Author: Tamás Rózsás
“Look up at the stars and not down on your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” This was the message that Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned scientist shared in his speech for the leading cosmologists of the world at the event celebrating his 70th birthday. To find reason in our life, in the events of the world and our—this is one of the most fundamental human needs. We do the hardest work more easily, we face the largest difficulties with lighter heart if we comprehend them, if we find the reason why something happens, why exactly to us, why at that point of time.
Comprehension makes things familiar, comfortable and makes it easier to find our way in the world. Understanding means discovering familiar patterns and simple models that help uncover causes and drivers behind things and thus make the future more predictable, less uncertain. When we want to predict the future, we look for patterns in the past and in the present, since future has not happened yet, we have no data about it. How does—if at all—the past determine the future? Does history repeat itself? Can we predict consequences from causes? Humankind have been wondering about these questions for long, but—as we’ll see—no unambiguous answers can really be given. However, as it usually happens with important questions, the act of looking for the answer takes you closer to the truth and helps to find solutions for current problems even if the accurate and final answer cannot be given to the actual question asked.
One of the most ancient and fundamental tools to calculate the future is the calendar. It is not just because when we are talking about the future, we are actually talking about time, and the calendar is a ruler for measuring time. It is also because humankind’s earliest experiences about predicting the future are related to cycles in the environment, changes of seasons and cycles in the movements of celestial bodies. These cyclical movements mark the spacing in the calendar as a kind of time ruler.
So, when we want to predict the future, it is obvious that we try to find regularly recurring patterns of the past first. One of the most essential cycles is the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. This marks the years in the calendar and determines the seasons. Agriculture, that produces goods to satisfy our basic, physiological needs, is aligned with seasons. Now it is easy to understand that cycles are inevitably present in the economy and consequently, in history, too. The changing seasons enable making forecasts only within the year, but in several cases we would like to see much farther, so efforts are made from time to time to trace some kind of cyclicality or roots of cyclicality in the levels of economic activities and their fluctuation.
The earliest attempt to find this was made by William Stanley Jevons in the 1880s. After studying the period from the beginning of the 18th century, he noticed that weaker periods in the economy—that he identified as commercial crises—return every 9-12 years, on the average every 10.44 years. Jevons considered that the phenomenon might be related to the impact of sunspot activity cycles on agriculture. Many others studied and identified economic cycles, and in the middle of the 20th century Joseph Schumpeter and others suggested the following typology based on the time periods of business cycles. The names of the cycles refer to the author first having described them or their main promoter.
Typology of business cycles
|Cycle name||Period in years|
|Kitchin’s inventory-based cycle||3-5|
|Juglar’s fixed investment cycle||7-11|
|Kuznets’s infrastructural investment swing||15-25|
Although not included in the table, but it’s worth mentioning that the election cycles marked by the time of elections appear in the typology as well.
Kondratiev cycles from the 1800s to today
Seasons of the Kondratiev cycle. Source: https://northcoastinvestmentresearch.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/kondratieff-cycle.jpg
From a historical aspect though, the most interesting economic cycle is the Kondratiev cycle, also called supercycle, great surges, long waves, K-waves or the long economic cycle. The average length of the periods in this theory is 50 years that may vary between 40 and 60 years. The cycles consist of alternating intervals between high sectoral growth and intervals of relatively slow growth.
Kondratiev, who took part in the development of the first five-year plan of the Soviet Union, analysed the factors that could stimulate the growth of the Soviet economy. He published his findings in a report entitled “The Long Waves in Economic Life” in 1926. But Kondratiev’s report was viewed as a criticism of Stalin’s stated intentions for the total collectivization of agriculture, so he was dismissed from his post as director of the Institute for the Study of Business Activity in 1928. He was sentenced to the Russian Gulag in 1930, his sentence was reviewed in 1938, and he received the death penalty, which it is speculated was carried out that same year. Kondratiev identified three phases in the cycle: expansion, stagnation, and recession. Today it’s more common to use the division into four periods, we are going to touch on that later. Since Kondratiev worked in the 1920s, he applied his theory for the 19th century and identified the cycles depicted in the picture.
