Coin hoard

What is money?

Why do we have money?

Money was invented because trade would be difficult without it. For example, if you are a hatter in need of legal advice, then without money, you have to find a lawyer who craves a hat. That is unlikely to happen. Maybe there is a fisherman dreaming of a hat, but he can’t give you legal advice. Maybe there is a lawyer in need of a hairdo instead of a hat. With money, all these problems disappear like magic. You can buy the services of the lawyer so that she can go to the barber. After that, the barber can buy some fish so that the fisherman can buy a hat from you.

Despite these mind-blowing advantages humans didn’t need money for a long time because they lived in small bands and villages where everyone depended on each other and everyone helped each other. This meant, for example, that when a fisherman needed a hat, you would make a hat for him, and if you needed anything, someone else would provide it to you. You did someone a favour so that he or she was obliged to do something back. Villagers produced most of what they needed themselves. Trade with the outside world was limited and was done with barter.

Uses of money

Later cities, kingdoms and empires emerged. People living in cities, kingdoms and empires didn’t know each other so it became difficult to track whether or not everyone was contributing. Favours and obligations didn’t suffice. They were replaced by a formal system for making payments and tracking contributions and obligations. Commerce and tax collection needed a means of payment as well as administration. It is therefore not a coincidence that writing and money were invented around the same time in the same area. The earliest writings were bookkeeping entries. Money has the following uses:

  • buying and selling stuff (payment) so money is a medium of exchange
  • saying how much something is worth, so money is a unit of account
  • keeping track of contributions and obligations (saving and borrowing) so money is a store of value.
catdog
Nickelodeon character CatDog

Money being a medium of exchange as well as a store of value is like your pet being a cat as well as a dog. The result is not really a success. The parts of the pet may often quarrel, for example, because the dog part wants to play while the cat part wants to sleep. If someone keeps some money for a rainy day and does not spend it, others cannot use this money for buying stuff. And this can be a problem. A simple example can explain this.

Imagine that everyone decides to save all his or her money. Nothing would be bought or sold anymore. All businesses would go bankrupt and everybody would be unemployed. All the money that has been saved would buy nothing because there isn’t anything to buy anymore. This is a total economic collapse.

In reality, it doesn’t get that bad as people always spend on basic necessities like tablets and mobile phones, and perhaps food. When people only spend money on necessities there is an economic depression, which is not as bad as a total economic collapse but still very bad. Saving can make you poorer, but only when there are too many savings already. Savings are used to invest in businesses and hire workers to make products and services. Only if there are more savings than investments, does money remain unused.

The value of money

Money has no value when there isn’t any stuff to buy or when there aren’t any other people to trade with. Imagine that you get the offer to be dropped alone on a remote and uninhabited island in the Pacific with 10 million euros. Probably you would decline the deal, even if you can keep your mobile phone. It is other people and stuff that give money its value. But how? The answer is remarkably simple. The value of money is just a belief.

People are willing to work for money and sell their stuff for money. And because others do this, you do the same. For example, you may think that euro notes have an appalling design as well as an unpleasant odour, but nevertheless, you desire to own them because other people want them too. The euro’s value is based on the belief that other people accept euros for payment.

This is just a belief as the following example demonstrates. Suppose that you wake up one day to hear on the news that the European Union has been dissolved overnight. Suddenly you may have second thoughts about your precious stockpile of foul-smelling unstylishly decorated euro banknotes.

Lord of the Rings character Sméagol
Lord of the Rings character Sméagol

You may ask yourself in distress whether or not your precious bank notes still have any value. What is the value of the euro without the European Union? You may find yourself hurrying to the nearest phone shop in an effort to exchange this pile of banknotes for the latest model mobile phone.

And to prove this point even further, suppose that the phone shop gladly accepts your euros. Suddenly they become desirable again and you may start to have second thoughts about that latest model you are about to buy. It may not remain hip for much longer, so you may change your mind again and prefer to keep your precious euros because there may be a newer model next month. So, because the shop wants your euros, you wants them too.

