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Friday, August 07, 2015

On Coincidence 2

The ever resourceful, ever peculiar Arthur Koestler devoted two books to a minor figure in the history of science: Paul Kammerer. One book, The case of the Midwife Toad, detailed Kammerer’s search for proof that Lamarkian evolution – the inheritance of acquired traits – actually exists. The other book, The Roots of Coincidence, explored Kammerer’s fascination with what he called seriality, which found its way into Kammerer’s 1919, Das Gesetz der Serie. As I pointed out, if we take Cournot’s reasoning to be correct, there shouldn’t be a “law” of coincidence, since coincidence is, by definition, a byproduct of the fact that the laws of physics are both plural and independent one from the other. Thus, a law of coincidence would simply create another kind of coincidence that it couldn’t encompass, and thus would not be a law of all coincidences at all – eliminating it from consideration as a law of physics.
Nevertheless, while 20th century physicists did follow, reluctantly, the probabilistic path scouted out by Cournot, there were intellectuals – sometimes including physicists of note, such as Wolfgang Pauli – who couldn’t resist the impulse of trying to discover some law to explain the interstices of chance.
Mostly, these intellectuals were not physicists, however. Rather, they were, many of them, concerned that the geometric spirit was strangling the poetry of the world, and sought places at the spiritual front where they could fight back. Often, however, they ended up fighting back using the methods of their opponents – that is, instead of claiming poetry as a power in its own right, they claimed that they were making scientific discoveries.
Kammerer, according to Koestler, made notebooks in which he recorded coincidences. He was on the lookout for them. A coincidence notebook is something to dream about – what a wonderful form for a novel!  Here’s what it looks like, in an extract from Koestler:
Kammerer's book contains a hundred samples of
coincidences. For instance:
(7) On September 18, 1916, my wife, while waiting for her turn in the consulting rooms of Prof. Dr.j.
v. H., reads the magazine Die Kunst; she is impressed by some reproductions of pictures by a painter named Schwalbach, and makes a mental note to remember his name because she would like to see the originals. At that moment the door opens and the receptionist calls out to the patients: "Is Frau Schwalbach here? She is wanted on the telephone."
(22) On July 28, 1915, I experienced the following progressive series: (a) my wife was reading about
"Mrs. Rohan", a character in the novel Michael by Hermann Bang; in the tramway she saw a man who
looked like her friend, Prince Rohan; in the evening Prince Rohan dropped in on us. (b) In the
tram she overheard somebody askirig the pseudo-Rohan whether he knew the village of Weissenbach
on Lake Attersee, and whether it would be a pleasant place for a holiday. When she got out of the tram,
she went to a delicatessen shop on the Naschmarkt, where the attendant asked her whether she happened
to know Weissenbach on Lake Attersee-he had to make a delivery by mail and did not know the correct
postal address.
Those who have the ear for these things will be impressed by the similarity (the coincidence?) of this kind of prose with Freud’s cases from ordinary life in the Psychopathology, which contains the famous (and much disputed) analysis of a “Freudian slip”. The coincidence, in fact, seems to be a sort of slip by fate itself – as though some secret law governing human events slips quickly into and out of view. Kammerer, like Freud, was concerned with repetition. He defined the series as "a lawful recurrence of the same or similar things and events -a recurrence, or clustering, in time or space whereby the individual members in the sequence-as far as can be ascertained by careful analysis-are not connected by the same active cause".

What they are connected by is the same person, depending on the case.

Six years before Kammerer’s book, Freud had published one of his more adventurous works: Totem and Taboo. In this book, he develops the idea of projection as a process by which the ambiguity of feelings one has about a person are relieved – in the case of “primitives”, by imputing hostility to the spirits of the dead, a hostility that has its real origin in the hostility one felt about them living. This idea has had a long career, and merged into the ordinary way of thinking about how we negotiate feeling and interactions with others so that it no longer seems or is even recognized, much of the time, as Freudian. Of course, it is a word that coincided with a technology – the projection of images on a screen – that also characterized one of the long events in the cultural life of the twentieth century. Freud sees, in a sense, the false divide that separates the “primitive” from the modern, even if the only moderns that he compares to primitives are neurotics. As to neurotics – in essence, you have successful ones, who sublimate their neuroses, and unsuccessful ones, who exibit it, and that is the psychopathology of everyday life. Mental illness is  a matter of degree, not a difference in kind.

