Synchronicity and Acausal Connectedness
This is an attempt to say something coherent about synchronicity. A task
which may be impossible as it seems that the very nature of these phenomena
is to confront one with a direct experience of paradox in which our categories
of mind, matter and time fail. Any deep apprehension of synchronicity must
necessarily leave one with the sense of having encountered an awe inspiring
mystery. Nevertheless, it seems that there may be a potential to frame the
problem more systematically than has so far been achieved.
Much, indeed most, of the material currently in print on synchronicity seems
to spend more time referring back to Jung, what Jung thought and what Jung
said, than actually trying to grapple with primary data in any systematic
way. I feel that this is a serious error for several reasons. In the first
place, although Jung was the first figure in modern times to articulate
the issue and gave the phenomenon the name synchronicity, Jung's style in
the face of paradox was to contradict himself. Secondly, even if his elucidation
of the questions had been flawlessly systematic (which it most certainly
was not) the subject at hand should be the actual realm of phenomena, not
one person's thoughts about this realm. To allow the discussion to degenerate
into a debate about Jung's views on the topic (which were hopelessly contradictory
anyway) is only to insure that the entire field of inquiry will never gain
any credibility in the larger world of ideas.
Without going into Jung's various definitions of synchronicity for the moment,
if you asked most people, and some dictionaries, the simple definition of
synchronicity would be: a "meaningful coincidence." These two
words raise many questions. First, what is a coincidence, meaningful or
otherwise? The most obvious answer is that two (or more) events appear to
coincide (in time) but there is no obvious causal connection between them.
It might be more accurate to say that it is our experience of two events
which somehow seems to coincide. Another way to say this would be to say
that we recognize an associative connection or discern a pattern in events,
but can see no mechanism to account for the apparent connection between
them. To a rational reductionist the term "just a coincidence"
is as unitary as "damn Yankee" was in the old South. The rational
implication being that any apparent connection is only an illusion brought
about by the inherent ability of our minds (brains) to see pattern even
where none "actually" exists.
It is important to recognize that there is also a further implicit assumption
in our definition of synchronicity; at least half of the pattern exists
"out there" in matter, as opposed to "in here" in our
minds. It is easy to see why, if both halves of the association occur on
the interior side of perception, the experience is less troubling, at least
to an outside observer. For the mind itself may be mysterious and troubling,
but it does not call physics into question. Two ideas arising together in
the mind is far from unusual, but is instead merely regarded as normal thought.
From the psychologized Jungian viewpoint most definitions of synchronicity
have built into them the idea that half of the pattern always originates
in an entirely interior experience, most often in a dream, which is then
confirmed, mirrored or reflected by some event or experience in the exterior
material world of consensus reality. It is not surprising that a psychotherapist
obsessed with analyzing dreams would first encounter synchronicity in this
context, but what is odd is that definitions of the term synchronicity which
include this as a necessary condition would continue to be parroted without
question over half a century later.
This brings us to the second word in our definition: "meaningful."
This word is by far the most difficult and troubling of the two. I will
not attempt to define meaning at this point, but will instead review some
of the various approaches to it in the context of synchronicity. At one
extreme is the narrow view of synchronicity advocated by Victor Mansfield.
He asserts that only those experiences which contribute to one's "individuation"
(a Jungian term meaning psycho-spiritual growth) should be called "synchronicity"
experiences. By inference, to Mansfield, only those experiences sufficiently
contributing to this Jungian individuation process would be "meaningful."
Mansfield then asserts that all experiences of coincidence which do not
fit this narrow definition should be classed as expressions of (Jung's)
acausal connectedness. He (Mansfield) then goes on to assert that those
astrological experiences which contribute (sufficiently) to one's individuation
may be correctly classed as synchronicity experiences, while all other astrological
coincidences are merely expressions of acausal connectedness. I find Mansfield's
distinction bizarre and artificial, largely because it is too late. The
cat is out of the bag. Synchronicity has a functional definition in popular
culture which is not about to be constrained by Mansfield or any Jungian
apologist even if they did make sense.
Mansfield's argument becomes even more self-contradictory when one realizes
from Marie-Louise Von Franz's more comprehensive treatment of Jung's works
that Jung himself apparently most often used the term "general acausal
connectedness" to refer to invariant physical constants and the individual
qualitative properties of the natural numbers. In other words he used this
term to describe the predictably observable properties of the world which
(apparently) could not be explained by any causal argument. These phenomena
are inherently different than those unique phenomenological experiences
which Mansfield is now attempting to redefine the term "acausal connectedness"
to apply to. In this case I do not think that Jung's use of the term "general
acausal connectedness" is necessarily any better than Mansfield's,
but Mansfield would have been wiser to instead coin his own new term to
describe only his subset of synchronicities which involve seminal experiences
in one's psycho-spiritual growth or "individuation process". So,
from Mansfield we find that the narrowest definition of "meaningful"
might be only that which contributes to one's "individuation".
