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Who Says There Are No Coincidences?

Not long ago in a casual conversation, I heard an Orthodox acquaintance of mine say matter-of-factly that we all know there are no coincidences.  Although it was not the first time I had heard this assertion, I was surprised to hear it stated with such dogmatic assurance. Despite having grown up in an Orthodox home and attended Orthodox day schools and yeshivot, I don’t recall anyone ever telling me, when I was young, that there are no coincidences.  Nevertheless, this idea now seems to have become, in certain circles, at any rate, an ikar emunah—a principle of faith. 

Just why a more or less innocuous saying has evolved into a principle of faith is surely an appropriate topic for sociological, perhaps social psychological, research, and is likely related, somehow or other, to the general rightward drift, both toward and within Orthodoxy.  But I am more interested in understanding just what the saying—the fledgling principle of faith, that there are no coincidences—actually means.  Is it simply a colloquialism that signifies our faith in God’s Divine Providence, His ability to intervene in earthly affairs to ensure that His is carried out on earth?  Divine Providence and God’s intervention in nature are certainly widely accepted tenets of Jewish faith.  But to say that there is no such thing as a coincidence sounds to me like a stronger claim; it suggests more than the assertion that God has the power to intervene in the natural order or even that He does so whenever He chooses.  It implies necessity. 

Let me try to explain the point with an example from mathematics.  I once heard a lecture on mathematics in in which the instructor, after pointing out an interesting relationship between two classes of numbers, asked his audience whether they thought the relationship was a coincidence.  He then explained that mathematicians don’t believe in coincidences, because, whenever they discover a relationship, they try to prove that the relationship they have found is logically necessary.  A necessary relationship cannot be coincidental. Things simply could not have been otherwise.  

By contrast, when we happen to observe two events that somehow share come common characteristic, despite having no direct causal connection, we call the shared characteristic of the two events a coincidence. If I meet someone at a party and find out that we share the same birthday, what we mean by calling that situation coincidental is that our being together at that moment was the result of chance, not necessity. Therefore, to say two events are not coincidental means that despite the apparent lack of causal connection between them, there was some underlying cause that made it necessary for the events to happen just as they did. 

So to believe that there are no coincidences, that nothing ever happens by chance, means that whatever happens had to happen exactly as it happened; if two events share a common characteristic, that characteristic is shared by necessity.  There are two possible sources of necessity, the first being the laws of nature, and the second being the will of God.  In the religious context of this discussion, to say that there are no coincidences implies that everything that happens had to happen because God willed it to happen. But if this is so, then there is no event, including the actions of human beings, that was not willed by God. For a religious tradition, like Judaism, which holds that human beings are endowed with free will, such a conclusion poses something of a problem.  

Now one might say that this problem, the conflict between the necessity that God’s will be realized and human free will, exists regardless of whether or not one believes that coincidences are possible. There is, after all, an old and well-known conflict between God’s knowledge of the future and the possibility of human free will, a conflict that has occupied the attention of Jewish as well as Gentile philosophers and theologians. 

But the conflict between God’s omniscience and human free will may be only apparent, as suggested by both Maimonides and Aquinas.  That God knows the future does not mean that God wills the future.  The idea that God’s knowledge of the future is identical to His willing the future into existence, an idea that has perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries, has been shown by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, using Leibniz’s notion of possible worlds, to be based on a confusion.  

We can posit that there is only one actual world: the world of our experience.  If everything is pre-determined by God, or by the laws of nature, then the actual world is the one and only possible world, the world determined by God’s will or by the laws of nature.  But if there is free will, if human choice is real, not an illusion, then although there is only one actual world, there are many possible worlds, each possible world corresponding to a distinct undetermined human choice.  God’s foreknowledge means no more than that He knows in advance which of the many possible worlds will become the actual world of our experience, not that no other worlds were possible. 

