20 March 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Synchronicity

Dear friends,

I apologise to those who are reading this on Monday after the holidays.
I was not able to finish the essay by yesterday morning.

This Sunday we are discussing Synchronicity. And if you do not know what
this is all about you are not the only one. A non technical description
is an event we think of being a coincidence but is related to some
personal experience. For example, dreaming of pumpkins during the night
only to read in the morning newspaper how pumpkins can change your life;
that sort of thing. I tried very hard to discuss this subject in the
essay, but to be honest with you I am not totally convinced I did a good
job of it.

For those reading this email during the week I hope you have a good
holiday and see you Sunday.

Take care




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In the past, life was much simpler, things which were or looked strange
were quickly explained by magic, spirituality or some other form of
mysticism and that was that. Today we are cursed by such things as
logic, science and rational argument. Synchronicity is a phenomenon that
cries out for this painful transition.

I am using Dr Roth's introduction to Synchronicity as the starting point
for this essay: Jung cites in his letters [vol. 1, 1973, p. 395] an
occurrence that is an impressive example of synchronicity: "For
instance, I walk with a woman patient in a wood. She tells me about the
first dream in her life that had made an everlasting impression upon
her. She had seen a spectral fox coming down the stairs in her parental
home. At this moment a real fox comes out of the trees not 40 yards away
and walks quietly on the path ahead of us for several minutes. The
animal behaves as if it were a partner in the human situation."(1)

Another type of phenomenon is also bundled with synchronicity; these are
more a series of events that seem to have a meaning or significance to
the observer. In Wikipedia there is the passage from Jung's collected
work on Synchronicity, which describes the second type of phenomenon:
Jung claims that in 1805, the French writer Émile Deschamps was treated
to some plum pudding by a stranger named Monsieur de Forgebeau. Ten
years later, the writer encountered plum pudding on the menu of a Paris
restaurant, and wanted to order some, but the waiter told him the last
dish had already been served to another customer, who turned out to be
de Forgebeau. Many years later, in 1832, Émile Deschamps was at a diner,
and was once again offered plum pudding. He recalled the earlier
incident and told his friends that only de Forgebeau was missing to make
the setting complete — and in the same instant, the now senile de
Forgebeau entered the room. (2)

A note of caution on this series of events is that there is a
significant difference between the two synchronicities. In the first
case, the genuine synchronicity, the internal event or experience
happens first and the external event happens after the internal event.
Hence, the patient dreams of the fox first and then the fox appears at a
later time. In the second series of events things just happen externally
and then the observer puts a meaning to the whole process. However, in
both cases the meaning is derived post-event and maybe only to the observer.

Both phenomena are interesting especially when we would have experienced
both types of events in our life. Jung's original phenomenon (the fox
story) is more intriguing and interesting given the synchronicity of the
internal event with the external event. However, we would all agree to
ask the same question: what is going on here?

Jung, and maybe even ourselves, was not happy with ascribing
Synchronicity to simple coincidence (2). At the very least Jung would
describe these events as "meaningful coincidences", but his more serious
definition would be "acausal connecting principle" something linked to
what he calls the collective unconsciousness. A compete investigation of
the phenomenon is, of course, beyond the scope of this essay. For our
purposes I will endeavour to suggest some philosophical ideas that can
help us clear some of the fog involved with the subject.

Jung himself believed that synchronicity is more common than would be
expected randomly, but meaningful synchronicity tend to stand out more
than meaningless synchronicity. Or simply put, because the idea of
synchronicity and the term itself are not that diffused in the public
domain we might describe these events as a "stroke of luck," things that
happen just in the "nick of time" or "out of the blue" (3).

A more serious challenge to synchronicity is Littlewood's Law, which in
turn is a version of the Law of Truly Large Numbers (see Wikipedia for
both). Littlewood's Law basically states that given the number of events
that take place in our daily waking life, we expect to see a miracle
every month. The Law of Truly Large Numbers, not to be confused with the
Law of Large Numbers, says something similar: with a sample size large
enough, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. (Wikipedia). Thus,
whether it is miracles or winning at gambling, we still end up
remembering and putting a meaning to events we consider significant than
other events. Can we interpret these objections as, given enough time
and enough tries, everything is possible?

