In a lecture given in 1977 John Beloff recalled that although when he read Jung’s Synchronicity he had been intrigued, regarding it as ‘one of the more extravagant products of Jung’s fertile imagination’, he had not expected it to catch on. Events had proved him wrong; ‘fourteen years later, although it could not be said to occupy a paramount place in contemporary parapsychological speculation, it has become a firm fixture.’
Thirteen years later still, it has spread out to establish itself among what used to be described as the intelligentsia, a species which today lacks an identification, but for convenience can be described as the readers of the ‘quality’ newspapers and magazines. Synchronicity can no longer be closely identified, however, with Jung’s concept; partly because Jung himself did not claim to present it as a fully-fledged theory. In the foreword to his essay on the subject, he explained that he was making good a promise which for many years he had lacked the courage to fulfil; ‘the difficulties of the problem and its presentation seemed to me too great; too great the intellectual responsibility without which a subject cannot be tackled; too inadequate, in the long run, my scientific training’. His research into symbols, however, had brought the problem closer; and as he had been alluding to synchronicity for twenty years he felt it was time to explain what he had in mind by it - though this would entail, he feared, ‘uncommon demands on the open-mindedness and goodwill of the reader.’ It still does, not least because Jung was not good at elucidating obscurities in his ideas. His ‘scarab’ illustration of synchronicity gives a clearer picture than his attempts to describe it as a theory: the unconscious minds of therapist and patient, brought into collaboration by the need of the patient to find a way out of her problems and the need of the therapist to help her, are assisted by synchronicity in the form of a contribution from the collective unconscious - an archetype, the scarabeid beetle, arriving at the opportune moment in the session.
How, though, was this done? Jung turned to Pauli to explain that the new physics left the door open for the acceptance of acausal forces; and to Rhine, for the evidence which his research at Duke University had provided for the reality of psi phenomena, showing how the intercommunication between individuals - and, presumably, between individuals and the collective unconscious - could be accounted for. But this pushed Jung into accepting that the phenomena should be considered acausal: a source of confusion.
It was Jung’s harping on acausality which chiefly irritated Koestler when he came to examine the theory of synchronicity. Starting from the acausality premise, he complained, Jung had nevertheless ended up with the notion that the archetypes had somehow engineered the scarab’s appearance at the window. The confusion had arisen, John Beloff has explained, because of Jung’s arbitrary decision to restrict the meaning of causality to the way in which it is understood in physics. Jung had taken for granted that because trials had shown that telepathic communication appeared to be instantaneous, regardless of the distances involved, it must be acausal, as this was how quantum physics classified acausality.
But ‘what this argument overlooks is that the concept of cause was not invented by physicists’. It was surely nonsensical to claim that the findings from card-guessing trials for telepathy, if they were positive, were not causally related. Whether Uri Geller bends keys by normal or paranormal means, ‘the one thing we can be sure about is that he causes them to bend.’ ‘Meaningful’ has also raised problems. When Jung recalled that his interest in synchronicity had been roused by coincidences which were connected ‘so meaningfully that their “chance” concurrence would represent a degree of improbability that would have to be expressed by an astronomical figure’, he was using the term in a special sense. It is usually employed - as, for that matter, is ‘synchronicity’ - to describe a coincidence which has a meaning for the person or people it has involved, in the sense of giving the impression that it may have been designed for them, for good or ill. An improbable coincidence excites curiosity, but the improbability does not make it meaningful in this second sense; whereas a coincidence which ordinarily would be readily attributed to chance can become meaningful if it leaves those concerned wondering if it has implications for them, personally.
Synchronicity may be the best known theory to account for meaningful coincidences, Grattan-Guinness has observed, but it is ‘probably the most feeble’ - he is one of many parapsychologists who share Koestler’s irritation with it. As an alternative Grattan-Guinness offers ‘propensity’, a hypothesis covering a group of theories which have in common the assumption that ‘nature’, including the person involved and his environment, ‘has a propensity to fall into certain states of affairs which are favourable (or unfavourable) to psi events’ - a notion related to Sir Karl Popper’s theory of probabilities, set out in his Logic of Scientific Discovery. The most convincing criticism of Jung’s theory, however, is Eisenbud’s.
Jung had the idea of synchronicity, and then contrived to fuse psi into it. But if psi is accepted on Eisenbud’s or Sheldrake’s model, there is less need for synchronicity.
Most meaningful coincidences can be accounted for without it.
As things stand, therefore, it would be unwise to try to resuscitate synchronicity in its original form. Nevertheless the basic idea of an acausal connecting principle, as Beloff concedes, ‘is not devoid of meaning’. The concept of acausality may have to be dispensed with, ‘but the type of cause that we are left with is very different from the type of cause we associated with mechanical forces’. The essential point, David Peat claims in Synchronicity (1987), is that Jung presented a hypothesis which spanned the apparently unbridgeable gap ‘between the objective and subjective approaches to the question of the universe and our role within it.’
Synchronicity provides us with a starting point, for it represents a tiny flaw in the fabric of all that we have hitherto taken for a reality.
Synchronicities give us a glimpse beyond our conventional notions of time and causality into the immense patterns of nature, the underlying dance which connects all things and the mirror which is suspended between inner and outer universes. With synchronicity as our starting point it becomes possible to begin the construction of a bridge that spans the worlds of mind and matter, physics and psyche.
“Jung Revisited” is an extract from Coincidence: a Matter of Chance - or Synchronicity? by Brian Inglis.