Thus, while God’s foreknowledge is compatible with human free will, it follows from Plantinga’s argument that free will is inconsistent with a world without coincidences, for if there are no coincidences, everything that did happen had to happen; the actual world is the only possible world. That would be a world of absolute necessity, a world in which everything was predestined, or pre-programed, from the moment of creation; a world in which human agency and freedom are absent.  The creator of such a world would not be the God of the Hebrew Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Neither would He be the God of the Lurianic kabbalists and many Jewish theologians, for whom an essential part of creation was God’s deliberate self-limitation (tzimzum) in creating man in His own image, a creature endowed with free will. 

While free will is a cardinal tenet of Jewish theology, it is a controversial doctrine in Christian theology.  Although Catholicism embraces the Thomist doctrine of free will as consistent with God’s foreknowledge, the founders of Protestantism, Luther and Calvin, held that God’s foreknowledge implies predestination.  If God knows in advance what we will choose, then it was impossible that we would have chosen otherwise.  There is only one possible world, the world of God’s foreknowledge. 

So it is not surprising that if you Google the phrase “there are no coincidences,” you will find that the precept is propounded by more non-Jewish than Jewish sources.  It is unsurprising that many faith traditions for which freedom of will is not a central tenet would espouse such a proposition.  But for Jews to embrace it as a religious tenet, much less elevate it to an ikar emunah, seems like quite a stretch.  

David Glasner is an economist in the Washington, D.C. area and writes about economics on his blog

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David on March 6, 2013 at 6:36 am (Reply)
Amen. Two responses:
One of the issues I have with the "coincidence" thing is that it is not the same as the reward/paradigm pattern predicted in the Bible (even though that pattern is made into a metaphor by both philosophers & hassidim)--who says God intervenes by having 2 strangers meet at a party and they have the same birthday? I met someone at a shiva house who said her birthday was "9/9"--"that must be kabbalistic, right?" The things people choose as 'signs' (i.e. coincidences like what you said) are just things that strike us as unusual but in fact, statistically, are bound to happen fairly regularly. (There was a statistics professor who taught about randomness by the following experiment: he left the room, and had 2 teams with 2 chalk boards. 1 team flips a coin 50 times and writes the result, 1 team makes up a "random" list of coin tosses. The real random one always had four heads in a row. So 'coincidences' are really part of nature.)

