Often, not from the dramatic visitations of chance, but from the smallest of coincidences that we feel some agency to be operating behind the scenes. This agency asserts itself in the most random of events, stamping them with an uncanny intelligence that can only be called purposeful. For instance, you wake up one morning thinking of someone you have not seen in years, only to meet him in an elevator later the same day. In the meantime, a mutual acquaintance has inquired about him. Or you set off for the library with the intention of looking up books on greenhouses as well as on cheeses. At a drugstore on the way you find a magazine on the newsstand with feature articles on both of these topics.
Jung used the term ‘synchronicity‘ for such meaningful coincidences. His investigation of coincidences that occurred in his own life and in the lives of others led Jung to conclude that they are related to unconscious psychological processes. He did not, however, stop with the psychological side of synchronicity. He worked with his friend Wolfgang Pauli, the great quantum physicist who explicated the ‘Pauli Exclusion Principle‘, to develop the notion that the laws of physics themselves should be rewritten to include acausal as well as causal accounts of the world of physical events.
If we, like Jung, take ‘synchronicity‘ seriously and begin to examine its implications, we will, like him, be led to a fundamental re-examination of human nature, the nature of the physical universe, and the relationship between the two. To take a step in the direction of understanding synchronicity, we must revise our traditional views of mind, as well as our understanding of Nature herself.
Pythagoras, it was said, could read the meaning of ripples of water stirred by the wind. He evidently believed that seemingly random events in nature form a common fabric with events in human lives. This may seem odd to us, but such a belief was not unusual in the ancient world. The Chinese, for example, read answers to questions scratched onto smooth pieces of bone or tortoise shell by examining the random patterns of cracks produced when these objects were placed in a fire. In fact, the notion that the cosmos is formed of a single common fabric which includes both the worlds of nature and of humankind, a fabric in which each event, however insignificant, is connected to each other event, in varying forms remained with us up to the beginnings of modern science.
In classical times, for instance, Hippocrates wrote, “There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy. The great principle extends to the extremist part, and from the extremist part it returns to the great principle, to the one nature, being and not-being.“
In the Middle Ages, people believed in a creation in which God played a role in all things, no matter how small. All events were touched and harmonized by this divine purpose and consent. In the late medieval world the various levels of the cosmos, the earth below, the celestial spheres above, and the human soul, were thought to be bound together by mutual harmonies or sympathies. Events in one were reflected in the others. For the inhabitant of the ancient and medieval worlds, the cosmos possessed the properties of a womb: It enclosed one entirely, supporting and carrying one forward through life in a fashion which, if not always comfortable, was at least meaningful.
In the seventeenth century this state of affairs was shattered utterly. The force that shattered it was the relentless hammer of mechanistic science. Mechanistic science was founded on the belief that the universe is composed of small, unyieldingly solid objects atoms floating and interacting in an absolute void.
The new mechanistic worldview powerfully canceled out the earlier, more comforting view that saw meaningful connections between apparently discrepant events. It became impossible that coincidences which share no apparent causative agency could form meaningful relationships with each other. Instead, so called synchronistic events could share only the relationship of cards in a deck which, after being thoroughly shuffled, happen to fall beside each other or to appear in the same poker hand. All this change from a spiritual to a mechanistic worldview meant a change in the fundamental myth with which human beings explained their universe.
Mechanistic seventeenth-century science brought with it new myths, which not only transformed the official science of the day but also changed the maps of the world that each person carried unconsciously within. This science viewed the cosmos as a great vacuum filled with solid atoms that interact only by direct impact. The result, while highly successful for the emerging sciences of physics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine, was devastating to a sense of individual belonging and connection to the cosmos as a whole. Eventually, society and even human nature itself were restructure along the same lines: People came to be seen as separate and distinct objects, connected to each other and to the natural world only where direct contact was possible. The older notions of sympathies were reduced to the status of mere superstitions.
