Jungian and Catholic?

Chapter 6: Synchronicity


Hopefully, our initial explorations of the psychoid nature of the unconscious and convergent views from the point of view of the philosophy of nature have begun to attune our ears to the different mental languages being spoken so that now we can begin to reflect on these different modes of conceptualization.

Maritain, in his Degrees of Knowledge, made a fundamental distinction between the way of proceeding of the sciences of nature and the philosophy of nature. The philosophy of nature strives to understand the inner nature or essence of things. As we have seen, it is not concerned with the archetypal images, but wonders about the nature of the archetype itself. Maritain divides the sciences of nature into two broad categories which he calls the empiriometrical and the empirioschematic. The empiriometrical sciences, led by mathematical physics, measure things, submit these measurements to the formal rule of mathematics, and then test their conclusions by further measurements. The empirioschematic sciences like Jung's psychology begin with observations, build hypotheses on these observations and test the validity of these hypotheses by further observations. Neither physics nor psychology is trying to discover the essences of things. For physics, "a physico-mathematical theory will be called 'true' when a coherent and fullest possible system of mathematical symbols and the explanatory entities it organizes coincides, throughout all its numerical conclusions, with measurements we have made upon the real; but it is in no wise necessary that any physical reality, any particular nature, or any ontological law in the world of bodies, correspond determinately to each of the symbols and mathematical entities in question." (Degrees of Knowledge, p. 62)

While Jung's psychology does on occasion use measurement and mathematics and is attracted to the methodological model of modern physics, it is another type of science of nature. Jung writes in "A Psychological Theory of Types": "The more we turn from spacial phenomena to the non-spaciality of the psyche, the more impossible it becomes to determine anything by exact physical measurement." (CW 6, p. 527) And Maritain has similar sentiments: "... as one rises above the world proper to physics, and as the object gains in ontological richness and perfection, the quantitative aspect of the behaviour under consideration becomes, not less real, but less significant and more subordinate, and the science in question less reducible to an interpretation which looks solely to mathematics for its forms and laws." (Degrees, p. 192)

This does not imply that Jung's psychology cannot use mathematics wherever it is appropriate, or cannot enjoy and explore the relationship it has with physics, but if it tries to model itself after the epistemological type of physics it will distort its own nature. Jung's psychology has a close affinity to the philosophy of nature. The biologist and the psychologist "will inevitably be led by the very object of their science to ask metaphenomenal questions to which they might try to reply with their own conceptual equipment and their proper methods of analysis; then they will obtain, in the most favorable cases, and by indirect paths and the delimitation of unknowns, solutions that resemble philosophical solutions and are tangential to them. It is thus that in his remarkable works Driesch has realized that embryonic development depends on a non-spatial factor E, which maintains the specific type; or, again, that the actions of animals also depend on a non-spatial factor, thanks to which stimulations coming from without are individualized, and that the functioning of the animal-machine is enriched by its exercise - a non-spatial factor that the scientist prudently calls psychoid." (p. 65)

Further, if Jungian psychology is instinctively drawn to the frontier it shares with the philosophy of nature, this philosophy will have a special attraction to it, an attraction that takes a very different character than the one it could have with contemporary physics. If it is to be effectively stimulated by physics it has to ask itself whether the results of physics contain an ontological significance that can be directly reflected upon or are these results in fact enfolded and hidden in the constructs that physics creates. For example, does the space and time of Einstein coincide with how space and time actually exist or are they mathematical creations built on actual measurements but not step by step convertible to and signifying what actually exists in itself? If there is no point by point correspondence between the physico-mathematical constructs of the new cosmologies and what actually exists, then we have to resist the temptation to create images and myths on the basis of their scientific results which would have little ontological substance. The philosophy of nature has to subject the results of modern physics to careful scrutiny in order to discover their philosophical import.

