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Coincidence: a Matter of Chance - or Synchronicity? by Brian Inglis


As a schoolboy in Orleans, Emile Deschamps was given a taste of plum pudding - then hardly known in France - by M. de Fontgibu, one of the emigres who had fled to England during the Revolution, and had returned. Some ten years later, walking along the Boulevard Poissoniere in Paris, Deschamps noticed a plum pudding in a restaurant window, and went in to ask if he could have a slice. ‘M. de Fontgibu,’ the dame du comptoir called out to a customer, ‘would you have the goodness to share your plum pudding with this gentleman?’ Eventually Deschamps, who by the mid-nineteenth century had achieved fame in France as a romantic poet and librettist, related this coincidence to his young friend the astronomer Camille Flammarion.

It had not proved to be the end of the story, he explained. Many years after the restaurant encounter, he had been invited to dine in a Paris apartment, and his hostess told him he would be having plum pudding. Jokingly, he said he was sure M. de Fontgibu would be one of the party. When the pudding was served, and the guests were enjoying the dinner, the door opened and a servant announced: ‘M. de Fontgibu’.

At first Deschamps thought his hostess must be playing a joke on him. He saw it really was Fontgibu when the old man, by this time enfeebled, tottered round the table, looking bemused. It turned out that he had been invited to dinner in the same house, but had come to the wrong apartment.

Flammarion recalled the tale in his L’Inconnu in 1900. We have no way of ascertaining whether the facts were as Deschamps related or, for that matter, were as Flammarion told them nearly thirty years after his death. Yet as the psychologist John Beloff has observed, whatever may be the doubts about its authenticity ‘it is likely to remain the ne plus ultra of coincidence, with its unique combination of the comic and the preposterous’.

‘The little god Chance,’ Flammarion commented, ‘sometimes produces extraordinary results.’ He was being mildly sarcastic: Chance had become a little god, in this context. Until the eighteenth century it had been possible to attribute coincidences to supernatural intervention. Oedipus’s encounter with his father was clearly predestined; Joseph’s uncannily accurate interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams was made possible because the Lord had given him the power of divination; the portents accompanying Caesar’s assassination were signals from the gods; when a witch’s spell gave results, it was the devil’s work - and so on. But the replacement of the supernatural by what were assumed to be laws of nature led to the development of eighteenth-century rationalism, and later of nineteenth-century posivitism, proclaiming the supremacy of the doctrine that every effect must have a cause. Where no acceptable reason for a coincidence could be found, chance could be invoked; chance, which had acquired its own respectable standing through probability theory.

Flammarion was not denying that even weird coincidences could be fortuitous; he was merely questioning whether ‘coincidence’ and ‘chance’ should be as synonymous as they had become. He was not quite the first to challenge the positivist dogma; a few months earlier, in 1899, it had been critically scrutinised by the young Cambridge biologist Alice Johnson - ‘a small, quiet kindly woman of extreme integrity’, Rosalind Heywood was to recall - who had been working with Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick in the early years of the Society for Psychical Research. Although ‘little impressed with the marvellous’, she shared their belief that orthodox science needed to come to terms with the reality of telepathy. If telepathy occurs it should theoretically be possible, Alice Johnson thought, to estimate its probability, as compared to chance, at least in the case of some coincidences.

Suppose, for example, somebody forecasts a hand at whist. The odds against the forecast being correct by chance can be estimated, and obviously they are formidable. Some other cause is much more likely, such as a previously rigged pack. But if causes of that kind can be eliminated, investigation could lead ‘to the discovery of a cause hitherto unknown, or at least unrecognised by science’; and in a book-length article of some 60,000 words she presented a selection.

Her evidence strongly supported the case for a cause, or causes, which orthodox science rejected as a relic of superstition.

Alice Johnson, though, was unknown both to the public and to scientists. Moreover, her article appeared in the Society’s Proceedings, circulated only to members. Flammarion’s was a household name in France; he had prised astronomy out of the tenacious grip of his fellow astronomers, turning it into the popular hobby which it has since become (with valuable consequences; to this day, many an important discovery is being made by amateurs conducting research along the independent lines he advocated). His voluminous correspondence revealed the affection and trust he inspired, and his book was translated into many languages. And where Alice Johnson had cautiously insisted that she was only trying to clear the ground - to present the problems which coincidences posed, rather than try to solve them, their solution being ‘impossible for the present’ - Flammarion came out boldly for the adoption of a new attitude to them. What was ascribed to chance, he felt sure, must allow for ‘something unknown to us in the forces at work’. An experience of his own suggested this.

