46, no. 2 (2000): 89-107
In this paper, I examine the role C. G. Jung’s (1875-1961) theory of synchronicity played in his attempt to come to a satisfactory understanding of the relationship between religion and science. First, I briefly explain the theory of synchronicity. Then, I sketch Jung’s lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between religion and science and note some of its implications for his general psychological theory.
Jung’s emphasis in this theory on the primacy of psychic reality provided a ground on which religious (spiritual) imagery and scientific (material) imagery could interact. However, it also left him open to the charge that he was reducing spiritual and material phenomena to psychic phenomena. Next, I show the influence of Jung’s understanding of religion and science on his theory of synchronicity.
After that, I note some influences that the theory of synchronicity, reflexively, had on Jung’s understanding of religion and science. With the theory of synchronicity, Jung achieves even closer interaction between the domains of religion and science and in a manner that is less dependent on the notion of psychic reality. In the last main section, I suggest how the theory of synchronicity supports some of the more spiritual emphases within analytical psychology.
I conclude by noting a more general
implication of this overall discussion for the status of depth
psychology in relation to religion and science.
More fully, he defined it as ‘the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state’ (Jung, 1952b, par. 850). What he means by these definitions is most easily conveyed by an example. Jung’s best-known account of a synchronistic experience concerns a young woman patient whose excellent but excessive intellectuality made her ‘psychologically inaccessible’, closed off from a ‘more human understanding’.
Unable to make headway in the analysis, Jung reports that he had to confine himself to ‘the hope that something unexpected would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself’.
In this example, the psychic state is indicated by the patient’s decision to tell Jung her dream of being given a scarab. The parallel external event is the appearance and behavior of the real scarab. Neither of these events discernibly or plausibly caused the other by any normal means, so their relationship is acausal. Nevertheless, the events parallel each other in such unlikely detail that one cannot escape the impression that they are indeed connected, albeit acausally.
Moreover, this acausal connection of events both is symbolically informative (as we shall see) and has a deeply emotive and transforming impact on the patient and in these senses is clearly meaningful. (Jung’s requirement that the parallel events be simultaneous is more problematic. For present purposes, it is sufficient to know that Jung does also allow for paralleling between events that are not simultaneous.
Thus, the patient’s dream, rather than
her decision to tell the dream, preceded the actual appearance of
the scarab by several hours. Yet, Jung would certainly have
considered the coincidence between the dream and the actual
appearance synchronistic even if the patient had not decided to tell
the dream at just that moment.)
They ‘constitute the structure’ not of the personal but ‘of the collective unconscious … a psyche that is identical in all individuals’ (Jung, 1952b, par. 840; emphasis added). Also relevant is that they typically express themselves in the form of symbolic images (Jung, 1952b, par. 845). Jung considered that synchronistic events tend to occur in situations in which an archetype is active or ‘constellated’ (Jung, 1952b, par. 847). Such constellation of archetypes in the life of a person is governed by the process of individuation—the inherent drive of the psyche towards increased wholeness and self-realization.
Individuation in turn proceeds through the dynamic of compensation, whereby any one-sidedness in a person’s conscious attitude is balanced by contents emerging from the unconscious which, if successfully integrated, contribute to a state of greater psychic wholeness. Relating these psychological dynamics to the example, Jung suggests that it has ‘an archetypal foundation’ (Jung, 1952b, par. 845) and, more specifically, that it was the archetype of rebirth that was constellated.
He writes that,
The emotional charge or numinosity of
the archetype is evident from its having ‘broke[n] the ice of [the
patient’s] intellectual resistance’. The compensatory nature of the
experience is also clear: her one-sided rationalism and
psychological stasis were balanced by an event that both in its
symbolism and in its action expressed the power of the irrational
and the possibility of renewal. Finally, that all of this promoted
the patient’s individuation is implied by Jung’s statement that ‘The
treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results’.
Again, he had become convinced as to ‘how much these inner experiences meant’ to his patients (Jung, 1952b, par. 816).
In what follows, I shall argue that the
theory of synchronicity was also important to Jung because of the
role it played, albeit implicitly, in his attempt to come to a
satisfactory understanding of the relationship between religion and
Twenty years later, in 1895, appeared A. D. White’s volume A history of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom. Present-day discussions tend to recognize more nuances.