The first two cycles lasted from 1790 to 1849 and from 1850 to 1896, and culminated in 1815 and in 1873 respectively. Kondratiev supposed that a third cycle began in 1896. The additional cycles in the figure were identified later. The expansion and recession phases within one cycle are characterised by different processes regarding the different aspects of economic life—these are depicted by the following figure. The figure identifies the phases of the cycle with seasons, and describes the evolution of confidence, inflation, credit, interest rates and investment.
There are several explanations for the drivers of Kondratiev cycles. One of these claims that the cycle is driven by technological innovation, another sees demographical causes behind the Kondratiev cycles, a third considers the growth or reduction of the level of debt as driving force. Many new theories appeared to explain the cycles and their lengths. One of them matches the following technical cycles with the growth and recession phases:
- Industrial revolution – 1771
- Age of steam and railways – 1829
- Age of steel and heavy engineering – 1875
- Age of oil, electricity, automobile and mass production – 1908
- Age of information and telecommunications – 1971
However, both the Kondratiev cycle and the long economic waves derived from it are significant from the aspects of history rather than economics. Neither regular periodicity (even in cycles following one another and getting shorter) nor regularity in the length of each phase can be detected in real economic cycles. Economic cycles can be calculated only as far as their phases can be identified, expansion is followed by recession, peaks and bottoms alternate. An economic cycle is not a regular, predictable, repetitive cycle like the phases of the Moon. We tend to recognise seemingly regular patterns in graphs showing variation in economic activity, because we want to find meaning in chance, and those trying to do this tend to emphasise similarities in their thinking and neglect differences found in data.
Thus, economic cycles are suitable for making predictions only occasionally and for short terms. Summing up the conclusions on economic cycles we can say about history in general that it is not predictable, which also means that it does not repeat itself. This does not mean though, that experiences of the past cannot be used in the present or cannot be used to make sensible attempts to consider possible future scenarios. Similar situations often lead to similar outcomes in economics and also in those geopolitical games that weave together the fabric of history as time moves forward. Human thinking with all its traps is like it is exactly because analogies help orientate in the world, heuristics that accelerate our thinking through simplifications operate often enough to make the strategy of relying on them beneficial after all. So, history does not—as the saying attributed to Mark Twain puts it—repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
Nature of Change
Besides the cyclic concept, another possible understanding of history and development is of a more or less continuous advancement. The two approaches can also be combined in a way that in certain periods we assume a kind of permanence, maybe a cyclically recurring permanence that is occasionally varied with changes. From the aspects of development and history, these periods of change are undoubtedly more interesting, so it is worth taking a closer look at the nature of changes separately.
A substantial and profound change often comes with shock. Partly because one has to adapt to changes, and adaptation requires attention even if the change is favourable. On the other hand, the process of adaptation is often triggered by necessity, so shock is necessary for starting adaptation. The past two decades has seen an abundance of significant events and shocks and also with quiet milestones that did not mark change by themselves, but were indicators of important processes that had been going on for a longer time.
Shocks and Milestones
The financial crisis that was experienced as a global economic catastrophe and the ensuing economic recession have been holding all the attention of analysts and decision makers ever since. Due to this, we tend to forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union happened merely two decades ago. Taking this into consideration, major events of the past years were the following:
- Gulf War (or First Gulf War, 1990-1991);
- Collapse of the Soviet Union (1991);
- Maastricht Treaty (1992);
- Introduction of the Euro as scriptural money (1st January 1999);
- Terrorist attacks against the United States (11th September 2001);
- Issuance of Euro coins and notes (1st January 2002);
- Iraq War (or Second Gulf War, 2003-2011);
- Bio energy bubble (2007-2008);
- Financial crisis (2007-2009).