When he was writing a description one morning of the curious forms which wind can take, a window in his study blew open, whisking the pages he had just written out of another window, ‘carrying them off in a sort of whirlwind among the trees.’ As, a moment later, it began to rain, he thought it would be futile to go out and look 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 live, 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.

Among those who were impressed by L’Inconnu was the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer. In 1900 he began to collect coincidences, publishing a selection and a commentary in Das Gesetz der Serie in 1919. He was impressed less by the significance of individual coincidences than by what he described as ‘the lawful recurrence of the same or similar things and events - a recurrence, or clustering, in time or space whereby the individual members in the sequence, as far as can be ascertained by careful analysis, are not connected by the same active cause.’

Most of his examples were trivial: recurring numbers - his brother-in-law, attending a concert, found that his seat and cloakroom tickets each bore the number 9; the following day at a concert his seat and cloakroom ticket were both No. 21. But from his study of them, he came to the conclusion that they were significant. ‘The crucial phrase is “lawful recurrence”,’ Arthur Koestler explained in his biography, The Case of the Midwife Toad; Kammerer’s purpose was ‘to prove that what we traditionally call a coincidence, or a series of coincidences, is in reality the manifestation of a universal principle of nature which operates independently from the known laws of physical causation.’ Kammerer was claiming, in other words, that when we say ‘it never rains but it pours’ - the English equivalent, Koestler observed, of the title of his book - or recall enviously a gambler’s ‘lucky streak’, or lament that ‘troubles never come singly’, we are recognising, perhaps without realising it, that ‘seriality’ really is a force in our lives. By analogy, the scattered islands and rocks of an archipelago can indicate the presence of a mountain rising from the ocean bed.

Kammerer’s ideas attracted the interest of Carl Jung. For a time, Jung was even tempted to accept that ‘clusters’ lay outside conventional causality. While he was engaged on research into the history of the classical ‘fish’ symbol (Pisces), fish cropped up in his life six times in twenty-four hours, a run which for him seemed to have ‘a certain numinous quality’. Later, he decided that there was no real justification for regarding it as anything but fortuitous. By then, however, he had become impressed by a different type of coincidence. In the course of his research into the collective unconscious, he had noted numerous occasions when he had experienced coincidences ‘so meaningfully connected that their “chance” occurrence would represent a degree of improbability that would have to be expressed by an astronomical figure’. They must consequently, he believed, ‘be connected through another principle, namely the contingency of events’: the principle of ‘synchronicity’ - as distinct from synchronism, which simply meant the simultaneous occurrence of events - which he illustrated in an example from his own experience.

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 this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping, 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 a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.

This passage has sometimes been used, as it was by Koestler in The Roots of Coincidence, to illustrate Jung’s theory. Up to a point it does; not merely had the beetle arrived at the right time, but its urge to get into the dark room hinted at a purpose of the kind that in earlier times would have been regarded as qualifying it as an emissary from the gods.

For Jung, however, there was more to it. The scarab, he knew, was ‘a classic example of a rebirth symbol’. In ancient Egyptian lore ‘the dead sun-god changes himself at the tenth station into Khepri, the scarab, and then, at the twelfth station, mounts the barge which carries the rejuvenated sun-god into the morning sky.’ Fitting in, as this did, with his theory of archetypes - messengers from the collective unconscious, making its presence felt through their symbols - this provided another layer of meaning.

There was also a third layer. It had been ‘an extraordinarily difficult case to treat, and up to the time of the dream little or no progress had been made’; his patient had been too locked into conventional beliefs.

Although the dream had slightly disturbed her resolute rationalism, it had needed the arrival of the beetle at precisely the crucial stage of the analysis to break through her mental armour, so that ‘the process of transformation could at last begin to move.’ The existence of meaningfully connected coincidences had been recognised earlier. ‘If meaningless coincidences are frequent there must occasionally occur coincidences that have meaning,’ the philosopher Herbert Spencer had written; ‘coincidences of which the elements are related in some significant way.’ But Spencer was imbued with positivism - or materialism, as it was coming to be regarded. He assumed that meaningful coincidences must be the outcome of chance, rather than of some ‘supernatural cause’, which for him appeared to be the only alternative.

By the time Jung came to present his theory, however, it was possible to offer another. The materialist reliance on the sanctity of causality had been challenged: when Synchronicity was published in 1952 Jung gave it the sub-title, ‘An Acausal Connecting Principle’, and it was accompanied by an essay from Wolfgang Pauli, one of the most influential of the quantum physicists and a Nobel Laureate, with whom Jung had been collaborating. The new physics, Jung felt entitled to claim, had finally demolished the stock materialist case.

