THE CHALLENGE OF CHANCE
How far does the evidence from daemon, muse and the Eureka Effect, coupled with the case histories illustrating ESP, veridical hallucination and psychokinesis, confirm Schopenhauer’s idea of two different forms of causality influencing our lives, and Jung’s hypothesis of what he described as acausal forces, manifesting themselves in meaningful coincidences: the principle of synchronicity? Examining the hundreds of cases of coincidence sent to him after his New Scientist appeal, Arthur Koestler realised that there was no way in which they could be neatly divided into two categories, ‘chance’ and ‘synchronous’. He sought to narrow the field by eliminating cases which not merely had no physical cause, but also resisted explanation ‘in terms of telepathy and other categories of “classical” ESP - on the ground that if ESP exists, it can be held to be quasi-physical, a kind of wireless. But if, as Jung thought, ESP is one of synchronicity’s servants, this was hardly a valid omission.
Take what must be one of the commonest forms of coincidence when we think of somebody, for no apparent reason, only to encounter him on the street. Or, as Saint-Saens told Camille Flammarion, the way in which lovers communicate: in his early days in Paris, when he was deep in composing, a girl he knew would suddenly float into his mind; moments later, the door bell would ring, and it would be her. ‘The first few times I believed in chance,’ he commented. ‘But the twentieth time?’ What more probable than that the superconscious was the prompter, on synchronicity’s behalf? It is the frequency of such coincidences that is most likely to impress those of us for whom they are a common occurrence; either that, or the length of the odds against chance, as in a case which Jenny Randles provided in her Beyond Explanation. In 1981 British Rail had a call from a woman who claimed she was psychic, and who had ‘seen’ that an engine No. 47,216 was going to be involved in an accident. Checking, BR found that she had a reputation for making correct forecasts.
A couple of years later an accident occurred of the kind she had ‘seen’, except that the engine number was 47,299. That might have been the end of the matter, but for the fact that a trainspotter happened to have noticed, two years earlier, that engine 47,216 had been renumbered 4 7, 299, which had puzzled him, because that class of diesel was only renumbered after major modifications. 47,216, he knew, had not been modified. It had simply been given the number of an engine that had been. When he asked why, at the depot, he was told about the prediction, and informed that they had decided to take no chances. Questioned later, British Rail admitted the story was correct, and that it had been logged as an ‘amazing coincidence’.
Hardly less extraordinary was an experience of Flammarion’s.
Writing about the earth’s atmosphere, he was engaged upon a chapter on wind when the wind suddenly rose. Blowing through one of the windows in his study in Paris, it blew open another window, lifting the loose pages off the table and whirling them out among the trees along the avenue. A moment later the rain began to fall, ‘a regular downpour’, and he realised it was not worth going down to hunt for them.
What was my surprise to receive a few days later, from Lahure’s printing office in the Rue de Fleurus, about half a mile away from where I lived, that very chapter printed without one page missing.
Remember, it was a chapter on the strange doings of the wind.
What had happened? A very simple thing.
The porter of the printing office, who lived near the Observatory, and who brought me my proof sheets as he went to breakfast, when going back to his office noticed on the ground, sodden by the rain, the leaves of my manuscript. He thought he must have dropped them himself, and he hastened to pick them up, and, having arranged them with great care, he took them to the printing office, telling no one of the affair.
An indefatigable collector of experiences which could be considered psychic - he himself had coined the term, as a young man - Flammarion did not deny that coincidences, however strange, might be fortuitous; but his encounters with them, and his study of the cases sent in to him, made him feel there must be ‘something unknown in the forces at work’. Some of the cases in the category Koestler called the ‘library angel’ give the same feeling. In a letter to him Dame Rebecca West described an occasion when she had gone to the Royal Institute of international Affairs at Chatham House to look up a reference to one of the accused in the Nuremberg crime trials, and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher. They are abstracts, and are catalogued under arbitrary headings.
After hours of search I went along the line of shelves to an assistant librarian and said, ‘I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it might be in any of these volumes.’ (There are shelves of them.) I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.
It is cases of this kind, which give the impression that the coincidence is not merely meaningful but has been laid on for our particular benefit, that make the greatest impression - even when they are of minor importance, like a case related by the American parapsychologist Rex G. Stanford. Paying a surprise visit to some friends, a New York acquaintance of his took the subway, intending to change trains at 14th Street; but when he got out of the train he absent-mindedly left the station. As his friends lived only six blocks away, he settled for walking; and on the way he met his friends. Had he stuck to his original plan, he would have missed them.