In what follows, I shall make use of the contemporary writer Ian Barbour’s recognition of four main categories of interaction between religion and science (Barbour, 1998, pp. 77-105).
Jung was preoccupied with the relationship between religion and science throughout his life. In one of the chapters he himself wrote for Memories, Dreams, Reflections he recalls his youthful interest in both these areas:
Jung’s reference here to his ‘inner dichotomy’—between one part of him oriented towards mystery and inner experience and another part oriented towards rationalism and social adaptation—testifies to the personal dimension of his struggle with religion and science. The problem of their relationship was made even more acute for Jung when he witnessed his father, a Protestant pastor, undergoing a crisis of faith largely precipitated by the ascendancy of materialistic science.
I would not want to suggest that personal factors alone were responsible for Jung’s interest in the relationship between religion and science. A fuller contextualization would have to consider a whole range of other contributory influences—intellectual, professional, social, geographical, economic, and political. I have focused on the personal factors because these most vividly convey the urgency of the problem presented to Jung by the dominant narrative of conflict between religion and science.
As someone who could count numerous
clergymen among his relatives and ancestors and who himself had a
strong disposition towards personal religious experience, Jung would
likely have experienced materialistic science not just as a threat
to religion but as a threat to his own identity.
It was one of the main issues that led to his parting of ways with Freud and psychoanalysis (Jung, 1911-12/1952; McGuire, 1974). In developing and articulating his mature psychological theory, Jung always insisted that he was working as a scientist and empiricist, but he increasingly applied his ‘empiricism’ to the investigation of religious phenomena (Jung, 1928-54). His dual interest is conspicuous in the three ‘Terry Lectures’ on ‘Psychology and Religion’ that he delivered at Yale University in 1937.
These were part of a series of ‘Lectures on Religion in the light of Science and Philosophy’ (Jung, 1938/1940, p. 3).
They focused on a set of dreams of a scientist, showing, Jung argued, the spontaneous operation of a religious function in the psyche of someone skeptical about religion. The scientist we now know to have been the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, with whom Jung was later to collaborate in developing his ideas on synchronicity (Jung and Pauli, 1955).
Pauli’s dreams and visions also provided material for one of Jung’s major works on alchemy (Jung, 1968). This subject, which occupied Jung in the last thirty years of his life, again joins religion and science: for alchemy, Jung shows, was not just a precursor of modern chemistry concerned with material transformations but also, in many cases, an esoteric religious discipline concerned with the spiritual transformation of the personality.
Many of Jung’s other late works—Aion
(1951a), ‘Answer to Job’ (1952a), ‘On the Nature of the Psyche’
(1947/1954), and not least ‘Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting
Principle’ (1952b)—also evince this preoccupation with religion,
science, and the relationship between them.
In 1945, writing to Father Victor White, Jung claimed that his 1911-12 book translated as The Psychology of the Unconscious ‘was written by a psychiatrist for the purpose of submitting the necessary material to his psychiatric colleagues, material which would demonstrate to them the importance of religious symbolism’. In the same letter he explained:
At early stages in his career, Jung toyed with the conflict model of the relationship between religion and science. In doing so, his hope was that religion might win out. For example, in the last of his Zofingia Lectures he longs for the return of a mystical approach to religion, even if this entails ‘the possibility of social and scientific indifference and call[ing] into question the further progress of civilization’ (Jung, 1896-99, par. 290).
However, Jung quickly recognized that on most points of direct confrontation and conflict between religion and science, science was likely to prove the victor. ‘The imposing arguments of science,’ he acknowledges, ‘represent the highest degree of intellectual certainty yet achieved by the mind of man. So at least it seems to the man of today’ (Jung, 1957, par. 543).
Consequently, ‘the guardians and
custodians of symbolical truth, namely the religions, have been
robbed of their efficacy by science’ (Jung, 1911-12/1952, par. 336).
At a talk he gave in London in 1939, a questioner put it to him that,
Again, no less explicitly, he wrote in 1946:
From the safety of this basic position of independence, Jung explored bolder possibilities for dialogue and integration between religion and science. ‘A rapprochement between empirical science and religious experience,’ he writes in Mysterium Coniunctionis,
He notes that,
However, he held these particular attempts in low esteem, and this may account for his occasional repudiation of any integrative intent on his own part.
