The Unbroken Process
Synchronicity implies a cosmos in which seemingly unrelated events are woven together to form a continuous world fabric. Such a cosmos does not square with the classical, mechanistic physics that views the universe as a loose assemblage of objects, forces, and energy.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the house of classical physics was built of the strongest stuff imaginable: The impenetrable atoms, which were the basis of the physical world. The location of each of these atoms was precisely fixed in the three dimensional space of Descartes‘ geometry. In a very few years, however, the house of physics was shaken to its very foundations. The atoms of its walls dissolved into abstractions, and these in turn became probabilities written on the blackboards of mathematicians. Its location became indeterminant. The very space it occupied became curved, warped, and even filled with ‘worm holes‘! It was assaulted by Einstein‘s general theory of relativity on the one hand and quantum theory on the other. Both new theories view the cosmos as an undivided whole, though they do so in very different ways.
Beginning with Einstein the entire cosmos becomes an undivided field. Objects such as atoms and stars are viewed as properties of this field. They are seen as local concentrations of it. Think of vortices on the surface of water. Each consists of a stable, whirling movement which gives a unique form to that particular part of the surface. While such vortices can interact with each other, combining to form new and larger vortices or canceling each other out, they have no separate existence in and of themselves, but are simply local characteristics of the water.
Unlike the general theory of relativity, quantum theory does not deal with the existence of objects, but with actions or events. It is an elaborate mathematical structure within which separate objects have, in fact, no representation. Only events have reality for the theory, and these are all intimately interconnected. For example, if several subatomic particles are involved in an experiment, they cannot be treated as separate realities. The outcome of the experiment is determined by the total quantum state of the system of particles, which cannot be viewed in any real sense as comprised of separate and independent objects. Instead, the mathematics of quantum physics treats any system of particles as part of a larger unity.
‘Wholeness‘ in quantum physics even includes the experimental apparatus by which measurements are made. Beyond this, it includes the entire context of the experiment: the laboratory, the experimenters themselves, and so on. Quantum physicist David Bohm has observed,
“Ultimately, the entire universe (with all its particles, including those constituting human beings, their laboratories, observing instruments, etc.) has to be understood as a single undivided whole, in which analysis into separately and independently existent parts has no fundamental status.”
The Holographic Order
The modern physics worldview that is most empathetic with synchronicity is the holographic order now being developed by Bohm. Unlike the cosmos inherited from Descartes, which can be imagined as a topological map of objects and events occupying separate locations in a three-dimensional coordinate system, Bohm envisions the cosmos as a hologram. His vision is radically holistic, allowing for the creation of separate but correlated events beyond the bounds of causality.
A hologram is made from a holographic plate. When viewed under ordinary light, such a plate looks much like an under-exposed photographic negative. When viewed under special lighting conditions, such as laser light, it takes on the appearance of an open window. Just as through a real window we can see the entire scene beyond by looking through any part of it, in a hologram the whole landscape is visually contained, or, to use Bohm‘s term, enfolded into each part. The essential wholeness of the hologram is that each part contains, or enfolds, the whole. On the cosmic scale of Bohm‘s theory, this means that each part of the world contains the whole of the universe hidden (enfolded) within it. This stunning notion, though new to modern science, is well known in the world’s mystical poetry.
In “The Garden of Mystery“, the Sufi mystic Mahmud Shabistari states:
“Know that the world is a mirror from head to foot,
In every atom are a hundred blazing suns.
If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,
A hundred pure oceans emerge from it.
In the pupil of the eye is a heaven.
What though the corn grain of the heart be small
It is a station of the Lord of both worlds to dwell therein. “
A hologram is created when a pattern of light-wave interactions is captured on the holographic plate. The capacity to enfold large, whole images within small parts seems to be characteristic of such patterns of interactions. An example is the pattern of ripples seen on the surface of a pond a few seconds after you toss in some pebbles. These ripples create complex figures as they expand, crisscrossing over the surface of the water, each spreading from its own source where a pebble fell. If we could freeze the pond instantaneously, these ripple patterns would contain the information necessary to reverse the process, recreating the original configuration of pebbles as they struck the surface. The configuration of falling pebbles, we might say, is enfolded by the patterns of the ripples. This is exactly what a hologram does, using light waves instead of water ripples.
On a grand scale, we might envision the entire cosmos as a vast light pond with ripples spreading, interpenetrating, and creating complex patterns of interactions throughout. Certain of these patterns may seem relatively stable, others may not, or they may give the appearance of stable configurations in motion. This is the vision of the ‘holomovement‘ at the heart of Bohm‘s concept of a holographic universe.