In some cases, the daemonic element is much stronger. Shortly after Commander R. N. Stanbury had been told that his ten-year old daughter Elizabeth was suffering from an incurable form of leukemia, he was startled by the sudden appearance of a divinity notebook which he had kept at school, containing an essay on Jesus’ miracles. When he was told that this daughter had no more than a week to live, he happened upon a book on the Burrswood healing centre in the local library; and by chance met a respected business man, whom he did not know, but who brought up the subject of Burrswood, and when told about Elizabeth suggested she should be taken to a healing service there. She was. ‘Elizabeth is now twenty-two, and has not been near a doctor in the last twelve years.’ ‘Of one thing I am certain,’ Commander Stanbury concluded after surveying these and other incidents. ‘When events beyond coincidence occur, we should heed them very seriously.’ A remarkable experience in this category has been related by Rosamond Lehmann. Following a visit to some pre-Christian and early Christian monuments in Northern Ireland, ‘said to have once been centres of spiritual power’, she was reading aloud to her friends in the car to while away the journey back, and she gave them Edward Taylor’s little-known ‘Upon a Wasp Chilled by the Cold’.
A wasp ‘is not apt to be celebrated with tender observation and concern’, she comments, recalling the occasion. ‘In fact that poem must be a unique tribute to its beauty its spirited hold on life’; it particularly appeals to her. When they arrived at the airport, I opened the car door and stepped out; and amid shouts from porters of ‘Look out, madam!’ was met - greeted would be the more appropriate word - by a surge of wasps. I can only say that they circled before me as if performing a kind of ceremonial dance. A murmurous swarm, not buzzing but singing; a faintly unearthly sound which reminded me of what a professional bee man once told me: that bees sing ‘a special ditty, a mournful ditty’ when their swarm is taken. This was not exactly mournful, but special it was, as if acknowledging me with an unmistakable appearance of good will; as if, because of that recital during the drive, I had somehow been able to touch the spirit of the world of wasps.
Historically, one of the most often recorded forms of meaningful coincidence has been omens, linked to some notable event. ‘The afternoon on which Jung died, a great thunderstorm raged over his house at Kusnacht, as if nature herself were mobilised to acknowledge the event,’ Laurens van der Post noted in his biography of Jung. ‘Just about the time of his death, lightning struck his favourite tree in the garden.’ At the time, van der Post was on a liner returning from a visit to Africa. Between sleeping and waking one afternoon, he had a vision of himself in avalanche country, filled with the foreknowledge of imminent disaster.
Suddenly, at the far end of the valley on one Matterhorn peak of my vision, still caught in the light of the sun, Jung appeared. He stood there briefly, as I had seen him some weeks before at the gate, at the end of the garden of his house, then waved his hand at me and called out, ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ Then he vanished down the far side of the mountain.
The next morning, when van der Post looked out through his cabin porthole, I saw a great, white, lone albatross gliding by it; the sun on fire on its wings. As it glided by it turned its head and looked straight at me. I had done that voyage countless times before and such a thing had never happened to me, and I had a feeling as if some tremendous ritual had been performed. Hardly had I got back into bed when my steward appeared with a tray of tea and fruit and, as he always did, the ship’s radio news. I opened it casually. The first item I saw was the announcement that Jung had died the previous afternoon at his home in Zurich. Taking into consideration the time, the latitude and longitude of the ship’s position, it was clear that my dream, or vision, had come to me at the moment of his death.
Another curious example of this type of coincidence has been described by the author Guy Lyon Playfair. In 1981 he was doing some research for an American television company into the events at Fatima, in Portugal, in 1917, after three children had seen what they took to be the Virgin Mary. A huge crowd of perhaps 100,000 people who had come to the spot ‘saw’ the sun burst through the clouds, go round in zigzag circles, bathe the landscape in all the colours of the rainbow, and finally fall to earth. Playfair was sceptical of such tales, but his job was simply to summarise the research which had been carried out into the episode; and after examining the relevant Portuguese papers on microfilm at the British Library’s Colindale branch, he went down to the cafeteria where, as he had nothing to read, he ate his sandwich ‘and thought about what a Jesuit scientist named Pio Sciatizzi called the most obvious and colossal miracle in history’.
“I stared at the clouds over Colindale. As I was below ground level I could see nothing else. It was a windy and overcast day and thick layers of low lying cumulo-nimbus swirled past. I watched the peaceful and relaxing display for a few minutes, as my stomach did its best to process the unfamiliar white bread”.
Then came the miracle.