For example, to one of the same correspondents to whom he had declared his belief in the independence of religion and science, he wrote:
Nevertheless, he did aim to promote dialogue:
Certain statements even point directly towards integration—at least if we bear in mind Jung’s insistence that his psychology was scientific:
Jung was enabled to explore these possibilities by the phenomenological emphasis within his psychological theory. Basing himself on his understanding of Kant’s epistemology (see Voogd, 1984), Jung argued that things in themselves, whether material things or spiritual things, cannot be known other than as mediated to consciousness in the form of psychic images.
Our primary reality, he repeatedly stated, the only reality of which we can be immediately aware, is psychic reality (e.g., Jung, 1939/1954, par. 760; 1963, pp. 323-24).
This notion provides a middle ground in which images stemming from the realm of matter (the traditional province of science) and images stemming from the realm of spirit (the traditional province of religion) can be treated even-handedly within the same field. The primary reality of these images, whatever their putative origin, is psychic. The mere fact that they occur as psychic images guarantees them reality and importance and some basic affinity with one another.
Particularly important for Jung is the
implication that religious images no less than any other kind
deserve to be taken seriously (Jung, 1938/1940, pars. 4-5).
For instance, he argues that,
He remarks on the presence within both religion and science of guiding images and myths (Jung, 1919, par. 278; 1927, pars. 327; 1963, p. 313). Above all, he enjoyed pointing to the hidden presence of religious attitudes within science:
In general, the implication that both
religious phenomena (including experiences, doctrines, and rituals)
and scientific phenomena (including observations, theories, and
practices) present themselves as psychic images enabled Jung to
discuss any of these phenomena as relative, conditioned, susceptible
to pragmatic and psychological evaluation, and both open to and
often requiring change—all of this without making any judgment about
the spiritual or material reality or truth that may underlie the
Einstein was Jung’s dinner guest on several occasions between 1909 and 1912 and, says Jung,
Through discussions with Pauli, Jung deepened his understanding of such features of quantum physics as complementarity and acausality, both of which were to figure in Jung’s presentation of synchronicity (Jung, 1947/1954, pars. 439-40; 1952b, pars. 818-20, 959, 963-67; Main, 1997, pp. 16-17, 122-30). In the third place, there was Jung’s interest in the newly developed field of experimental parapsychology.
He was particularly inspired by J. B.
Rhine’s experiments at Duke University which seemed to provide
robust statistical evidence for the existence of extra-sensory
perception and psychokinesis, in other words, for connections
between events that did not depend on any known form of
psychophysical causation and even seemed to transgress the barriers
of time and space (Jung, 1952b, pars. 833-40; 1973, pp. 180-82, 190,
378-79, 493-95; Main, 1997, pp. 15-16, 103-11).
This is deeply embedded in Chinese religious thought but Jung emphasizes its ‘experimental foundation’, its ‘experiment-with-the-whole’ (Jung, 1952b, par. 865); in an earlier discussion he had referred to the I Ching as the ‘standard text book’ of Chinese science (Jung, 1930, par. 80).
Again, instead of referring to the traditional religious concern with the post-mortem existence of the soul, Jung refers to out-of-body and near-death experiences as studied empirically by psychical researchers (Jung, 1952b, pars. 949-55). Where he might have discussed religious experiences of mystical unity, he refers to the philosophical Taoism of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu (Jung, 1952b, pars. 916-24).
Where he might have discussed religious notions of Providence, he refers to philosophical notions of pre-established harmony in Leibniz (Jung, 1952b, pars. 937-39). In his major essay on synchronicity, discussion of the religious concept of continuous creation, very suggestive for Jung’s theme, is relegated to a footnote on the penultimate page (Jung, 1952b, par. 967 n. 17).
Jung mentions Christian religious thought as having influenced him not in terms of its doctrines and theology but primarily through providing historical instances of synchronicity encountered in the course of his research into symbols (Jung, 1951a; 1963, p. 210; Main, 1997, pp. 14-15).