The selection is to a certain extent arbitrary, but the listed events all refer to changes taking place deeper down. In this respect, for example the significance of the bio energy bubble that we have already left behind, turns out to be much greater than it seemed partly because of the financial crisis that followed it. There is no doubt today, that the Maastricht Treaty, containing the agreement on the introduction of the Euro, became one of the most important events of recent times, certainly in the economic sense. We have passed some milestones in the past 20 years that were much less important than the attention they received would have suggested, but at the same time, these milestones drew attention to some deeper and truly significant processes. Some points of interest worth mentioning:
- In 2002 China—surpassing Japan—became the second biggest economy in the world after the Unites States. China’s GDP was 34.9% of that of the US and it grew to 69.8% by 2010.
- China overcame Japan and became the second country with the highest number of broadband internet connections.
- Regarding the number of mobile phone subscriptions, China is not only the first with its 747 million subscriptions (in 2009), but also it has two and a half times more subscriptions than the US (where there were 286 million subscriptions in 2009). The second place is taken by India with its 670 million subscriptions (2010).
- China is also the first in car sales. 17.2 million cars were sold in China in 2010 as opposed to 11.5 million in the US.
- The reputable British Jaguar and Land Rover brands were bought by the Indian Tata Industries back in 2008, the Swedish Volvo was acquired by the Chinese Geely in 2010. In the summer of 2012 the Swedish Saab car manufacturer was also taken over by a Chinese-Japanese consortium, NEVS1. The company plans to manufacture electric cars in the future relying on Saab’s traditions and technological expertise.
- At the beginning of 2012, the Korean Samsung took the lead in the number of mobile telephone sets sold from the Finnish Nokia, that replaced the American Motorola as first in 1998.
- The euro appeared in Europe as scriptural money from 1st January 1999, then as coins and notes from 1st January 2002.
The introduction of the euro might not seem to fit in this list, but it’s—just like all the other events listed a clearly visible stage, an indicator of a longer and more important process.
Change curve illustrating the dynamics of changes. Source: http://www.themanager.org/Strategy/Change_Phases.htm
Levels of Change
It is easier to consider the relationship between the superficial and profound changes if we try to place them on the change curve describing the dynamics of the process of change shown in the figure. If the change is interpreted at the level of the current economic crisis, the collapse of the American mortgage market can be regarded as the shock. The method of the American government’s intervention reveals that at the beginning the decision makers of the government and the financial system stuck to their conviction that the problem could be solved and localised with quick intervention. But it turned out very soon that the credit crisis was much more general than the crisis of the American mortgage market. In this process, we are somewhere around the phases of emotional acceptance, practice and experimenting today, because the crisis has been faced practically everywhere, but no solutions have been found yet. The presented change curve is quite optimistic in a sense, because no negative scenario is considered, the positive outcome is only a question of time. Bad news is that this negative scenario that was left out for the sake of simplicity is theoretically inherent in all changes, and until solutions are offered to manage the current crisis, we cannot be sure that the outcome can only be positive.
It is possible to treat the changes going on in the world today at another, deeper level, of a different scale. From this aspect, we can place the shock period to the years between the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s when the Western powers felt that they were not able to stop the communist expansion threatening their existence. The period of denial that followed lasted until the mid-1970s, when, after ending the Vietnam War and facing the 1973 oil crisis, the Western powers had to understand that they cannot stop the communist expansion with military interventions. This period was characterised by greater or lesser wars and armed conflicts between the two camps from the beginning of the 1950s. The Vietnam War stands out among these, because the United States suffered its most substantial losses, and, unlike after the Korean War, it lost control over the whole territory of Vietnam. The more important shock, however, was the 1973 oil price explosion. The West faced that it cannot properly counterweigh the Soviet expansion in the Middle East by strengthening Israel, because it drives the oil exporting Arab countries into one camp with the Soviets.
