Mysteries of Mind Space and Time

The meaning of coincidence

Jung's study of coincidence was stimulated by his own experiences. One extraordinary case involved a golden scarab (above), Egyptian symbol of rebirth, and its European relative,the rose scarab (right)

Are coincidences merely random events, as mathematicians would have us believe - or is there much more to them? DOUGLAS HILL explores the extraordinary theory developed by the famous psychologist C.G. Jung

COINCIDENCE IS A WORD that is often levelled by rationalists at anyone who presumes to suggest that evidence exists for paranormal phenomena. But in recent years defenders of the paranormal have found their own weapon in the concept of 'synchronicity' developed by the great psychologist and philosopher Carl Gustav Jung.

For Jung, a tireless champion of open-mindedness, calling an event 'coincidence' did not automatically shut the door on any further examination of the facts. Coincidences happen - fact. Further and more important, coincidences often seem to have meaning to the percipients - also an established fact. Jung pointed out that there can be few people who have not had some experience in their lives that they recognise as 'meaningful coincidence'. Many of us may be reluctant to try to explain or evaluate these events for fear of being accused of credulity or superstition. But at the same time we often feel that there is more to them than mere chance.

Below: Professor J. B. Rhine, the American pioneer ESP researcher whose work was cited by Jung as objective evidence for the existence of an active force behind coincidence
JB Rhine

In his essay on synchronicity, subtitled An acausal connecting principle, Jung bravely ventures into this unexplored area (which he describes as 'dark, dubious and hedged about with prejudice'). He reminds us that the natural laws by which we live are based on the principle of causality: if this happens, that follows. Empirical observation and experiment prove that this is so, every time. But, Jung insists, there are facts that the old principle of causality cannot explain.

He cites evidence from the many well-authenticated phenomena gathered by psychical researchers - material on ESP collected by Dr J.B. Rhine, verified cases of precognitive or clairvoyant dreams, and the 'meaningful coincidences' chronicled by researchers such as Dr Paul Kammerer (see page 594).

Jung was drawn to this mass of material by an intriguing sense that it might contribute in a major way to a greater understanding of the human psyche. In his pioneering essay on synchronicity he is concerned to 'open the field', in the hope that a more thorough and comprehensive tilling will come later. And he is doubtless right to think that his work will inspire later researchers - his preliminary thoughts are breathtaking, for anyone who can overcome prejudice.

James Dean
The promising Hollywood actor James Dean (right) was killed in a tragic motoring accident in September 1955. Afterwards, when the wreck (above) was towed to a garage, the engine slipped and tell onto a mechanic, breaking both his legs. The engine was bought by a doctor, who put it into a racing car and was killed shortly afterwards. In the same race, another driver was killed in a car with the drive shaft from Dean's car. Dean's car was later repaired and a fire broke out at the garage. It was displayed in Sacramento, and fell off its mount, breaking a teenager's hip. Then, in Oregon, the truck on which the car was mounted slipped and smashed into a shop front. Finally, in 1959, it broke into 11 pieces while sitting on stationary steel supports

Jung is at pains to emphasise what he sees as the true significance of many synchronistic events (his term for meaningful coincidences or 'symbolic parallels'), in which he sees a stirring or 'constellating' of archetypes -those immensely powerful motifs that seem to underlie human consciousness. He offers several examples of constellation from his own experience, including the case of a patient whose rationalist preconceptions had set up rigid barriers against the progress of her analysis. She was relating a dream to Jung that involved a golden scarab - a particularly potent symbol of regeneration,especially in ancient Egypt. As she spoke. an insect flew in at the window - and, with astonishment Jung identified it as one of a species that is the closest thing to a scarab beetle that can he found in Europe. Since rebirth is one way of expressing the transformation that is the goal of Jungian psychotherapy - and since this oddly resonant reinforcing of the rebirth archetype led to a breakthrough for Jung's patient - it is clear how important meaningful coincidence can be.

But isolated phenomena, however remarkable, do not help to build up a workable hypothesis, and Jung went looking for empirical material. He was well aware that he was looking in areas where the scientific establishment said such material did not exist -but then, he points out wryly, so was Galileo. In fact, he chose to examine a body of traditional processes where the idea of svnchronicity is taken for granted - that is, the forms of divination that are essentially techniques designed to interpret the meanings of coincidence.

Chinese horoscopes

First he examined the I Ching, that ancient Chinese means of summoning our 'intuitive' faculties to aid, or even supplant, our reason in making judgements. From there he turned to traditional astrology, where he put aside the dubious and subjective 'analysis' of character traits and focused instead on a 'harder' connection: the planetary aspects, especially conjunction of Sun and Moon, long associated by astrologers with marriage. And his empirical search turned up an interestingly high percentage of married couples whose horoscopes did show the aspects in question.

