We’ve all had them – those moments when something happens that makes you ponder the role of design in the universe, and your own place within it. When falling in love, engaging in artistic endeavours, or struggling with tragedy, these moments can occur frequently. Are things indeed “mean to be” at some deeper level? Or is the universe just an unfolding series of random events, occurring one after another, while our limited human minds desperately try to find the thread that links them together?
Synchronicity is the technical name given to the events I’m referring to. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, coined the term in his 1951 essay on this topic. A synchronicity is, essentially, a meaningful coincidence. Something happens in the world around us that seems to defy probability and “normal” explanations.
The classic example is Jung’s own vignette in treating a particularly stubborn patient. He describes his talking sessions with her that delved into themes of her excessive rationality and rejection of any deeper meanings in the universe. As his patient was describing her feelings and a recent dream in which she was given a golden scarab, Jung heard a light tapping on the window behind him. The tapping persisted and Jung opened the window to find a large scarab beetle flying against the window. He caught it and handed it to her, saying, “here is your scarab.”
The scarab beetle is, according to Jung, a classic symbol of rebirth. So the dream scarab and the real world scarab beetle coincided to create a moment of transformation for the patient, who was able to overcome her problems.
I’ve been keeping a list of synchronicities from my own life for a few years now. Many are fairly trivial events that may best be explained as mere coincidence. One example: I bought a game on Amazon as a gift for my nephew. The game had 354 reviews. Right after this I bought Nelly’s song, “Just a Dream” (a great song), on iTunes. It also had 354 reviews. Is there any deeper meaning in these events? I doubt it! But one could stretch to find something if you wanted to.
A second example is a bit harder to dismiss as coincidence. I studied biology in college and have continued to read widely in evolutionary theory since finishing college in 1998. I’ve also published a few papers in this field since that time. I was reading a book on evolutionary theory and the strange but fascinating topic of bedbug sex came up. Female bedbugs don’t have vaginas — I know, it’s weird! Male bedbugs instead stab their penis into the female’s body, break through the carapace, and deposit sperm directly into the body cavity. I shook my head in wonder and went home shortly thereafter. When I got home from the coffee shop where I had been reading, I turned on a recording of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and, lo and behold, the topic of bedbug sex came up! He showed a very funny and exquisitely weird skit by Isabella Rosellini demonstrating bedbug sex. I had never before heard about bedbug sex and here it came up twice in one day, in entirely unrelated contexts.
So what do these two episodes of bedbug sex offer in terms of deeper meaning? To be honest, I have no idea, but I can certainly speculate. I have been thinking and writing about sexual selection and other mechanisms of evolution for many years, and have developed a published theory that expands Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection. So perhaps I was somehow being encouraged to keep going on this path by my possibly synchronistic experience. It’s kind of a stretch, I know, but not entirely unreasonable.
Ok, one last example from my life, as an example of a strong synchronicity: I’ve been to Hawaii a number of times since late 2013, with my primary motivation to buy property there (I’m writing this essay in Hilo, Hawaii). I almost never talk to people next to me on the plane because I really enjoy the quiet time to read or work on writing projects, and because I’m afraid of being held captive in a boring conversation for many hours. The first trip to Hawaii, however, was with a woman I was dating at the time, so there was less risk of having to talk to the person next to us for the whole flight. I struck up conversation on a whim with a woman seated by herself beside us, and it turned out that she lived on the Big Island and we learned a lot about it in our conversation. We all became friends after she invited us to her birthday party that week, and to this day we’re still friends and see each other often.
The second trip to Hawaii was a month later and I was traveling by myself this time. Another woman traveling solo was in the seat next to me, I again chose to strike up a conversation, and she was also quite interesting and friendly. She was visiting a good friend of hers who lived in Hilo. The same day we arrived in Hilo I was having dinner with the woman I met on my first trip and we ran into the second woman, who I’d just met on the plane that day, at the same restaurant, which is one of many in Hilo! I ended up hanging out with the second woman a couple of days later and we’re also still friends.
My third trip was a month later. I was again traveling alone and was going for three months this time. I was hoping to finally buy some property after scouting a lot on the first two trips, and also to research a novel I’m working on that is set on the Big Island. This time I was seated next to a guy traveling by himself who seemed to be in his late twenties or early thirties. Again, I struck up conversation; again, this was strange because I almost never speak to people on the plane. Again, we had great conversation and it turned out that he was a traveling nurse going to Hawaii for a three-month contract. We became great friends and had many adventures during my stay.