In contrast, the results from Jung's psychology are more ontologically accessible. Maritain contrasts the two situations as follows. The results of sciences like physics "are, no doubt, in their various particular results, pregnant with ontological content, but-this ontological content, being transposed into the symbols and ideal entities of mathematical explanation, remains indiscernible to philosophical intelligence... Turning now to those sciences of nature which... are not mathematized... they do not translate the observed (observed reality) into signs and symbols depending on the mathematical type of intelligibility. It is not by mathematics that they know, 'understand' or explain 'phenomena', that is to say, the real observed insofar and only insofar as it is observed. It is by the observable that they explain the observable, or in other words by 'casual' relationships or rather links of conditioning between phenomena. (And this is the reason why the ontological content with which they are pregnant may be discernible to the philosophical intelligence in certain of the particular results themselves of scientific elaboration.)" (The Peasant of the Garonne, p. 271)

Jung's essay "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle" gives us another opportunity to continue the dialogue between his psychology and the philosophy of nature, as well as to immediately see an example of the kinds of epistemological types we have just been talking about. Jung begins this essay by alluding to the indeterminacy of subnuclear particles manifested in quantum mechanics: "The discoveries of modern physics have, as we know, brought about a significant change in our scientific picture of the world, in that they have shattered the absolute validity of natural law and made it relative." (CW 8, p. 421) And his reasoning goes: "The philosophical principle that underlies our conception of natural law is causality" and therefore if there are events in which causality does not hold, then we must look for another "principle of explanation." (p. 421)

But it is interesting that Jung does not pursue this turn to microphysics. It is enough for him to find in it a way to clear the ground so he will have the room to freely reflect on the experiences that led him to the theory of synchronicity or meaningful coincidence. And it is just as well that Jung did not pursue this path, for the philosopher of nature would have to respond that the kind of causality that Jung is talking about is an empirically verifiable efficient causality, and if the physicist in this instance cannot see it verified, there are other alternatives to the conclusion that causality in itself is no longer in effect. There may, for example, be limitations to the physicist's methods that prevent him from detecting both the position and the state of the electron, or the results of quantum physics may not easily be translatable into ontological conclusions about non-causality, or, finally, there is another kind of causality at work besides efficient causality.

But there is no need to agree with Jung on the nonexistence of causality from a philosophical point of view in order to be intrigued by the use he makes of the idea of synchronicity. Just what he means can be better appreciated by looking at one of the examples that led Jung to the formulation of this hypothesis. He was treating a young woman who had a very rationalistic view of life and "always knew better about everything" and used this attitude to resist the less rational and more unconscious aspects of her personality necessary for her inner development. In a dream someone had given her a golden scarab and when she was telling Jung this dream he heard a tapping on the window which he opened, and in flew a large scarbaeid beetle which he caught and handed to her. This had the good effect of changing her attitude and allowing the treatment to progress.

These kinds of meaningful coincidences, together with dreams of a loved one in danger or dying, while not common, do happen often enough to provide a solid foundation for Jung's reflections on synchronicity. A young woman I knew, for example, again with a somewhat rationalistic cast of mind, had a deep-rooted fear of spiders. She was a careful and precise person with no tendency toward exaggeration, yet she claimed that a spider had actually pursued her around her apartment. And in both these cases the beetle and spider were carriers of a rich and powerful symbolism.

How can we explain this meaningful interrelatedness of the psychological reality and the outer event? It seems to defy space and time and the known laws of energy, and giving up explanations in terms of energy, according to Jung, "amounts to saying that events of this kind cannot be considered from the point of view of causality, for causality presupposes the existence of space and time in so far as all observations are ultimately based upon bodies in motion." (p. 434) Jung senses that space and time are made "elastic" by the psyche and its archetypes which radiate strong emotion. In the unconscious there is "something like an a priori knowledge." (p. 447) So the stage is now set for Jung to pose one of Maritain's "metaphenomenal" questions which are so fascinating for the philosopher of nature and it is very instructive to watch Jung struggle to articulate this synchronistic reality which he felt was somehow bound up with the archetypes.

Jung cites Agrippa von Nettsheim's inborn knowledge and makes reference to Hans Driesch's 1903, Die "Seele" als elementarer Naturfactor, (The Soul as a Fundamental Naturefactor) - incidentally creating a fleeting link with Maritain who studied with Driesch in 1907-1908 in Heidelberg and was later to bring Driesch's work to a French audience -and Jung makes what, to the philosopher, is a very revealing remark: "Final causes, twist them how we will, postulate a foreknowledge of some kind." (p. 493) This is not ego knowledge, but a "self-subsistent 'unconscious' knowledge" that Jung would prefer to call "absolute knowledge". Jung goes on to cite in this regard Kepler's instinctus divinus that accounts for color and form of the flower. Synchronicity "is a highly abstract and 'irrepresentable' quantity. It ascribes to the moving body a certain psychoid property which, like space and time, and causality forms a criterion of its behaviour." (p. 505) It is a "formal factor which... has nothing to do with brain activity." (p. 505)

