Synchronicity — Jung or Freud?
There are very few people in the world who can claim to be unique. I don’t know for certain, but one possible candidate is Gibbs A. Williams, who is a psychoanalyst practising in New York city. The reason I say this is that he is the only person I am aware of who believes in the reality of synchronicities (a term coined by Carl Jung to describe meaningful coincidences), yet does not consider them to be supernatural (or any other similar term) phenomena, and wants to explain them in naturalistic terms (by which he means Freudian). The usual attitudes in response to synchronicities are either to believe in their reality and consider them in some way supernatural/miraculous, or adopt the scientific, skeptical attitude that it is foolish to consider them meaningful — even if they seem to provide wonderful guidance on one’s life journey — because they are nothing more than coincidences, extraordinary but ultimately meaningless.
I read Williams’ book Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences (Synchronicities)¹ several years ago, and was not impressed. This was not surprising since I am a firm believer, based on my personal experiences, in Jungian psychology. He has recently published a paper on the same theme at academia.edu. As I am a subscriber to this website, I was invited to join the discussion about it. I began by posting a critical comment: “I read Gibbs Williams book on this topic several years ago. As he repeatedly says there, he is highly motivated to find naturalistic explanations for synchronistic coincidences, and strives tirelessly to do so. He therefore reveals himself to be prejudiced by rationalism, against any possibility of supernatural influences, i.e. a typical modern ‘Enlightenment’ thinker. His arguments were very poor, and I had to force myself to read it to the end. The mere fact that he wants to move away from Jung in favour of Freud says it all. Is Freud someone we should all be listening to? I don’t think so”.
To my surprise I received a reply from the author himself, only partially quoted here: “Of course I am biased just like you. However I am apparently more open minded than you are. I moved away from Jung because he failed to do justice to the complex experience I experienced in attempting to objectify the amazing subjective experiences associated with multiple synchronicities. My theory — a naturalistic non mystical, one — is not the final word but does offer another alternative approach to understanding the nature of synchronicities and the uses to which they can be put”.
In my reply I said that I would provide a more detailed response outlining my criticisms, which is what this article is, in order to make it available to readers at academia.edu. I think that the subject matter should nevertheless be of interest to many Medium readers, since articles on spirituality, religion, materialism, science, synchronicity etc. regularly appear. (In what follows I’ll be referring both to the current paper and Williams’ book. I should say that I no longer have this to refer to, since I borrowed it from a library; I only have the notes that I made at the time. It is possible therefore that some of the quotes and page numbers may not be 100% accurate, although I believe that they are certainly close, and not misleading. I apologise in advance if I make any errors along the way.)
Williams indicates that what is at stake is far more than a discussion of the nature of synchronicities, or whose psychology is preferable, Freud’s or Jung’s. According to him it is a debate between “science and faith”, “materialism and spirituality”, even Platonic versus Aristotelean philosophy. Since these debates have been raging for centuries, and each side remains unconvinced by the other’s arguments, it seems unlikely that any serious progress will be made here. As he says: “an individual’s choice of which theory best explains the mysteries associated with synchronicities and their uses will be derived from the conscious and unconscious primary philosophical assumptions a person makes about the nature of reality… Generally, these positions are forever fixed. However, if all theories are approached with an open mind sometimes there can be wholesale shifts in points of view”.
He is clearly inviting closed-minded Jungians to make a wholesale shift to his minority point of view. It is not so obvious whether he is prepared to do the same, because it is clear on which side of the fence he sits, or should I say is cemented? He is arguing for naturalistic explanations of synchronicities but, instead of attempting to prove naturalism, which would be difficult but a secure foundation for his argument, Williams merely assumes that it is true. We have a saying in the UK, “If I had a pound for every time I heard (a named person) say the word XXXX, then I would be very rich”. Applying that idea to this book, if I had a pound for every time Williams used the word ‘naturalistic’, my bank balance would be significantly increased. We learn very quickly that he is predisposed to find naturalistic explanations, in accordance with the primary philosophical assumptions he makes about the nature of reality.
