A note on synchronicity

Earlier this week, in the entry, “Some news,” I posted an old photograph of myself. The way I happened to come upon the photo, which I hadn’t looked at in perhaps eight years, at the precise moment I came upon it, is a classic example of the synchronicity which I experience so often and post about regularly. Synchronicity is Carl Jung’s term for a concept he discovered: a meaningful coincidence of two physical or psychological phenomena between which there is no (visible) causal connection. The frequent occurrence of synchronicitous events, which are typically of a garden-variety, not earth-shaking, nature yet are nonetheless utterly impossible from a materialist point of view, constitutes a continuing proof in our lives that reality is not just material. It is guided by mental and spiritual forces which are invisible in themselves yet the evidence of which is undeniable.

I comment about the photograph here.

- end of initial entry -

Alexis Zarkov writes:

Stanford University professor of mathematics Persi Diaconis has thoroughly debunked Jung’s ideas on the mysterious force behind the common coincidences many of us experience in daily life. Those “garden-variety, not earth shaking” events are explainable from a materialist point of view: they are simple coincidences. Unfortunately the math needed to calculate the chances of these events happening is not simple, and most people way underestimate them. [LA replies: Don’t you mean over-estimate them? Meaning that people over-estimate the odds against such a thing happening by chance, and therefore they conclude that it’s not chance but meaningful causation.] Diaconis gave a talk at Princeton on this very subject, and you can listen to it here. He directly addresses Jung’s ideas on synchronicity at the beginning. Diaconis also published a 1989 paper on Methods for Studying Coincidences. The paper is extremely technical, but the talk is both understandable and entertaining.

Here are some examples of how people underestimate the odds of coincidences. Suppose we have 23 people in a room. What are the chances that some two of them have the same birthday—same one day out of 365? Most of us would think less than one percent. The answer is startling: 50 percent—even odds. How many people would we need for a 95 percent chance? Again the answer is a surprise: 48. Our minds cannot readily do the combinatorial calculations, and we think that there must be some non-materialistic force at play because the coincidence is just improbable. Another example. The bombs that fell on London during the blitz seem to cluster, and people living in those clusters thought that somehow they were being targeted. Most people think that points put down on a two-dimension surface completely at random should look uniformly spread out—no clustering. Turns out that’s wrong. By chance alone, you get clusters, and people naturally think there’s some kind of volition or force behind the clusters. Let’s call it the “synchronicity illusion.” Once you understand the math behind coincidences the awe and mystery disappears.

LA replies:

This is very unpersuasive. The kinds of examples you give—what are the odds that, of 23 people in room, two will have the same birthday—deal with mathematically discrete issues which can be readily calculated and which turn out to be more possible than people, based on common sense, would tend to think. The examples of synchronicity that I and others have posted at VFR are way beyond that.

Consider my post from last February, “Synchronicity on steroids,” where I told how within one minute I received two totally unrelated e-mails both referencing Walt Whitman. I receive many thousands of e-mails a year; over the course of say, five years an inconceivable number of e-mails. And it’s likely that in the preceding five years I had not received any e-mails referencing Whitman. Yet in one minute, in the same Send/Receive, I received two Whitman-related e-mails. A commenter in that entry tried to calculate the odds against that happening. I don’t know if his calculations are correct, but in any case they would appear to be far beyond the kind of thing you are talking about.

Also, your last sentence, “Once you understand the math behind coincidences the awe and mystery disappears,” betrays the agenda-driven, too-quick-to-jump-to-conclusions thinking associated with reductive materialists. It’s like someone repeating a highly tendentious, received phrase, like “evolutionary biology has demonstrated how Darwinian processes produce new species” (which of course it has not done, as many evolutionary biologists, in their usual good-cop / bad cop routine, have admitted) and then conclusorily pronouncing that materialism answers all our questions and has banished any non-material view of life, and—with it—awe, mystery, and God.

LA continues:

Speaking of Whitman, I am reminded of these beautiful lines from “Leaves of Grass”:

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then;
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wherever I go,
others will punctually come for ever and ever.

Experiences of synchronicity are like these letters from God. They are not major revelations, they are little messages which continually come to us, reminding us of the larger truth.

Also, unlike the materialists, I am not stating what I just said as a dogma that I expect Mr. Zarkov or anyone to believe and accept. I am not trying to browbeat him into submission. I am describing an experience.

June 7

Alexis Zarkov replies to LA:

The two (closely spaced in time) emails you received referencing Walt Whitman provides a good example of a simple coincidence. [LA replies: Not just closely spaced in time, but within one minute.] It need not have been a reference to Whitman, it could have been any author. You would express the same surprise had it been Shakespeare, or Saul Bellow, or any one of hundreds and perhaps thousands of authors you can recognize. It could have been two emails that referenced forest fires, or airplane accidents. So the relevant question is: what are the chances that you would receive two emails closely spaced in time, that reference the same subject over (say) five years? I’m pretty sure that’s tractable calculation, I suspect the odds of that not very small because there are hundreds if that thousands of subjects at play here. My question to Mr. Auster: if you don’t know the probability, then why do you think it must be small? I will see if I can do the calculation.

Aditya B. writes:

Although I am far from being a religious man, I am not a materialist. There is sufficient evidence that there are forces at work in this Universe that cannot be perceived, but are nonetheless real. Love, hate, lust, greed are just a few such.

I have no intention of dissing Mr. Zarkov, as he is obviously a very intelligent man. Therefore, I would like to ask him something:

Materialists sniff at “mysticism.” Jungian Synchronicity is rubbished as “mysticism,” easily explained by probability. Materialists also drag out the trope of the monkeys, type-writers and Shakespeare; arguing that there is no Genius or Mystery to Shakespeare. That his collected works are nothing more than getting the numbers right. Doesn’t that proposition itself sound mystical? Is it rational to believe that the second greatest work in the English language is nothing more than a combination of letters and punctuation?

Shakespeare, like the Bible, isn’t merely about the words. It’s about the power of those words and the power and beauty of the ideas conveyed by those words. If there was nothing to this world other than things that could be weighed and measured, we would need neither Shakespeare nor the Bible as those words would mean nothing to us. The power of Shakespeare and the Bible is undeniable. It is equally undeniable that this power is non-material and can only be experienced. It can’t be dissected.

And again, isn’t it within the realm of probability that forces exist, that cannot be empirically verified, at least not with current technology, that play the same role in human affairs as other forces that can be empirically verified (magnetic forces, gravity, etc.)? Would it not be rational to conclude that there is a very good probability that there are many things in Heaven and Earth that are not fully within our understanding, but are as real as those which we do understand?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 06, 2012 09:46 AM | Send

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