Anyway, to wrap up: three of three trips to Hawaii yielded good new friends and opportunities to learn a ton about the Big Island. Coincidence may still be a good explanation, but despite my hard-nosed scientific outlook on most things, I can’t help but wonder if mere coincidence may not be the best explanation here.
If we’re looking, instead, at these events from the point of view of synchronicity, the deeper meaning is fairly obvious to me: in some manner the universe seemed to be helping me to make a home in Hawaii. This was the correlation between external events and my mental states that is the hallmark of synchronicity.
We could also look at these events as simply resulting from my excitement about going to Hawaii and a place that I was thinking about making a serious part of my life (I still live in Santa Barbara, but I split my time between Santa Barbara and my place near Hilo; paradise to paradise…). My excitement made me more talkative and more interested in people around me. Possibly. But it’s also quite unusual that people traveling solo, youngish, and interesting, would be seated next to me three times in a row.
I took a fourth trip to Hawaii in mid-2014 and I did not meet anyone interesting on the plane and didn’t even talk to the person next to me. But three out of four instances is still enough to make me scratch my head.
So what’s going on with synchronistic experiences? First, let’s define our term carefully. Jung defined a synchronicity as meaningful and causally related correlations between outer (physical) and inner (mental) events. A good shorthand is meaningful coincidence. The coincidence is between external events and inner meaning that matches those events in some way or was inspired by them.
Jung attempted to explain synchronicity through an appeal to the “collective unconscious.” This collective unconscious is described by Jung as either the sum of our unconscious minds held in common by all people or, more intriguingly, as a deeper level of reality that undergirds our physical world. Synchronicities bubble up from the collective unconscious, and are a goad to “individuation,” a key part of Jung’s teachings.
Jung suggested that the correlations between external and internal events had a similar root cause. So while the correlations were not causal— they are “acausal”—there is a deeper causal explanation for each half of the synchronistic event. Jung seemed to believe that the universe itself was attempting to teach some lesson or insight by offering up these meaningful coincidences.
Another intriguing possibility is that synchronistic experiences are suggestive of the idea that we — you, I, and everything around us — are part of a much larger mind. Just as in our own dreams events can happen that skirt the laws of physics or logic, if we are indeed part of a much larger mind, a much larger dream, then synchronistic experiences are the clues. This idea was sketched by the German writer Wilhelm von Scholz and mentioned by Jung in Synchronicity.
So What Does It All Mean?
Looking at the bigger picture, and not only my own candidates for synchronistic experiences, synchronicity is perhaps the most compelling reason for me personally to remain agnostic about a higher-level intelligence in our universe. I’m not a religious person. I’m not a Christian and I was a militant atheist for many years. I’ve shifted, however, in the last ten years to a softer stance on the big questions about God, spirituality and meaning.
I’ve written previously on the “anatomy of God,” describing how I find the evidence and rationale for a “God as Source” quite convincing. God as Source is the ground of being, apeiron, Akasha, the One, etc., that is the soil from which all things grow. The Source is not conscious. It is beyond the dichotomy of conscious/unconscious. It is pure Spirit.
God as Summit, a conscious being that may or may not take an interest in our lives or even our planet, is a different matter. The metaphysical system that I find most reasonable — a system known as process philosophy, with Alfred North Whitehead as its primary modern expositor — certainly has room for God as Summit. Whether God as Summit really exists, however, is a separate debate. If I had to bet on it, I’d bet that there is no God as Summit at this point. But I remain agnostic.
The synchronicities that have happened in my life are numerous and strange. They don’t add up necessarily to any compelling evidence for God as Summit, but they certainly do make me wonder.
Turning back to Jung’s famous scarab beetle example of synchronicity we must, to be fair and scientific, acknowledge that the beetle he caught wasn’t technically a scarab beetle; it was, instead, a scarabaeid beetle (common rose-chafer) whose “gold-green colour most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab” beetle, in Jung’s own words. It seems, then, that Jung was exerting some poetic license at the moment he gave the beetle to his patient and in his later description of the episode.
Does it matter that it wasn’t technically a scarab beetle? Clearly it didn’t matter to the patient, of whom Jung claims “this experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism…” Would this have happened without Jung’s poetic license? We have no way of knowing. These details demonstrate that there is a large gray area with respect to synchronicities that each of us must navigate when assigning meaning to particular events.
This criticism aside, we all have surely had numerous synchronicities happen to us that demonstrate my broader points above: there are deep mysteries inherent in reality and we cannot, if we are to be scientific, ignore these mysteries and the dimly-perceived world of deeper meanings that synchronicities sometimes highlight in each of our lives.