Jung, in a remarkable way and from the point of view, of his empirical psychology, is discovering what St. Thomas called formal causality. Aristotle in his De Anima had described the soul as "a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially in it" and as "the first grade of actuality of a natural organized body". The soul is the "essential whatness of a body", the very principle that makes it to be what it is. St. Thomas, commenting on Aristotle's De Anima, says that the "substantial form does not come to a subject already preexisting in act, but to a subject existing only in potency..." The human soul then is the formal cause that makes us to be what we are, makes us to have a particular nature and the body exists through the soul. So when Aristotle describes the soul as the "first grade of actuality of a natural organized body" he can go on to say, "That is why we can wholly dismiss as unnecessary the question whether the soul and the body are one: it is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one..." (Bk. II: Ch. 1)

When Jung talks about the soul as a formal factor he continues: "If that is so, then we must ask ourselves whether the relation of soul and body can be considered from this angle, that is to say whether the co-ordination of psychic and physical processes in a living organism can be understood as a synchronistic phenomenon rather than as a causal relation." (p. 505) The philosopher of nature will say yes. The soul and body do not relate to each other as efficient causes moving one another so that we have always to worry about their coordination, but rather the soul is the form or formal cause of the body giving it its actuality. This is analogous to Jung's "meaningful orderedness", and there is no need for the philosopher to be thrown by Jung's "causeless order", for this is his way of saying that this factor exceeds the level of empirically verifiable efficient causality.

But does this traditional philosophical view of the soul really help us understand Jung's synchronistic events? It will only if we clean off the dust of dead tradition and make the effort to see what Aristotle and Thomas were talking about. The soul does not act on the body like an efficient cause because it is the very principle of life itself, the very reality Jung is describing as "self-subsistent meaning". "Such a form of existence can only be transcendental since, as the knowledge of the future or spatially distant events shows, it is contained in a psychically relative space and time, that is to say in an irrepresentable space-time continuum." (p. 506)

Translation for the philosopher of nature? The spiritual form or ordering principle is not subject to matter, rather matter is subordinate of its very nature to it, indeed it has no nature without a relationship to form. In this way a principle is introduced into the heart of creation which transcends matter, space and time. Jung will refer to near death experiences which in his mind "indicate a shift in the localization of consciousness, a sort of separation from the body, or from the cerebral cortex or cerebrum", and he has to ask himself whether the "psychic processes that go on in us during loss of consciousness" are "synchronistic phenomena". (p. 509) For the philosopher of nature the spiritual soul, while being profoundly united to matter, transcends matter and therefore somehow transcends space, which is a relationship between bodies, and time which is the measure of motion. The root of synchronicity is thus the spiritual soul itself or, as Jung would put it, the archetypes and the psychoid unconscious.

If we look at synchronicity from the perspective of the spiritual soul we see each human is deeply united to every other human being and to all creatures. The very ontological "weakness" of the human spirit demands multiplicity, community and matter. We are all partial reflections of what it means to be human and by our very form or soul we are united to each other and strive to realize that unity. Further we have a profound bond with all the creatures that share this universe with us, with all mineral, vegetative and animal souls as Aristotle would put it, since our soul contains within it all these principles of life, and once again it is only in union with the rest of creation that we can live and reach full of development. This kind of union, rooted in the nature the human soul, lays the foundation for events that transcend the normal bounds of space and time and energy. On occasion it appears that we touch each other despite distance and time and the levels of being that separate us from the spider or the beetle. Somehow the human spirit or the depths of the unconscious is stirred and we actualize, in a fleeting and incomplete manner, the kind of union that already partially exists and towards which we are journeying. If the human form is a spiritual being and informs matter, then in some way difficult to articulate, matter exists for spirit, and therefore in some way space and time depend not only on moving bodies but the souls that animate them, chief of which is the human soul.

It will certainly not be easy either to create or sustain a genuinely interactive dialogue between Jungian psychology and the philosophy of nature. But I hope it is clear that such a conversation is not only possible but holds real promise. It is potentially significant not only for philosophers and analytical psychologists, but for a growing number of pastoral ministers, therapists, practitioners of the spiritual life, etc., who are finding nourishment both in Jung's psychology and Christianity and who will eventually need to clarify the relationship between the two.

In the same interactive spirit, let's now look at the possibility of a genuine conversation between Jungian psychology and theology.



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Part III, Chapter 7