It was the link between psychology and physics which initially aroused Koestler’s interest. As science editor of the Ullstein newspaper chain in Germany in the early 1930s he had established a reputation for making complex issues readable, and when in the 1950s he decided to give up the quasi-political role into which his novel Darkness at Noon had thrust him, it was to science that he returned.

That Pauli, whose work he greatly admired, should have lent his support to synchronicity impressed Koestler. The hypothesis that acausal factors might be affecting people’s lives had, for the first time, been given ‘the joint stamp of respectability by a psychologist and a physicist, both of international renown’.

A few years later Koestler found himself, as if through coincidence, confronted with Kammerer’s findings, and the seriality theory. His interest had been aroused by Kammerer’s work as a biologist, which had appeared to show that Lamarck’s theory of evolution should not have been so brusquely discarded in favour of Darwin’s. When Koestler found that the evidence of fraud which had led to Kammerer’s suicide in 1926 and to his findings being discredited had almost certainly been ‘planted’ by an unscrupulous rival, he decided to write his biography; and in the course of the research, he read Das Gesetz der Serie. Although inclined to be sceptical about the theory of seriality, Koestler made allowances for the fact that Kammerer had been writing before the quantum physicists had confirmed the acausality he was seeking to establish. Einstein, too, had been impressed; he had called the book ‘original and by no means absurd’.

But what intrigued Koestler, uneasy though he always was about subjective reactions, was that while he was engaged on the research for the biography in 1970 a whole series of coincidences seemed to descend on him, ‘like a meteor shower on a summer night’.

By this time, Koestler had another reason for devoting more attention to coincidence. As a child, and occasionally later, he had experienced psychic phenomena. They were an embarrassment to him; from his scientific training, he had longed to find materialist explanations for them, and as a communist, he had felt bound to regard acceptance of them as a bourgeois deviation. But from his study of the research at Duke University in North Carolina in the 1930s, and at other centres later, he had come to the conclusion that the evidence could no longer be dismissed. Yet dismissed it was by the majority of orthodox scientists, who showed no signs of allowing it to be accepted even as a valid field for research.

Coincidence was another matter. Nobody could deny that coincidences happened. If they could be scientifically studied, they might throw up useful evidence about ‘psi’, the term parapsychologists had begun to use about the forces they were exploring and their effects.

Jung had incorporated psi in his theory of synchronicity, and the quantum physicists were turning up evidence which, if it did not actually demonstrate psi, at least weakened some of the traditional materialist objections to accepting it as a possibility.

When Koestler turned to the theory of synchronicity as a starting point, however, he was quickly disillusioned. He called his next book The Roots of Coincidence, but the title was a little misleading; it was primarily about psi and its relationship to the new physics. He devoted only a chapter to ‘Seriality and Synchronicity’, and it was dismissive of both. Jung had complained that seriality, which Kammerer had presented as acausal, was simply another species of causality. Jung, Koestler thought, had without realising it made the same mistake, presenting archetypes as if they fulfilled a causal role.

The Roots of Coincidence, however, led to Koestler being sent several interesting case histories, including one which particularly intrigued him. In London in 1971 ‘Harold’ a young architect, suffering from a nervous breakdown, threw himself under an approaching Underground train. It stopped just on him, but not over him; he was taken to hospital, where he survived his severe injuries. A relation of Harold’s wrote to Koestler (who did not know either of them), after reading The Roots of Coincidence, with the startling information that it had not been the driver who had brought the train to a standstill, just in time.

‘Quite independently, and with no knowledge of Harold or of what he intended to do, some passenger on the train had pulled down the emergency handle. London Transport had actually interviewed the passenger, intending to prosecute him for acting without reasonable cause.’

The passenger’s action had saved Harold’s life. ‘They had to jack up the train to get him out, therefore he must have been well under it. On the other hand a wheel cannot have passed over him or he would have been killed.’ The coincidence would have been striking enough if the passenger had seen what was happening, and reacted accordingly; but as Koestler pointed out, ‘anybody familiar with the London Underground system can confirm that it is quite impossible to see what is happening in front of the engine’. That a passenger had pulled the emergency handle was confirmed by London Transport; but as they had decided not to prosecute, they could claim that they did not know the passenger’s name. Tom Tickell, then a journalist on the Guardian, tried to trace his identity, but without success.