Jung himself often tried to build into the definition of synchronicity some
connection to his own term the "archetype." "(Synchronicities)
seem to manifest only when an archetype is constellated in the collective
unconscious." Thus by inference we might conclude that to Jung "meaning"
was somehow tied up with the archetypes. I find this line of argument involving
the definition of synchronicity through "the archetype" to be
the most circular and damaging to the whole field of inquiry into synchronicity.
It is essentially definition by tautology. It is asserted that the archetypes
are not things. It is asserted that they can not be defined concretely but
always contaminate each other. It is asserted that they do not cause anything.
About the most concrete thing we do know about the archetype is that they
are associated with emotional, or at least psycho-spiritual intensity, and
that they represent patterns of content which transcend individual experience.
So empirically what we really have is a very slippery term for a "transpersonal
pattern" associated with "psychic intensity." Even Von Franz
admits that the Archetypes might just as well be called "patterns of
human behavior". Jung asserts that synchronicities only happen when
an archetype is "constellated" i.e. present. Well this brings
us back to the same problem as Mansfield's narrow definition of synchronicity.
Is an unexplainable coincidence only "meaningful" if it involves
some deep psycho-spiritual transformation of the individual psyche? Jung
himself asserts that "such synchronicities must represent only a small
part of a larger continuum." Thus we see that Jung himself was at the
root of the confusion as to the definition of meaning in synchronicity experiences.
Jung was in a sense right in all the various possibilities that he affirmed,
but his lack of systematic rigor laid the foundation for even greater confusion
in a field already inherently riddled with paradox. I can point to many
of my own experiences of meaningful coincidences which do not involve any
hint of a Jungian archetype being "constellated", nor did they
contribute noticeably to my "individuation" apart from their incremental
contribution to my overall apprehension of a general acausal interconnectedness
of absolutely everything. My point is that there are a vast realm of different
types of experiences which in modern popular culture are now referred to
under the general rubric of synchronicity but Jung is going to be of absolutely
no help in sorting out and categorizing this primary phenomenological data.
Indeed many of the terms or definitions he left us are so confused and conflated
that we are likely to be better off to start over from scratch.
Before I launch into a more detailed discussion of these I should say something
about my own functional definition of "meaning". It seems to me
that what is really implicit in both Jung's definition of the archetype
and in the popular intuitive definition of synchronicity is pattern recognition,
our ability to distinguish figure from ground. To discern pattern is to
distinguish the meaningful from the meaningless. The Jungian archetype is
essentially a pattern which we are able to infer from a collection of images,
words and feelings. In the case of the archetype these patterns seem to
be transpersonal, that is they transcend and pervade individual human experience.
So by this definition, what is common to all synchronicity experiences is
that they involve pattern recognition. And the existence of the patterns
in question can not be explained by any normal mechanism. Thus they stand
out from the background of our normal expectations about the behavior of
material reality. I believe that it is this violation of our rational expectations
about the relationship between matter and consciousness which is in and
of itself meaningful. In some cases the pattern may be part of a larger
pattern which Jung characterized as an archetype, but it need not be for
the pattern to be noticed, and I hold that it is the act of apprehension
of some discontinuity with our expectation of reality which constitutes
a synchronicity experience. They are almost always psycho-physical. That
is they challenge our notions of mind and matter, and frequently also call
into question our notion of time and hence causality. This was at the root
of Jung's choice of the word synchronicity, suggesting things coming together
in time. Indeed Marie Louise Von Franz, following Jung, asserts that one
cannot imagine a synchronicity not involving coincidence in time, but instead
involving coincidence in space. This seems to be an example of very limited
imagination uncharacteristic of Von Franz. It seems to me that all that
would be necessary would be to repeatedly have a similar unlikely event
happen at the same place at different times. In any case, most actual synchronicities
do seem to involve internal and external events coming together in time
without any apparent cause, or even possibility of a cause according to
Einstein locality i.e. no communication faster than the speed of light.
Maps of Mind and Matter
Obviously the details of exactly which expectations of the behavior
of reality are violated in what way by any particular incident are manifold
and varied. But it may only be in the detailed exploration and articulation
of exactly which rules are violated in what way that any larger meta-patterns
concerning a wide range of phenomena may emerge. For example, if one allowed
telepathy, which synchronicities would be adequately explained, if one allowed
communication from the dead, if one allowed telekinesis etc. I have found
in my own thought experiments based on this approach to the analysis of
my own synchronicity experiences that the paradoxes in most transcend even
these and other categories, but I believe it may still be a useful exercise.