Other demonstrable religious influences
go unmentioned: for example, Jung’s personal religious experiences,
which included spiritualistic encounters with otherworldly beings
and mystical visions of unity (Jung, 1963, pp. 174-78, 270-77; Main,
1997, pp. 2-7, 60-61, 136-41).
For example, he implies that the concept of science should be broad enough to accommodate the kinds of ‘experimental’ observation involved in divination, and that the concerns of religion, such as the survival of the soul, should not be kept insulated from the investigative procedures and insights of the sciences. Further, if we recall Jung’s complaint that ‘In science I missed the factor of meaning; and in religion, that of empiricism’ (Jung, 1963, p. 79), we can sense the measure of integration he has achieved for himself with his theory of synchronicity.
For in this theory Jung has championed
precisely the factor of meaning; and he has done so on as solid a
base of empiricism as he could manage.
On the same day he wrote to Michael Fordham of ‘the impact of synchronicity upon the fanatical one-sidedness of scientific philosophy’ (Jung, 1976, p. 216). Specifically, Jung thought that his work on synchronicity demonstrated the need to expand the current conception of science in order to include, in addition to the classical concepts of time, space, and causality, a principle of acausal connection through meaning (Jung, 1952b, pars. 961-63).
This, he concluded, would introduce the psychic factor of meaning into our scientific picture of the world, help get rid of ‘the incommensurability between the observed and the observer’, and make possible a ‘whole judgment’ (Jung, 1952b, par. 961)—that is, a judgment that takes into consideration psychological as well as physical factors (Jung, 1952b, par. 964).
Because for Jung the psychological mediates between the physical and the spiritual, to link the physical and psychological in this way entails setting up a potential bridge between the physical and the spiritual, hence between science and religion.
These bold conclusions and implications
from Jung’s work on synchronicity resonate with many subsequent
attempts to develop more holistic models of science—some directly
exploring Jung’s suggestions, for instance those of David Peat
(1987) and Victor Mansfield (1995), others working
independently but aware of Jung’s contribution and possibly
influenced or inspired by it, for instance those of
David Bohm (1980) and
Rupert Sheldrake (1981).
He also invokes synchronicity both as a descriptive equivalent of religious miracles and as a theory for trying to understand them (Jung, 1976, pp. 21, 537, 540, 576; Main, 1997, pp. 38, 162-64). Again, the theory of synchronicity implicitly contributed to Jung’s understanding of experiences of mystical unity (Jung, 1863, pp. 274-75; Main, 1997, pp. 37, 136-41).
However, it remained for later writers, notably Robert Aziz (1990), to draw out the most important implication of the theory of synchronicity for Jung’s understanding of religion. Jung’s psychology of religion was often criticized by theologians for being a form of psychological reductionism. Jung may have been well disposed towards religion, and he may have provided a strategy for taking religious phenomena seriously in the face of the reductive claims of materialistic science, but because his model emphasized the primacy of psychic reality and, on epistemological grounds, denied that anything non-psychic could be directly experienced, it seemed to many that he was in effect reducing religion to psychology. God as an objective external reality seemed to have been replaced by the image of God in a person’s mind (see Aziz, 1990, pp. 46-49).
In defense of Jung, Aziz directs attention to synchronistic events. Such events indicate that meanings experienced psychically can also non-projectively be experienced outwardly. In the example given at the beginning of this paper, the appearance and behavior of the real scarab beetle demonstrated that the meaning expressing itself in the patient’s dream of a scarab was not only internal and subjective but could also involve the external, natural world.
Neither, then, is there any reason to
suppose that the meaning expressed in a person’s image of God
is only internal and subjective. That meaning too could express
itself outwardly, neither caused by nor projected from an individual
psyche (see Aziz, 1990, pp. 179-80).
Moreover, he is doing this in a manner
that is less dependent on the notion of the primacy of psychic
reality than was the case with his pre-synchronistic psychology of
The phenomenon of synchronicity,
Jung states, leads to the postulation of ‘a unitary aspect of being’
at the deepest level of the collective unconscious (Jung, 1954-55,
par. 662). Against the background of such a theoretical notion,
mystical experiences of unity of the kind Jung himself reported
(Jung, 1963, pp. 270-77) become more intelligible.