“Normally,” says Bohm, “we think of the universe as comprised of more-or-less solid objects such as atoms or stars, many of which emit light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation (radio waves, gamma waves, and so on). The space between objects is filled with a constant flow of radiation. Ordinarily, we do not take much account of this ocean of electromagnetic waves. Instead, we consider solid objects to be real and the flux of energy to be of secondary significance.”
But Bohm flips this picture upside down, making flux the primary reality of the cosmos. He views solid objects as stationary patterns of wave interactions that emerge out of the ‘holomovement‘ rather than points of primary reality. As Einstein in the general theory of relativity had viewed objects to be stable configurations of the space-time continuum, so Bohm views objects as stable patterns of motion. With Bohm this vision of reality, hopes to unite relativity with the other great corner stone of modern physics, quantum theory.
The universe according to Bohm actually has two faces, or more precisely, two orders. One is the ‘explicate order‘, corresponding to the physical world as we know it in day-to-day reality, the other a deeper, more fundamental order which Bohm calls the ‘implicate order’. The ‘implicate order‘ is the vast ‘holomovement‘. We see only the surface of this movement as it presents or ‘explicates‘ itself from moment to moment in time and space. What we see in the world—the ‘explicate order‘— is no more than the surface of the ‘implicate order‘ as it unfolds. The notion of an ‘implicate order‘ is important to our understanding of synchronicity because it shows us that the cosmos contains possibilities different from and greater than we had suspected.
Rupert Sheldrake is a biochemist with a special interest in how different species of organisms develop, each into its own unique and characteristic shape or form. This is the study of ‘morphogenesis‘ or ‘the coming-into-being of characteristic and specific form in organisms.’ Sheldrake‘s central idea is that the development of a living organism is controlled by a kind of holistic field or force.
Such a notion is not new. The idea of an over arching principle of formation can be traced back to Plato‘s ‘ideal forms,’ which existed in a higher reality of their own, serving as models for the ‘less-than-perfect‘ forms of this world.
A difficulty with Plato‘s ideal forms, is that these high-order formative, principles have a rigid or static quality which is inconsistent with the evolutionary change that is so much a part of nature. Sheldrake‘s proposal of a formative field, ‘the morphic field‘, however, provides an overall patterning of form, which is at the same time subject to change.
A morphic field is a kind of habit of nature. Each time a particular form occurs, it is more likely to occur again, whether nonorganic, such as an atom, a molecule, or a snowflake, or living, such as a flower, a bird, or a human. Sheldrake also believes that morphic fields influence patterns of brain activity associated with thought or behavior.
In embryological development, the morphic field acts on the DNA molecule much like a radio wave acts on a radio, giving its output a specific form without actually altering its hardware. An important aspect of the radio wave is that it supplies very little of the actual energy needed to produce sound from the radio. Rather, the wave supplies a minute amount of energy patterned in such a way as to guide and structure a final output that itself may involve considerable amounts of energy. Likewise, morphic fields require minute energy to exert dramatic influences upon nature. This seems at first a strange idea, but many processes in nature start on a micro scale that readily may be influenced by the minutest quantities of energy.
Consider the difference between growing roses and lilies. During the early embryonic molecular events the smallest possible forces could push the ensuing development toward one or the other. At this stage it is not a matter of energy so much as of information. The genetic code for the rose contains different information than that of the lily and represents, Sheldrake would say, a different morphic field. A similar case can be made for electrical activity in the brain, which also starts at the minutest levels of energy and develops into processes that involve large areas of the nervous system. Indeed, the nervous system is a natural place to look for the subtly whispered influences of morphic fields.
One morphic field that exerts its influence on the nervous system is called a ‘motor field‘. Motor fields may be important in producing genetically programmed behaviors, such as the tendency of small animals to run for cover when they see the shadow of a hawk. Motor fields may also provide a new model for explaining learning and memory; that is, memories are equivalent to motor fields built up from past experience. Morphic fields have a quality we have already seen in quantum physics: they are not limited by location. This means that, though a person’s individual memories must somehow be matched to the pattern of his or her own unique nervous system, one person’s experience can influence others.
In effect, when something is learned once, it is more easily learned again later by someone else. A pattern of thought or behavior is more easily produced once it has been produced before. This theory, interestingly, gives the first scientifically reasonable account of Jung‘s notion of psychological archetypes, universal images or themes shared by all humanity. Jung himself believed that archetypes are built up across aeons of historical time, an idea that could not agree more with the way morphic fields are said to be formed. Sheldrake recently observed, ‘morphic resonance theory would lead to a radical reaffirmation of Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious,‘ that is, of archetypes.