I do disagree with you, though, that it's not Jewish. Jewish philosophy rejects it, true, but there are thinkers who do not. Pirke Avot seems to simply uphold both sides without explaining why. Rebbe Nahman of Breslav says that God is sending us signs in nature all the time, and in fact is in control of everything. So there are authentically Jewish voices who disagree with the philosphers you quote.
Richard Sherwin on March 6, 2013 at 6:43 am (Reply)
couldnt it be that when we say there are no coincidences we mean that of all the possible 'future' worlds, the present one is the necessary result of all the free-will actions made in the 'previous' one?
Jankel on March 6, 2013 at 6:54 am (Reply)
Get the "most common" idea of God away from your thinking, and everything becomes clear, scientifically and philosophically evident.
Only Atheist is a true Monotheist: No Attribute, No representation of the Nothing and No Idolatry.
Just the fact of responsibility when it is not troubled by conditioning, Genetics, social conditions, neurological equipment etc......
Ysoscher Karz on March 6, 2013 at 7:26 am (Reply)
I am surprised by such a generalization. How can one make such a sweeping statement about Judaism. The author completely ignores the fact that the idea that there are no coincidences has a strong basis in the Talmud and midrashim. (For one example of many see TB Chulin 7b, אין אדם נוקף אצבעו מלמטה אלא אם כן מכריזין עליו מלמעלה.) We can debate whether those opinions are dominant or authoritative, but to say that it is a Christian idea is blatantly wrong.
Arieh Lev Breslow on March 6, 2013 at 7:54 am (Reply)
I came to this conclusion on my own and have been proposing it to my havrutot and in dvar Torahs. Thanks for stating the argument so clearly. Arieh
Tuvia Fogel on March 6, 2013 at 10:03 am (Reply)
Why not mention Islam's attitude to the issue? After all, Islam means submission (to God's will) and the deepest theological sense of the word is exactly that man is NOT a free agent. Christianity inherited Judaism's axiom of human free will, though it has the occesional problem with it, as you point out. But Muhammad rejected it outright, holding that not only does Allah decide (not foreknows, 'decides') how humans react to circumstances, but that the sun will only rise tomorrow if Allah, once again, orders it to do so!
    TXJew on March 6, 2013 at 2:31 pm (Reply)
    Actually, submission is a decision. One can also be a kafer (non-believer). This too is a decision. Some Islamic fihts are more determinist than others....ah, but then, your intention to to be polemical, not accurate.
    Incidentally, your arguemnt about divine rule over the sun rising also appears in Torah, or at least the siddur, with Maariv aravim.
Moishe Montreal on March 6, 2013 at 11:07 am (Reply)
This is a cogent essay on the subject.
I.B. Singer was once asked if he believed in determinism, or in free will.
His answer was,
"I believe in free will; I have no choice."
Martin on March 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm (Reply)
The RaLBaG's contention that God does not "know" future contingent events answer's this conundrum better than anyone else. I find the contention that God knows but does not will to be a distinction without a difference. Omniscience means that what God "knows" must necessarily (there's that word again) occur for it could not be otherwise. Ergo, free will goes out the door.
    Moe on March 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Reply)
    Can you please cite the source of that Ralbag?
      Michael Ben Av on March 6, 2013 at 8:39 pm (Reply)
      RALBAG: Milchemes HaShem (The Wars of the Lord) - Book 3 - Divine Knowledge.
Moshe on March 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm (Reply)
See של״ה, תולדות אדם, בית הבחירה
For Miles Krassen's translation see Isaiah Horowitz, The Generations of Adam pp 288-297.
The Shelah understands that omniscience is limited to what is likely to happen given present circumstances. The future is not predetermined or even foreseen with absolute certainty. The exercise of free will can then " change the future".
MP on March 6, 2013 at 1:50 pm (Reply)
To Ysoscher Karz: the import of the BT Chulin 7b line you noted (that what a man does, down to the smallest evident level, is decreed Above) is not a contradiction to coincidence any more than the well-known concept of bitul g'zeira (annulling a decree; e.g. don't you pray more than once a year that Our Father, Our King should annul any decree we perceive as "bad" for us?), however one wishes to understand the mechanics of bitul.
madel on March 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm (Reply)
The Torah goes both ways on free will, one expressed in G-d's own words (chance) and the other from man (no coincidence). In the Garden of Eden, G-d says that Adam and Eve must be expelled lest, having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, man might CHOOSE to eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal and G-dlike. The other (no coincidence) comes from Joseph when he excuses his brothers' actions by saying saying that it was G-d who did it to send him to Egypt ahead of them to save them from the famine. But most telling is the TOCHAICHA, where G-d gives the Israelites the CHOICE between blessings and curses and foresees that they will likely suffer the cosequences of a wrong choice. A wonderful, fictionalized discussion of this issue can be found in the novel HAAZINU (LISTEN UP), published recently by Gefen of Jerusazlem.
Judah Kerbel on March 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm (Reply)
I agree that "God's foreknowledge can be compatible with free will". However, when we use the term "free will," I think that's inaccurate on a number of levels. First, the term used in the literature is בחירת חפשית, which means "free choice." This is crucial because to say human beings have "free will" means that they have much more control than they can. Are we not limited by many factors? When human beings make a decision, they are merely choosing among a couple of options in front of them, but one cannot choose something outside the realm of possibility. Because of the limitations, that's where God may come in - because the choices in front of us are only those which God provides us.

From a psychological perspective, we have very little free will. Childhood, for example, may be a strong predictor of our personalities and therefore the way we act; that doesn't seem like free will. One of my professors also says that the brain determines our actions a few seconds before we are conscious of them.
Elliott Shevin on March 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm (Reply)
I think one could easily argue that despite Plantiga's argument, all phenomena might be explained as either Divine will, natural law, OR the exercise of human free will, without leaving room for coincidence, and thus compatible with a world without coincidences.