‘Naturalistic’ is a synonym for ‘materialist’ or ‘physicalist’, and by implication ‘atheistic’ — Williams is, after all, appealing to Freudianism, and Freud is well known for his hostility to religion. It is probably impossible to prove definitively the truth of materialism or supernaturalism/religion, the superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Someone who has made a good attempt, however, is philosopher/scientist Bernardo Kastrup in Why Materialism is Baloney². Another book worthy of note is Critique of Intelligent Design by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York³. Despite the title, the subject matter is primarily a defense of materialism (or at least claims to be). Yet nowhere do the authors even attempt to prove materialism — they merely quote authors, including a whole chapter on Freud, who happen to agree with them. Yet nowhere do they explain why Freud, Marx etc. should be listened to; it is merely assumed that materialism is the correct philosophical position. Williams does the same — he refers to and quotes various psychologists who have a similar understanding to him, without ever demonstrating the truth of what they say. How does this constitute proof of anything?
He explains his disagreement with the Jungian understanding of synchronicities like this. They point “to a realm of reality significantly different than the one most commonly identified with early twentieth century science. As a scientific anomaly these events challenge the bed-rock assumption of psychic determinism underlying psychoanalytic theory and thus call into question the validity of mechanical or linear logical causality as the primary concept in making sense of reality” (p 11). Indeed they do, and that is the whole point, the reason why so many commentators believe they require a supernatural explanation. What, we might ask, is so great about early twentieth century science? Williams is actually admitting here that he is rooted in the past, attached to an outdated scientific worldview. He knows about quantum physics — he has a section where he discusses it — so has he not noted the revolution in thinking that this has precipitated in science, and our understanding of the nature of reality, over the last 100 years?
The worldview of quantum physics, or at the very least the worldview of many quantum physicists, is entirely consistent with the Jungian understanding of synchronicity. That quote could just as easily have been applied to quantum physics, which also points “to a realm of reality significantly different than the one most commonly identified with early twentieth century science”. Examples of quantum physicists who embrace Jung’s worldview are:
- the Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli, a close associate of Jung, who actually collaborated with him on Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche, part 1 of which is Jung’s Synchronicity⁴
- F. David Peat, colleague of David Bohm, and author of a book entitled Synchronicity⁵
- Bernardo Kastrup, author of Decoding Jung’s Metaphysics⁶.
Williams’ prejudice against the supernatural is further revealed here where he says: “The specific organizing concepts chosen by Jung were derived from the knowledge bases of speculative philosophy, depth psychology, quantum physics, mythology, the esoteric occult, and spirituality” (p 31). What exactly is he objecting to here? Isn’t all philosophy speculative? That is the whole point — what philosophical idea is beyond dispute? That is why there are different schools or traditions within philosophy. Williams’ Freudian naturalism is speculative philosophy — although I suspect that he believes it to be science. And what exactly is wrong with psychology being deep rather than superficial? What is his argument against quantum physics, sometimes described as the most successful scientific theory of all time? One can perhaps understand why he is not ready to accept mythology and the esoteric occult (both of which are fine by me), but what exactly is his problem with spirituality? All he is really saying is that he doesn’t like the Jungian understanding of synchronicity (and quantum physics), because it doesn’t fit in with his worldview. He offers no philosophical argument that it is false.
The quality of his arguments is poor. He uses rhetorical devices:
- “I am appealing to all those open minded critical thinkers who desire to attempt to demystify meaningful coincidences (synchronicities)”. He is insinuating that if you disagree with him and think that synchronicities are mysterious, you are closed minded and not sufficiently critical.
- “A careful look at the facts presents a much different picture”. Here by ‘facts’ he means his highly dubious theories, and a ‘careful look’ implies that he is a superior investigator, whereas those who disagree with him, as in the first quote, just haven’t thought deeply enough. He tells us this more than once for, following an earlier infatuation with Jung and esoteric ideas, there followed a period of “active skepticism, a more Freudian approach in understanding myself. This shift occurred in the context of my developing an increasing capacity to think critically” (Pxii).