Which is why projection is fundamentally based, according to Freud, on the human setup:

“But projection exists not only as a defense mechanism, but it also arises where there are no conflicts. The projection of inner perceptions to the outside is a primitive mechanism which underlies, for instance, our sense perceptions, which thus have the greatest share in shaping our outer world. Under not sufficiently fixed conditions, our inner perceptions will also project outward our feeling and thought processes as well as our sense perceptions, applying them to the forming of the outer world while they should remain bound to the inner world. This is connected genetically, perhaps, to the fact that the function of attention is not originally directed to the inner world, but instead to stimuli streaming in from the outer world, receiving from the endopsychic processes only reports of the development of pleasure or pain. Only with the construction of an abstract thought language, through the conjunction of sense-related remnants of verbal representations with inner processes, does this become gradually perceptible. Up to this point the primitive person through projection of inner perceptions on the outside develops a picture of the outer world that we only now, with a heightened sense of consciousness in psychology, are forced to retranslate.”  

Projection and coincidence seem, intuitively, to have something to do with each other in the Freudian schema. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

on coincidence: 1

In Mill’s Logic, that grand old lumber room, in Chapter 18 of Book three,  a principle is spelled out that, in our day, has been shorthanded into the sometimes tendentious phrase,  correlation does not prove causation:
“Although two or more cases in which the phenomenon a has been met with may have no common antecedent except A, this does not prove that there is any connection between a and A, since a may have many causes, and may have been produced, in these different instances, not by any thing which the instances had in common, but by some of those elements in them which were different.”
Mill, in keeping with his practical bent, distills from this a question: “After how many and what sort of instances may it be concluded that an observed coincidence between two phenomena is not the effect of chance?”
Another way of putting this question is: when is a coincidence really a coincidence?
As Francois Mentre has pointed out, the French mathematician and scientist, Cournot, was also intested in this question, or at least in one of its guises: the reality of probability. Cournot worked in the shadow of Laplace; but where Laplace, finally, came down on the side of a universal determinism, Cournot was sure that this move was not justified by Laplace’s mathematics.  “He could not admit that chance was nothing  but a “vain sound, flatus vocis, which we use, as Laplace said, to disguise our ignorance of true causes.” For him [Cournot], chance had an objective reality independent of our knowledge.” (144) Cournot spelled out his ontological conviction by way of a critique of Laplace. Laplace wrote that Nature obeys “a small number of immutable laws.” Cournot’s disprove of Laplace’s determinism moves from this idea: “it suffices, said Cournot, that there be only two, perfectly independent one from the other, in order that we must make a place for the fortuitous in the government of the world. Whether or not  we do or do not know the literal law for each of the independent two series, as soon as they intersect, there is chance. Chance thus does not derive from our ignorance of the laws of the universe, no more than it diminishes as the measure of our knowledge extends. It subsists in the eyes of the expert as well as those of the ignoramus. It is necessary to accept it as an irreducible, sui generis fact that has a notable part in the government of the world.” (209)
This, though, is hard to accept, either for the expert or the ignoramus or that hybrid of the two, the modern mystic..
One can see that Cournot’s observation blocks two popular explanations of coincidence (or chance – in fact, I am using coincidence here as a proxy for a semantic family that includes the French hasard and the German Zufall). True coincidence can neither be purely the effect of human ignorance of the causes in place, nor can itself be characteristic of some autonomous law – a law of synchronicity or seriality. The same reasoning Cournot applies to other laws would apply in this case, so that any law of synchronicity would inevitably generate coincidences that would fall outside its domain as it intersected with other universal laws, creating, if you will, hypercoincidences.
One way of looking at physics in the 20th century is that the physicists were both moved by the fact that the world given by a structure that was governed by two or more irreducible laws would have to accord a large place to chance – such that probability was no longer a way of mathematically stylizing elements that were, to an all powerful intelligence, always certain – and a movement to unify the laws of physics, to reduce them to some grand single principle, which would drive out coincidence.

However, there was also a tradition, a fringe tradition, that rejected the whole idea that coincidence wasn’t subject to its own proper law. Instead, it sought that law. This was an especially popular theme in Germany in the 20s, coexisting with a faddish interest in psychoanalysis, physiognomics, graphology, paranormal psychology, etc. Psychoanalysis had a tentative relationship with these things, which fascinated Freud, but which, finally, he diagnosed as cultural symptoms of a mass psychopathology.