Classifications of undesigned coincidences

By Lydia McGrew

In preparation for a project I hope to work on in probability theory, I have prepared a partial taxonomy of undesigned coincidences. In the nature of the case, this is not going to be a rigorous taxonomy such as a set of mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive categories, for two reasons. First, there are fuzzy edges to what we include in the overall category of “undesigned coincidences.” Second, sometimes it is somewhat arbitrary whether one includes a coincidence in one category or another, depending (for example) on whether one regards something as an “event” or a “detail,” what counts as “the same event,” and so forth.

Nonetheless, I think that a classification is useful. For one thing, it’s useful for geeky types who have never heard of an undesigned coincidence and aren’t satisfied with concrete examples. Some people work better mentally with general descriptions, or at least find them useful in addition to concrete examples.

A classification like this can help someone who has been introduced to the argument with examples only from one category to appreciate other kinds of undesigned coincidences as well.

Another useful thing about classifying undesigned coincidences is that it can draw our attention to what is usually most confirmed by a particular type of coincidence. For epistemological purposes, we want to be thinking about what is confirmed and how much it is confirmed when we use an argument.

So here is my partial taxonomy:

1. Details given in one source confirm an event or fact explicitly told in another source.

2. Two or more different accounts explicitly telling the same general event have details that fit together in a mutually confirming way.

3. Two or more different accounts agree on the core content while differing in non-contradictory details, though those details do not have other ways of fitting together.

4, Different events explicitly told in different accounts explain and hence confirm each other, or one event explains the other.

5. Details of different sources imply some fact, event, or series of events standing behind the statements though not explicitly affirmed in any source.

6. Two or more accounts tell about an event or series of events that are not at first obviously the same event or series but that, upon examination, turn out to be best explained as the same event or series on the basis of the coincidental fitting-together of their incidental details.

Here are biblical examples of each of these. In some cases I am giving only a sketch of each of these here. The more detailed version may be given in my forthcoming book or in a blog post…

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