Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sensate Reflex

A while back I read again certain portions of Carl G. Jung's book entitled Synchronicity. The word is of Jung's own coinage and refers to the phenomenon we ordinarily call "meaningful coincidences" or, with a slightly more romantic toning, serendipity—that word, in turn, derived from a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. Synchronicity, meanwhile, has taken pretty deep roots in the circles that concern themselves with borderline phenomena.

Jung's very choice of a neologism to label a relatively common, usually pleasant, but also mildly wonder-rousing experience that people have reflects what I call a kind of sensate bias, a word to which I'll return in a moment. The essence of the experience is its meaningful quality; in Jung's treatment of it, however, the emphasis shifts to the coincidence of something, presumably X and Y, in time. Meaning is introduced, but almost with a kind of timidity. Quite a few people, straining to reach once more a holistic stance toward reality, but wishing to be thought orthodox by Science capitalized, exhibit sensate bias. Jung illustrates this tendency in the present context rather neatly. Now to the substance.

The part I was rereading is the account of a very interesting and, indeed, classical near death experience (NDE) reported by one of his lady patients. She had the experience in the wake of giving birth under difficult circumstances. What struck me in reading the account this time—and reading beyond the case itself—was the curious bias that seems to have held back even a figure like Carl Jung from reaching the logical conclusions that the case that he reported clearly demanded.

The very essence of Jung's book is to show that synchronicity is evidence for meaning in the universe. In making room for meaning, Jung created a quaternity of principles supposedly underlying the cosmic design. He arranged these, initially, in the form of a cross as follows:

Later, in collaboration with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, he modify this scheme further to yield the following:

Indestructible Energy
Constant Connection Through Effect (Causality)Inconstant Connection Through Contingence, Equivalence, or "Meaning" (Synchronicity)
Space/Time Continuum

Note that the word meaning here receives a set of quote marks around it, almost as if to signal that we must not take the word too literally. Jung is striving for a scientific flavor here even though what he is saying transcends the category of science as usually understood.

I can’t help but see this as what might be called a reflex by all those reared in the atmosphere of a sensate culture. That term comes from Pitirim Sorokin, the sociologist, who classified ages such as ours as totally focused on sensory experience whereas religious ages focus on internal, spiritual processes and look "upward" as it were, rather than "outward" at the world. Members of the sensate culture live in flatland. They cannot quite internalize the fact that the moment meaning is seriously contemplated to be part of the cosmos—wherever it may be found—the picture is immediately transformed. It becomes hierarchical.

Jung’s whole career had a transitional flavor. I myself strongly suspect that part of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth century were times of another renaissance, thus periods of transition between ideational/spiritual and sensate/materialistic ages—or the other way around. The period we call the Renaissance was the transition between Christian spiritualism and the great era of materialism that is now crumbling all around us. Such periods are outwardly oriented. The reverse motion is inwardly directed. In the chaotic times that always follow when materialism collapses by its own weight are dramatic in another way and do not leave the same kind of grandiose impression. Throughout his life Jung kept reintroducing his audiences to the ineffable dimensions of spirit and mind, but he tried so hard to remain part of the scientific caste that his creations were highly ambiguous at best, an example of which is the Collective Unconscious. It has a strong flavoring of divinity. His archetypes, which live in the Collective Unconscious, are reminiscent of Plato's eternal ideas. And, finally, his synchronicity reintroduces “meaning,” albeit in quotes.

I’m glad that Jung labored as he did. For many members of my generation, he was among the most important guides leading us out of the wilderness of materialism toward the new world that approaches, as it were, both from the future and the past. For many of us the old order was decadent beyond retrieval. At the same time, in my generation (although I may only be speaking for myself) the sensate bias that caused Jung to hesitate did not prove to be much of a barrier. I myself wave it off as mere hesitation to make the break clean.


  1. The rise in relativity has complicated things for this transition of which you speak. The fact that a social order based on a completely flexible foundation, one that views everything as relative, pushes those who long for a more stable, rational basis towards "science." But perhaps there is synchronicity in this. It is, after all, in the study of the “hard” sciences that questions of meaning are being raised more and more often in this age of transition.

    I'll have to read some Jung.

  2. The interesting thing is that if a notable physicist of chemist discovers meaning, people take note--because "scientists" have credibility. If a very wise bishop, cardinal, or philosopher says the same thing, people wave it off.