Synchronicity is a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung to represent the idea of meaningful coincidence. Implicit to Jung’s idea of synchronicity is the belief that all of creation is somehow interconnected, not only through space but also time.
Whether or not synchronicity is a truly scientific concept remains open to debate. If science is understood as something that must be predictive, then synchronicity can probably never be a scientific concept. If science, however, is understood as acquiring knowledge and wisdom though trial and error, then synchronicity might play into a new kind of scientific rubric, one that believes in an essential connection between consciousness and the world in which it resides.
Synchronicity takes three main forms:
- The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding, simultaneously occurring external event with no evidence of causality
- The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding, simultaneous external event that occurs at a distance, beyond the observer’s normal range of perception
- The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding event that will occur in the future and which may be verified after its occurrence
Also a point of debate is whether or not synchronicity is a causal or acausal phenomenon. Jung says it is acausal but also suggests that the archetypes of the collective unconscious can lead us toward synchronicity, implying some kind of causality.
This uncertainty might result from different understandings about the nature of consciousness—particularly, what constitutes the locus of consciousness. From the perspective of the ego, synchronicity is acausal. But from the perspective of the unconscious, particularly the collective unconscious, synchronicity could have seemingly causal elements. Jung touches on this ambiguity but, as far as I can see, never fully resolves it. Some might see this as a weakness or, more favorably, as a reflection of our essentially mysterious world.
Concerning ethics, synchronicity is ambiguous in the sense that nasty people, even murderers, experience synchronicity along with saints, seers and holy people. Because the concept of synchronicity bears some similarity to the notion of the religious sign, it is not surprising that various attempts have been made to link this aspect of Jungian thought to theology.
The following represents an attempt to synthesize Christian belief with the concept of synchronicity:
The natural universe, in the Jungian sense of the term natural, contains physical and spiritual dimensions. A person who acknowledges only the reality of the physical realm is incapable of recognizing how synchronicity operates in the New Testament and in our world and cannot see the power of the spiritual. By contrast, a person who goes to the other extreme, who sees reality only in the spiritual realm and denies reality in the physical world, will not spend much time bettering the world and will fall readily into superstition.¹
Some philosophers dismiss the entire notion of synchronicity with the idea of “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is described in Wikipedia as
the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.²
However, we can turn the idea of confirmation bias right back on those who adhere to it as if it were some kind of sacrosanct universal principle. The idea of confirmation bias is certainly worthy of consideration; nevertheless, Jung stressed that one doesn’t look for synchronicity but simply witnesses it. So people who actively seek out “signs” in every bird that flies across the sky, for instance, are not really candidates for the legitimate experience of synchronicity, as defined by Jung.³
Moreover, some theologians consider the possibility that a biased mind, which we all most likely have, could be informed by supernatural influences transcending one’s psychological makeup.
So to reduce all synchronistic experience to a humanly constructed idea of “confirmation bias” is arguably limiting and not scientific in the fullest sense of the word. This is especially so since Jung says synchronicity often involves the inner experience of numinosity along with the observation of external data.4
The following graphic about synchronicity came up through the Zemanta blogging assistant plugin. I haven’t fully reflected on it so am hesitant to say it accurately depicts Jung’s vision. But it is thought-provoking and might help to illustrate some, if not all, of the issues that synchronicity could involve:5
¹ Morton T. Kelsey, Christo-psychology, New York: Crossroad, 1982, p. 131.
² Compare to the Wikipedia definition provided at the time of the last update for this entry: a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs (2009/04/15).
(b) Not unlike religious people and their signs, believers often feel that synchronicity confirms choices they’ve made, that they are still on the right path, even if they’ve been through a trying time. I must admit that I have felt this way in my life. But we should keep in mind the possibility that had we made different choices along the way, we still might have experienced synchronicity. A friend once suggested this possibility to me. And although I still do feel comforted by synchronicities from time to time, I think my friend’s suggestion is a good, healthy reality check to keep in mind.
4 I am fully aware that using the term “external ‘is problematic, especially in this context. But a discussion of this complex philosophical issue is beyond the scope of this entry.
5 Compare to Jung’s own diagram, reproduced on p. 197 here http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf
On the Web:
- Synchronicity: New Age Fantasy or Face of the Future?
- Synchronicity and Poststructuralism (doctoral thesis – PDF)
- “Synchronicity” at Wikipedia
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