At a third level, looking at the change from farther away, we can say that the shock was World War I, because that was the time when humankind experienced for the first time that the technology that makes their life easier is also suitable for the destruction of it. But if this is true, we must come to terms with the idea that the distribution of resources, including redistribution too, cannot serve as basis for the development of humankind, since it leads to wars that—with the advancement of technology—can destroy mankind. Denial followed again first, because we tried the same thing in World War II. It is no coincidence that it happened in the name of two collectivistic, although different in form but equally redistributionary ideologies. In this approach the period of rational understanding was the era between 1950 and 1970, emotional acceptance between 1980-1990. With the arrival of the new millennium we have been living in the age of practice, which means that we are searching for new solutions that are not yet perfect.
When considering the different levels of change, many think that these days events have accelerated, changes that took decades earlier, now happen in a few years or months. This is partly true, because the higher level of technology and the significantly larger population enable faster technical development. The appearance and spread of new technology result in social changes. In addition, technical development means not so much quantitative but rather qualitative development. Think about computers or telephones: less and less raw materials and energy are required for better performance. Development is costly but production becomes cheaper per unit, thus the spread of new technologies can become faster.
However, from another point of view this acceleration is illusory. One of the reasons why today’s changes are perceived to be much faster is because we look at them from a different angle when we change scale while viewing old and recent events of history. If we look far back, we can see less details of that farther away period than of the recent past. In addition, we pay closer attention to today’s changes, because they concern us directly, we experience them ourselves. So, when focus is on the present, the picture is much sharper, details are more easily noticeable and we understand them better than the events of more distant ages. Another factor is that we do not yet know what the outcomes of the changes happening now will be, while in case of the past changes we do. Thus, we can select among the events of the past, we know already which ones were important and which were not. We do not always know which of the current events will become important, so we consider a lot of details important now that we will not even mention later. If we have to deal with less details in connection with a given period of time, we tend to see it as less eventful.
Finally, it is worth considering whether it is the pace of change that really changes or it is rather the contents. Moore’s Law is often mentioned in relation with information technology. It says that computing performance available at the lowest price doubles approximately every two years. If we take the bare numbers, we can say, that this is an exponential, accelerating change. But is this really the essence of change or is it rather the fact that we live in a world where Moore’s Law has practical relevance, and we must learn to coexist with it, just like with gravity or machines driven by other than human or animal power? If we consider change in this way, we can realise that in fact it is not a series of accelerating changes, but an intensive phase of a huge transformational process, when new technologies that have decisive impact on the new era’s paradigms spread widely, and our way of thinking switches from an old system of paradigms to a new one. The legitimacy of this approach is underpinned by the fact that, although we have gone through several technological changes through the past centuries, while the population multiplied, we still prepare bread practically the same way and we still understand the human relationships depicted in ancient Greek dramas.
Attempts to Explain the Reasons for Changes
The attempts to explain the reasons and to forecast the dynamics of economic and historical changes can be divided into three main groups. One of the groups include the explanations that attribute the changes to cycles, in case of the economy to economic cycles. Their main features are that they suppose that behind the changes there are forces that have periodical impact as their resultants, and they regard the cyclic nature as necessary and inevitable.
The most widely known economic cycles are the Kitchin cycles with their 4-year span, the Juglar cycles of 10 years and the Kondratiev cycles with 50-60-year periods. In addition to these, there is the economic model of Keynes that is built on economic cycles and the corrections of their impacts.
The basis of this thinking, which leads changes back to cyclicality, is the cyclicality observed in nature, the change of seasons, the motion of planets and the life cycles of living organisms. Humankind has been trying to make these everyday observations generally applicable to and valid for economic and social changes since ancient times. The idea of cyclicality is not by chance so powerful in our times as well. As a matter of fact, the notion of the world’s cyclic renewal spread together with the longest revolution of humankind, the formation and expansion of agriculture since the Neolithic period.