Koestler found another source of case histories; Sir Alister Hardy, FRS, Professor Emeritus of Zoology at Oxford University, had set up the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, and many of the accounts which had come pouring into it were of strange coincidences. A letter to the New Scientist in 1972 brought in several more, and Koestler published a selection the following year in The Challenge of Chance, to which Hardy and the statistician Robert Harvie also contributed.

Alice Johnson had adopted what she described as a provisional classification: ‘(A) Coincidences suggestive of “Causation”; (B) Coincidences suggestive of “Design”; (C) Coincidences due to “Chance”.’ Koestler apparently was not familiar with her article, as he did not refer to it; he, too, adopted a provisional classification but of a more subjective type, with particular emphasis on coincidences of the kind that most interested him: the ‘Library Angel’, where a combination of serendipity and intuition appears to be operating to find missing books or source references; Deus ex Machina, where machinery is involved, sometimes as if with a mind of its own; ‘Clustering’, on the Kammerer model; the ‘Practical Joker’, seemingly setting up the coincidences for its amusement. Inevitably there was overlapping, but there were also more serious problems.

Koestler put the London Underground case into the Deus ex Machina category, for example, but he had no way of knowing whether there was ‘a ghost in the machine’. Had the handle been pulled accidentally? Was the puller drunk? Did he do it out of bravado, or for a bet? Or did he do it as a result of some inexplicable impulse? Unless he, or somebody to whom he explained what had happened, or a passenger who witnessed the episode, came forward, the coincidence would elude classification. Nobody came forward.

Koestler also made a problem for himself by deciding that his ‘guiding principle’, as he put it, had been a preference for cases which appeared to resist explanation not only in terms of ordinary physical causality, ‘but also in terms of telepathy and other categories of “classical” ESP.’ Reluctantly he had decided to exclude some of the most dramatic coincidences, ‘such as telepathic dreams or premonitions of death or accident’.

As he had come to accept the reality of ESP, this appeared to him to be logical. Suppose that - a commonly reported occurrence - a mother suddenly feels worried about her child, to find later that the child has been ill, or in danger, at the time. If the communication is attributed to telepathy, the onset of the alarm, it can be argued, is no more ‘coincidental’ than if the mother had been informed of the illness or accident by telephone. Nevertheless it was a curious decision on his part because, as he himself admitted, ‘we do not have even the beginning of a methodology which would enable us to decide whether some event with astronomical odds against chance should be interpreted as a manifestation of ESP - or in terms of “synchronicity” or the “clustering effect”.’

The case histories in The Challenge of Chance presented a powerful argument in favour of the existence of some unexplained process, whether serialistic or synchronistic, causal or acausal, at work in the generating of coincidence; but Koestler knew only too well that they would carry little weight among scientists, the people he would most have liked to impress. They would dismiss the evidence on the ground that it was derived from spontaneous occurrences, ‘usually referred to, somewhat contemptuously, as “anecdotal material” because the value of such reports depends in most cases on subjective assessments of the reliability of the reporter; they do not qualify as scientific evidence in the strict sense.’ Still, it might be possible to get around this difficulty by exploiting the method academic psychologists sometimes had to adopt, relying on numbers to obtain a sufficient quantity of evidence about spontaneous cases to compensate for the lack of experimental laboratory confirmation; accordingly in 1974 he persuaded The Sunday Times to offer a prize of £100 for the best coincidence account, and £5 each for any others which would be printed.

The competition attracted almost 2000 entries. The paper screened them, sending Koestler fifty, from which he selected the winners. But he could not face the prospect of ploughing through the rest of them, to decide on the next step: indeed, he was soon telling his friends he wished never to hear another coincidence story again. He was compelled to read some of those which continued to reach him; his wife Cynthia took on the screening, passing on to him those which she thought he should see and reply to - as he did, punctiliously. But no further use was made of the collection, and after his death it went with the rest of his papers to the Edinburgh University library, where it remains. His name, however, had become attached to coincidences. The Koestler Foundation, set up in his lifetime, continued to receive letters relating fresh examples. The Foundation’s aim was, and is, to promote research into areas which lie just outside the boundaries of orthodox science - a wider range than Koestler decided upon for the Edinburgh Chair of Parapsychology that bears his name; and in 1987 we produced The Unknown Guest, subtitled The Mystery of Intuition - one of his main interests, as he had shown in The Act of Creation. At the end of the book we invited readers to send in accounts of a variety of experiences related to intuition; among them, meaningful coincidences. In they flowed, prompting me to suggest to Koestler’s friend and executor Harold Harris - he had been Koestler’s editor at Hutchinson, and although by this time in retirement had remained a consultant to the firm - that coincidence could be the subject of the Foundation’s next venture. This book is the result.