Types of money

At first, money was an item that people needed or desired. Grain was one of the earliest forms of money. Everybody needed food so it was easy to make people believe that others accept grain for payment. In prison camps during World War II cigarettes became money because they were in high demand. Even non-smokers accepted them because they knew that other people desired them very badly. For that reason, cocaine can be money too.

Wares like grain, cigarettes and cocaine have disadvantages. They degrade over time so they aren’t a very good store of value. This makes them a great medium of exchange because people won’t save them. An example can demonstrate this. Imagine that apples are money and you want to buy a house. A house costs 120,000 apples but your monthly salary is just 2,500 apples of which you can save 1,000. It takes 10 years of saving to buy a house. Soon you will discover that apples rot and that you will never be able to buy a house. Then you will spend all your apples right away.

Saving is difficult with apples. This is where gold and silver come in. Gold and silver do have not much use, but humans were always attracted to shiny stuff. Gold is rare so a small amount of gold can have a lot of value because some people feel a strong desire for shiny stuff. Gold and silver coins can be made of different sizes and purity so that they are suitable for payment and can be used as a unit of account.

More importantly, gold and silver do not deteriorate in quality like apples, grain or cigarettes. They do not even rust after 1,000 years. This makes gold and silver an excellent store of value. But this should make us suspicious. A perfect cat makes a lousy dog so a perfect store of value can fail the test for being a good medium of exchange. People can store gold and silver so that there is less money available for buying and selling stuff. And this can cause an economic depression as we have seen.

Governments create money too, for example by printing “10 euro” on a piece of paper. Governments require by law that this money should be used for payments and taxes. This makes people believe that others accept this money too. Government money is called fiat currency or simply currency. The authority of a government is limited to the area it controls so in the past government currencies had little value outside the country itself unless this money consisted of coins containing gold or silver.

In fact, another reason why gold and silver are attractive as money is that the value of gold and silver does not depend on the authority of a government. This made gold and silver internationally accepted as money. In the 19th century, most government currencies could be exchanged for a fixed amount of gold. This is the gold standard. The gold standard boosted trade because gold was internationally accepted as money.

Most money is debt

Debts can have value and so debts can be money too. This may seem strange or even outrageous, but money is just a belief. For example, money is the belief that you can exchange a hat for money and then exchange this money for legal advice. Hence, if you believe that the debtor is going to pay, you can accept his or her promise to pay as payment. And if others believe this too, you can use this promise to pay someone else.

So if the fisherman promises you to pay next week for the hat you just made, you could say to the lawyer that you expect the fisherman to pay in a week, and ask her if you can pay in a week too. The lawyer could then ask the same of the barber and the barber could ask the same of the fisherman. If all debts cancel out then there is no need for cash. Most of the money we currently use is debt. In most cases, debts don’t cancel out and there are many more people involved so it would be complicated to keep track of all debts and savings. That is where banks come in.

Featured image: Close up of coin hoard CC BY-SA 2.0. Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England (2010). Wikimedia Commons.

Other images: Nickelodeon character CatDog, Sméagol character from The Lord of the Rings [copyright info]

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel

Religious experiences and miracles

The Jewish people still exist after 2,500 years, while they did not have a homeland for most of the time. That is a remarkable feat, most notably because the Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen people. It is also a bit of an enigma that Christianity replaced the existing religions in the Roman Empire. Somehow the message of personal salvation through Christ caught on. A pivotal moment was the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 AD. He made Christianity the favoured religion in the Roman Empire. A few centuries later, a small band of Arab warriors created an empire stretching from the Atlantic to India, spreading a new religion called Islam. Is it a realistic scenario that the illiterate camel-driver Muhammad became a crafty statesman after he had seen an angel? We only know this world, so we cannot answer that question. Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same deity. Our universe could be a simulation, and the fates of Judaism, Christianity and Islam could be implausible historical developments. In other words, God might be the best explanation. Only, we do not know whether or not these events are plausible.