The other group consists of the explanations that can be most expressively labelled as end-of-the-world scenarios. These assume that the reasons for the current changes of a given era are the total collapse of the world order as we know it and the building of a brand-new world order. These theories also consider complete transformation necessary and inevitable. Usually these explanations are less interesting afterwards, but still, they tend to emerge among the explanations of current economic and social changes.
Well-known examples of this eschatological thinking are the Maya end-of-the world prophecy for the year 2012, or the ancient flood myths. From today’s point of view, the above examples are quite exaggerating, but the prophecies predicting the end of capitalism and the approach of a completely new world order are practically the same ideas put in modern language. The vision of the inevitable destruction of the existing world order is, however, not a new motif in human thinking. The end of the world, as a prerequisite of the world’s rebirth, was a widespread motif in the Mesopotamian religions already 5,000 years ago. The flood motif for example was present in the Sumer and Akkad religions, the similarities between the story in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the version in the Bible indicate that both descriptions stem from the same ancient source known since time immemorial.
Finally, the third group is of the evolutionary-revolutionary models that combine the elements and moderate the extremes of the theories in the other two groups. The essence of these models is that development can be divided into slow and gradual evolutionary phases, and revolutionary phases that are quick and result in large-scale changes. The phases follow each other recurrently, they alternate.
Despite their obvious flaws, each of the above approaches has its legitimacy, the extreme simplifications serve comprehensibility and urge to find solutions rather than providing objective analysis and factual scientific explanations. Apart from their exaggerations, these models describe the dynamics of changes more or less accurately, but do not tell anything about the reasons. So, it is very important that we consider them as summaries of our earlier experiences with exaggerations to make them more expressive, and not laws that control things. We use them to handle changes and mitigate their effects, but we shouldn’t consider them to be factors that externally predefine our lives.
Kurzweil’s six epochs of evolution
When assessing current changes, it’s worth taking the golden mean instead of extreme interpretations. Consequently, the increased intensity of the changes permanently present in our lives indicates changes that are more profound and substantial than usual, but in no way the end of the world, not even a mystic rebirth awaiting humanity. Currently experienced changes are not cyclic, they are neither quantitative changes that might result from a mere coincidence of economic cycles, nor a return to some earlier world order. The transformations are real, the expectable changes are significant from several aspects, but no inevitable catastrophe should be expected. Rather, the real reason is that in several different areas time became ripe for serious change almost at once, or example for a technical shift, a paradigm change, the introduction of a new approach and solutions. Synchronicity partly stems from the nature and correlations of things, partly it is accidental, but apart from the fact that looking for solutions requires much more thinking and effort than in less intensive time periods, it has no significance.
Accelerating development and the expectable changes cause alarm in a lot of people, the main source of which is the fear of the irreversible exhaustion of resources of the Earth and of technology’s becoming uncontrollable. To handle these two concerns simultaneously, it is worth considering an extreme scenario of the expectable direction and impacts of technological development, which is described by Ray Kurzweil in connection with the phenomenon he calls singularity.
According to Kurzweil, while the human mind represents its environment in linear models, in reality the world around us changes exponentially, that is at an ever faster rate. When the pace of the changes ahead of us gets so fast that we are unable to reliably foresee their results at a point relatively close to a certain time and beyond the event horizon, we speak about Singularity. Singularity in Kurzweil’s scenario is a period in the future when technological changes are so fast and so profound that human life will irreversibly be transformed as a result. Singularity, however, is neither utopian nor anti-utopian. So we don’t have to suppose a completely new world in every aspect, although we have to expect fundamental changes in our environment and our way of thinking. Nevertheless, Singularity fits into the history of evolution in a broader sense that has the six epochs presented in the figure above.
The main features of the epochs can be summarised as follows:
- Epoch 1: Physics and Chemistry. Information is stored in simple structures, in patterns of matter and energy. Although there is no agreement concerning the digital or analogue nature of matter and energy, we know that atomic structures store discrete (appearing in separate, not continuous units) information. Evolution is extremely slow by today’s scale, the rules governing the universe, however, ensure that evolution moves towards greater order and complexity.
