Synchronicity, Part 1: What do we mean by Meaningful Coincidence?

Hey kids, it's Carl Jung, the man who coined the term "synchronicity!" I hear he did some other stuff as well.

The term “synchronicity” is thrown around quite often these days. I first heard the term a few years back when I was reading Steve Pavlina’s blog. More recently, I learned that the man who first came up with the term was none other than psychologist C. G. Jung.

For those who are unfamiliar with Jung or his work, much of it was focused on his idea of a collective unconscious, and archetypes – common themes that keep popping up within the collective unconscious. One such archetype that Jung recognized is the “shadow“, which is a part of the mind consisting of repressed weakness, shortcomings, and instincts. When you take all of this into consideration, you can see how much influence Jung has had on various new age movements.

However, what I want to focus on today is the concept of synchronicity. What is it, how does it work, and what if anything does it say about the nature of the reality we live in?

What is synchronicity?

What do we mean by "meaningful coincidence" anyway?

In his book “Synchronicity”, Jung defines synchronicity as a “meaningful coincidence.”

I think the best way to approach this is to start with a few famous historical examples of synchronicity to get an idea what I mean.

“A certain M. Deschamps, when a boy in Orleans, was once given a piece of plum-pudding by a M. de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum-pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum-pudding was already ordered-by M. de Fortigbu. Many years afterwards M Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum-pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was M. de Fortigbu. At that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of disorientation walked in: M. de Fortigbu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake.”

Jung himself experienced a synchronicity like this in his youth:

“When a young man, Jung saw a solid oak table suddenly split right across. Soon afterwards a strong steel knife broke in pieces for no apparent reason. His superstitious mother, who also witnessed both of these events, looked at him significantly, and this made Jung wonder what it was all about. Later he learned that some of his relatives had been attending seances with

a medium: they had been wanting to ask him to join them.”

These are the kind of coincidences that make you stop and think that maybe there is something different going on in the world than what you initially thought. These connections are strange, coincidental, acausal, and personal. But what about the “meaningful” part? Where is this meaning coming from, and why do certain coincidences make us feel the way we do?

What the Skeptics say

Are the rings on these puddles all lining up for a reason? The universe, it's speaking to me!

To have a full perspective on things, we have to know what the skeptics think, too. So let’s crack open our skeptic dictionary and dump a little cold water on this idea.

“What reasons are there for accepting synchronicity as an explanation for anything in the real world? What it explains is more simply and elegantly explained by the ability of the human mind to find meaning and significance were there is none (apophenia)…If you think of all the pairs of things that can happen in a person’s lifetime, and add to that our very versatile ability of finding meaningful connections between things, it then seems likely that many of us will experience many meaningful coincidences. The coincidences are predictable, but we are the ones who give them meaning.

Even if there were a synchronicity of the mind and the world such that certain coincidences resonate with transcendental truth, there would still be the problem of figuring out those truths. What guide could one possibly use to determine the correctness of an interpretation? There is none except intuition and insight, the same guides that led Jung’s teacher, Sigmund Freud, in the interpretation of dreams. The concept of synchronicity is but an expression of apophenia”

And Just so we’re clear on apophneia, let’s get the short definition for that too, also from the skeptic’s dictionary.

“Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena.”

and an example:

“Soon after his son committed suicide, Episcopalian Bishop James A Pike began seeing meaningful messages in such things as a stopped clock, the angle of an open safety pin, and the angle formed by two postcards lying on the floor. He thought they were conveying the time his son shot himself.”

So to summarize: the two main critiques of skeptics are:

1) More coincidences happen than we notice. So when we say “That couldn’t have been by chance.”, we have to realize that in the broad scope of things coincidences happen fairly often.

2) We’re merely seeing meaning in things where there is none.

A Matter of Fact or Perspective?

Perspective is a funny thing.

I don’t really have a sufficient mastery of statistics to give a sufficient answer to the first question, but I would like to write on the second point.

A synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence. Apophenia is when you perceive a coincidence to be meaningful when it isn’t. But this begs the question: Who decides what is meaningful and what is not? What has meaning to one person doesn’t have meaning to another.

The question of who decides meaning has been debated over by philosophers for quite some time. Personally, I consider myself closest to an existentialist worldview, so in my opinion, we each get to decide our own meaning. Whether that’s right or not depends on who you ask. Of course, we have to ask what we mean by the actual word “meaningful.”

Do we mean “meaningful” in the sense of “Wow, that was a really cool experience, I’m just blown away!”

Or do we mean meaningful in the sense of “Wow, that was so amazing, it had to be God/The Universe/Source/ (fill in the blank here) doing it.”

I’m assuming the skeptics are more concerned with the second sense of the word. “Why does it have to be supernatural?” The skeptic would rightfully say, “When it’s probably just you seeing too much into things? Why does is have to be a meaningful coincidence (again second sense of the word) , when it could just be a regular coincidence?

The answer, as trite as it sounds, is because I choose to see it that way.

Is Everything Connected, or Not?

Remember Louis Wain, our cat loving, schizophrenic artist? Is this the picture of a man's mind slowly abstracting into madness, or slowly seeing the underlying geometry of existence, or both?

Remember in my past articles, I talked about latency inhibition and occam’s razor. These are two important keys to understand here.

In the former, I wrote that low latency inhibition affects schizophrenics because a key symptom of that disease is “perceiving meaningful relationships everywhere, even when there aren’t any.” (or apophenia). I then went on to explain that maybe schizophrenics are seeing a more accurate model of the universe because their brains are noticing things that we naturally filter out, such as audio “hallucinations”, “synchronicities” or Hey, have you ever thought you saw something out of the corner of your eye? It’s probably just the brain misfiring.

So if a person experiences more “synchronicities”, it means he is lowering his latency inhibition, which means he is more likely to experience personal supernatural events, because his mind is starting to notice things it would be otherwise filtering out, and making connections it would otherwise not be making, to the point where it appears like he is not mentally healthy to anybody with more latency inhibition. So which is it? Is everything meaningful? Is nothing meaningful, or is it somewhere in-between?

In my other article, I wrote that Occam’s razor is inherently biased, because what is considered an “extraordinary claim” depends on who you ask. There is no hard-pressed line between ordinary and extraordinary. It’s a spectrum, and the line is different for everybody. The bias, in this case, is to see “chance” as an ordinary claim, and “the supernatural” as an extraordinary claim, when in fact there’s no evidence for either one. There’s evidence that coincidences happen, sure, but no evidence that what causes coincidences is chance, or some determinist variant thereof. How could there be?

As most conversations like this go, the deeper you get, the muddier the waters get, and the more you get entangled with definitional issues that make determining the truth impossible. Philosophical matters are kind of like quantum physics in that way. On the surface, everything makes sense and is a-ok, but the deeper you go, the less things make sense, the harder it is to observe and make meaning from things.

When you reach that point, you are left with a choice, the choice to decide what you believe with the information you have, the choice to determine how to interpret the facts. Should you choose not to accept synchronicity, I understand. That seems like a perfectly valid choice given what little information we have of what goes on behind the scenes. If you do believe in synchronicity, I think that’s an equally valid view, and not something to be looked down upon or scoffed at. At the very least, it will leave you open to a plethora of amazing experiences.

Tune in next time for part two, where I will discuss how synchronicities relate to storytelling and dreams.

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