Science, Serendipity, and Synchronicity
It seems to me that at the heart of science is the scientific method, and that the essence of the scientific method is the elimination of chance. Experimental control is designed expressly to isolate the single line of inquiry from all extraneous factors. If science has a ‘soul’, it would be in the delight of illuminating the darkness of superstition and irrationality – to replace fear with knowledge.
The scientist is firm in the knowledge that while ‘everything happens for a reason’, it is almost never for the reason that we might assume. In fact, ‘everything happens for a reason’ is a kind of fault line between science and spirituality. West of that line, there is only one reason that things happen – because natural forces have conspired unintentionally to make them happen. East of that line, there is a different reason that things happen: Because it is the will of God or Spirit. West of the line, the view of the East is superstition and wishful thinking. The Western scientist is repelled by the Eastern mind, seeing grave danger, rightfully, in naive denial of physical fact. The Eastern-facing mind is likewise disenchanted with Western certainties. The belief that all things can be reduced to mechanical function seems cynical and out of touch with the reality of human experience.
Given that science is so focused on eliminating magical thinking, it seems more than ironic that serendipity plays such a prominent role in the history of science. Even if the events are apocryphal, the mythology of science is a heroes journey that often pivots on some fortuitous coincidence which constellates a new discovery. It is not a miraculous gift bestowed upon the hero from grace, but a kind of winking reward from nature, revealing its wonders at last after much hard earned work.
“Many of the things discovered by accident are important in our everyday lives:Teflon, Velcro, nylon, x-rays, penicillin, safety glass, sugar substitutes, and polyethylene and other plastics. And we owe a debt to accident for some of our deepest scientific knowledge, including Newton’s theory of gravitation, the Big Bang theory of Creation, and the discovery of DNA. Even the Rosetta Stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the ruins of Pompeii came to light through chance. ” – source
“Discovery needs luck, invention, intellect – none can do without, the other.” -Johann Wolfgang Goethe
At a deeper level, the message that serendipity communicates is the virtue of curiosity. The hard work of science is the justification for the reward of discovery, but the treasure map which leads to that work is the gift of curiosity. The hero’s journey begins there, and through an alchemical process of purification and futile struggle, the hero is made deserving. The scientific hero’s struggle is even more noble than the mythic hero, since they must eschew supernatural luck and make their own good fortune through commitment to precision, methodical thoroughness, and accuracy. It seems strange then, after all of that, we still find that the role of intuition and surprise are so…curiously…prominent in our storytelling of science. Watching shows like Tyson’s recent Cosmos (and Sagan’s as well), it is really all about serendipity. Most every episode features stories of scientific heroes struggling against fate, only to be fatefully assisted in the end.
For being such a forbidden concept in the scientific method, it appears that fate is still alive and well in the folk psychology of science itself. More than in many other fields, the culture of science seems to have a greater tolerance for whimsical language and Murphy’s Law type skepticism. There is a kind of suppressed romanticism that comes out as eccentricity and non-conformity…symptoms of all that is suppressed by the scientific method, where quirky outliers are discarded.
The twentieth century marked explosive shifts in science. Multiple discoveries in everything from physics, to biology, to psychology, combined in a synchronistic way which exposed synchronicity itself. Special Relativity and quantum mechanics dissolved classical materialism, just as art, music, and politics were radicalized. Now, in the twenty first century, there appears to be a backlash. Physics and information science have resurrected a realism which is structured and non-relativistic. The stunning revelations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty and Godel’s incompleteness are being interpreted now as supporting a worldview forever outside of human understanding, rather than a reality which is deeper and richer than measurement itself. Possibly the next sea change is beginning to swell, and we will see some of the old, new ideas come back to displace the new, old ideas. What will the future of science have to say about this chapter of its development? Will science get over its love hate relationship with its own hunches, luck, and curiosity?