When Islam arrived on the scene, there already was widespread monotheism as Christians and Zoroastrians in the area believed in an all-powerful creator. Muhammad had met Jews and Christians on his travels, so he was familiar with these religions. Before that, Christianity had faced an uphill struggle. While the Roman state suppressed this religion, pagans left their gods behind and accepted the Christian God as the only true God. And they did so in large numbers. That begs for an explanation, even though the conversion to Christianity was a gradual process that took centuries. The number of Christians increased at an average rate of 2-3% per year between 30 AD and 400 AD. Each Christian may have converted just one or two persons on average, but over time, exponential growth made Christianity grow from 30 followers in 30 AD to 30 million in 400 AD. There appears nothing supernatural about this process until you realise that the most often cited reason for conversions were stories about miracles Christians did.1

An early miracle was Jesus appearing to a few of his followers after his crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus appeared in the flesh, but perhaps his disciples had visions of him. The New Testament also accounts for some miracles the disciples allegedly performed. These stories may have been exaggerated, but miracles are a consistent theme in Christianity, even today. And so, there may be more to it than science can explain. On message boards, people tell stories about prayers heard and miraculous healings. Chance is not always a plausible explanation. And it seems unlikely that Christians consistently lie about these matters.

Many people have seen the Virgin Mary. She appeared several times in Venezuela. In 1976, she showed herself to Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, who received special powers. She could tell the future, levitate, and heal the sick. In Egypt, Mary appeared at a Coptic Church between 1983 and 1986. Muslims also have seen her there. There have been many more Virgin Mary appearances. The most notable one was in Portugal at Fatima on 13 October 1917. The sun spun wildly and tumbled down to earth before stopping and returning to its normal position, radiating in indescribable beautiful colours. More than 50,000 people witnessed the miracle. They had gathered in response to a prophecy made by three shepherd children that the Virgin Mary would appear and perform miracles on that date.2

Jesus also appeared from time to time, but less frequently than the Virgin. An intriguing account comes from Kenneth Logie, a preacher of the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oakland, California, in the 1950s. In April 1954, Logie was preaching at an evening service. During his sermon, the church door opened, and Jesus came walking in, smiling to the left and the right. Then he walked through the pulpit and placed his hand on Logie’s shoulder. Jesus spoke to him in a foreign tongue. Fifty people witnessed the event. Five years later, a woman gave testimony when she suddenly disappeared, and Jesus took her place. He wore sandals and a glistering white robe and had nail marks on his hands. His hands were dripping with oil. After several minutes, Jesus disappeared, and the woman reappeared. Two hundred people have seen it. It was on film as Logie had installed film equipment because strange things were going on.2

In virtual reality, this is possible. When it appears that God has heard your prayer, that could be part of the script. In that case, God did not listen to your prayer. Instead, you were supposed to pray, and the fulfilment of your request was supposed to occur. It is like a meaningful coincidence happening. Many prayers are in vain, so a fulfilled wish does not prove God’s existence. But some stories are incredible, and mere chance seems a poor explanation. And in a simulation, there is little difference between the appearances of Christ, the Virgin Mary, deceased loved ones, UFOs, angels and ghosts.

Feature image: Mohammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh, by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 AD. Public Domain.

1. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Bart Ehrman. Simon & Schuster (2018).
2. How Jesus Became God The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee. Bart Ehrman. HarperCollins Publishers (2015).

The religion Paul invented

Paul’s reasoning

Paul of Tarsus invented Christianity. Paul was a Pharisee who devoutly observed the Jewish religious laws. Christianity began as one of the small Jewish sects founded by an end-time prophet who claimed to be the messiah. Many Jews awaited a messiah, but they expected a strong leader who was to liberate the Jewish nation from Roman occupation. Jesus did not live up to their hopes and was crucified. Paul was at first a fervent persecutor of the followers of Jesus, but then he received a vision. According to his own words, Jesus appeared to him. It was a turning point in his life and an event that shaped the future of humankind. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, Bart Ehrman tries to reconstruct Paul’s reasoning, which is the foundation of Christian thinking.