- Epoch 2: Biology and DNA. Information is in the DNA, the biological hereditary material. In this epoch, carbon-based molecules form more complex structures and eventually produce the material needed for constructing a copy of themselves. DNA stores the information in a digital form.
- Epoch 3: Brains. Information is stored in neural patterns. Each epoch means a paradigm shift in storing information, each epoch builds on the results of the previous one. The third epoch started with the appearance of pattern recognition in the first animals. Finally, based on the patterns, man became capable of creating mental models, recreating the world in his mind and realising those ideas.
- Epoch 4: Technology. Information is in hardware and software designs. This epoch is characterised by the development of technology created by man. Technology got from simple tools to information and communication technology equipment that is suitable for sensing, storing and evaluating sophisticated patterns. While the most developed mammals grew their brain volume by approximately 16 cm3 every hundred thousand years, the computing capacity of computers today doubles practically every year. However, if we examine the milestones of biological and technological development, we can observe an accelerating, exponential development right from the beginnings.
- Epoch 5: Merger of technology and human intelligence. The methods of biology are integrated into the (exponentially expanding) human technology base. Through the merger, the immense knowledge stored in our brain will be united with a technology with much larger than our computational capacity, greater speed and information sharing capability. The Singularity starts in the fifth epoch, the human-machine civilisation will extend beyond the capacity barriers of the human brain. The Singularity enhances our intelligence and creativity but at the same time increases the effects of our destructive inclinations.
- Epoch 6: The universe wakes up. Patterns of matter and energy in the Universe become saturated with intelligent processes and knowledge. As the aftermath of the Singularity, intelligence of biological origin starts saturating the surrounding matter and energy by reorganising their structures. Whether our civilisation fills the other parts of the universe with its creativity and intelligence fast or slowly, depends on its unchangeability. But the sixth epoch is about transforming empty material into the carrier of intelligence, which is the ultimate result of the Singularity of the universe.
The exact consequences of Singularity, our changed life cannot be forecasted today, but the most important features of it can be predicted relying on our abstract reasoning. Machines will become humans in a sense, intelligence similar to human will appear in them. But in spite of the large-scale growth of the intelligence of machines and technology, our civilisation will remain human, since the origin of this intelligence is biological. Development will essentially increase the opportunities of human life and happiness, but this is going to occupy only a fragment of the new civilisation’s intelligence.
Kurzweil doesn’t specify dates or periods for the epochs ahead, but argues that, taking the exponential nature of changes into consideration, they are very close in time. At the level of technologies used in everyday life, the author highlights three main areas where the majority of important changes can be expected: genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. The author is fundamentally optimistic about the effects of changes, although admits that new technologies bring about new responsibilities and new dangers.
If we look at the new technical or evolutionary age as one characterised by the capability to change often and change things continuously, as opposed to the predominance of one or another technology earlier, then we cannot expect a fundamental change that would impact all aspects of human life, our prospects are basically favourable from a technological point of view.
According to the Axiom of Causality, everything in the Universe has a cause and is thus an effect of that cause. This proposition was already formulated by Plato, and the concept of karma in oriental religions, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism means the same. So, the things, events, happenings are indirectly or directly connected by the chain of causes and effects.
However, Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, states that things can be connected not only by a cause-effect chain, but also by their meanings. Things and events that are connected by their meaning are not necessarily in cause-effect relationship, but their connection, that can be explained merely by a strange play of chance since causality is absent, might still be important. Jung called such connections, that seem to be accidental but are still meaningful coincidences, synchronicity.
In his book published in 1966 “Thirty Years that Shook Physics – The Story of Quantum Theory”, George Gamow, the renowned physicist, gives a humorous example for synchronicity that he named Pauli effect after the key figure in the story. According to the anecdote it is generally known that theoretical physicists are quite clumsy handling experimental equipment, they often ruin or break them. It was definitely true for the excellent theoretical physicist, Wolfgang Pauli. It was enough for him to enter a lab, something immediately broke.