Jung would have been very interested in the recent work of the young French statistician Michel Cauquelin, who has sought -and found - correlations between people's professions and the presence in their horoscopes of certain astrological elements.

Perhaps inevitably, however, this aspect of Jung's research has been the one that has attracted the most censure from those who wish to discredit him. People - mostly journalists - who have never read a word of Jung's own voluminous writings are now firmly convinced that he was a credulous crank, or a charlatan, because he 'believed' in astrology, alchemy and other weird subjects. But in fact Jung's own conclusions were that, while he accepted that the results of his experiment were not statistically valid - and that, even if they were, thev would not prove the validitv of astrology - they did provide him with a set of data concerning the phenomenon of synchronicity.

Below: a diagram invented by Jung and Pauli to explain their idea that acausality may be a ruling principle of the Universe

From his observations Jung draws some conclusions about synchronicity and the crucial role that the human psyche plays in it. Coincidences may be purely random events but, as Jung points out, as soon as they seem to carry some symbolic meaning they cease to be random as far as the person involved is concerned. He even considers the idea that the psyche may somehow be operating on external reality to 'cause' coincidences - or that, as in precognitive dreams, the external phenomena are somehow 'transmitted' to the psyche. But he quickly concludes that, because such ideas involve a suspension of our known 'laws' of space and time, we are not capable of ascertaining whether these hypotheses are relevant. And so he comes back to his own theory of an 'acausal' connecting principle governing certain chains of events.

In the face of a meaningful coincidence, Jung says, we can respond in any one of three ways. We can call it 'mere random chance', and turn away with our minds clamped shut; we can call it magic - or telepathy or telekinesis - which is not a great deal more helpful or informative. Or we can postulate the existence of a principle of acausality, and use this idea to investigate the phenomenon more thoroughly.

A 19th-century Chinese porcelain dish showing the eight trigrams, or symbols of the primary subdivisions of creation; the symbol in the middle represents the positive and negative forces in life, yang and yin. These concepts were central to the I Ching, a Chinese method of divination studied by Jung in his research into coincidences.

In the course of doing this Jung puts forward the unsettling thought that space and time may have no real objective existence. They may be only concepts created by the psyche in the course of empirical science's attempts to make rational, measurable sense of the Universe. It is certainly true that these concepts have little true meaning in the systems of thought of many primitive tribes. And, as many leading Jungians have pointed out, a great deal of damage has been done to conventional ideas of space and time by post-Einsteinian advances in particle physics, where so offen causality vanishes and probability rules. So, if space and time are merely mental concepts, it is quite reasonable to suppose that they will be capable of being 'conditioned' by the psyche.

Using this hypothesis, Jung goes on to pose a fascinating question. He assumes that, when a meaningful coincidence happens, an image - perhaps from the unconscious -comes into consciousness, and an 'outer' objective phenomenon coincides with it. The psyche perceives meaning in this juxtaposition of events. But what if the meaning could also exist outside the psyche? What if meaning exists within the phenomenon itself- just as causality exists, demonstrably, within objective cause-and-effect phenomena?

Rationalising the absurd

To put it another way, for clarity: we perceive causality with our minds - so, in a way, it can be regarded as a psychic event. Experiment proves that causality always obtains in 'outer', objective events so we know that it, too, has an objective existence. But equally, we perceive acausal connections (meaningful coincidence with our minds, so we know that acausality is a mental - or psychic - phenomenon. Could it also be that it actually happens in the outer world, and so has an objective existence of its own?

In short, might it not be that acausality is a cardinal structural principle of connection that lies at the very foundation of outer reality, a fourth to join the great triad of space, time and causality?

The implications of the idea are almost too difficult to imagine - in part, as Jung was the first to appreciate, because to pursue the possibilities further involves the extraordinary task of setting the psyche to investigate the deeper reaches of itself .But this is, of course, the central purpose of depth psychology. And the rewards for attempting such a piece of research could be immense -Jung's idea of synchronicity does, at the very least, indicate vast frontiers, philosophical as well as psychological, that await exploration.

Further reading
C. G. Jung, Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principle, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1977
Arthur Koestler, The roots of coincidence, Pan 1974 John Michell and Robert J. M. Rickard, Phenomena: a book of wonders, Thames and Hudson 1977

Jung made his pioneering steps untroubled by his awareness that he would have to travel along some paths in the 'dark and dubious' areas that orthodox science is inclined to dismiss as superstition - mankind's ancient and still thriving traditions of divination, magic and the paranormal. We may still hope that a time will come when fear, prejudice and mental laziness will no longer prevent other people from setting out to determine whether Jung's idea of synchronicity may indeed lead to new ways of perceiving the nature of mind, the nature of matter - and the nature of Nature itself.

Reproduced from THE UNEXPLAINED p658