As time passed and human nature was seen increasingly through the eyes of the new science, people took on a further characteristic of atoms. The word ‘atom‘ means literally indivisible that which cannot be broken down or divided. That is to say, there is no access to its interior, if indeed it has an interior at all. Likewise, people came to be viewed increasingly as having no interior and were reduced by mechanistic science to objects driven entirely by external forces. “Inside there was nothing!” As it emerged in the psychology of the early twentieth century, behaviorism viewed human nature in exactly this way.
The universe depicted by mechanistic science is entirely predictable. Everything is accounted for by laws of causation; there is no ‘slippage‘. Newton‘s equations for the movement of the planets assume a mechanical system of action which, once set into motion, requires nothing further to keep it moving. At first it was assumed that God had started the whole process in the beginning of time, after which it continued on its own like a well-wound clock. Eventually, however, the notion of God seemed unnecessary and was discarded. When Napoleon Bonaparte asked Pierre Laplace why he had not dedicated a mathematical treatise to God, as was customary at the time, Laplace simply replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
The result was the mechanistic mythos of the Newtonian cosmos. This mythos presents itself in awesome and austere beauty, but at the same time robs us of a sense of wonder about the small events of everyday life. Improbable coincidences are diminished to the trivial.
Nevertheless, Newtonian physics and the mythos it embodied was spectacularly successful. By the end of the nineteenth century, many physicists had even come to believe that all the basic discoveries had already been made. Some said that the future of physics was simply the adding of more decimal points to existing data. Bright students were sometimes actually discouraged from choosing physics as a career. Lord Kelvin, a prominent physicist of the day, saw only ‘two small dark clouds‘ on the horizon. These were minor experimental discrepancies in the mechanical explanations of heat and light.
As the total import of these two dark clouds unfolded in the first decades of this century, they reduced Newtonian physics to a convenient fiction.
The New Physics
During the first decades of this century, the full implications of these experimental discrepancies became apparent in the publication of the general theory of relativity by Albert Einstein and in the publication a few years later of a complete quantum theory by Werner Heisenberg. Taken together, these theories and the experimental work that was to confirm them demonstrated the assumptions of Newtonian physics to be mere approximations of reality. As such they remained useful to engineers, but their mythic power to project maps of reality began to erode.
The relativity and quantum theories are now in the process of creating a new mythos, a new topology of reality. This mythos is popularly termed the ‘new physics,’ a phrase that refers more to its mythological structure than to any explicit set of suppositions it makes.
According to quantum physicist David Bohm, both relativity and quantum physics share the common perspective of wholeness. Relativity views space not as the void of Democritus –a region of nothingness between solid atoms, but returns us to a vision of the universe as a continuous, unbroken fabric. Atoms are special local characteristics of this fabric. The cosmos is of a piece, not empty, but filled much with itself, as a painting is filled with itself. There are foreground and background regions, but the canvas is continuous.
Quantum theory is ‘holistic‘, it views all action as continuous and unbroken. An experiment involving several atomic particles, for example, is treated as a single whole process. The particles have no individual existence but contribute only to the total event of the experiment. It is the whole situation that the theory deals with, treating the parts as secondary and having no essential substance.
Such notions are more compatible with synchronicity than was the mechanistic model of the cosmos. Synchronicity itself implies ‘wholeness‘ and, therefore, meaningful relationships between causally unconnected events. In quantum theory we recover the view of a world as an unbroken fabric in which seemingly separate events do not occur in isolation but, in fact, form pieces interwoven into a common tapestry.
The cosmos of Newton was easily imagined as a great celestial machine a cosmic clock running effortlessly and eternally. The cosmos of relativity is more obscure. It has four dimensions, rather than the three that are obvious to intuition, and time is given an equal status with distance. Only with effort and the aid of projection diagrams can we get much of a picture of this, and then only in an inadequate way. And quantum theory gives us absolutely nothing to hang an optical hat on. Its postulates of probability waves, indeterminacy, and complementarity sound like dialogues from ‘Through the Looking Glass‘.