His vision proved to Paul that Jesus was still alive as his followers claimed. Jesus had died by crucifixion, so he was resurrected, Paul reasoned. And therefore, he must be the long-awaited messiah. Following this rationale, Paul ran into theological problems. Jesus had been executed after being humiliated in public. So, why did Jesus have to die? Then Paul came up with an answer. In many religions, including Judaism, people sacrifice animals to please the gods. These animals do not die for their own transgressions but to cover for the sins of others.1 And so, Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Paul did not invent that Jesus died for our sins. Christians probably believed that already when Paul joined the Christian movement. In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes, ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Simon Peter and then to the twelve apostles.’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) These were the things passed on to him, possibly as a creed.2 As Paul joined the Christian movement very early on, only a few years remain between the crucifixion and the establishment of this belief, so this may be as close as we can get to early post-resurrection Christianity.

And it must have been God’s plan all along to save Her His people in this way, Paul reasoned further, so observing Jewish religious laws is not critical for your salvation, nor do you have to be a Jew. That Jewish religious law is irrelevant is a revolutionary thought for a Pharisee. Prophecies in the Hebrew Bible foretell that all peoples in the world will accept the God of the Jews. To Paul, Jesus was the fulfilment of these prophecies. Rejecting all false gods and having faith in Jesus should be enough. Paul believed himself to be God’s missionary to spread the good news as this was also prophesied.1 Paul was a Jewish scholar who knew the Jewish scriptures, while most other Apostles lacked such education. And so, he could shape the theology of the early Church.

Spreading the good news

Paul dedicated his life to spreading the good news that faith in Jesus can save everyone. During his many travels, he founded Christian communities. His mission was not easy. His message caused upheaval, and the Jews often expelled him from their synagogues. But he was determined, and he worked hard. Paul’s universal gospel of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that is open to everyone seemed to have caught on. But the stories about the miracles Christians performed were probably a far more important reason for people to convert to Christianity.

One example was the healing of a lame man when Paul and Barnabas visited Lystra. After Paul had healed the man, the Lycaonians concluded that the gods must have come down to them in human form. The priest of Zeus brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. Paul and Barnabas explained that they were only human and brought the good news that the God of the Jews, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them, had suddenly decided that all nations should no longer go their own way. And the proof is that the Jewish God has shown kindness by giving us rain from heaven and crops in their seasons and filling our hearts with joy (Acts 14:8-18). That argument is unconvincing, so it must have been the miracle of the healing that made people believe it.

Paul’s message generated upheaval in the city of Ephesus. Demetrius, who made silver shrines of the goddess Artemis and brought in a lot of business for the local craftsmen, realised the consequences of Paul’s good tidings. He called the craftsmen together and the workers in related trades and said, ‘You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and that the goddess herself will be robbed of her divine majesty.’ When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Soon the whole city was in an uproar (Acts 19:23-29). The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions from Macedonia, and brought them to an assembly in a theatre.

A city clerk managed to quiet the crowd in the theatre. He said, ‘Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of Artemis and of her image which fell from heaven? Since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case, we would not be able to account for this commotion since there is no reason for it.’ After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly (Acts 19:35-41). More of such upheavals and riots were to come in the following centuries.

Contending versions of Christianity

During the first centuries, there were several contending versions of Christianity. It points at contentious issues suggesting that early Christian beliefs differ from Christianity today. The most well-known are the Nazarenes, the Marcionists, the Ebionites, and the Arians. The Nazarenes continued to observe the Jewish religious laws. Jesus probably did not intend to abolish them. The Marcionists preached that the benevolent God of the Gospel who sent Jesus Christ into the world as the saviour is the true Supreme Being opposed to the evil creator God of the Old Testament. Indeed, the owner of the universe may not be the deity the Jews imagined. The Ebionites did not believe that Jesus was divine, nor did they think that he was born from a virgin. That probably is true. And Arians claimed that Jesus Christ, even though he was the Son of God, did not exist before Creation.

For centuries, Christianity was in a state of flux. That began to change once Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the first effort to attain consensus about the Christian doctrine. Constantine had invited all the bishops in the Roman Empire. More efforts to establish an official dogma and a canon of scriptures followed. The Roman state promoted the official teachings so that the other strains of Christianity faded into obscurity.