This ability to filter out irrelevancies in our life is something we
have to do if we do not want our life to grind to a halt. For example,
we expect the buses and metro to run to a given schedule, we expect our
food not to poison us, we expect people we agreed to meet to turn up.
Thus, when rare events happen in our life we notice them.

In a way the Law of Large Numbers, "Given a sample of independent and
identically distributed random variables with a finite expected value,
the average of these observations will eventually approach and stay
close to the expected value," (Wikipedia) is the opposite to what the
Law of Truly Large Numbers postulates. The Law of Large Numbers seems to
imply that the more we live our life the more we expect our life to
follow a regular pattern. Thus, when something really different happens,
and I do not see this to be incompatible with the Law of Large Numbers
since it is a probability law, we tend notice it. As adults we might
notice certain events in our life because they are outside our normal
experience. Consider how older people tend to be hesitant with new
technologies. On the other hand younger people are more receptive to new
things and ideas because, on the model of the Law of Large Numbers,
turbulence is the norm for them. (see the graph in the Wikipedia entry,
but basically the Law of Large Numbers has a graph line that is jagged
and rises steeply and then settles into a plateau.)

As I see it, the position of those who advocate synchronicity consider
it as some sort of special phenomenon. They accept that there is no
causal link between the inner event and the outer event, but still see
or look for a link somewhere else. The collective unconscious is
supposed to be a dynamic underlying the whole of human experience and
history. (2) To describe this non causal relationship Jung uses the
term, acausal; things that are linked but not in the usual causal way.
When the woman patient saw the fax, there was no suggestion of her dream
causing the fox to appear, but that her dream and the appearance of the
fox became significantly linked in her interpretation of her world.
Something links these events, but not in a causal way we usually think
of events being linked together.

Presumably in more serious events, for example, those reports when a
parent has a premonition that a son or daughter is injured in a traffic
accident, only to receive a call from the police that such an event took
place; this is when synchronicity becomes more serious Even in this
example, no one would ever suggest that the parent's worrying about
their child caused the child to have the accident. Hence the use of such
words as premonition. The question we have to ask ourselves is, what do
we mean by "cause"? Before we have a closer look at this question, we
must remember that most people have a natural distaste for such ideas as
determinism, randomness and fatalism. We might, however, accept
causality but we tend to accept it at arms length.

The problem with trying to explain these events by appealing to some
underlying dynamic is that we have to explain that dynamic as well. For
example, consider what happened when scientist tried to describe the
physical world in terms of atoms! We cannot appeal to some spiritual,
collective conscious or some other term without explaining these ideas
as well. Thus, when we say that the woman's dream did not cause the fox
to come out of the wood, what do we mean? I am quite attracted to Robert
Todd Carroll's answer to this issue of causality, "The coincidences are
predictable but we are the ones who give them meaning." (4)

There are three ways we can interpret causality (although not
necessarily the only ones). 1) I can cause someone to wait, by being
late for a meeting. 2) I can cause a window to break by throwing a brick
at it. 3) But there is a third type of cause which we do not usually
consider in our life. If I walk in an average garden, maybe 60 years
ago, or today, in the middle of Switzerland, the chances are very high
that there would be a fox in the bushes. And those who are familiar with
city/urban foxes know that these animals are not usually bothered by
humans. However, being bitten or attacked by a fox sixty years ago would
have been a serious event in one's life, (even today) considering that
health services were not as developed as they are today and vaccines for
rabies were still not fully developed , etc., etc., etc. (5) Given all
these conventional causal factors, it makes sense to look at the
subconscious of a patient to see a link, but not some kind of mystical
link, of course.

By the same token, a parent with grown up children, trying to get on
with their young lives and maybe even use the roads, the chances of
being involved in a road accident are very real. For example, a quick
look at the traffic Accident Statistics by the Sweeny Police Department
(Texas), (it was the first site I saw in Google that gave these
statistics) show that the majority of road accidents happen between noon
and midnight and the worst day is Friday, although Monday and Wednesday
are quite bad as well. (6) So if your child is between eighteen and
thirty, is travelling by car Friday evening in Sweeny you have good
cause to worry about your child being involved in an accident. Sometime
ago I looked at similar figures in different countries and the trends
were more or less the same. I digress here, but I was trying to find out
when was the best time to travel very long distances by car. My
conclusion was that assuming one is not tired or sleepy and want to
reduce the chances of being involved in an accident the best time would
be between midnight and six am. Presumably at this time most people are
either asleep or would have already had their accident.

