsons treats wars as externals, which is a term borrowed from economics to suggest that such an event is coincidental to the social system of a society and so not caused by the society. But that is not true. Think of the sinking of the Maine as the cause that brought about the American Empire. It is a coincidence in that this event was purely circumstantial, whether it was a Spanish plot or the result of a boiler malfunction, and so should be connected to that consequent, the Spanish American War, as its uncaused cause. But look at another level, where the generalities of social process are not being compared to a particularity, and the cause of the Spanish American War makes sense, which is what an explanation on the level of meaning is supposed to do. Spain’s empire had been in decline for many years and so it was just a question of time before a major or rising power took over parts of it, just as had happened in the half century before the Spanish American War to the Chinese homeland. The United States had reached its continental boundaries and was looking to protect itself against far off risks like Japan as well as to fledge its muscles and Spain provided the opportunity. That it was Spain and the United States that conflicted was coincidental; that the United States would go to war with a vulnerable empire was not. The United States decided not to do so with China, preferring what was called “the open door policy” on Chinese trade, perhaps because most of the best concessions in China had already been taken. But circumstance rather than coincidence prevailed in that Spain was a much richer and closer target. Keeping what is to be explained on the same plane as what does the explaining allows “coincidence” to turn into “circumstance”.

Consider the opposite situation, where we work hard so as to make coincidental events continue to be perceived that way and where it takes a social construction to see two apposite events as connected. Think of storms and storm clouds. They hover in the background and you think of a cloudburst that soaks you as just a coincidence even if it inconveniences you. It was not connected to your life unless you treated it as a metaphor for what was happening in your life, as in a novel: you were gloomy and things were going wrong and so the weather was gloomy and this was just another bad thing that befell you. There are always some weather conditions or other that you can tie to your mood or life condition, and so we say some people are sunny. It takes a stretch to turn this into a matter of cause, which is what climate scientists do when they claim that the weather is becoming systematically warmer or more fraught and so we should do something to address that problem, even though, for most of us, our attention to the weather stretches only to a weekly forecast so we can plan a trip to the beach. It is a stretch to do more than that, and maybe that is why there is no great public pressure for carbon controls: this is all, still, a coincidence, that weather is getting worse.

We similarly regard disease and accidents as coincidences even if there is better evidence to think that an instance is part of a general trend rather than just a coincidence. When a tourist from Australia is killed in an auto accident, it is just one of those things; it could have happened anywhere even though it is possible to compare rates of automobile accidents in Sydney and New York. On the other hand, if a tourist is killed by a criminal, as tourists were coming into Miami from its airport some years ago, then city authorities get all apologetic because that was not a coincidence but the result of one or another of America’s crime waves and so the government had to take responsibility by flying over relatives. Coincidences disappear when there are well established narratives for making connections between events.

There is a way to overthrow this whole apple cart of sorting out causes and consequences. Consider the imagery (for that is all I can understand) that surrounds the theory of the creation of the universe. Physicists say that there were pre-atomic particles and that a slight surplus of one over another led to the creation of matter as we understand it and, consequently, to the universe as we know it. So the universe was not an accident but the result of that slight asymmetry of the pre-material universe. So was the universe caused or uncaused? One can always ask why the asymmetry was there. It makes more sense just to say that the universe is here and so we have to deal with it. The universe is our circumstance, neither a cause nor a coincidence.

The same is true of social life. Take the preoccupation everyone nowadays has with Donald Trump. One can treat his election as a coincidence in that, had seventeen thousand votes turned out or shifted in any of three states, he would not have been elected. And so it was too close to call, just a fluke. On the other hand, one can say it was no coincidence in that a number of southern red states were willing to vote for someone clearly unqualified for office, so it was just old fashioned regional politics that determined the election, and so the nation got what it wanted. But it may be more enlightened to disregard either the coincidence or the cause and simply treat the present government as a given, a circumstance we have to deal with. There is no turning back to the past as if the past were a reality, which is also the lesson of Philip Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”, where the protagonist wonders whether the Japanese and the Germans could really have won the Second World War or whether that is an illusion. What is is no illusion. We are stuck with it and have to deal with it.  The general should not become the enemy of the particular.