I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Joe Rogan Experience, and Joe was talking with Gad Saad, an Evolutionary Behavioral Psychologist who also writes for Psychology Today. Joe brought up that his one form of “magical thinking” is a belief Synchronicity. The idea being, if one is in some way tuned in with the universe (or whatever metaphor inspires transcendence in your reality tunnel), unexplainable coincidences start appearing around that person. (More on this below)
Saad smoothly started explaining away Synchronicity by offering the psychological phenomena known as Confirmation Bias. A fun game semantically inclined domesticated primates enjoy playing is, “Look I named it, I understand it.” I was on my yoga mat being high and weird when I heard Saad eloquently reciting the textbook example of Confirmation Bias (naïve man in shower worried about his phone.) I felt both a twinge of pride at knowing the exact example he was referring too, and a larger spasm of annoyance at his skeptical dismissal of a phenomenon I’ve experienced. Joe had a similar reaction.
This exchange between the magical thinking of Joe and the aseptic skepticism of Saad highlights a subtle but important riff between the intellectual and the spiritual. If the unorganized data points of perception can be explained by both Synchronicity and Confirmation Bias, the question should be, which belief produces the most fulfilling, enjoyable and blissful experience?
Although my bias is likely obvious, it is a waste of my time and yours to present a handicapped model of Confirmation Bias. I won’t waste your time. That’s wasting my time.
What is Synchronicity?
First, a story. A couple years ago I walked into a bookstore by chance. I picked a book at random from the discount psychology section. Actually, not by random. I saw the name Eric Berne and I thought the book was a biography about Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. It wasn’t. The book, Eric Berne: Master Gamesman, was a biography about the creator of Transactional Analysis.
A week later I’m out walking, enjoying this book (1). I turn onto a street as I’m reading this passage titled “Scattering Golden Apples”,
“What to do about death? Finish everything and wait for it like a rotting log? Or leave some things unfinished and die with regrets? The art of living is to walk the earth like a prince scattering apples wherever you go. The art of dying is to finish your own apple just at the right moment to say, ‘I am content, the rest are for you to enjoy at my wake.’”
As I’m reading this, I look up to keep from walking into cars. About 40 feet ahead of me, alone and in the middle of the road is a spherical object. As I get closer, I start discerning that the little object is red and gold. Once I’m about 10 feet away I realize it’s an apple. There, in the middle of a suburban street, where no apple trees grow, is a gold apple, shimmering in the afternoon sun. (2)
This is an example of what Jung calls Synchronicity. There was a meaningful coincidence between my subjective experience and external reality that could not be explained by cause-and-effect. Jung was the higher primate whom brought the term synchronicity to Western thought so it is with his perspective on the phenomena that I’ll focus.
Jung is explicit in his distinction between chance coincidence and meaningful coincidence. If I see the number 13 on my receipt, then 13 again on my movie ticket, and again when I get a phone call, this is improbable but still a chanced coincidence. This, in Jung’s eyes, is not a synchronicity, however, as I type this sentence, it is 3:11. I don’t know what to make of this. A shrug and laugh is what my ego comes up with.
Another way to explain this is, all coincidence is chanced coincidence, but not all chanced coincidence is meaningful coincidence. If a coincidence is meaningful, if the coincidence transmits some kind of message or information, this is synchronicity. The meaningfulness arises from the observer. You create the meaning. (3)
So we’ve established what Synchronicity is. The real fun begins when we start playing with different lenses that try to explain why synchronicity happens. Jung was conservative on this point, but later in his life he admitted that he thought synchronicity was an external indicator of the individual activating archetypes.
What is confirmation bias?
The classic example is the naïve dirty homo sapien who thinks he always gets phone calls while he’s in the shower. Whenever he gets a call in the shower, (while he neglects his legs because the water will clean them.) The clever thinking here is understanding our naïve subject only “records” the events where he gets phone calls in the shower, but the fool does not record the vast amount of showers he takes where he does not get phone calls.
The cognitive bias is apparent here. We know our minds cannot objectively experience reality. We know our minds have to filter and create shortcuts to keep up with the immense flood of information that deluges us moment to moment. We would drown without these mechanisms. You will enrich your life researching and understanding all the ways our cognition is biased.
And don’t entertain a moment the possibility that you live without confirmation bias.
The Hofstadterian strange-loop here is that confirmation bias is at work right now as you are reading these sentences. Are you absorbing this information and my bias without obstructions? Are you offering clever rebuttals and resisting my message? Are you somewhere inbetween? Are you hopelessly oblivious to your bias?
Looping back to Saad and Rogan
Saad represents a perspective. He is a part of the church of rationalism. His Holy Spirit is the Scientific Method. His demiurge is Truth, the faith that there is an objective reality, free of subjectivity. There is an assumption, explicit for some, implicit for others, that if the Scientific Method cannot measure a phenomena or idea, the phenomena or idea is either false, or not worth exploring. As in all religious circles, there are degrees with which the followers adhere to their dogma. There are some very open minded rationalists. There are some very dogmatic rationalists.
The map is not the territory. The menu is not what’s for dinner. The Scientific method is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest ideas ever discovered. But it is a model. It is a model that cannot capture the entirety of reality. The Scientific Method is a powerful tool. It is a tool whose power can intoxicate the wielder. Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Use with care.
In this context, Joe represents the intellectual who has had direct experience with phenomena that are currently not explained or unexplainable by the Scientific method model. No model will trump the direct experience, so Joe’s joking but direct disagreement with Saad that Confirmation Bias explains away Synchronicity is easy to understand.
If you are an adventuring Rationalist and want to understand why someone like Rogan would believe in Synchronicity, (or how I can), I suggest you ingest 3.5 grams of dried psilocybe cubensis. (4)
Learn and understand the Scientific Method. How would you experimentally research synchronicity?
Spend a couple hours researching Cognitive Bias. Connect each phenomena with something your friends, coworkers or family members do. (This will be easy)
Try to connect each phenomena with things that you do. (This will be harder.) When you conclude you don’t fall prey to any of these, ask your friends, coworkers, and family members for help. (Try not to blush when the examples flow quickly.)
For a week entertain the idea that coincidences are hints from a divine source and are to be listened for and understood. Next week, entertain that perspective all coincidences are products of faulty information processing and carry no meaning. Which week did you prefer? Why?
Reread this after you’ve done the previous exercises and embarrass me by articulating my bias.
(1) A recent Standford study by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz showed that walking for 30 minutes increased creative inspiration by up to 60% compared to those who sat.)
(2) Looking back, this may have been the moment my atheism evaporated. There is also a curious connection between my first significant bout of synchronicity and Jung’s famous example. One of his highly intelligent and very rational patients was resisting exploring her dreams and unconscious. One day she is describing a dream she had last night where a stranger gave her a golden scarab. As she is recounting this, a bug bumps into Jung’s window, he opens the window and grabs the bug. It is golden scarab.
(3) I hope to show that consciousness is a game we play with ourselves. Most of the rules are breakable.
(4) This is obviously a work of fiction and this sentence is a work of art and is in no way an actual suggestion on the part of the author to encourage illegal action. The author only responsibility poisons himself with sugar, alcohol and tobacco.