Paradigms and Perils of Synchronicity, Part 1
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Examples and explanations of synchronicity abound. There are many published theories and countless personal interpretations. When I first began to experience synchronicities, as a young adult, I read Jung’s Synchronicity—An Acausal Connecting Principles and was truly disappointed. Though I’m not sure I really understood it (and now think Jung was intentionally being circumspect), the book seemed little more than a description of the phenomenon. I expected so much more based on what I knew of Jungian psychology; the idea of the collective unconscious, for example, seemed a robust explanatory principle.
A few decades later I read Victor Mansfield’s Synchronicity, Science, and Soulmaking. It was compelling in many ways but also a little disappointing. I was impressed with the connections to Buddhism but (as I recall) Mansfield's book places too much weight on expansive interpretations of quantum mechanics. I found Gary Schwartz’s recent 2017 Super Synchronicity more persuasive, partly because it accurately describes a phenomenon (nested synchronicities) I began experiencing when I started reading Jeffrey Kripal’s work in 2013. (See Divine Invasions Part 3.) Schwartz’s book also marshals interesting empirical evidence including statistical analysis, though I must say I’m not qualified to evaluate it.
The first really compelling narrative of synchronicity I read, and this is largely because it occurred in a super-synchronistic context, was Jeffrey Kripal’s explanation of being inspired to write Mutants & Mystics. He saw a shiny gold “X” glowing next to his minivan in a parking lot—directly after seeing an X-Men movie (Mutants & Mystics, “Origins”). (Mutants & Mystics is one of the Kripal books I read in 2013.) He had been considering writing a book about American comic-book superheroes, for some time, and experienced the synchronicity of the shiny X as a kind of confirmation. In Kripal’s account, the world seemed to place a shiny X in his path to encourage him to write the book. Kripal doesn’t say this exactly, but his representation is that something “out there” corresponded with his mental state.
Eric Wargo’s concept of synchronicity as precognition is the most compelling theory I’ve read to date. See his website The Nightshirt and his 2018 book Time Loops. Wargo’s arguments chose precognition over telepathy as an explanatory principle of synchronicity; however, the two phenomena are hard to separate. Because any experience of telepathy must be acknowledged to be identified as such, and since that acknowledgement always occurs in the future, telepathy can generally be interpreted as precognition. Take Jung’s famous “scarab” example. Although Jung appears to be a magician in the story, conjuring the scarab beetle (of sorts), it could very well be that his patient was a precog who dreamed about a scarab beetle, unconsciously anticipating the event. Even if the Jung narrative were far more complex, it could still be a series of precognitive moments with Jung and his patient anticipating each other’s responses and actions. This interpretation folds very nicely into alternative paradigms of time. Again, see Eric Wargo’s Time Loops.
Another explanation of synchronicity, suggested by Phillip K. Dick, is the idea of reality as a giant simulation projected by a higher form of intelligence. Though he doesn’t use the term synchronicity (to my recollection), life-changing events recorded in his Exegesis, like seeing the golden fish symbol and knowing about his son’s undiagnosed hernia, could be described as synchronicities. Dick explores a variety of explanations throughout this corpus but ultimately seems persuaded by the idea of VALIS, a "Vast Active Living Intelligence System." The VALIS concept is similar to the Kripal’s paradigm, but also different. Kripal’s symbol is rendered as real (concrete), and Dick’s symbols are part of an all-encompassing simulation.
My idea of synchronicity was prompted mostly by PKD’s notion of finding treasure in a trash heap. (An idea I first encountered in Mutants and later in the Exegesis, though also in Valis as I recall, before I read The Exegesis.) In my “trash heap” concept, the world is an infinite lexicon out of which we read signs and symbols relevant to our lives. This “paradigm” is based on a, more or less, real nexus of nature and culture.
Let’s say the world is an endless collection of signs. A lexicon. The lexicon itself has no meaning, any more than an alphabet or dictionary. It’s not really a text. However, because human beings have a long, long history of reading meaning out of the world, almost everything in the world has the potential to signify.
Over the past year I’ve been studying symbols from ancient religions and have been impressed by the connections between various ancient symbols and the patterns of the constellations (as well as the movement of the planets). Seeing a bull in the night sky is an imposition of meaning by the imagination, but using such devices (what we know as astrological symbols) to trace the movements of the stars and planets is something I might call real cosmic wisdom and meaningful symbolism. Since understanding the movement of celestial bodies had a very real effect on human well-being in the past, in terms of life-preserving agriculture cycles, for example, there’s nothing trivial about these signs. I don’t mean to suggest, for example, that there’s some mystical relationship between Kripal’s “X” and any given X-symbol in ancient religions or in the night sky. The possibilities—the connections—are obviously incalculable. That’s the nature of the lexicon. However, concepts of synchronicity generally point to the role of the psyche and memory. And these are real effects of culture.
If memory is a real neurological fact/effect, the result of both personal and transpersonal neurological habits and/as patterns, then I see memory and more importantly attention as critically important. (Attention points to William James, a great American author of the impossible, and Henri Bergson, who once equated attention with life . . . but all that’s for another blog post). What I want to suggest, here, is that synchronicity is the result of our neurological environment drawing our attention to certain objects in "the trash heap." This is similar to the “frequency illusion” (which I recently revisited in a short article about Alex Garland’s Devs), but I don’t believe that either that phenomenon or any kind of personal predisposition is a reason to dismiss synchronistic experiences.
If our neurological environment calls our attention to signs and symbols spontaneously arising in a world (in which nature and culture have become inseparable), then there may be real meaning in these events, because our noticing reveals our unconscious. If our unconscious minds are actually connected to other people, part of a collective unconscious (say), and perhaps connected to our future selves, as Eric Wargo and Julia Mossbridge have argued, then there would seem to be good reason to pay attention to the workings of our attention in synchronistic phenomena.
Seeing meaning in the world as a lexicon may connect us with ourselves on a deeper level, or perhaps our higher or future selves. Such experiences may also guide us to be more in tune with the world at large and the collective unconscious. Perhaps Kripal’s X was a mechanism by which his unconscious told him, after seeing an X-men movie, the time was right for a superhero book in the context of religious studies. Or perhaps it was a message from the future. To be continued . . .
End Part 1
P. S. See Chapter 4 of A Short History of (Nearly) Everything Paranormal for more about synchronicity.
P. P. S. Listen here to Dean Radin's most astonishing synchronicity experience and the theory it prompted.