Once a very complicated instrument used for measuring atomic physics phenomena broke in the Göttingen laboratory of Professor J. Franck for no apparent reason, although Pauli was not even in the town. Professor Franck wrote a humorous letter to Pauli in Zurich, and soon Pauli replied in a letter posted from Denmark and said that he had visited Niels Bohr, and when the incident happened in Franck’s laboratory, his train was halted in Göttingen. There are some other, often mentioned examples of synchronicity, like when a clock stops at the time of death of its owner, or when a beloved one “gets into contact” with us or “visits” us in our mind in the moment of their death.
In his essay titled Synchronicity, published in 1960, Jung presents the example of the Swedish religious leader, Emmanuel Swedenborg, who told about his vision of a fire in Stockholm to the local authorities in Gothenburg in 1759. In the given time, there really was a fire in Stockholm, but there was no explainable connection between Swedenborg and the fire. In Jung’s opinion, the vision could be traced back to the notion that the fire burnt in Swedenborg himself as well.
Storm, who cites the above case in his article published in 1987, also mentions two other cases originally described by H. Wilmer. One is the case of the famous English actor, Anthony Hopkins, who, after getting the leading role of the film “The Girl from Petrovka”, tried to buy the novel that served as a basis for the film’s script, but he didn’t succeed. One day, when he was crossing Leicester Square, he noticed a book left on a bench: it was the novel “The Girl from Petrovka”. During the film’s shooting, Hopkins got acquainted with the author of the novel, George Feifer, who told him that he did not even have a copy of his own book. He gave his last copy to a friend, who lost it in London. Hopkins showed Feifer the book he found on the bench, and the writer recognised his notes in it.
The other case described by Wilmer was of a woman who gave a pipe to her husband for his birthday. The husband went for a walk and sat down on a bench in a park. The man sitting next to him was smoking the same type of pipe, and later it turned out, that he had also got it from his wife for his birthday. The two men’s birthdays were on the same day and they had identical first names too. But in Wilmer’s opinion this wasn’t a synchronistic event, because the coincidence had no significance beyond the coincidence itself. An accidental coincidence that is not meaningful is outside the scope of synchronicity.
How can we explicitly define synchronicity? According to Jung, two or more events form synchronicity only if there’s meaningful relationship, significant association, but no causal connection between them. An additional condition is that synchronistic events are not merely coincidences, although they usually appear to be. Of course, meaningfulness, as a key element of synchronicity, can be recognised only if a certain content becomes conscious in the psyche at the very moment when a corresponding event becomes conscious in the physical world too. Only the above event can be regarded as synchronicity in practical terms. Theoretically, however, Jung claims that a synchronistic event can still be synchronistic even if we fail to recognise its significance.
When identifying events as synchronistic, we should be cautious, because we can easily make minimum two kinds of mistakes. The first kind, which is not significant from a practical point of view, is when there is a causal connection between two events, but that remains hidden because of its indirectness. This kind of mistake is not so important from a practical aspect, because there really is a connection between the events; at worst, it is not synchronicity but a causal connection.
One of the key elements of the American foreign policy during the Cold War was a presupposition that there is a close cooperation behind the foreign policy of Moscow and Beijing, and that Beijing’s steps are basically dictated from Moscow. If the Americans had known about the mutual distrust between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese fear of a Soviet military intervention, they could have seen how far they were from the truth. The Korean and Vietnam wars were largely the consequences of this false assumption. The US regarded the Chinese influence in both countries to be much more dangerous to its security than it really was, because the USA supposed that it was actually the Soviet Union that expanded in Asia through China, while in reality the two countries were rather rivalling than cooperating.