In certain respects I have departed from Koestler’s model; in particular, by making more use of the available historical material, some of which is actually more reliable as evidence than most contemporary accounts: Alice Johnson, for example, went to great pains to obtain attestation for the stories she included.

This raises an issue which, I have found, tends to be brought up when coincidence is discussed: how far can the contributions be relied upon? I will be dealing with this in greater detail in the fifth chapter, but on one point I feel reasonably certain there is nothing to fear; the project has not been inundated with deliberately faked stories. The reason is that as everybody knows, coincidences can be so weird that rationalists long ago stopped doubting. Instead, they began to invoke probability theory as capable of accounting for any and every case.

What we do get, from time to time - as Koestler did - are letters explaining to us that investigation of coincidences is a waste of time, for that reason. Invariably the writers reveal their ignorance of probability theory, in this context.

In any case, this has not been a formal research project. The book describes the findings of a pilot investigation, chiefly designed to discover what kind of coincidences people are most interested in, the reactions which they provoke, the interpretations put on them, and so on. The only check employed has been to obtain the permission of all those whose accounts are included to publish them, either under the contributor’s own name or a pseudonym (indicated here by putting the name in inverted commas). The planned second stage of the investigation, we hope, can be made more systematic, with the help of the additional data from opinion polls, and other sources.

The main difference of our approach to the subject from Koestler’s arises from our decision not to try to exclude, as he did, cases of ‘classical’ ESP - or, indeed, of other possibilities unacceptable to orthodox science. Accounts of visions of what is happening at a distance, or of dreams accurately foretelling some future event, are necessarily accounts of coincidences. Whether they should be attributed to some undiscovered faculty, to chance or to sheer invention is for readers to decide.

I have to admit, though, to the deliberate exclusion of two categories of coincidence; those reported from laboratory-type trials based on card-guessing and from ‘remote perception’ tests; and those reported in connection with professional divination. If you cross a gypsy’s palm with silver, and get a painfully accurate picture of your past; if a fortune teller assures you that you are about to meet and marry a tall, dark man, and you do; if a medium persuades you that you are in contact with your Uncle Harry, dead these ten years - these experiences must all, if they are not fraudulent, be attributed to coincidence, if psi is not accepted as an alternative. I propose therefore, to include only spontaneous coincidences, leaving out what might be described as the manufactured variety.

The accounts are divided into three groups. ‘Seriality?’ concentrates on what, for convenience, can be described as Kammerian coincidences: those which excite curiosity, but are not as a rule regarded as of ‘meaningful’ personal significance. Should you find your cloakroom ticket, your seat ticket, and even the number of the bus which you take home, are all the same, you may regard this as evidence of the existence of unexplained forces at work; but you are unlikely to feel that they are directed at, or for, or against you.

‘Synchronicity?’ deals mainly with those coincidences in which the personal component features, giving the impression of design. They are of the kind which in the past would have been attributed to divine or diabolic intervention, to Fate or to Providence.

To some extent, admittedly, the distinction is arbitrary. A few people take numbers very seriously. If their cloakroom and concert tickets and their bus all have the same number, they consider this significant, particularly if the number happens to be one which keeps on coming up in their lives, or which they consider lucky, or unlucky.

And there is the further problem of what constitutes ‘meaningful’. Should a trivial coincidence which happens to lead to an important outcome, a new job or a new love affair, be put in the Jungian section? The question marks in Seriality? and Synchronicity? are intended as a reminder that these were, and are, no more than hypotheses, attempts to account for certain coincidences without having to fall back on positivism’s safety net, chance. Is there any other way to explore this territory? The third section, ‘The Subliminal Component’, considers one. If it should be found that a disproportionate number of coincidences, more especially those for which chance does not appear a plausible explanation, are related to, or the outcome of, dreams, visions, intuitions, and other subliminal sources, the implication will be that the subliminal mind may be playing a more active part in promoting coincidences than has been recognised.

The fourth section, ‘Alternatives’, deals with the evidence for chance in its safety-net role, considers its limitations, and goes on to consider other possibilities; the fifth discusses some which have been provided by recent developments in and around orthodox science.

But I must echo Alice Johnson: this collection, like hers, ‘is nothing more than an attempt to clear some of the ground in a preliminary fashion, and it is intended to suggest problems rather than solve them - their solution being, as it seems to me, impossible for the present.

Coincidence: a Matter of Chance - or Synchronicity? by Brian Inglis is published by White Crow Books.

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