He tried to establish that in at least some cases the ‘individuals living today’ could not possibly have been exposed to any cultural expression of these motifs. Therefore, when the motifs emerged from the unconscious of such individuals, there could be no origin for them in their personal history; they demonstrated the existence of a collective or transpersonal dimension to the unconscious. However, problematically for Jung, in all cases of the emergence of such motifs alternative explanations seem at least as plausible as the hypothesis of a collective unconscious.
One alternative explanation is that the motifs do indeed arise independently in each individual but this is because all individuals, in their personal lives, are subject to the same basic range of typical experiences (see, e.g., Palmer, 1997, pp. 176-81). Another alternative explanation, this time denying the independent origin of the motifs, is cryptomnesia — the possibility that cultural expressions of the motifs may have been observed but then forgotten, or observed subliminally without ever having entered conscious awareness (see, e.g., Noll, 1994a, pp. 84-85).
At this point, Jung could refer, as Aziz was to do in relation to religion, to synchronistic experiences. For in such experiences the same pattern of meaning expresses itself both in the psyche and, without any causal or projective relationship, in the external world. This alone, Jung could argue, is sufficient to demonstrate the transpersonal nature of the unconscious.
Whether or not his patient had prior
exposure to images of scarabs, and whether or not she could have
acquired from her personal experience a disposition to produce
symbols of rebirth, the synchronicity suggests that some factor
larger than her personal psyche has been involved in the
organization of the events—a factor that encompasses the external
world of nature in addition to her inner psychic world.
At a deeper practical level, it has been argued recently by George Bright that synchronicity provides the theoretical basis for a kind of analytic attitude that is distinctively Jungian (Bright, 1997).
Jung’s notion of synchronicity implies that meaning exists objectively not only in the psyche but also in the physical world.
However, since ‘this aspect of meaning is essentially unconscious, it can never be fully elucidated or comprehended’ (Bright, 1997, p. 619).
Therefore, ‘both analyst and patient are … restrained from attributing meaning to the analytic material as if the conscious meanings they find or create were objectively or absolutely true’ (Bright, 1997, p. 618). More particularly, we are presented with ‘a way of connecting that tries not to do violence to the material through crude, potentially dissociative attribution of cause’ (Bright, 1997, p. 614).
This acknowledgement within the analytic
setting of objective, transpsychic meaning that can never be
exhaustively known and that invites an inquiring but respectful
attitude towards it further promotes the alignment of Jung’s
psychology with the concerns of religion.
Jung, too, though emphasizing the primacy of psychic reality, liked to present analytical psychology as a science. However, he used it as an instrument for restoring to religion its dignity, meaning, vitality, and reality (Jung, 1928-54).
Critics and revisionists of both psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, indeed of depth psychology in general, have argued that these bodies of thought are not science but something else—negatively, pseudo-science, more positively, hermeneutics (Bateman and Holmes, 1995, pp. 20-22).
Therefore, it could be argued, neither
psychoanalytic attacks on nor analytical psychological defenses of
religion can claim the support of science. Some have even charged
that psychoanalysis and analytical psychology are themselves
quasi-religions (e.g., Webster, 1996; Noll, 1994b, 1997).
It then changed further under the impact of his theory of synchronicity—as indeed did important concepts within his psychological theory itself. I do not think we should view this negatively as a sign of Jung’s inconsistency, or problematically as a sign of the mercurial nature of Jung’s intellect, but rather positively as a sign of the ability of depth psychology, and of specific theories within it, to exert a transformative influence back on our conceptions of religion and science as well as of depth psychology itself.
Historians have by now amply demonstrated the extent to which our notions of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have shifted over time and have been continually contested and negotiated, while the interactions between these contested notions have been correspondingly varied and complex (Brooke, 1991; Brooke and Cantor, 1998).
Nor does it seem that notions of ‘psychoanalysis’ and ‘analytical psychology’ are any more clear-cut and stable (Bateman and Holmes, 1995, pp. 16-20; Samuels, 1985, 1998). It follows that there is unlikely to be any straightforward relationship of depth psychology to either religion or science. All three concepts or fields are mutable and capable of standing in various dynamic relationships to one another.
Religion and science can be as much
challenged by the perspectives and insights of depth psychology as
depth psychology, throughout its short history, has been challenged
by the perspectives and insights of religion and science.