Unlike its classical predecessor, quantum physics presents an open view of the world, one in which the outcomes of events are not entirely predetermined by fixed and inflexible laws. Quantum predictions do not dictate exact experimental results at all, but allow instead for a range of outcomes of differing likelihoods. In this sense quantum theory is probabilistic, mapping probabilities rather than specifying events. Some interpreters of quantum physics have bemoaned this uncertainty, feeling that it robs us of the exact knowledge given by Newtonian physics.
Einstein himself vehemently objected to the probability notion, saying that ‘God does not play dice with the universe.‘ (Here Einstein refers quite literally to the idea that natural law is God’s adherence to consistent behavior.) Other views, however, are possible. The brilliant systems scientist Erich Jantsch argued that it is precisely this indeterminant character of the quantum world that gives it the openness that was missing in the Newtonian cosmos. The universe at each moment contains the possibility of the unexpected, the new, and even the creative.
Nothing is closer to the heart of the experience of synchronicity than the feeling that the world itself expresses creativity in synchronistic coincidences. Such coincidences often have more the feel of poetry than physics. One recalls the beetle arriving at Carl Jung‘s window during the discussion of the dream beetle and gets the sense of a clown or trickster standing behind the scenes, the mythic face of a mischievous god, dimly seen, looking from behind the shroud of coincidence. Here we pick up the thread of a major clue to the meaning of synchronicity, the notion that chance may express itself through the mythic theme of a divine ‘Trickster‘, embodied for example in the Greek god ‘Hermes‘.
Perhaps the open nature of quantum physics is related to a certain willingness of many quantum physicists to tolerate paradox and ambiguity in their own lives. Niels Bohr proposed the principle of complementarity, by which particles become waves and vice versa, depending upon how they are observed. He carried into his daily life the belief that human situations likewise have opposite and complementary sides.
Wolfgang Pauli, like Bohr, was one of the inner circle of scientists who founded quantum physics. Pauli was well known among the physicists of Europe for what was humorously called the ‘Pauli effect.’ His presence alone was sufficient to cause complex scientific equipment to misfire!
George Gamow, himself a well-known physicist, recounted such an event that did not at first seem connected to Pauli‘s presence:
It occurred in Professor J. Franck‘s laboratory in Gottingen. Early one afternoon, without apparent cause, a complicated apparatus for the study of atomic phenomena collapsed. Franck wrote about this to Pauli at his Zurich address and, after some delay, received an answer in an envelope with a Danish stamp. Pauli wrote that he had gone to visit Bohr [in Copenhagen] and at the time of the mishap in Franck‘s laboratory his train was stopped for a few minutes at the Gottingen railroad station. Gamow comments, “You may believe this anecdote or not, but there are many other observations concerning the reality of the Pauli effect!“
The Soul of Civilization
“History,” says William Irwin Thompson, “is the story of the ego of a civilization, while myth is the story of its soul.” The ego of today’s civilization is still tied to the Newtonian age. The official representatives of technology continue to speak the language of absolute causality. The soul of civilization, however, is changing. The old myths are disintegrating. As to the shape the next mythology will take, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell remarked:
One cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight’s dream; for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart, from recognitions of identities behind or within the appearances of nature, perceiving with love a ‘thou’ where there would have been otherwise only ‘it’. As stated already centuries ago in the Indian Kena Upanishad: ‘That which in the lightning flashes forth, makes one blink, and say ‘Ah!’, that Ah!’ refers to divinity.”
It may seem from all this that efforts to prefigure the next mythology are bound for failure. Nonetheless, certain broad mythic themes thatare important to our topic emerge clearly enough to be outlined. These are discussed brieflv in the following pages, though most are not new to us. They include, first, the idea of profound ‘wholeness‘; second, the notion that at some fundamental level we are all interconnected; third, the concept of the universe as filled with life; and fourth, the idea that creativity is basic to the nature of the cosmos.