The above example shows that it is important to recognise those cases when synchronicity, the connection of events through meaning is only apparent. The first step to avoid this mistake is to be aware of it, to accept that strange coincidences really exist. If we encounter such false synchronicity, it can still be of use in understanding ourselves, uncovering those subjective internal reasons that make us want things to be connected. Additionally, it is important to bear in mind that —according to Jung, who introduced the notion—is a psychological process in the sense that it is always the human mind that gets into contact with the external world in synchronistic events. Using a term borrowed from medieval alchemists, synchronicity—experiencing coincidences that are not in causal connection—is a moment of unus mundus. Unus mundus, that is, “one world” refers to a deeper unity between the tangible world and internal events like dreams, ideas and thoughts.
In this approach, synchronicity has three types: The first type is an internal psychological event that is connected by meaning with a simultaneously occurring external event with which it has no causal connection. The second type is an internal psychological event that is connected to an external event far away. The third type is also an internal psychological event that is connected by meaning to an event distant in time. The last two types of synchronistic events can be identified only afterwards of course.
The notion of synchronicity is in close connection with Jung’s theory about the structure of the human psyche. In Jung’s opinion, the deepest layer of the psyche is the collective unconscious, which is shared by all humans. This layer consists of the patterns of instinctive behaviour, called archetypes. Archetypes can never be observed directly and they do not become conscious, they work much more as kind of source codes for more external manifestations like symbols, myths and religions. Synchronistic events occur when an archetype is activated, that is, it has an especially strong effect on our conscious behaviour or thinking.
This happens most likely when a given person goes through a crisis or something strongly engages him emotionally. When this crisis or engaged mind is associated with a lower threshold of consciousness, conditions are given for the occurrence of a synchronistic event.
How do we know when a peculiar coincidence has significance and when it does not? How can we differentiate between mere coincidence and a synchronistic event? There is no really sound methodology, but there are some crutches we can rely on. The first is if we try to examine our intuitions or hypotheses with scientific methods. It might happen that a causal connection exists, but is not that trivial; still, the connection between the events is real.
If we do not find such a scientifically verifiable connection, we can make use of self-testing to find out how much and why we want the two things to have more than an accidental connection. How large a part does our desire play in our regarding the coincidence significant? It might happen that we can neither prove nor deny a causal but significant connection between things. We might have to rely on starting to act on the perceived or actual connection, but it is practical to be focused and remain open for change or correction and for realising quickly if we are mistaken. In order to avoid mistakes it is helpful to know our environment and ourselves within our environment. As Sun Tzu, a military strategist of ancient China of the 6th century BC puts it: “…if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
Can the Future Be Predicted?
In this paper, we have discussed how we can or how we try to explain the changes and events of the world and their correlations. We have given account on cycles, phases of the change process, accelerating change and its consequences, paradigms and also relations beyond causal connections. In a deeper sense, we were examining how the world can be understood, to what extent it can be understood and whether it can at all be understood in its entirety, with its complex and sophisticated system of interrelatedness.
Practically, we have been trying to find out whether future can be predicted, if there is a sound methodology to avoid mistakes, errors and traps, whether we can forecast history.
Models and analogies help to interpret and understand a situation, help to reduce uncertainty and avoid at least those mistakes that we have already made earlier. The responsibility of choosing the model and paradigm is ours even if there is no applicable and sound rule that would tell how we should choose among approaches and paradigms in given situations. Gödel’s theorem and its consequences related to reducing uncertainty and predicting the future is bad news. This is good news at the same time, because it means that people, human insight, resourcefulness, intuition and repeated attempts will always be necessary for making decisions.
We could also say that life is beautiful and human exactly because it is unpredictable, uncertain, risky and sometimes difficult. So, it is worth living precisely for those things that have difficult or no answers, because this is life itself. Everything else is just mathematics.
We started the overview with the thoughts of Stephen Hawking. As a windup, let’s quote Hawking in full: “Look up at the stars and not down on your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”