The four Gospels of the New Testament probably were written between 70 and 95 AD, more than forty years after Jesus preached. The Apostles Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John most likely never wrote them. Scholars believe Mark, Luke, and Matthew are collections of circulating stories. And storytelling is inaccurate if there are no writings. Many of the letters in the New Testament have unknown authors, even though the letters claim otherwise. And we do not have the original texts of the New Testament. There are only copies made centuries later. Scholars have used these copies to reconstruct the original texts as much as possible.

Eliminating Paul’s perspective

Paul became a follower of Jesus early on. He came to know Jesus’ disciples, who were first-hand witnesses of the events that had taken place. Paul probably would not have dared to deviate too much from what he believed was the truth. He had been a devout Pharisee and was a knowledgable scholar of the Jewish scriptures, so it is not far-fetched to presume that Paul intended to bring his own epiphany and the beliefs of Jesus’ followers in line with the Jewish religion and scriptures.

Paul may have had help, but it is fair to say that he invented Christianity. He may have obfuscated what he thought to be the most troubling elements of the new religion so that we may find only traces of them in the writings of the church fathers and the Gospels. Only his perspective may stand between us and the original teachings of Christianity. And removing his interpretation may bring us closer to the truth.

Latest revision: 23 April 2022

Featured image: Head of St. Paul. Mosaic in the Archbishop’s Chapel, Ravenna, 5th century AD (public domain)

1. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Bart D. Ehrman (2018).
2. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher. Bart D. Ehrman (2014). HarperCollins Publishers.

A society on pillars

For a century, Dutch society consisted of identity groups based on religion or ideology. This division was called pillarisation. Religious and ideological groups encompassed several social classes. Social life usually was within your own pillar, and contacts with other people were limited. Each pillar had sports clubs, political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasters. Roman Catholics and Protestants also had their own schools and hospitals.

The pillars of Dutch society were Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Socialist, with each about 30% of the population. The Protestants themselves were further divided into smaller identity groups. The remaining 10% of the Dutch were liberal. The Dutch liberals were less organised and opposed pillarisation, but they too had their own political parties, newspapers and broadcasters.

Strong communities are close-knit, have shared norms and values based on ideology or religion, and come with social obligations. The pillar organisations focused exclusively on their own communities. This happened in other places in Europe too. Nowadays, similar models exist in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the same laws applied to everyone. And the curricula of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and public schools were nearly the same as everyone was preparing for the same state exams.

To make pillarisation successful, the overarching identity, for instance, the nation, should be strong, and the intensity of the identity conflict should be low. Western Christianity, which includes both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, features a separation of worldly and religious affairs, so religious beliefs did not conflict with submission to a state.

The Dutch are famous for their tolerance, which was at times close to indifference. The identity groups accepted each other and minded their own affairs. After 1800, there was no civil war in the Netherlands, nor was it close at any time. Leadership was also important. The leaders of the pillars were willing to compromise, and the members merely followed their leaders.

Nevertheless, identity issues dominated Dutch politics from time to time. For instance, on 11 November 1925, the cabinet fell when the Catholic ministers resigned after Parliament accepted an amendment introduced by a small Protestant fraction to eliminate the funding for the Dutch envoy with the Vatican. A Protestant government fraction supported the amendment.

None of the identity groups on its own was able to dominate society. Instead, they had to make deals with each other. On religious issues, Roman Catholics and Protestants often found each other. For instance, they arranged that schools and hospitals could have a religious identity and that the state would fund them like public schools and hospitals. The Socialists were able to make deals on working conditions and social benefits.

Pillarisation in the Netherlands began to take shape at the close of the nineteenth century. One could say that Dutch society was built upon the pillars. They allowed groups with different worldviews to coexist peacefully and work on a common destiny, which was the future of the nation. From the 1960s onwards, the pillars began to lose their meaning.

Pillarisation can be helpful if people believe in a shared destiny, for instance, the nation-state, but do not share a common background. In that case, everyone can live and work together with the people they feel comfortable with. Cultural and religious differences may subside over time. But as long as these identities remain distinct, people can organise themselves accordingly via pillars, and in doing so, avoid conflict.