The idea of ‘wholeness‘, central to modern physics, is emerging as a major mythic theme of our culture. The picture of a universe of interwoven and evolving wholes he called ‘holism,’ after the Greek ‘holo‘, meaning ‘whole‘. One correlate of the theme of holism is the return of the medieval notion that all things are interconnected. This idea finds modern expression in biologist Rupert Sheldrake‘s theory of ‘morphic fields‘, networks of resonance that form webs of mutual influence beyond the usual limitations of space and time. Sheldrake‘s notions are so reminiscent of the old concept of sympathies.
On the level of popular culture, however, the mythic notion of interconnection is seen in the recently fashionable story of ‘the hundredth monkey‘. This is a loosely reported set of scientific observations which, despite having been widely discredited, has risen to the status of a cultural parable.
The story concerns a number of macaques (monkeys) in colonies maintained by the Japanese government. In his book, ‘Life Tide: The Biology of Consciousness‘, biologist Lyall Watson told of an energetic young female named Imo, who discovered how to clean sand from sweet potatoes by dunking them in a stream. Over a period of time she taught other monkeys this trick, and the skill gradually spread. All at once, however, the rate of spread seemed to undergo a ‘quantum leap‘ and virtually all the monkeys began to do it. Watson wrote:
“Let us say, for argument’s sake, that the number [of potato washers] was 99 and that at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone in the colony was doing it. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously, in colonies on other islands and on the main land.“
Despite the fact that Watson himself has admitted that this story is not based on sound observation, it has been widely repeated. Its appeal is strong, and it has been told and retold. Its popularity, however, is based not on fact, but on its viability as a parable of wholeness. It tells us again in modern times that we are all connected.
Related to the mythic theme of ‘wholeness‘ is the return of a sense that the universe is filled with life. Smuts‘s holistic vision of the cosmos is organic, with its emphasis on the evolution of ever more complex and even creative wholes carrying the sense of a living, developing process. Such a process, of course, is antithetical to the Newtonian vision of a machine that runs relentlessly and unchangingly for all time.
The return of the sense of life to the cosmos brings with it a return of the possibility of creativity. Smuts‘s conception of holism included the idea of the new and the unexpected thrown up in the evolutionof complex wholes. At the turn of the century, even before Smuts, the French philosopher Henri Bergson had suggested the notion of emergents as creative elements that unfold in the process of evolution. As we have seen, a similar idea is embraced by the openness of quantum physics itself, an openness which allows the possibility of the unexpected in each new moment.
David Bohm uses the term ‘implicate order‘ to describe a holistic quantum process which underlies ordinary reality as we experience it from day to day. He discussed its implications for wholeness and creativity in an interview:
“The entire notion of ‘wholeness’–creative wholeness– is built into the implicate order. It would be similar to the flash of creative insight in our own mental experience. The general tenor of the ‘implicate order’ implies that what happens in our consciousness and what happens in nature are not fundamentally different in form. Therefore thought and matter have a great similarity of order; we might extend that idea, saying that the creativity and insight that we have may also have its parallel in nature.”
In Bohm‘s connection of mental and physical processes we begin to see the return of a sense of wholeness, life, and creativity to the universe of physics, a sense that brings with it the return of human meaning to the cosmos itself. We begin to recognize ourselves as truly at home in this cosmos. As was true before the rise of mechanistic science, the larger dimensions of the world are again experienced in terms meaningful to the human spirit. The language of this experience is the language of myth, a language that bridges the space between the conscious and the unconscious, a language that speaks of the meaningfulness of events both within the mind and within the greater world in which each of us lives our day-to-day lives.
Synchronicity must be understood within this entire context lest it be trivialized into statistical anomalies and stripped of its human meaning. Like myth itself, synchronicity bridges the gaps between the conscious and the unconscious, between the world of mind and the world of objective events. Not surprisingly, synchronicity is therefore ultimately best comprehended in the language of myth.
Of all mythological characters, it is the ‘Trickster‘ who is most associated with chance and synchronicity, who is the bearer of good or ill fortune, who stirs the sands of fate and melds together glad and unhappy chance in patterns guessed only in the gleam of his eye.