Especially as it is premature to discount the possibility that we are actually
dealing with a variety of phenomena which have been lumped together out
of our own ignorance. To date I have not encountered any attempt to organize
and categorize such data, much less conduct the thought experiments necessary
to articulate the paradoxes in detail. Only by doing so would we begin to
have an understanding of which expectations of science are violated in what
ways by which phenomena, and what if any adjustments to existing theory
might hope to accommodate, if not account for, the primary phenomenological
To instead assert an idealist philosophy such as Middle Path Buddhism as
Victor Mansfield does is, I believe, an irresponsible position for a scientist
to take in the face of the challenge. This is not to say that an idealist
philosophy may not be correct in the deepest analysis, but the problem of
the scientific endeavor is to articulate in detail how things work, not
to explain philosophically why. Even if everything is a consequence of the
one Mind, we are still left with the problem of how the details of the appearance
of reality residing within Mind are constrained. We have through science
been able to articulate those patterns of constraint and predictability
in great detail. We are now faced with a realm of data which seems to contradict
or at least to lie perpendicular to that line of inquiry. It is not enough
to assert an idealist philosophy and ignore the problem, especially for
physicists such as David Peat or Victor Mansfield.
The tack taken by Pauli and Jung seems more productive. Though Jung's attempt
to make a perfectly valid linear dichotomy into a four fold system seems
forced and unconvincing. Pauli and Jung point out that causality and what
the Chinese regarded as "the tendency of things to arise together"
might be seen as two complimentary aspects of reality. This complementarity
might be seen as a parallel to the wave particle paradox wherein the result
one gets is dependent upon how one asks the question and designs the experiment.
Thus, as Von Franz points out, an act of divination designed to take a reading
of the particularity of a situation might be seen as the exact reciprocal
complement to a statistical program of many measurements designed to determine
what is most invariant. One can in a sense know one or the other, but not
both from any particular experiment. Thus, divination might be seen as being
to particularity what probability is to predictability.
When it comes to particularity there is a deeper implicit question of the
relationship between mind and matter which so far has been systematically
excluded from causality. Jung for the most part paid homage to this keystone
of rational reductionism in the realm of causality, asserting that in all
questions of synchronicity consciousness apriori is not causal. For
the most part it has consistently been shown not to be in statistical investigations.
Yet, Jung may have been too quick to concede the point in the realm of the
particular. We will return to this point later. Jung did however make a
significant contribution to modern thought with his (re)introduction of
the idea of a Unus Mundus, a deeper unified realm underlying both
mind and matter. This idea is in many ways similar to David Bohm's idea
of the implicate order, a rigorous interpretation of the mathematics
of modern science which has been criticized by other physicists for not
leading to any new testable hypotheses. In a sense they are correct, but
then the same criticism should apply to the Copenhagen, and all of the other,
interpretations of quantum mechanics. Yet, the implicate order provide the
most effective bridge so far advanced for integrating the troubling phenomena
of consciousness which most other scientists are still trying to ignore.
However, precisely because it is largely an interpretation of existing mathematical
physics, even Bohm's concept still lacks a rigorous link between consciousness
and physics, and thus between synchronicity and science.
It was Jung's very quest to be seen as "scientific," what I might
call his "science envy," which I believe may have been responsible
for some of the most unfortunate linguistic baggage which we are now saddled
with in the discussion of synchronicity phenomena. Some of this was not
his fault but was a logical and inevitable outgrowth of the foundations
of psychology laid by his mentor Sigmund Freud. Freud had discovered the
individual "unconscious. So it was only logical that when Jung found
that the deeper one went into an individual's unconscious, the more it began
to look like some sort of universal collective phenomenon, he would name
this realm the "collective unconscious." So far so good. But as
Jung began to open to a more transpersonal view of the human psychological
growth process he noticed that it seemed to be guided by something larger
than, and different from, the existing Freudian concepts of the ego, super
ego and id. He noticed that this element in consciousness was associated
with images of the "Godhead" so for some bizarre reason he named
this the "Self" with a big "S." Perhaps he meant to
make reference to the Buddhist notion of the "true self". It is
true that in many spiritual traditions it has been pointed out that the
place to seek the Divine is within yourself. But everything Jung has to
say about the Self are properties we might first associate with traditional
conceptions of God. Yet Jung, being "scientific" could not call
it that, and to his credit the Judeo-Christian conceptions of God carried
plenty of extraneous baggage he did not want to invoke, perhaps most notably
the conception of some vengeful bearded guy pulling the strings. But, at
least today, when you get into a conversation with most people and they
wish to make a distinction between the small ego consciousness and some
sort of larger conception to transpersonal awareness, the word most likely
to be used to describe ego consciousness is "self." In conversation
as opposed to print it is very difficult to make clear that it is a capital
S on Self, and putting "The" in front of it is only marginally
more clear. On top of this, the other word which Jung used for transpersonal
consciousness, "the unconscious," or at best "the collective
unconscious" is, as Sheri Ratchin pointed out, a bit like calling the
ocean an "un-island." Thus, we are now stuck with two cumbersome
and counterintuitive Jungian words for describing transpersonal consciousness.
