Wilder ideas

One of the founders of quantum mechanics was Wolfgang Pauli, of Pauli exclusion principle fame. Pauli enjoyed an interesting association with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and helped Jung to develop a provocative concept that flies in the face of traditional ideas of causation.

It was Jung's contention that scientific thinking has been unreasonably dominated by notions of causality for the explanation of physical events.

He was impressed by the fact that quantum mechanics undermines strict causality, reducing it to a statistical principle, because in quantum physics events are connected only probabilistically. Jung therefore saw the possibility that there may exist alongside causality another physical principle connecting in a statistical way events that would otherwise be regarded as independent:6

Events in general are related to one another on the one hand as causal chains, and on the other hand by a kind of meaningful cross-connection.

He called this additional principle synchronicity.

To establish whether or not synchronicity exists, Jung was led to examine the nature of chance events, to discover whether 'a chance event seems causally unconnected with the coinciding fact'.7 He assembled a great deal of anecdotal evidence for exceedingly improbable coincidences, many taken from his own medical casework. The typical sort of thing is familiar to us all. You run into an old friend the very day you were talking about him. The number on your bus ticket turns out to be exactly the telephone number you just dialled. Jung considered some of these stories to be utterly beyond the bounds of coincidence as to constitute evidence for an acausal connecting principle at work:8

All natural phenomena of this kind are unique and exceedingly curious combinations of chance, held together by the common meaning of their parts to form an unmistakable whole. Although meaningful coincidences are infinitely varied in their phenomenology, as acausal events they nevertheless form an element that is part of the scientific picture of the world. Casuality is the way we explain the link between two successive events. Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic and psychophysical events, which scientific knowledge has so far been unable to reduce to a common principle.

In spite of the popularization of Jung's ideas by Arthur Koestler in his book The Roots of Coincidence,9 synchronicity has not been taken seriously by scientists. Probably this is because much of the evidence which Jung presented drew upon discredited subjects like astrology and extrasensory perception. Most scientists prefer to regard stories of remarkable coincidences as a selection effect: we remember the occasional unexpected conjunction of events, but forget the myriad of unremarkable events that happen all the time. For every dream that comes true there are millions that do not. From time to time the odd dream must come true, and that will be the one which is remembered.

It is interesting, nevertheless, to consider from the point of view of physics what would be involved in a synchronicity principle. This is best discussed with reference to a spacetime diagram. In Figure 30 time is drawn as a vertical line and a single dimension of space as a horizontal line. A point on the diagram is called an event, because it is assigned both a place and a moment. A horizontal section through the diagram represents all space at one instant of time, and it is usual to think of time as flowing up the diagram, so that future is towards the top of the diagram and past is towards the bottom.

Figure 30. Space-time diagram. Points on the diagram represent events; the wiggly line represents the career of a particle through space and time.

The fact that the natural world is not merely a chaotic jumble of independent events, but is ordered in accordance with the laws of nature, imposes some order on the spacetime diagram. For example, the fact that an object such as an atom continues to exist as an identifiable entity through time means that it traces out a continuous path, or world line in spacetime. If the object moves about in space then the world line will be wiggly.

Figure 31 shows a number of world lines. In general the shapes of these lines will not be independent because there will be forces of interaction between the particles. The disturbance of one particle will have a causative influence on the others, and this will show up as correlations between events lying on neighbouring world lines. The rules governing cause and effect in spacetime are subject to the restrictions of the theory of relativity, which

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Figure 31. This space-time diagram shows the world lines of three material particles, as well as that of a pulse of light (oblique line). Such light paths determine which events can causally interact with other events. Thus Ei can affect E3 and E4, but not E2.

forbids any physical influence from propagating faster than the speed of light. The world line of a light pulse is an oblique straight line, which it is conventional to draw at 45°. Thus, pairs of events such as E1, E2, cannot be causally connected because they lie in spacetime outside the region delimited by the light line through E1. Such pairs of events are said to be spacelike separated. On the other hand E1 can have a causative influence on E3 or E4. These events are not spacelike separated from E1.

Although cause and effect cannot operate between spacelike separated events, that does not mean that events such as E1 and E2 must be completely unrelated to each other. It may be that both events are triggered by a common causative event that lies between them in space. This would occur, for example, if two light pulses were sent in opposite directions and caused the simultaneous detonation of two widely separated explosive charges. However, such was not what Jung had in mind with synchronicity.