“The clouds parted, and the sun appeared briefly through an alignment of gaps in at least three layers of cloud, its rays reflected in sudden bright spots on their edges, and the solar disc itself visible through a protective shield of mist. The lower cloud layer was moving faster than the upper ones, and for one or two seconds the bright spots moved from one edge of the gap above to the other, giving a striking impression of a zigzag motion of the sun- a feature common to many of the eye-witness accounts from Fatima. Seen through moving clouds, I found, it is indeed the sun and not the clouds that can appear to move, as it reappears after each brief occultation. The whole effect was uncannily similar to what I had only just finished reading about; the sighting took place slap in the middle of my field of vision and the timing was exactly right. A few minutes earlier, and my attention might have been on my food and drink. A minute later I would have been on my way home”.
Guy Playfair is an experienced psychical researcher. He has watched ‘psychic surgeons’ perform their operations in Brazil, investigated poltergeists in London, engaged in telepathy experiments, and tested mediums. Some of his experiences in the course of his research have been startling, but the Colindale event was of an entirely different order. “Although it was a wholly natural phenomenon in itself, it gave the impression that it took place when and where it did solely for my benefit. It taught me that if one applies the mind to a scientific problem with enough determination, the solution is likely to appear sometimes in the least expected ways, provided that it is in the general interest in addition to my own. This has been confirmed on a number of subsequent occasions”.
It is ironical, Playfair recalls, that what could be regarded as a debunking of part of the Fatima miracle should have given him enlightenment, much as its acceptance has given to millions of the Catholic faithful. Had he been one of them, he might have put a different interpretation on his experience, ‘but its effect would probably have been very similar.’ There is some, admittedly slender, evidence for meaningful coincidence operating to offer protection to members of a group as if a form of mass hysteria has emerged in a protective role. In Earthworks (1986) Lyall Watson relates how the choir in a church in Beatrice, Nebraska, used to assemble for practice on fixed dates at 7.20 p.m. On I March 1950, all fifteen of them were late.
The minister’s wife, the one who played the organ, was still ironing her daughter’s dress. One soprano was finishing her geometry homework. Another couldn’t start her car. Two of the tenors were listening, each in their own homes, to the end of a sports broadcast. The bass had taken a quick nap and overslept. There were ten separate reasons to account for the unusual fact that not one of the choir turned up on time. And at 7.25 p.m. that evening the empty church was wrecked by a devastating explosion.
That all the members of the choir should have been late was improbable, Watson feels, but not very surprising. That they should all have been late on the night the boiler blew up ‘begins to border on the uncanny’.
So do the results of an experiment conducted by William Cox into accidents on the American railways. He managed to obtain figures for the number of passengers involved in some accidents, and to compare them with the number who had taken the same trains on the same day for four weeks before. Invariably, he found, there were fewer passengers on the trains which had been involved in accidents.
One other category of coincidence attracted Koestler’s attention: ‘the practical joker’; and if the ‘timid hopes’ he expressed in his farewell note that there may be some form of afterlife ‘beyond the confines of space, time and matter’ have been realised, he will surely have been amused at an episode in the offices of the Foundation which bears his name.
Brought in to work in the Foundation fresh from university in 1984, to compile a bibliography on a subject she knew nothing about for somebody she hardly knew, Joanna Trevelyan arrived full of trepidation, wondering if l hadn’t talked my way right out of my depth, this time. The room was full of books and people with very little space for someone new. Ruth, my employer, suggested I sat at Koestler’s desk, which she had recently acquired at an auction. No one had used it since his death and Ruth was far too in awe of it to do more than just set it down in a corner. We pulled the desk away from the wall, found a chair and I sat down with a pile of index cards and a biro. Now what? I opened the first drawer that came to hand. It was empty save for one white postcard, addressed to Arthur Koestler and dated 20 February 1961- a month or so after I was born. On the other side was a short note: Thank you very much Joanna. Whether we attribute coincidences to chance or to some as yet undiscovered principle, Koestler concluded, ‘is ultimately a matter of inclination and temperament’. He had found to this surprise that many of his scientist friends accepted that there is some principle, though they might be reluctant to admit it, even to themselves.
The issue, he decided, would not, and indeed could not, be settled by any appeal to conventional science; and he stressed that ‘no amount of scientific knowledge can help a person to decide which of these alternative beliefs is more reasonable’. Whatever the truth of the matter, though, coincidences which appeared to be meaningful to the individuals who experienced them could have decisive consequences, prompting ‘drastic changes in a person’s mental outlook’ ranging from religious conversion to ‘an agnostic willingness to admit the existence of levels of reality beyond the vocabulary of rational thought’ - the type of willingness which he had himself reached through his own experience of meaningful coincidences, and through his encounter with the oceanic feeling.
“Synchronicity” is a chapter from The Unknown Guest by Brian Inglis and Ruth West.