We can see a linkage between morphic fields and synchronicity in the often-celebrated fact that two or more scientists or mathematicians may make very similar and independent discoveries at almost the same time. An excellent example is the calculus, developed in England by Sir Isaac Newton and almost simultaneously in Germany by the philosopher, scientist, and mathematician G. W.Leibnitz. Newton knew nothing of Leibnitz‘s work and, in fact, made do with a considerably more awkward mathematical format. (It is Leibnitz‘s form that is used today, though Newton is usually given credit for the method.) Such coincidences are often attributed to cultural conditions: everything was just right for the discovery. In many instances this is without doubt true, but in some cases it seems a less probable explanation.
Other examples of meaningful coincidences which we may explain by the existence of morphic fields are more common but less dramatic. They include relatively frequent situations in which two or more persons are thinking or doing similar things at the same time but with no knowledge of each other. For instance, you receive a call from a friend just when you are thinking of calling her; both of you were contemplating the conversation prior to the call. Or you find yourself thinking of something just when a person nearby starts to talk about it, as if to spare you the trouble! In instances such as these, synchronicity may overlap with what we normally think of as telepathy.
Frequently cited in support of Sheldrake‘s theory is the story of the ‘hundredth monkey‘. Unfortunately, we have at best only the most informal reports of the phenomenon and these do not support it as factual. But the story carries a powerful mythic message of connection. A reliable instance of a similar natureis chronicled in Sheldrake‘s recent book, ‘The Presence of the Past‘ and concerns the well-documented spread of a simple learned behavior in a small bird, the British blue tit.
A small number of these birds evidently learned to open bottles of milk delivered to people’s homes by pecking a small hole in the cap and tearing the foil back to drink the milk. They might drink as much as two inches of milk, and occasionally one was found drowned in the bottle! There have been reports, as well, of blue tits following delivery trucks and breaking into bottles while the driver made deliveries.
This activity was first reported in Southampton, England, in 1921 and its spread was recorded at regular intervals through 1947, when it could be seen in many locations in England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as in Holland, Denmark, and Sweden.
While a conventional explanation is possible along the lines of simple imitation, certain facts argue in favor of the active role of ‘morphic fields‘ in the spread of this behavior. First, blue tits are birds that do not usually travel far from their breeding place, while the habit of opening milk bottles appeared at a number of locations many miles from previous citings, including the spread to the continent. Sheldrake estimates that thehabit must have been rediscovered independently at least eighty-nine times in the British Isles alone. Moreover, as the habit was practiced by increasing numbers of birds, it spread with increasing speed, suggesting the build-up of a powerful ‘motor field’ for this behavior.
A particularly instructive instance of its spread was seen in Denmark, where milk bottles almost disappeared during World War II, but reappeared in 1947 and 1948. Few if any blue tits would have lived long enough to carry the habit forward from the prewar years, yet it reappeared rapidly when milk bottles again became available.
In a related study, Yale University psychologist Gary Schwartz presented students with a large number of Hebrew words from the Old Testament. He presented some of the words as they are normally printed and randomly scrambled the letters of others. Students who did not know Hebrew guessed at the meanings of the words, indicating their confidence in each guess. Schwartz found, as Sheldrake‘s theory would predict, that the students rated the real words with considerably greater confidence than the ones that had been scrambled (though they did not accurately guess their meaning). Moreover, he found that confidence ratings were about twice as high for the words that occur frequently in the Old Testament compared with those that occur only rarely.
The idea here is that the real words had, in fact, been learned by countless persons throughout history, forming strong morphic fields; the most frequently occurring words, of course, had been seen and read the greatest number of times. The possibility that the real words were simply more easily grasped was eliminated by the ratings of linguistic psychologists, who found the scrambled words to be as structurally sound as the real ones. Similar experiments have been carried out using Persian words and even Morse code.
There is much in Sheldrake‘s theory that makes it compatible with Bohm‘s notion of the ‘implicate order‘. Both Bohm and Sheldrake are holistic in their approach, and both theories assume nonlocality. This idea has its roots in an earlier notion suggested by the French quantum physics pioneer Louis de Broglie, who in 1927 proposed that individual particles such as electrons are guided or directed by ‘guide waves‘.
The proposal was not well accepted at that time. In the 1950s, however, Bohm conceived a similar idea in the form of the quantum potential and worked with de Broglie to develop it. More recently, Bohm has again become interested in this concept. He points out that the quantum potential has many of the properties of morphic fields.
Its effect is nonlocal. It ‘guides‘ the particle in a fashion analogous to the way a radio signal guides an airplane or a ship, by supplying information rather than energy. Furthermore, it is holistic in the sense that it is the product of the entire situation in which it occurs. Of course, the ‘morphic field‘ must direct a great deal more than the flight of a single particle. It must direct the vastly more complex development of an entire organic structure, pattern of behavior, or memory. But the idea is the same.