What are the odds?

The law of large numbers

On 11 November 2017 (11-11), I went to Groningen with my wife and son. While driving, I noticed the date and time on the clock in the car. The date was 11-11, and the time was 10:35. It made me think, ‘It would be nice to look at the clock at exactly 11:11 today because it is 11-11.’ Then within a second, I noticed the distance recorder standing at 111.1. It had been 111.1 kilometres since I last filled up. Peculiar coincidences can occur by chance. With seven billion people on this planet, and so many things going on, these things happen.

An example can illustrate this. Imagine you have five dice. A remarkable incident is like throwing five sixes. That seems very unlikely. If you throw the five dice only once, it probably does not happen. On average, it only happens once every 7,776 times. But if you throw the dice a million times, you should not be surprised to see it happen 120 to 140 times.

The odds of 111.1 kilometres appearing on the distance recorder is one in 5,000 if there is a reset every 500 kilometres. So once the thought about 11:11 had popped up, the probability of this happening was 0.02%. Considering the odds of it being 11 November, it is 0.00005%. And then I had to look at the distance recorder, but it is next to the clock, so the odds of that happening are pretty high. The likelihood of the thought coming up on 11 November is not so easy to establish, but it is not low in my case.

The birthday problem demonstrates that strange coincidences happen more often than we think. If you happen to share a birthday with another person in a small group, it might strike you as odd, but the chance of someone sharing a birthday with another person is already 50% in a group of 23. But two people sharing a birthday is not a mind-blowing coincidence.

And when you are a member of this group, the probability of you being one of the persons sharing a birthday is much smaller, namely 6%. And if you randomly pick two people, the odds of them sharing a birthday is only 0.3%. Meaningful coincidences are likely to happen but less likely to you. And taking a small sample of events can seriously reduce the likelihood of meaningful coincidences happening. Furthermore, the more elaborate a scheme, the less likely it occurs. The probability of three people sharing a birthday in a group of 23 is 1.3%, and for five, it is only 0.0002%.

Possible avenues to circumvent the law of large numbers

So if some of the most significant events in history come with peculiar coincidences, that might be more telling for two reasons. First, there are only a few of these events, so the law of large numbers does not apply. After all, this is a small sample. If no intelligence is coordinating events in this universe, it is not so likely that meaningful coincidences turned up in this sample, and elaborate schemes are unlikely to occur. Second, if the most significant historical events come with peculiar coincidences, it more plausibly suggests that history is a script than when they happen in someone’s personal life.

To make the argument, you need to answer questions like, what are the most important events, and what are peculiar coincidences? Events such as the sinking of the Titanic or the Kennedy assassination may not qualify, even though the coincidences surrounding them undoubtedly form a strange and elaborate scheme. The beginning and the end of World War I meet the requirements as they are top-tier historical events. The same may be true for D-Day, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

And what to think of the number of meaningful coincidences in my life? It is not possible to establish how likely it is to happen. But you can make assumptions to get an idea. A highly unusual coincidence like the do-it-yourself store incident could be like throwing five sixes. Hence, the odds of such an event happening in any year in any life could be one in 7,776. If the same happens again, it could be like throwing five sixes twice in a row. The odds of that happening would be one in 60,000,000. On average, 100 people might experience something similar each year. But what if many similar incidents have happened in my life? That makes coincidence less likely.

The number of possible unusual events is infinite, so the odds of something strange such as the do-it-yourself store incident occurring could be higher than we intuitively think. It seems impossible to estimate the odds, but without a script, we should expect these incidents to be distributed more or less evenly across all people and timeframes. So is it at all possible to establish that there is a script? A listing of all the strange coincidences in my life can fill a booklet like this one. Many people have experienced meaningful coincidences from time to time, but few have witnessed so many as I have.

