How a doctrine central to the Dharma connects science and other contemporary thinking
The previous article in this column discussed dependent origination, the Dharma doctrine based on the sutras and upon which much of Buddhist philosophy and practice are built.
As a reminder, the Paccaya Sutta (SN 12.20) states that dependent origination is the basic principle of conditionality and is at play in all conditioned phenomena. This principle is invariable and stable, while the “dependently arisen processes” (paṭiccasamuppannā dhammā) are variable and impermanent.
My previous article concludes that if dependent origination is true—and no Dharma teaching escapes its logic—then synchronicity, as described by Carl Jung and other scholars, cannot be acausal. Jung is considered one of the fathers of Western psychoanalysis and courageously wrote the preface to the Book of Changes (Wilhelm translation), where he defined synchronicity as:
. . . a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is a merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.
Jung was not a Buddhist, although he had a fascination with Buddhism and Eastern literature, which he studied and referenced widely. There is a vast bibliography that explores Jung and Buddhism. Interested readers are encouraged to dig into it.
Had Jung understood dependent origination, he may have had a different view of synchronicity. The observation that if dependent origination is true then synchronicity is not acausal contradicts what Jung—and psychoanalysis literature more generally—says about synchronicity, that it is “acausal.” In the Buddhist view of the universe, nothing is acausal, nonetheless bad things happen to good people.
Both Western science and Eastern philosophy provide rational explanations for observable phenomena. However, synchronicity as described by those who venture into studying it through a scientific lens remains highly subjective, being manifest only to the individuals who observe it. As such, it is often considered conjecture, a psychological phenomenon, or a way of processing reality to reconcile inevitable dissonance arising from the many contradictions of the real, chaotic world. It is not seen as a matter for science to investigate.
Dependent origination, strictly described as the 12 links already elaborated upon, applies to human behavior and experience. Nonetheless, it also relates to the underlying universal principle that there are correlations between different aspects of reality found in science.
For example, the law of the conservation of mass says “that for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy, the mass of the system must remain constant over time, as the system’s mass cannot change, so quantity can neither be added nor be removed.” (Wikipedia) Similarly, the law of definite proportions says that “a given chemical compound always contains its component elements in fixed ratio and does not depend on its source and method of preparation.” (Wikipedia) Both of these laws, and probably other similar ones, are part and parcel of modern science and in essence point to measurable correlations between physical elements. These correlations have been part of science since ancient times, from the Jains to ancient Greeks.
Looking for correspondences and causation is based on the ability to exercise intelligence by making logical inferences, and not, as some may like to suggest, a delusional pathology. Michael Jackson’s book Coincidences: Synchronicity, Verisimilitude, and Storytelling (University of California Press 2021) contains an extensive collection of anecdotes, stories, and analyses of situational correlations. Its introduction reads like a magical tale:
The visible is set in the invisible; and in the end what is unseen decides what happens in the seen; the tangible rests precariously upon the untouched and ungrasped. (v)
Yet the author interprets the experience of coincidences as a psychological response to suffering and anxiety which, according to research in the references, increases not only our awareness of patterns but also our compulsion to find them. Jackson, a scholar at Harvard’s School of Divinity, refers to the awareness of coincidences as “illusory pattern perception” defined as “the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” (14)
I sent Jackson the column about synchronicity and dependent origination published by BDG in September 2022 and asked him what he thinks of my hypothesis that synchronicity is not acausal. He was polite enough to promptly reply—in private correspondence—that he enjoyed reading the article however (quoting the email with permission):
Personally, I hesitate to speak of causation since it tends to imply a reductive way of understanding the interplay between a constellation of elements. I also deny that our representations of reality mirror its inner nature. But my general argument is that the perception of synchronicity and coincidence reflects a will to see coherence – particularly at moments in a person’s life when ‘the center cannot hold’ and everything seems to be falling apart. Stories serve the same purpose. They do not so much reflect a life situation as give it some kind of intelligible, coherent form. So illusions have their uses.
There may be methodological and theoretical shortfalls that limit the formulation of scientific theories to explain synchronicity, even for the finest minds who experience and narrate it. While it is true that the perception of correlation may in some cases be a psychological phenomenon—i.e. resulting from a mental interpretation—it is also true that in other cases the coincidences/synchronicities are objectively documented in historical accounts.
One such case is found in stories collected by writer Wilhelm von Scholz, showing the strange ways in which lost or stolen objects have returned to their owners. (Jackson 15) In this story, a mother lost an undeveloped roll of photographs taken of her son, just to repurchase it two years later thinking it was new, use it, and then develop the film to find that it held of both of her children taken two years apart. (World Dream Bank)
The two cases, the purely psychological interpretation of uncorrelated facts and the manifestation of correlations between otherwise unrelated events are very different, and in pursuing rational analysis of synchronicity, they should not be mixed.
A methodology that studies coincidence should clearly separate the coincidences that occur in the mind—which may be the result of subjective interpretation or some psychological lens being applied—and other coinciding events that can only be explained by the existence of correlation among phenomena. These cannot be formulated in the context of ordinary cognition in a closed-world assumption (that which is not known to be true must be false).
The Buddhist view tends to lean toward the open-world assumption, i.e. seeing what is not known to be true as simply unknown, rather than as false.
The so-called rational Western mindset does not seek to understand phenomena that it cannot explain, and puts everything that it cannot explain in the not science department. To consider the universe and its dynamics ultimately coherent and the human experience as one of developing awareness of this coherence, we need to look to Eastern philosophies and to the core of Buddhist doctrines and practice itself.
Dependent origination, even when not studied in a scholarly context, is always held as a reference at the back of the practitioner’s mind, due to some personal singular experience. Buddhism, properly experienced, can bring greater perspective and open up new paths of inquiry to theories of the mind and consciousness, as well as to our understanding of reality as a whole. As increasing numbers of researchers, scientists, and technologists take an interest in the teachings of the Buddha, formulating new theories that embrace both Buddhism and Western thought is one way that science will continue to evolve.
Jackson, Michael. 2021. Coincidences: Synchronicity, Verisimilitude, and Storytelling. Berkeley: University of California Press.