Not that I disbelieve in coincidence; only that I don't think this argument holds up.

And an aside to Martin: consider the concept (which I think comes from Aquinas for one) that God is not bound by linear time--that what is future to us isn't to Him. This allows for (what we call) foreknowledge without intervention.
Sadder but Wiser on March 6, 2013 at 2:51 pm (Reply)
It is very comforting, particularly if one does not attain the degree of success that one aspired to, to state that all is bashert, or predetermined. But if all is predestined, then that opens that path to contention with God for having wreaked such havoc and cruelty as the Holocaust. It also permits me to perform any wrong with no consideration of others as God has predestined my actions. By subscribing to this philosophy we could eliminate all prisons and the criminal justice system saving countless funds for governments to squander in different fashions.
joel rich on March 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm (Reply)
R’ Glasner hit the hashkafic nail on the head. When I wore a much younger man’s clothes, I believed there were no coincidences but because of the issues he raised, I’d moved to maybe there are coincidences but the challenge is to find proper messages in everything that happens to you.

YM on March 6, 2013 at 3:09 pm (Reply)
Rav Avigdor Miller repeated this frequently. Everything that happens is ratzon Hashem, our free choice is whether to act in accordance with Hashems will or against it. The outcome is up to Hashem. Even Hashem's decision to subject someone to the laws of nature is HIS decision.
micha on March 6, 2013 at 3:19 pm (Reply)
FWIW, there is no Divine Foreknowledge, thus eliminating that problem. By which I do not mean to assert that there is something G-d does not know. Rather, that G-d has no "now" for there to be a "fore". G-d doesn't know now what I will do tomorrow even though He is Omniscient because He has no "now".

It is possible to say that the only thing non-deterministic is intellect, thereby allowing for Free Will and Providence and yet still have no room for coincidence.
    Meir on March 6, 2013 at 4:40 pm (Reply)
    A chavrusa, decades ago, expressed the gist of Micha's comment pithily: "Hashem doesn't know what you will do to morrow; He knows what you did tomorrow."
      micha on March 6, 2013 at 6:15 pm (Reply)
      Meir, your chavrusa's words are closer to what the Or Sameiach (Rabbi Meir Simcha haKohein of Dvinsk, Lithuania 1843–1926) says in his commentary on the Rambam's Laws of Teshuvah, in an excursion titled "HaKol Tzafui vehaReshus Nesunah -- all is foreseen yet freedom is given" (the title is a quote of Rabbi Aqiva). He writes that G-d's knowledge of the future doesn't change the present any more than his knowledge of the past does.

      I agree with your assumption that his intent is pretty much the same as my more Einsteinian framing, but I can't prove it.
Michael Ben Av on March 6, 2013 at 8:35 pm (Reply)
It depends on one's perspective! The past cannot be changed, so when we look back, we can insist on finding meaning in everything, (i.e. nothing is meaningless, or coincidental.) This is a legitimate practical religious approach. Why not?
Shai on March 6, 2013 at 9:41 pm (Reply)
To be sure, it is arguably legitimate to believe that some things are really just by chance. But it's also a Jewish belief, articulated by various sages over the last 2000 years, that there are in fact no coincidences.

1. Rabbi Akiva says in the Talmud, "Everything the merciful one does is for the good," or more succinctly, "Gamzu l'tovah." The Shulchan Aruch actually requires us to always be in the habit of saying this (the longer quote).(Orach Chayim 230:5).

2. The Talmud also says that even extremely minor inconveniences, such as reaching in one's pocket and retrieving the wrong coin, are sent from Heaven as a punishment (Shabbat 55a). Rambam (Maimonides), in his Guide for the Perplexed, mentions this teaching approvingly, using the example of being pricked by a thorn. Rambam also says that if someone drowns in a ship, this is definitely caused by G-d. However, Rambam adamantly disagreed with the notion that divine providence extends to animals (though Rashi endorses that view).