In my opinion it would have been better if Jung had said what he really
meant and had just called it God, or because he couldn't do that, he could
have just called it "the un-God." In any case I find the Jungian
language unfortunately counterintuitive and we do need a shorter term than
[ I just paused to figure out what to say next and noticed that this was
[Then I looked at my watch and it was 7:23]
This leads to my next point: meaningless cumulative low level synchronicity.
By that I mean a pattern which one may discern which in no way noticeably
contributes to one's personal individuation and carries no particular intrinsic
meaning other than the fact that you notice it -- a lot. The cumulative
nature of such patterns mean that they can occur and expand at any time
without need for any specific prior internal state of consciousness. This
seems to work best with a "synchronicity number." Mine is 23 which
I caught from Robert Anton Wilson (they do appear to be at least potentially
contagious). My friend Tom's is 13, our mutual friend Robert's is 117, Catherine's
is 11 and Juliana's is 7 etc... Many people might describe them as lucky
numbers, but at least in the case of Robert and Tom they too already had
a long sting of synchronicities, which they identified as such, in exactly
those terms, associated with each of their own numbers when I met them.
None of us regarded our respective numbers as "lucky" per se.
It was much more a matter of them simply appearing so often that they came
to represent the phenomenon of synchronicity itself in our lives. It is
interesting to note that these numbers are all prime and while the sample
is far too small to be definitive, it seems that synchronicity numbers do
tend to be prime. In fact I can't think of anybody I know who has one that
isn't prime. I have known several people who identify with 7 and 11 in particular.
These prime numbers seem to embody a quality of non-rational randomness.
My point is that here we have a phenomenon of a synchronicity-like phenomenon
which is at least somewhat common in modern popular culture (at least among
my circle of self selecting weird friends) which is outside of the strict
Jungian definition of synchronicity. I suppose that Jung might argue that
in these cases it is the archetype of the number which is constellated,
but then for each of us that archetype would have to always be constellated,
and it would further mean that the "constellation" of the archetype
was apparently totally independent of any process of "individuation."
Or else one would have to concede that once someone is embedded in a process
of cumulative low level synchronicity their entire life can be seen a process
of individuation (psycho-spiritual growth) even without the benefit of Jungian
analysis! My friends and I would all tend to favor the latter view. Indeed
we all tend quite naturally to talk in terms of low level vs. high level
synchronicity and tend to see absolutely everything as part of one massively
interconnected unity which we are becoming more and more consciously aware
of through cumulative synchronicity experiences.
This brings us back to the question of general acausal connectedness. Von
Franz points out that Jung saw synchronicity as a unique and special phenomenon
in contrast to Leibniz who had instead postulated a massively parallel correlation
between psyche and matter which we become aware of only when it is exhibited
in sporadic phenomena. She also points out that Jung opposed any causal
connection of consciousness acting on matter. He made a distinction between
unique synchronicity phenomena which were unpredictable, rare and un-repeatable
and a concept of a general acausal connectedness which he seemed to use
to refer to the consistent and predictable, but causally unexplainable just-so-ness
of the natural numbers, radioactive decay, non-locality in atomic interactions
etc. Yet Von Franz also touches on a number of other areas which seem related
to but outside of these two categories. Among these are various psi phenomena,
acts of intentional divination and astrology. To this list I would add ceremonial
magic and intentional manifestation, but these two areas are apparently
taboo even for the Jungian's as they have concluded apriori that
there can be no actual influence of consciousness on matter. I am not arguing
that there necessarily is, but in some cases there certainly appears to
be an associative connection and I do not feel is actually "scientific"
to rule out the possibility in advance from all possible provisional maps
and models based on the empirical data.
There are several distinctions I would like to make in what I see as a continuum
of phenomena. First, Jung himself states that he is sympathetic to a view
in which various psi phenomena are seen as special cases of synchronicity
rather than trying to explain away synchronicity in terms of posited psi
phenomena. I am also sympathetic to this view, but I think that it may be
a very useful exercise to engage in the detailed thought experiments to
see just how absurd the paradoxes become as one details exactly what psi
phenomena would be required. It is only as a result of having engaged in
exactly this type of thinking that I support the general synchronicity view.