In the next chapter we shall see how quantum mechanics permits the existence of correlations between simultaneous events separated in space which would be impossible in any classical picture of reality. These nonlocal quantum effects are indeed a form of synchronicity in the sense that they establish a connection—more precisely a correlation—between events for which any form of causal linkage is forbidden.

It is sufficient, but not necessary, for the elimination of causal connec tion that events are spacelike separated. It may happen that causal connection is permitted by relativity, but is otherwise improbable. Relativity does not forbid the discussion of a friend from causing his prompt appearance, but the causation seems unlikely.

More generally one can envisage constellations of events in spacetime, associated in some meaningful way, yet without causal association. These events may or may not be spacelike separated, but their conjunction or association might not be attributable to causal action. They would form patterns or groupings in spacetime representing a form of order that would not follow from the ordinary laws of physics. In fact, the sort of organizing principles discussed in the foregoing sections could be described in these terms, and regarded as a form of synchronicity. However, whereas acausal associations in, say, biosystems might be reasonable, it is quite another matter to extend the idea to events in the daily lives of people, which was Jung's chief interest.

Another set of 'meaningful coincidences' has recently attracted the attention of scientists. This time the coincidences do not refer to events but to the so-called constants of nature. These are numbers which crop up in the various laws of physics; examples include the mass of the electron, the electric charge of the proton and Newton's gravitational constant (which fixes the strength of the gravitational force). So far the values of these various constants are unexplained by any theory, so the question arises as to why they have the values that they do. Now the interesting thing is that the existence of many complex structures in the universe, and especially biological organisms, is remarkably sensitive to the values of the constants. It turns out that even slight changes from the observed values suffice to cause drastic changes in the structures. In the case of organisms, even minute tinkering with the constants of nature would rule out life altogether, at least of the terrestrial variety.

Nature thus seems to be possessed of some remarkable numerical coincidences. The constants of nature have, it appears, assumed precisely the values needed in order that complex self-organization can occur to the level of conscious individuals. Some scientists have been so struck by this contrivance, that they subscribe to something called the strong anthropic principle, which states that the laws of nature must be such as to admit the existence of consciousness in the universe at some stage. In other words, nature organizes itself in such a way as to make the universe self-aware. The strong anthropic principle can therefore be regarded as a sort of organizing meta-principle, because it arranges the laws themselves so as to permit complex organization to arise.

Another very speculative theory that goes outside the causal bounds of space and time has been proposed by biologist Rupert Sheldrake.10 The central problem of this book—the origin of complex forms and structures—has been tackled by Sheldrake in a head-on fashion. In Chapter 7 it was mentioned that a fashionable idea in developmental biology is that of the morphogenetic field. These fields are invoked as an attempt to explain how an egg cell develops into a complicated three-dimensional structure. The nature and properties of morphogenetic fields remain somewhat uncertain, if indeed they exist at all.

Sheldrake proposes to take morphogenetic fields seriously, and interpret them as an entirely new type of physical effect. He believes that in some way the field stores the information about the final form of the embryo, and then guides its development as it grows. This seems, therefore, like a revival of old-fashioned teleology. Sheldrake injects a new element, however, in his hypothesis of morphic resonance. The idea is that once a new type of form has come into existence, it sets up its own morphogenetic field which then encourages the appearance of the same form elsewhere. Thus, once nature has 'learned' how to grow a particular organism it can guide, by 'resonance', the development of other organisms along the same pathway.

Morphogenetic fields are not, according to Sheldrake, restricted to living organisms. Crystals possess them too. That is why, he believes, there have been cases where substances which have previously never been seen in crystalline form have apparently been known to start crystallizing in different places at more or less the same time. Sheldrake's fields are also associated with memory. Once an animal has learnt to perform a new task, others find it easier to learn that task.

The fields which Sheldrake has in mind do not act in space and time in the usual causative fashion. Indeed, it has to be said that the nature of the fields is completely mysterious from the point of view of physics. Nevertheless, the theory at least has the virtue of falsifiability, and Sheldrake has proposed a number of experimental tests involving human learning. So far the results have proved inconclusive.

The rather bizarre ideas I have mentioned in this section do not form part of mainstream science and should not, perhaps, be taken very seriously. Nevertheless they illustrate the persistence of the impression among scientists and laymen alike that the universe has been organized in a way that is hard to explain mechanistically, and that in spite of the tremendous advances in fundamental science there is still a strong temptation to fall back on some higher principle.

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