Deviations in the human mind

Deviations from the average are likely to occur. And some might be large. We may think something causes a high or low number while it is just randomness. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with an example. A study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the counties of the United States revealed a remarkable pattern. The incidence of kidney cancer was the lowest in rural, sparsely populated counties in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1 So what do you think of that?

You probably came up with a few reasons why kidney cancer is less likely to occur in these counties, such as a healthy rural lifestyle or low pollution levels. You probably did not think of randomness. Consider then the counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is the highest. These counties were also rural, sparsely populated, and in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1

The explanation is that those counties all had small populations. And with smaller samples, deviations from the average tend to be larger. Our intuition makes connections of causality, but our reason does not verify whether it could just be randomness. We like to think that some cause makes unusual things happen while they can be random events.

If we use a small sample of the most significant historical events to establish that someone is ‘writing history’, this issue may arise. On the other hand, a comparison with a sparsely populated rural county may not be apt. Perhaps it is better to compare this particular sample to the royal family, for it consists of the most significant historical events. If there is a high incidence of kidney cancer in the royal family, an experienced physician will tell you that randomness is an unlikely cause.

The things that could have happened but did not

In 1913 the ball fell on a black number twenty-six times in a row at the roulette wheel at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Some people lost a fortune by betting that the ball would fall on red the next time. They did not realise that the odds of the ball falling on a red number never changed. The ball does not remember where it went the previous times. If we represent black with a B and red with an R and assume for the sake of simplicity that there is no zero, we can represent falling twenty-six times on black like this:

B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B

The probability of the ball falling on black twenty-six times in a row is one in 67,108,864. That is a long shot. What might surprise you is that the following combination of black and red numbers is precisely as likely to occur:

R B B R B R R B R B B R R B R R B R B B R R B B R B

You would not be thrilled if that happened unless you became a millionaire by betting on this particular series of twenty-six. And even then, you did not think of the 67,108,863 sequences that did not materialise. We tend to consider only the things that did happen, but we rarely think of all the things that could have happened but did not. That could explain why events such as the ball falling on black twenty-six times in a row impress us. And I am even more impressed because twenty-six happens to be my lucky number.

This argument applies to meaningful coincidences but not to a prediction materialising as such a feat may imply that all the other things could not have happened. Just imagine the probability of you sitting here and now reading this page on a tablet or a mobile phone, but as a prediction from 3,600 years ago. Imagine Joseph telling the Pharaoh: ‘I see (your name comes here) reading a pile of papyrus pages, not real papyrus pages, but papyrus pages appearing on a thing that looks like a clay tablet. Do not be afraid, dear Pharaoh, for it will happen over 3,600 years. But if we do not set up this grain storage, it will not happen, so we must do it. And by the way, Egypt will starve if you ignore my advice.’

The odds for this prediction to come true were not one in 67,108,864, and also not one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 either. Even if you add many more zeroes to that number, the odds remain much smaller. The probability is so close to zero that no one can tell. Nevertheless, you sit here reading this text, perhaps even on a tablet. So how could this happen? The answer to this mystery is that so many things could have happened but did not, but something had to happen, and that is what happened. In any case, Joseph could not have made such a prediction by accident.

Chaos theory does not allow us to make such exact predictions. Just imagine that another sperm fertilised the egg of Adolf Hitler’s mother. The world would have been a completely different place. And there were millions of sperms out there that day. A precise prediction coming true, if it is not accidentally accurate, might imply that nothing else could have happened other than what happened.

The licence plate number

So what to make of the reference to the end date of World War I on the licence plate on Franz Ferdinand’s car? Few historical events are as important as the start and end of World War I. Hence, the law of large numbers does not apply. And it is one of the most important historical events, so it is part of a sample comparable to a royal family. And so accident seems unlikely. The assassination could have gone wrong, cooler heads could have prevailed, or the war could have proceeded differently to end on another date.

It might have been possible to guess the end date of World War I once it had started. If you presumed that the war would not take longer than twenty years, a random guess of the end date would be correct once in every 7,305 times. But something does not add up here. First of all, no one expected the war to last longer than a few months. And the licence plate originates from before the war. The assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps. So if the licence plate number contained a prediction, it would include a prediction of the assassination succeeding, Franz Ferdinand dying in this particular car, and this event being the trigger for the war.