So, we see that even Jung grants psi phenomena provisional synchronicity
status. But, then he insists that synchronicity is always an unpredictable
"act of creation." What about divination? Is not each act of divination
essentially an exercise in intentional synchronicity and therefore not entirely
unpredictable? Here we have a further distinction as well.
Von Franz repeats a call from Jung for an experiment in which people who
are at points of great emotional intensity would each be the subject of
multiple acts of divination. The specific techniques suggested include I-Ching,
Tarot, and Transit Astrology. I believe that this proposal itself illustrates
a lack of understanding of a fundamental distinction between transit astrology
and all other methods of divination. While Jung's point was to determine
whether various different methods of divination gave consistent results.
The key insight he is missing, in my opinion, is that transit astrology,
unlike any other method of divination, is far more like Jung's acausal orderedness.
It provides a map of a general archetypal configuration which is consistent
across all observers. If one ignores signs and houses, the angular relationship
between where the planets are now and where they were when you were born
is consistent across virtually all systems of astrology around the world.
If you ask two different astrologers to give transit readings for the same
time you will get substantially the same result. This consistency and predictability
is not found in any other system of divination. All other systems of divination
(including horary astrology) tend instead to be like flash photos, snapshots
in time which are unique and un-repeatable. In that sense they are more
like the narrow definition of synchronicity, unique and un-repeatable, yet
not like synchronicity in the strict narrow sense of the word in that they
are intentional. Thus, we have a continuum from transit astrology, through
divination to spontaneous synchronicity phenomena. I believe that this may
be a critically important distinction to bear in mind in trying to understand
the nature of the whole spectrum of general acausal connectedness. One might
frame it as a distinction between general synchronicity, including all related
phenomena and special synchronicity involving only spontaneous episodes
with tremendous emotional charge. This crude model still leaves out the
question of intentional manifestation and various psi phenomena.
For the most part the most interesting speculative models seem to have been
given short shrift in the major popular works on synchronicity. David Peat
touches on, but does not elaborate on, the flatland metaphor originally
articulated in the classic work by Edwin Abbot. The core of this idea is
essentially that a being who understood only a two dimensional reality would
encounter points which would seem totally disconnected, much as columns
appear in an architectural floor plan. But seen from a higher dimension
these would be seen to be part of a coherent integrated structure. We can
elaborate this idea in at least two or three different ways. First we might
simply posit space as a higher dimensional manifold. If super string theory
currently requires a twenty six dimensional model, then one could in some
sense infer twenty three enfolded dimensions in which to embed hidden interconnectedness.
This numerical example is far too literal and simple minded and is only
meant to illustrate the concept. The next step would be to infer that dimensionality
might somehow refer to the conceptual space of consciousness interpenetrating
with spatial reality such that not only spatial dimensions, but also virtual
dimensions of consciousness were somehow inter-enfolded. I am not sure exactly
what this implies, but it is an interesting model for potential thought
The final extension of flatland is the one I find most interesting. It has
frequently been stated that we live in three space dimensions plus time,
or in a four dimensional space-time continuum. But this is not in fact the
case. We understand time as having only one direction and therefore one
sign. Thus, it is really only half of a dimension. If you wanted to say
something to someone in flatland to make them realize that they in fact
live in a larger and more interconnected reality you would say, "hey
look up." "Up" would be in the direction of the next higher
dimensionality. But we don't have to go a whole dimension higher, only half
a dimension. If we actually live in a three and a half dimensional space
time continuum, "up" to us would be into the future to meet that
other half a dimension coming backward toward us. This suggests that the
direction a higher level of interconnectedness might come toward us would
appear to be from out of the future. This bears a startling similarity to
many (but by no means all) synchronicity phenomena, which appear to us to
be violations of our conventional view of temporal causality.
This idea becomes more rigorous in the form of work done by John Wheeler
and Richard Feynman in the nineteen forties and recently extended into quantum
mechanics by John Cramer. This work essentially points out that the most
consistent interpretation of the mathematics underlying quantum mechanics
is to interpret certain lines in the Feynman diagrams as illustrating virtual
particles moving backward in time. As Cramer points out, in his transactional
interpretation of quantum mechanics, one may essentially trade acausality
for negative temporality. That is to say, if one is willing to accept virtual
particles moving backward in time, one may avoid the conventional quantum
paradoxes. Perhaps this may also be true of the paradox of synchronicity.