Do we live in a random, chaotic and meaningless universe? Or a universe that is alive with meaning — we just need to look and listen and it will guide us on our ‘spiritual journey’? It depends on your worldview..
Strange coincidences happen to people all over the world every day, that much we can all agree on. But sometimes the coincidences are so weird, so powerful, they make your mental compass spin.
Like the coincidence that happened to me the other day when I was online.
I posted a picture of a fossil on Twitter for no other reason that I find it beautiful and thought-provoking — it makes me think about evolution and the passage of time. Hence my tweet: ‘Frozen in time’.
But then something rather strange happened. I went on the BBC website to catch up with the latest sports news and to my amazement I saw a photo’ of a football player wearing a tattoo on his arm of a clock shaped like a spiral.
Just to be clear, this was the exact sequence of events — I didn’t go on the website first so my ‘unconscious’ didn’t register it before I chose to tweet the fossil. This of course is what often happens with many coincidences, deceiving us into thinking they are ‘synchronistic’.
The term ‘synchronicity’ orginated with the Swiss pscyhologist Jung — the darling of the ‘New Age’ movement. He defined it as a ‘meaningful coincidence’. You can read a full account here http://www.carl-jung.net/synchronicity.html. And there’s an excellent article linking Jung and the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, here http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jul/04/carl-jung-synchronicity
Not surprisingly New Age/alternative Science literature is full of references to synchronicity. My favourite passage is in Dr Gary Schwartz’s book, The G.O.D. Experiments — How Science Is Discovering God In Everything, Including Us, where he describes a sequence of apparent synchronicities relating to his pet dog that is so bizarre you’re forced to conclude that either he was making it all up or indeed something very strange is going on in our ‘quantum universe’. http://www.amazon.com/The-G-O-D-Experiments-Discovering-Everything/dp/0743477413
However, to arch-sceptic James Randi all this is mere ‘pseudoscience’. Indeed he is famous for putting his money where his mouth is and offering a prize of one million dollars for anyone who can scientifically prove the existence of paranormal/psychic phenomena with which synchronicities can presumably be bracketed. Googling this I discovered that after two decades the prize has now been withdrawn. Draw your own conclusions.. http://skepdic.com/randi.html
Certainly whenever anyone gets seemingly ‘simple-minded’ about synchronicity I refer them to Matt Hutson’s excellent Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Although he is sympathetic to ‘irrational’ thinking in terms of the important role (ironically) it has in keeping us ‘sane’ in a disturbingly crazy world, Hutson does a very effective job of analysing its various forms and debunking it. http://magicalthinkingbook.com/book/ @silverjacket
To my mind the person who best represents the sceptical/rationalist — ‘the only meaning is the meaning we give to phenomena’ — worldview is the evolutionary biologist, and humanist/atheist* Richard Dawkins. He famously wrote in The Blind Watchmaker (1986): ‘Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.’ In River out of Eden (1995) he was equally unambiguous: ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. […] In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.’
But there are a couple of twists in my personal tale that I’d like to share before you make your own mind up about the core ‘It must mean something’ issue here.
The first is another true story.
I once had a very strange and seemingly ‘psychic’ dream (a murdered woman appealing to me to investigate her story and tell the truth about what happened to her) that had a hauntingly unmistakable ‘soundtrack’ — Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2d2RLI9Wal0
The next day I couldn’t get the dream or the song out of my mind — playing it over and over on my iPod. What did it all mean? But when I got into work I had to focus my mind for a lesson observation (I was a teacher trainer). At one point, as I was making notes, I heard a student begin to ‘randomly’ play a piece of music on the piano. To my astonishment I realised it was ‘Breathe’.
Now let’s continue the story of my tweet. The reaction was very interesting if not predictable. I’m interested in spirituality and mysticism as well as science so I sought the views of the folks at ‘Evolve and Ascend’ http://www.evolveandascend.com. This is their reply:
I mean no disrespect but it’s exactly what I expected — entirely in line with their spiritual/’magickal’ worldview.
But I like to think of myself as a ‘sceptical seeker’, with the emphasis on the former. So I was determined to pursue my investigations, posting about the story on another social media platform — Google+.
In the thread on one community a term jumped out at me that I’d never come across before: Apophenia, the mental condition that ascribes meaning to what science would describe as meaningless, random phenomena. And this is what I discovered:
So you see, I’m still in the ‘agnostic’ camp. If you get my meaning.
*Is Dawkins an atheist or an agnostic? If you do the research he seems to contradict himself — underlining the difficulty of using the terms with precision.