Meaningful Coincidences


What makes coincidences meaningful? We do, obviously.

Does that fact make them any less meaningful? It depends, I suppose, on who you consider to be the arbiters of meaning and what evaluative techniques they use. But the question, an inherently unanswerable one, certainly opens up a messy goopy can of worms.

An article in the current issue of Psychology Today dabbles in this debate, without coming to any conclusion (because there isn't one!) as to whether coincidences are meaningful. What struck me about the Psychology Today discussion was the suggestion that our brains are hardwired to connect details or events into something meaningful, essentially 'creating' coincidences (i.e., noticing connections) in the same fashion we know to attribute the word 'dog' to those odd furry beings that bark and pant. According to a quote by cognitive scientist Josh Tenenbaum, 'Our neural circuitry is set up to notice these anomalies and use them to drive new learning… So you could say that coincidence operates at the level of the synapse, whenever neurons fire at the same time.'

I make no apologies for my reliance on the power of coincidence to regularly provide meaning and reassurance as I navigate the vast chaos of life. As I've mentioned before, astrology is a system of understanding that rests—somewhat precariously, critics might assert—upon the idea of meaningful coincidences between celestial phenomena and the people and events brought into being at the same time. Astrologers diligently study the archetypal symbols of astrology—the zodiac signs, the planets, cycles—until they become deeply engrained in our minds. Then, when we consider the situations of our clients or of broader cultural happenings alongside the relevant astrological material, certain neurons in our astrology-influenced brains fire together. And we produce meaningful connections, a set of alternative insights that help us see earthly life in new ways. Obviously, many find these resulting insights useful, judging by the sustained popularity astrology has enjoyed over thousands of years.

But astrology has not been proven (click here for the most notable exception) according to the precepts of science, which require the replication of closed experiments with identical results before truth is established. I suppose certain features of astrology could be subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation—if sufficient resources were made available, and if scientists were able to suspend their knee-jerk bias against a system they have not disproven. Life is not a closed experiment. Time is composed of endlessly unique moments, spawning endlessly unique people and events. It cannot be replicated in labs, though that doesn't make it unworthy of meaning-making.

Likewise, astrologers are not scientists nor, in my opinion, should we aspire to be. The casting of charts may be an objective mathematical process, but (especially in the age of computers) this is the easy part. It's the interpretation of astrological patterns that requires the difficult work—and the risk to our credibility—for astrologers. In this role, we function more as cultural commentators or literary critics, sharing the meaningful connections our minds produce based on what we observe or 'read'.

The unsettling but necessary ramification of this perspective, of course, is that any astrological amateur or total crackpot can weigh in on the debate. In this light, the value of the meaning derived from astrology is not whether it is objectively 'true' but whether it's meaningful or helpful to any particular individual, whether it's subjectively 'true' or personally resonant. It's up to each of us to decide if astrology is true, just as we decide whether a run-in with an old friend or a recurrence of birds in a given day are synchronistic signs or insignificant happenstances.

Mathematics professor John Allen Paulos leans strongly to the latter interpretation in his comments about meaningful coincidence in the Psychology Today article: 'Believing in the significance of oddities is self-aggrandizing. It says, "Look how important I am." People find it dispiriting to hear, "It just happened, and it doesn't mean anything."'

I wholeheartedly agree with his proposition—at the same time I take issue with the implication that telling ourselves how important we are is somehow distasteful. It reminds me of the common critique that astrology is bunk because it simply serves to make people feel better (to which I reply, 'And what's wrong with wanting to feel better?'). If it were not for this self-aggrandizing urge hardwired into the brains of so many key scientific figures, whose synaptic firings produced previously undiscovered connections in the same intuitive way we all make meaning from chaos, science would never progress.

And then, of course, there's the quantum-mechanics loophole in 'objective' science—an observer's very act of observing determines and creates what he sees, essentially spoiling the myth of objectivity. With that in mind, we are all that important—and we can't help ourselves—since our very presence is an unavoidable factor in what we observe and how we make meaning from it, regardless of how objective we try to be. For all we truly know, two plus two doesn't actually equal four unless there's someone in the forest to count the trees as they're falling.

The ongoing influence of Mars and Mercury in Leo, as I mentioned last week, fuels the fire for each of us to go ahead and let ourselves be important—after all, if not for us, then who are we? Rather than worrying too greatly that a panel of experts or some form of objective truth is liable to come along and knock us off our high horses, we must just do our thing, act our piece and live our life. Saturday morning's New Moon in Cancer encourages us to listen to our internal voices and our intuitions—for what is intuition if not the 'illogical' firing of synapses to clue us into connections otherwise unseen?—even if they go in the face of common wisdom.

The trick is to remain connected to others, though not bound to them, as we venture off into greater self-trust. We don't listen to our personal intuitive voices more than we do because of the intense social power behind objectivity, science and group-think. Yet knowing that the most powerful nation is capable of drawing the most unsound connections in its own intelligence workings reflects the need to follow our gut instincts over what 'truth' is fed to us.

At the same time, there is a danger to letting our own cerebral connections have full reign independent of external factors, for when you start to link the news from Afghanistan and your neighbors' behavior with a conspiracy to kidnap you and farm your genes to create a world-dominating army of clones, you've strayed past intuition and lapsed in psychotic delusion. That's why it's important to share what we learn, to stay connected with the external reality of the world. Our trusted relationships ground us, so that we can grow to rely on making our own meanings from seemingly random events—and still have people to keep us in check when we're gone too far.