That is hard to do. And so Mike Dash in the Smithsonian noted, ‘This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax.’2 And because it is not a hoax, investigative minds could have probed other options, but they did not. Conspiracy theorists also ignored it, even though this incident perfectly agrees with their beliefs.

There is a story about a Freemason named Alfred Pike, who allegedly disclosed a secretive plan of the Freemasons to bring about the New World Order and predicted both world wars with uncanny precision in 1871. Alas, nobody heard of this plan before 1959. Contrary to the licence plate number, this is a hoax. In the Netherlands, they would call it a monkey sandwich story. The licence plate number could have added some credibility to it. But then again, the truth is overrated. Usually, conspiracy theorists do not allow facts to get in the way of their beliefs.

Seeing meaning when there is none

Sceptics claim that AIII 118 is a random sequence of characters, but we see a reference to the end date of World War I. That is how our minds work. The argument is a bit odd. If you follow this reasoning to the extreme, this text is also a random array of characters. And still, you read words and sentences that have meaning to you. Indeed, the licence plate number would have remained unnoticed if the end date of the war had not been 11 November 1918. Only, the war did end on 11 November 1918. And it is the licence plate number of the car in which Franz Ferdinand drove to his appointment with destiny. And this event triggered World War I. That can make it meaningful and predictive. There are many times and locations where this sequence of characters could have turned up so that their appearance on this particular spot could have meaning.

Austrians speak German. Armistice in German is Waffenstillstand. So why does it not read WIII 118, or even better, W1111 1918? But if someone sends you a message, you do not quibble about such details. If I said ‘hello’ to you, you are not going to discuss with me why I did not say ‘hi’ instead. Only a philosopher with a lot of time on his hands might do that. Great Britain, the United States and France were all major participants in the war. These countries all use the word armistice.

It may be better to ask yourself what series of licence plate numbers were available in the Austrian Hungarian Empire at the time? Then you could check which combinations fit the purpose. You may end up with just one match: AIII 118. That makes it harder to believe that this sequence of characters is meaningless. The war ending on 11 November (11-11) adds additional inconceivability to this scheme. In other words, it seems impossible.

Only a few historical events are as important as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Armistice of 11 November 1918, for instance, D-Day, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 9/11. The scheme of coincidences surrounding D-Day is even more puzzling. A historian correctly predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, while the coincidences surrounding the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are intriguing.

Other events of great importance are the American, French, Chinese and Russian revolutions. A few peculiar coincidences relate to the American Revolution and the French Revolution. At best, they are circumstantial evidence for there being a script behind everything that happens. The Independence Day coincidence and the parallels between Napoleon and Hitler are not particularly elaborate.

The Chinese Revolution of 1911 started on 10 October 1911. It ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. The date being 10 October (10/10) is not as remarkable as 11 November (11/11), even more so because there are no related coincidences. The Russian Revolution started a communist empire that lasted for seven decades. A bad omen marked the coronation of the last Czar Nicholas II of Russia. The communists later murdered him and his family.

Hindsight bias

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see patterns and meaning, for example, the meaningful coincidences in the most significant historical events. It may be the only way of doing this kind of investigation as we cannot predict the occurrence of meaningful coincidences in advance. If psychic abilities do not exist while there is a script, then premonitions coming true are scripted events. Hence, premonitions may come true more often than mere chance suggests, but you cannot predict when they do.

If this universe is genuine, we probably will not be able to establish that, but perhaps we can discover that it is a simulation. So if there is meaning out there, we have to look for it to find it. A random sample may not produce meaning while it may be there. It is about finding the most plausible explanation. We need to be careful as we are inclined to see meaning in events that could have happened by accident. It is not possible to make exact statements concerning probability, but it is plausible that:

  • The meaningful coincidences surrounding the most important historical events are not mere accidents.
  • The number of meaningful coincidences in my life deviates too far from the average to be the result of chance.

Latest revision: 14 May 2022

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.
2. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]