3. Rambam's son, Rabbi Avraham ben Rambam wrote, in the Guide to Serving God(chapter on trust/bitachon), clearly expressed that everything is sent from God: "[T]he bitachon incumbent upon all the religious a firmly placed conviction and a genuine, heartfelt awareness that the natural causes and normal channels are directed by God's detailed will for each person, in every time and every situation." Rabbeinu Bachya made a similar statement.

4. Birkat HaMazon, the Modim blessing of the Amidah, and various other commonplace Jewish prayers are clearly premised on the notion that Hashem intervenes in our lives on a daily basis. Modim speaks of the miracles that are with us daily, and when we bentsch we affirm that God sends us our food. This doesn't require us to believe that there are no coincidences, but it would seem to leave room for very few.

5. The paradox between God's foreknowledge and free will has long been noted (Pirkei Avos is probably the earliest), but rabbis (such as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov) have cautioned against philosophical speculation about these paradoxes. The Talmud explains it this way, "everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b).

6. Even though the belief in an all-encompassing divine providence has many ancient sources, the belief has become more widespread in recent times due to the influence of of kabbalistic and chassidic philosophy. As another commenter note, Rebbe Nachman said that everyone should pay attention to the various hints G-d sends us throughout the day, encouraging us to come closer to Him. Chabad also emphasizes the idea that G-d sends everything for the best.
A on March 7, 2013 at 1:39 am (Reply)
The author may have been better served by taking a harder look at Platinga's arguments. The existence of many worlds is not core to his defense of free will. Whether infinite or singular, an omnipotent and omniscient God chooses to actualize. Therefore, there is no useful distinction between observation and manifestation. Platinga instead posits that for any given free being, there is a situation and an action, where the free being may act immorally. God cannot create a world where all pathways avoid such situations that result in immoral choices, UNLESS such a God abrogates "free will" by strong intervention to manifest certain pathways vs. others.

Unfortunately, Platinga does not explain how an omnipotent and omniscient God faces a useful distinction between selecting a world and intervening in it. After all, if God sees every pathway, and is responsible for selecting a given actual universe, then there is no need for intervention unless the particular world could not exist without intervention. But then what happened to omnipotence?

So, the author of this article misuses Platinga's arguments to claim that "many worlds" supports a version of "free will". He accounts for omniscience, but neglects to account for omnipotence, and the Prime Mover role. Subsequently, this article fails to adequately define coincidence given the existence of God. Is an omnipotent, omniscient Prime Mover surprised by chance? Are there events perceivable as random to such a being?
shmuel Oliven on March 7, 2013 at 6:16 am (Reply)
three points:
1. the issue is more complex than represented:
Take view of Sefer HaIkarim, that both Hashem knows what we will choose, but it is simply not revealed to us
2. there are other Chasidic views which give other explanations and are becoming more popular, we could paraphrase the Ishzbitzer, "all is in the hand of heaven including the fear of heaven"
3. there are also otherwise views which expand on the range of the lack of human ability to understand "mbechinato vmebechinateinu" veres the Devine, & their separate perspectives
4 a parable & an explanation on a pasuk - to conclude: Hashem is our neighbor upstairs, but the way he sees it our roof is made of glass and he can see which room we will choose to go into,
as I heard it once explained by HaRav Yoel Ben Nun "shlita et achorai lo yearau" : HaShem could show Moshe Rabienu the meaning of the past, but the perspective of a live person the future is incomprehensible.
Jan on March 10, 2013 at 11:53 pm (Reply)
It might help if the Tanakh was consulted before Aquinas! Aquinas!??
There is a record of over 2,000 years of encounter with the Divine will and how human pride and will is disapointed. One is left with a profound sensation that there are things we can't know...
"LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever. (Psalm 131:1-3)
Of course the great "He who will be" is the cause of chance, and so he can move it as he we can trust and hope in him.

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