by Peter A. Jordan
At some time or another it's happened to
all of us.
There's that certain number that pops up
wherever you go. Hotel rooms, airline terminals, street addresses -
its haunting presence cannot be escaped. Or, you're in your car,
absently humming a song. You turn on the radio. A sudden chill
prickles your spine. That same song is now pouring from the speaker.
Coincidence, you tell yourself. Or is it?
For most mainstream scientists, experiences like this, however
strange and recurrent, are nothing but lawful expressions of
chance, a creation - not of the divine or mystical - but of
simply that which is possible.
Ignorance of natural law, they argue,
causes us to fall prey to superstitious thinking, inventing
supernatural causes where none exist. In fact, say these statistical
law-abiding rationalists, the occasional manifestation of the rare
and improbable in daily life is not only permissible, but
Consider this: from a well-shuffled deck of fifty-two playing cards,
the mathematical odds of dealing a hand of thirteen specified cards
are about 635,000,000,000 to one. (This means that, in dealing the
hand, there exist as many as 635,000,000,000 different hands that
may possibly appear.)
What statisticians tell us, though, is
that these billions of hands are all equally likely to occur, and
that one of them is absolutely certain to occur each time the hand
Thus, any hand that is dealt, including
the most rare and improbable hand is, in terms of probability,
merely one of a number of equally likely events, one of which was
bound to happen.
Such sobering assurances don't necessarily satisfy everyone,
many see coincidence as
embedded in a higher, transcendental force, a cosmic "glue," as
it were, which binds random events together in a meaningful and
The question has always been:
Could such a harmonizing
principle actually exist?
Or are skeptics right in
regarding this as a product of wishful thinking, a consoling
myth spawned by the intellectual discomfort and
capriciousness of chance?
Mathematician Warren Weaver, in
his book, Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability, recounts a
fascinating tale of coincidence that stretches our traditional
notions of chance to their breaking point.
The story originally appeared in Life
All fifteen members of a church
choir in Beatrice, Nebraska, due at practice at 7:20, were late
on the evening of March 1, 1950.
The minister and his wife and
daughter had one reason (his wife delayed to iron the daughter's
dress) one girl waited to finish a geometry problem; one
couldn't start her car; two lingered to hear the end of an
especially exciting radio program; one mother and daughter were
late because the mother had to call the daughter twice to wake
her from a nap; and so on.
The reasons seemed rather ordinary.
But there were ten separate and quite unconnected reasons for
the lateness of the fifteen persons. It was rather fortunate
that none of the fifteen arrived on time at 7:20, for at 7:25
the church building was destroyed in an explosion.
The members of the choir, Life
reported, wondered if their delay was "an act of God."
Weaver calculates the staggering odds
against chance for this uncanny event as about one chance in a
Coincidences such as these, some say, are almost too purposeful, too
orderly, to be a product of random chance, which strains somewhat to
But then how do we explain them?
Psychologist Carl Jung believed the traditional notions of
causality were incapable of explaining some of the more improbable
forms of coincidence. Where it is plain, felt Jung, that no causal
connection can be demonstrated between two events, but where a
meaningful relationship nevertheless exists between them, a wholly
different type of principle is likely to be operating.
Jung called this principle "synchronicity."
In The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Jung describes
how, during his research into the phenomenon of the collective
unconscious, he began to observe coincidences that were connected in
such a meaningful way that their occurrence seemed to defy the
calculations of probability.
He provided numerous examples culled
from his own psychiatric case-studies, many now legendary.
A young woman I was treating had, at
a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden
scarab. While she was telling me his dream I sat with my back to
the closed window.
Suddenly I heard a noise behind me,
like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect
knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the
window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in.
It was the nearest analogy to the
golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid
beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetoaia urata) which contrary to
its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark
room at this particular moment.
I must admit that nothing like it
ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the
patient has remained unique in my experience.
Who then, might we say, was responsible
for the synchronous arrival of the beetle - Jung or the patient?
While on the surface reasonable, such a
question presupposes a chain of causality Jung claimed was absent
from such experience. As psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor has
observed, the scarab, by Jung's view, had no determinable cause, but
instead complemented the "impossibility" of the analysis.
The disturbance also (as synchronicities
often do) prefigured a profound transformation.
For, as Fodor observes, Jung's patient
had - until the appearance of the beetle - shown excessive
rationality, remaining psychologically inaccessible. Once presented
with the scarab, however, her demeanor improved and their sessions
together grew more profitable.
Because Jung believed the phenomenon of synchronicity was primarily
connected with psychic conditions, he felt that such couplings of
inner (subjective) and outer (objective) reality evolved through the
influence of the archetypes, patterns inherent in the human
psyche and shared by all of mankind.
These patterns, or "primordial images,"
as Jung sometimes refers to them, comprise man's collective
unconscious, representing the dynamic source of all human
When an archetype is activated by an
emotionally charged event (such as a tragedy), says Jung, other
related events tend to draw near. In this way the archetypes become
a doorway that provide us access to the experience of meaningful
(and often insightful) coincidence.
Implicit in Jung's concept of synchronicity is the belief in the
ultimate "oneness" of the universe.
As Jung expressed it, such phenomenon
"peculiar interdependence of
objective elements among themselves as well as with the
subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers."
Jung claimed to have found evidence of
this interdependence, not only in his psychiatric studies, but in
his research of esoteric practices as well.
I Ching, a Chinese method of
divination which Jung regarded as the clearest expression of the
synchronicity principle, he wrote:
"The Chinese mind, as I see it at
work in the I Ching, seems to be exclusively preoccupied with
the chance aspect of events. What we call coincidence seems to
be the chief concern of this peculiar mind, and what we worship
as causality passes almost unnoticed...
