An important step towards unravelling the profound mysteries of coincidence

One day my wife Angie and I stopped to look at an impressive standing stone overlooking a bay not far from our home. It stood in the corner of a field, and just over the fence was a large modern house. I took photos of the stone, one of them with the house in the background.

A week later, walking on the deserted beach below, we found a small digital camera in the sand. The memory card was intact and, hoping to find a clue as to the owner, we called up the photos. Imagine our astonishment when we saw that one of them showed the same standing stone and house!

The photo had even been taken from the beach not far from where we found the camera, and another photo from it showed the whole beach itself, taken from near the house. Calling at the house, we discovered it was where the owner of the lost camera lived.

A meaningful coincidence, certainly, but was it synchronicity, especially in the true Jungian sense? This is the kind of question that Laurence Browne deftly sets out to answer in his quest for an inclusive categorisation of all kinds of coincidence in what must become a landmark work — The Many Faces of Coincidence (Imprint Academic UK £14.95 / US $29.90, August 2017). It’s a timely, accessible and important contribution to consciousness studies and philosophic thought.

Browne proposes four categories (possibly yet to lead to sub-categories), or explanations of coincidence: random chance (a probability that could be calculated mathematically), natural causal (accounted for by standard theories of physical and mental causation), supernatural causal (paranormal elements, eg, telepathy) — and, the most interesting category, synchronicity.

Most interesting because, in Jung’s terms, synchronicity affords a glimpse of the unus mundus, the one underlying reality: subject and object become temporarily united in a ‘timeless epiphany’ which might last only a moment. For synchronicity to happen, the spaces between individuals and things, rather than being empty, must somehow afford a connecting link or itself be a transmitting medium. And indeed, synchronicity turns out to be the main focus of Browne’s book.

Jung used the term synchronicity to describe a meaningful coincidence of an inner psychological state or event with an external or objective event, such events connected by time and meaning, but not, seemingly, by cause and effect. In particular, Jung argued that these coincidences tended to occur during emotionally charged events which he termed ‘archetypal’.

Browne makes the very valid point that, although a great deal has been said about coincidences, there’s a marked absence when it comes to the development of a comprehensive model to incorporate the many different ways in which they can be understood and explained.

One reason for this lack is undoubtedly the rift between those who find coincidences meaningful and those who do not, with the result that the conclusions of the many books and articles on the subject have tended to fall into distinct camps. A noticeable theme running through The Many Faces of Coincidence, particularly in its middle chapters, is the ‘ideological standoff’ between those who posit a divinity or intelligence behind the universe and those who reject any such ideas.

Commendably, Browne attempts to remedy this and at the same time explores some of the implications arising from the various explanations, including, crucially and most interestingly, the possibility of an underlying unity of mind and matter constituting the ground of being.

Crucially, one ventures, because this possibility is central to the question of consciousness and does away with the ‘hard problem’ — how consciousness can arise from physical matter — altogether.

Two chapters of Browne’s book deal with the extraordinary coincidences which occur within cosmology and quantum physics, so as to demonstrate that our existence on our little planet relies on coincidences far more remarkable than anything on the human scale (of which he gives many fascinating examples).

‘A stunning array of cosmic coincidences’ set the stage for life on Earth, says Browne, both intricate and profuse. It cannot be denied we live in a universe with a profound mystery at its core. Three areas of cosmic coincidence are discussed: the conditions of the Big Bang, the confluence of ‘Goldilocks’ conditions that made possible life on Earth, and that, just as we have arrived at an accurate conception of the physical universe, we find ourselves in real peril over the future of humanity and biodiversity.

Research in high-energy physics seems to support the idea that there is an urge in nature to achieve regularity in the face of primal chaos, and synchronistic events could be a pointer to the existence of an underlying, congruous connecting continuum in the universe, perhaps the unus mundus that Jung himself conjectured, from which both mind and matter could arise (this idea is called ‘dual-aspect monism’).

To me, consciousness seems to be intimately related to the spiralling torsion energy of space-time, a universal ‘implicate order’ (to use Bohm’s term, to which Browne refers) that structures our reality and is responsible for paranormal experience and ‘non-local’ effects observed in quantum physics, such as ‘entanglement’, which itself might help to explain synchronicity.

If you imagine a sub-atomic particle with zero spin decaying into two other particles which are then separated by great distance, so far apart even that there is no longer any physical force between them, quantum science says they still retain information about one another, whatever the space between them, in a shared state which is indefinite until measured. If one particle moves in a certain way, so will the other.

Verified experimentally, this has given rise to the idea of a form of universal inter-connectedness, and that simple rules and localised interactions can generate large-scale co-operative, self-organising and collective behaviours. In other words, the whole universe is in one entangled quantum state.

