Lincoln Assassination Witness: Coincidence and the Human Experience

For beings that find ourselves in a seemingly random existence, we seem to be hard-wired to find coincidences in life. We live as beings subject to free will and the free will of others. In day to day life, there is no apparent guiding hand or route of destiny that we find ourselves traveling down. We are beings seemingly adrift in our own choices and decisions. 

But, even as beings so in tune with our “free will” we are very adept at finding the coincidences in life. Human beings navigate a world of randomness that seems to always give us remarkable connections to other events and numbers. Moments that make us feel like there is some larger hand or force governing the lives we live. Is it merely a coincidence that my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut and I both share double digit birth dates? 11/11/22 and 11/22/88? Or is it merely a coincidence that the president I admire most, JFK, died on the same day as my birthday?

To most the answer would be simply, yes. It is just a coincidence. But, when one is the subject of coincidence one can’t help be feel that strange surge of mystery and that feeling of a cosmic, mathematical hand of fate guiding our paths from our point of origin to our deaths. But, then again, with so many numbers, minutes and human beings making free, random choices constantly, there are bound to be similarities; right?

Recently a YouTube video has been gaining some attention despite being uploaded two years ago. It is an old and decidedly creepy video from 1956 of the game show, I’ve Got a Secret. Putting aside the over-the-top blitzkrieg advertising of Winston cigarettes, the show retains an element of the coincidental. Samuel J. Seymour appears on the show with a secret (a BIG one) as the last living man to have witnessed the Abraham Lincoln assassination.

While it is not all that out of the ordinary to feature someone with such a notable secret on a game show, it does bring to mind the idea of fated pathways that exist all throughout history. Seymour lived his entire life doing whatever he pleased and he wound up on that show at that time and here I am in the year 2012 coming across this video. Why was he at the theater that day in history? Why that game show? Why was that video brought to my attention this week? The answer is that all these events culminated in this particular moment so that I could use this term: human trajectories

One could make any number of connections between Samuel Seymour and just about anything else and call it a fated moment. Was it a fate that Seymour fell down the stairs the day before the show? Was it fate that Seymour appeared on the show in the same month that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met at a party in Cambridge? Or is it simply coincidence? Or was it fate that the last witness of Lincoln’s death was seen by the nation in the same month that Elvis Presley had his first hit on the Billboard Top 10 with “Heartbreak Hotel”? (Look at this site and make your own connection.) In these cases I tend to side with coincidence alone. We can connect just about anything and call it a fated moment.

Human trajectory is a term I will use to describe the “random” (random in the sense of free will) path we all take through life. Each and every human being takes a path according to his or her own free will and invention. But, in this scope of randomness there seems to be an inevitable pull between things and people we know that holds a certain unseen power behind them.

In the seventh grade I was classmates with a boy named Chris. Chris and I were acquaintances. We ran cross country together and shared some classes. Chris left my school in the eighth grade. We didn't speak after that. I went through four years of high school and he lived his parallel life; each without any idea of the other’s existence; out of sight, out of mind. 

During my freshman year of college I went on a spring break trip to southern Florida. One night our group took the vans into Miami to go to the beach. While walking down the main street, I caught sight of Chris Lee walking right next to me in the opposite direction. We caught up for a moment and remarked the predictable line, “What a coincidence!” and then continued on our ways.

This story, taken at face value, is a simple coincidence. I saw someone I knew in Miami, big deal. But, take into consideration our human trajectories. What are the odds that someone I knew would walk by me at that exact moment in my life? It was a crowded street, what are the odds we would have even noticed each other. At any given moment our brains are controlling a million different things. The variables are endless. What if I tied my shoe? What if I was talking to my friend? The fact that two random beings, both possessing free will encountered each other at any particular moment in a given spot on the map tends to make everything feel a little less random.

Less coincidence, more fate. 

All of human history is connected and coincidence is part of our ability to realize that connection. The idea that we exist in an increasingly connected web of humanity lends us to find meaning in the things that are too peculiar in a random world to ignore. Consider for a moment ants. Radiolab had a great episode called Emergence. In the episode, they consider the case of these resilient insects. Ants are random workers. They follow no rhyme or reason, they don’t even follow the queen, but if you take enough of these random workers, patterns and structure emerges. Ants up close are random and decidedly pointless, but pull back and ants are winning in evolutionary terms.

(Radiolab has another fascinating episode concerning this topic called Stochasticity, what they call, “a wonderfully slippery and smarty-pants word for randomness.” Check it out.)

This is what I believe to be the case with humans (though nowhere near as successfully as ants) and our fated, or not so fated, trajectories of motion. In the end we will make a complex pattern or design that we are more or less unaware that we are making.

At this instant there are 75 generators being monitored all around the world by 75 different scientists. The project is known as the “Human Consciousness Project” and it is headed by scientist Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of Princeton University. The generators are at work constantly producing random numbers based on “electronic noise like what you hear between radio stations.” In the hours before the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11/01, all 37 generators had an anomalous spike in “noise.” All at once, the 37 generators produced a rise in statistical variance. 

Following the attack, the generators were abnormally quiet as people around the world were focused on one event. The numbers became, very suddenly, more coherent. This same pattern emerged before and after the attacks in Madrid in March 2004. This data seems to show that mere observation can have a tangible affect in the world; in short thoughts can affect in the world. So while the numbers could be coincidence alone, there is also a good chance that human action and human thought tend to produce results that are collectively a lot less random than they appear in person to person cases. 

So is a coincidence just a coincidence? Are dreams that are found to hold a prophecy just a coincidence? Do isolated people and events collide into each other for purely coincidental reasons? The only truth is that human beings are wired to make connections of coincidence and perhaps it is these glimpses that show us that there is something close to fate that holds the reasons to why we do what we do.

Being the human beings we are, is coincidence alone enough of an explanation?