SPR Study Day - The Psychology of the Sceptic
Reply to Skeptics

Coincidence ?

Last week we saw a wheelchair bound woman trying to get the law to show some compassion. Debbie Purdy, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, wanted the High Court to rule on whether her husband will face prosecution if, when the pain and discomfort become intolerable, he takes her to end her life in Switzerland.

The judge ruled that he can't change the Suicide Act of 1961, which rules that any person who 'aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another' could be liable for a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Her husband said he would go with her anyway. She said she would go alone, in order not to put him at risk - but since she would have to be fit to travel it would mean ending her life much earlier than would otherwise be necessary.

There's a lot to be said about this - one legal expert says that actually the law can be changed by courts, and that 'no patient should have to suffer immeasurable pain against their will just to salve the morality of others who think there is a purpose in such agony'. That would be my view, but I can see there's another side to the argument.

What I actually want to talk about here is not that, but something rather different, and which I suppose in comparison is rather trivial. It's the déjà vu of seeing two such closely similar cases within a few years of each other. Purdy's circumstances are almost a carbon copy of the case of Diane Pretty, who was also in her 40s, suffered from progressive motor neuron disease, and a few years ago tried and failed to get the courts to allow her husband to help her die - she died shortly afterwards in 2002.

That's not the coincidence, though. Look at their names. Debbie Purdy and Diane Pretty. It's not that they have the same initials, but that their surnames are so closely matched. It's a long while since I read American literature but my idea - perhaps from reading Mark Twain, or possibly John Steinbeck - is that 'purdy' is a sort of rustic American rendering of the word 'pretty'.

I've noticed this sort of thing a few times. A few years ago I enjoyed a TV documentary film about a popular, now quite elderly, TV comedian and performer. He had very definite characteristics and attributes. Unlike most comedians, he was an all-rounder, brought up in the vaudeville tradition with a good line in singing and dancing. He was quite short and slight of build. In terms of personality, he was a rather gentle, kind-hearted character, and generally very well liked. It then gradually occurred to me that only a year or two earlier I had seen a film about a very similar individual, someone who checked exactly the same boxes. It then struck me that they had very similar names. One was Ernie Wise, one half of the hugely popular Morecambe and Wise duo, the other the comic film actor Norman Wisdom.

The subject of coincidence is a bit of a flashpoint in the controversy about the paranormal, the kind of thing that advocates sometimes get a bit over-excited about, and which sceptics believe they have a cast iron explanation for. I'm used to hearing people like Richard Dawkins explaining to us beknighted believers that we just don't understand probability theory - if we did we would realise that these sorts of apparently uncanny matches aren't really that unusual.

I think there's a lot of truth in that, and I don't generally think that coincidence is a good indication of anything paranormal. But sometimes with cases like these I'm not so sure. I find myself starting to think in Platonic terms, of some kind of principle that shoots out examples of itself. It's as though, the template having come into being and started to activate, one copy isn't enough, so out come one or two more, slightly mutated, before it expires.

Another example of that of course would be the way that crucial discoveries in the world of science and mathematics occur in pairs. Leibniz and Newton both discovering calculus at the same time; Wallace and Darwin stumbling on the theory of evolution by natural selection. I've seen other examples of this recently, and I dare say if one started to look one would find loads.

Being purely, utterly subjective about it, unless one is committed to rationalist dogmas, it's hard not to feel that something is going on here. These seem like little hints that the world of appearances is not quite what we take it to be, and as though someone somewhere is trying to bring that to our attention - perhaps even having a bit of a laugh at our expense. 


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Perhaps a little synchronicity in action!

See Michael Talbot's "The Holographic Universe" for a very interesting discussion of this phenomenon.

See also "Cosmos and Psyche" by Richard Tarnas for dozens of cultural and scientific correlations.

Rats! I was going to mention The Holographic Universe but someone else all ready beat me to it! Oh well! Kudos for the Holographic Universe reference!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks there's more to it than coincidence. History is full of examples. You mention Newton and Leibniz but that age was chock full of genius in the fields of science and mathematics. It happened again in the period either side of 1900 which produced both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

In art we had Da Vinci and Michaelangelo passing each other in the street. In music, Mozart and Beethoven might not have met but they could have. Beethoven's contemporaries also included Mendelssohn, Rossini and Shubert.

A more recent example: who would have thought a short, 10 year period in the UK could have produced a stream of talent starting with the Beatles and Rolling Stones and including The Kinks, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Cream and so many others. I'm sure I am not alone in insisting that we have seen nothing remotely approaching that sudden flowering of creative genius in the decades since.

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