Browne provides an excellent summary of how Jung (1875–1961) formulated his theory of synchronicity (after a meeting with Einstein in Zurich at which they discussed space and time), as well as the prior synchronicity or ‘seriality’ theory of the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer (1880–1926), and the ideas of Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900–1958) — with whom Jung collaborated in a remarkable meeting of minds — which all point to some strange force in the universe seeking to bring some kind of order out of (apparent) randomness.

Pauli first discussed the concept of synchronicity with Jung in the 1930s when he consulted the psychologist about his drink and marital problems. Pauli knew Jung had discovered something crucial in his concept of synchronicity, because he had begun to find deep meanings in his dreams. Dream symbols would synchronistically appear in letters Pauli received from colleagues and things that other researchers and friends said, and Pauli was gratified to find that important scientific insights could be achieved by allowing his mind to follow such non-rational and intuitive paths.

It led him to explore the relationship between psyche and matter and his idea of ‘resurrection of spirit within the world of matter’. Pauli, who evidently believed in psychology as much as he did in physics, sent Jung more than a thousand dreams over the years and Jung published work which was based on some of them.

Jung felt that synchronicity was to space, time and causality what the one-dimensionality of time was to the three-dimensionality of space. If the latest conclusions of science were coming nearer and nearer to a unitary idea of being, which they now undoubtedly are, characterised by space and time on the one hand and causality and synchronicity on the other, then that had nothing to do with materialism. Rather, it seemed to show that there was a chance of getting rid of the incommensurability between the observed and the observer.

Browne devotes nearly 30 pages at the end of his book to a discussion of the Tao — evidently because Jung equated it with synchronicity. Perhaps more than any other major philosophical concept, Browne says, tao embodies the idea of the unification of opposites, reflected in Jung’s hypothesis that the opposites of psyche and matter become psychophysically united during synchronistic events: ‘The unus mundus is momentarily revealed, leaving a tantalising trace of numinosity and meaning-equivalence to be reflected on by the person involved.’

It would have been interesting to have had Browne’s views about the A-field of Ervin Laszlo and Amit Goswami’s conception of consciousness as the ground of being, both subjects being relevant to Browne’s study of coincidence and his discussion of tao, I would contend.

Laszlo, a Hungarian philosopher of science and systems theorist, envisages a field of information as the essence of the universe, named by him the Akashic field, or ‘A-field’, after the Sanskrit and Vedic term for space. Laszlo sees the fundamental energy and information-carrying field as arising from the quantum ‘vacuum’, and having its equivalent in a zero-point field that underlies space itself.

This field comprises a subtle flow of fluctuating energies from which everything in the universe arises, including consciousness. Laszlo regards the Akashic field as the original source of all things arising in time and space and also the continuous and enduring memory of the universe, holding the record of everything that has ever happened and relating it to all that is yet to happen.

Dr Goswami, a theoretical nuclear physicist, inspired in part by ideas taken from Hindu philosophy, notably the Advaita Vedanta, and theosophy, and famous for stating that ‘consciousness is the ground of all being’, believes that the universe is self-aware, and that it is consciousness that creates the physical world.

Under his theory, which he calls ‘monistic idealism’, consciousness — an all-embracing and unified field pervading the entire universe — emanates from as yet unperceived aspects of reality, the brain acting as a ‘receiver’ of it, or a participant in it, if you prefer.

My incident with the lost camera would seem to be neither random chance nor natural causality nor supernatural causality, but synchronicity, due its meaningfulness and numinosity.

My photo of the standing stone and house next door.
The photo of the same standing stone (left, middle distance) and house from the lost camera found on the beach.

However, it was synchronicity without Jung’s full requirements: that significance also be interpreted subjectively from the point of view of personal developmental needs and goals, unconscious as well as conscious (in Jungian terms, the individuation process), and that an added level of meaning comes from the significance of the synchronicity objectively as the expression of archetypal meaning, which is transcendental to human consciousness.

Therefore, it would seem that, indeed, a sub-category of synchronicity is needed. Browne, laudably open-minded and alive to such possibilities and complexities with his valuable contribution to the literature, makes for the ideal investigator of one of the most intriguing phenomena in human experience.

* UK-born Laurence Browne lives in Brisbane, Australia, where he has taught English as a second language. Now retired, he enjoys travelling, bushwalking, skiing and reading widely. Since his early 20s he has been interested in ‘the possibility of an inner truth’ and he has been a regular meditator since the 1970s. In 2009, feeling at a dead end with teaching, he applied to study full-time for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Queensland. His focus was on coincidences and he was awarded his PhD in 2014. The title of his thesis was ‘Examining Coincidences: towards an integrated approach’.