Who Says There Are No Coincidences?

By David Glasner
Wednesday, March 6, 2013

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 uneasymoney.com.

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