Synchronicity and Acausal Connectedness

Jim Fournier
Spring 1997

PAR 667
David Ulansey


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 data.

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 "transpersonal consciousness."

[ I just paused to figure out what to say next and noticed that this was line 23.]
[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.

Scientific Speculation

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 experiments.

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.