In my case I can confirm that the statistics and the reasoning caused me
to do the long journey between midnight and six am etc., etc. Causality
need not have a one-to-one space-time relationship. At the macro and
Newtonian world causality works in many different ways, maybe more ways
than we can comprehend and articulate. But our inability to explain
something, either practically or theoretically, does not justify us
inventing an explanation as an alternative.

I purposely used the terms macro and Newtonian worlds because as you
know, gravity works in a causal way which is usually describe as action
at a distance. And now that we have reached so far we can make the jump
and refer to action at a distance in quantum mechanics and refer to
quantum entanglement. For example, two particles are prepared in a
single quantum state, one particle will still react immediately to any
changes done to the other particle irrespective of the distance they are
at. For more details google the relevant terms.

I do not use these last examples as an explanation of synchronicity, but
rather to show that synchronicity is not some special or extraordinary
phenomenon. Maybe something that bewilders us and maybe even something
that fills us with apprehension. But something that can in principle be
explained without having to leave the shores of the universe we live in.
Thus spirituality, ESP and the rest of these terms are not the answer to
this curious phenomenon. We can now conclude here, and call it a day.

Except for one minor problem. You will recall that one of the
explanations given to synchronicity is that this phenomenon is more
common than we care to admit or even notice. I would certainly agree
with this belief, however, I also believe that synchronicity can
seriously become a moral factor in our lives.

Think of the parent in Sweeny who is afraid of their child being
involved in a serious traffic accident. If the parent had a good look at
the Police department's website they would have good cause to worry. But
parents being parents they would worry anyway without having to look at
the website. The question we have to ask ourselves is this, what is to
stop such a parent from believe that their worry was a premonition
brought about in them by some spirit or some magical being? What's to
stop such a parent from believing that the great pumpkin made them
believe that their child was in trouble. Of course, there is nothing
wrong in believing in the great pumpkin but the statistics from the
police department also have something to say to us.

Synchronicity is supposed to work by first having the inner event which
is then followed by the outer event. It is however, when the outer event
takes place that we link back to the inner event and give meaning to the
whole phenomenon. Meaning, therefore, depends on some future event that
is independent from us. Now, what is to stop us from thinking in the
manner: we have the inner event, and from experience, or otherwise, we
know we can come across some outer event that really gives meaning to
our inner event. Doesn't this mean that we can have an inner event, then
assume that it is meaningful and all we have to do then is to wait for
the outer event take place. As if this outer event is some sort of
bureaucratic procedure to take care of the paper work.

The thinking here is that given that both the inner event and the outer
event seem to be random and arbitrary events, then any inner event can
be linked to any outer event. In Jung's example, he came across a fox,
but surely coming across a flight of stairs at the end of the garden
could equally have created the synchronicity.

To illustrate my point, why not pollute our environment with all sorts
of loft causes (our inner event), this will improve our life today (or
profits) (our meaningful interpretation), and then all we have to do is
wait for future scientists to invent the technology to deal with our
pollution (the outer event). In fact we can even apply some Darwinian
thinking here and postulate that future scientists would, by definition,
be cleverer than our scientists today. This giving us even better reason
to pollute today and wait for the synchronicity event to happen in the
future; a group of scientists in white coats would do fine, thank you
very much.

We can use the same thinking for all sorts of situations, from social
conditions, health policies, law and order, religious beliefs, road
safety regulations, personal responsibility and so on. But to argue that
some future event might justify our subjective beliefs today does not
make our subjective beliefs justifiable. Maybe, the puzzle is not
synchronicity itself, but what it brings out in us during these
unguarded psychological moments.

Take care


1 Introduction to Carl G. Jung's Principle of Synchronicity
by Remo F. Roth, PhD, CH-8810 Horgen-Zuerich, Switzerland

2 Synchronicity. (2008, March 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 09:58, March 18, 2008, from


3 The Power of Flow:
Practical Ways to Transform Your Life With Meaningful Coincidence
by Charlene Belitz and Meg Lundstrom, Chapter 2

4 The Skeptic's dictionary,
Synchronicity: http://www.skepdic.com/jung.html

5 See for example the following site which I picked up at random from
Rabies vaccines
Chiron Corporation

6 Sweeny Police Department (Texas)

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Synchronicity

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