While the Western mind carefully
sifts, weighs, selects, classifies, isolates, the Chinese
picture of the moment encompasses everything down to the
minutest nonsensical detail, because all of the ingredients make
up the observed moment."
Similarly, Jung discovered the
synchronicity within the I Ching also extended to astrology.
In a letter to Freud dated June 12,
1911, he wrote:
"My evenings are taken up largely
with astrology. I make horoscopic calculations in order to find
a clue to the core of psychological truth. Some remarkable
things have turned up which will certainly appear incredible to
I dare say that we shall one day
discover in astrology a good deal of knowledge that has been
intuitively projected into the heavens."
Freud was alarmed by Jung's letter.
Jung's interest in synchronicity and the
paranormal rankled the strict materialist; he condemned Jung for
wallowing in what he called the,
"black tide of the mud of
Just two years earlier, during a visit
to Freud in Vienna, Jung had attempted to defend his beliefs and
sparked a heated debate.
Freud's skepticism remained calcified as
ever, causing him to dismiss Jung's paranormal leanings,
"in terms of so shallow a
positivism," recalls Jung, "that I had difficulty in checking
the sharp retort on the tip of my tongue."
A shocking synchronistic event followed.
Jung writes in his memoirs:
While Freud was going on this way, I
had a curious sensation.
It was as if my diaphragm were made
of iron and were becoming red-hot - a glowing vault. And at that
moment there was such a loud report in the bookcase, which stood
right next to us, that we both started up in alarm, fearing the
thing was going to topple over on us.
I said to Freud:
'There, that is an example of a
so-called catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.'
'Oh come,' he exclaimed. 'That
is sheer bosh.'
'It is not,' I replied. 'You are
mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove my point I now
predict that in a moment there will be another such loud
Sure enough, no sooner had I said
the words that the same detonation went off in the bookcase.
To this day I do not know what gave
me this certainty. But I knew beyond all doubt that the report
would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me. I do not know
what was in his mind, or what his look meant.
In any case, this incident aroused
his distrust of me, and I had the feeling that I had done
something against him.
I never afterward discussed the
incident with him.
In formulating his synchronicity
principle, Jung was influenced to a profound degree by the "new"
physics of the twentieth century, which had begun to explore the
possible role of consciousness in the physical world.
"Physics," wrote Jung in 1946, "has
demonstrated... that in the realm of atomic magnitudes objective
reality presupposes an observer, and that only on this condition
is a satisfactory scheme of explanation possible."
"This means," he added, "that a
subjective element attaches to the physicist's world picture,
and secondly that a connection necessarily exists between the
psyche to be explained and the objective space-time continuum."
These discoveries not only helped loosen
physics from the iron grip of its materialistic world-view, but
confirmed what Jung recognized intuitively:
matter and consciousness - far
from operating independently of each other - are, in fact,
interconnected in an essential way, functioning as complementary
aspects of a unified reality.
The belief - suggested by quantum theory
and by reports of synchronous events - that matter and consciousness
interpenetrate is, of course, far from new.
What historian Arthur Koestler
refers to as the capacity of the human psyche to "act as a
cosmic resonator" faithfully echoes the thinking of Kepler
Leibnitz's "monad," a spiritual
microcosm said to mirror the patterns of the universe, was
based on the premise that individual and universe "imprint"
each other, acting by virtue of a "pre-established harmony."
And for Schopenhauer who, like
Jung, questioned the exclusive status of causality,
everything was "interrelated and mutually attuned."
Common among these various historical
sources, as Koestler observes in his book, The Roots of
Coincidence, is the presumption of a "fundamental unity of all
things," which transcends mechanical causality, and which relates
coincidence to the "universal scheme of things."
In exploring the parallels between modern science and the mystical
concept of a universal scheme or oneness, Koestler compares the
evolution of science during the past one-hundred-and-fifty years to
a vast river system, in which each tributary is "swallowed up" by
the mainstream, until all unified in a single river-delta.
The science of electricity, he points
out, merged, during the nineteenth century, with the science of
Electromagnetic waves were then
discovered to be responsible for light, color, radiant heat and
Hertzian waves, while chemistry was embraced by atomic physics. The
control of the body by nerves and glands was linked to
electrochemical processes, and atoms were broken down into the
"building blocks" of protons, electrons and neutrons.
Soon, however, even these fundamental
parts were reduced by scientists to mere,
"parcels of compressed energy,
packed and patterned according to certain mathematical
What all this reveals, then, is that
there may be what Koestler refers to as,
"the universal hanging-together of
things, their embeddedness in a universal matrix."
Many ecologists already subscribe to
this sense of interrelation in the world, what the ancients called
the "sympathy" of life, and the numbers of scientists now converting
to this world-view are beginning to multiply.
Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigione
of the University of Texas at Austin is studying the "spontaneous
formation of coherent structures," how chemical and other kinds of
structures evolve patterns out of chaos.
Karl Pribram, a neuroscientist at
Stanford University, has proposed that
the brain may be a type of "hologram,"
a pattern and frequency analyzer which creates "hard" reality by
interpreting frequencies from a dimension beyond space and time.
On the basis of such a model, the
physical world "out there," is, in Pribram's words, "isomorphic
with" - that, the same as, the processes of the brain.
So, if the modern alliance evolving between quantum physicists,
neuroscientists, parapsychologists and mystics is not just a
short-fused phase in scientific understanding, a paradigm shift may
well be imminent.
We may soon not only embrace a new image
of the universe as non-causal and "sympathetic," but uncover
conclusive evidence that the universe functions not as some great
machine, but as a great thought - unifying matter, energy, and
Synchronous events, perhaps even the
broader spectrum of paranormal phenomena, will be then liberated
from the stigma of "occultism," and no longer seen as disturbing.
At that point, our perceptions, and
hence our world, will be changed forever.