- He talks about the lure of synchronicities, as if those who believe in them are gullible or naïve, in the same way that believers in religion are said to be seeking false comfort in promises of an afterlife. Williams does use that type of argument. He says that the horrors of the world “motivate many of us to believe with all our hearts and minds that there is — or should be — some transcendent conscious good force that is good, loving, and comforting”. He refers to Eric Fromm and his Escape From Freedom: “Life is hard and terribly difficult and it takes courage to face the daily struggle for survival let alone aspiring to thrive. It is comforting to believe there is an answer man who transcends us and has all the capital A answers if only we open our hearts and passively channel the coded communications he, she or it is continually sending us in the form of synchronicities” (p 55–56).
- On the same theme he talks about “a general human inclination toward credulity and belief in the marvellous”, conveniently forgetting to mention the absolute inclination among materialists and scientists toward denial of anything mysterious and marvellous. Why is one inclination better than the other?
Considering that he is so keen on ‘science’, it is disappointing to find so little science in his argument. Instead we find these psychological tactics, intended to persuade us by devious, rhetorical means.
Here he uses the Straw Man strategy: “Synchronicities force people to face up to and to answer the primary question of being alive: who is your final authority — yourself? or some projected authority such as God, master teachers, ‘dead’ relatives, fairies, gurus, ideologies, the collective unconscious, archetypal knowledge and the likes”. Who on earth has suggested that synchronicities have anything to do with master teachers, dead relatives, fairies or gurus? Maybe someone he has been reading, but certainly not Jung.
He asks frivolous questions which are impossible to answer, and are therefore merely distractions in what is supposed to be a serious debate: what is the meaning of meaning?; what is the relationship between causality and meaning?; what is the meaning of spirituality?
He congratulates himself at one point in that he has “successfully refuted Jung’s three anti-causal arguments” (p 91). In case we didn’t get that message he repeats it two pages later. It would be better to leave it to others to judge the success or otherwise of one’s argument, especially if one’s ‘refutation’ is merely more poor logic. He says that to conduct any systematic scientific research “requires the ‘subject’ in question to be observable in a specified location at a specified time” (p 93). Synchronicities therefore “resist the basic requirement of scientific method”, “thus it follows that events like these are inexplicable from a causal perspective”. I completely agree with those three statements, and that is why the vast majority of commentators have agreed with Jung that synchronicities require a supernatural explanation. However, since Williams believes that everything can be explained, or should be explainable, by scientific causality, he therefore concludes that synchronicities cannot have a supernatural aspect, despite all appearances to the contrary. He is therefore forced to come up with alternative naturalistic explanations. He thinks that these successfully refute Jung’s anti-causal arguments. To me the phrase ‘clutching at straws’ seems more appropriate, which I hope to demonstrate (successfully refute) in the next section. I’ll leave it to readers to judge how successful I am.
Williams says that “Freud chooses the pathway of science over the pathway of religion as the primary gateway to the ‘truth’” (p 51), and says that he is adopting a Freudian approach. Since science is contrasted with religion here, it is not hard to see that ‘science’ is really a euphemistic smokescreen for materialism and atheism, both of which are philosophies, not science. Let’s have a look at exactly how scientific and convincing the proposed alternative is.
Williams approves of the general principle of Occam’s Razor: “we should not stop looking for causal explanations until we have exhausted all reasonable attempts to do so”. This is fair enough, but in this connection he gives the game away (possibly quoting someone else): “The point of science is to expel miracles, to explain the world through natural law” (p 73). This statement is blatantly untrue; the point of science is actually to discover the truth about the world, not to interpret it according to one’s philosophical prejudices. If that is your starting point, however, then presumably any natural explanation will seem preferable, no matter how unlikely and far-fetched it is. That, it seems to me, is a perfect description of Williams’ book.
The obvious problem for any naturalistic, Freudian, scientific, causal understanding of synchronicity is to explain how the external element appears at the right moment. Williams promises us that he will solve this problem: The inner and outer correspondence, connection “has — up to now — challenged and stumped investigators of these odd occurrences” (Px). We await with bated breath the revelation.
Unfortunately, we are very soon disappointed. This is one attempt by Williams to offer an alternative; is this really the best that he can come up with? “Freud would likely counter that there is something yet to be understood that would make a logical explanation valid implying that what is still admittedly mysterious is potentially understandable in scientific terms yet to be named” (p51). This is not exactly science, rather a convoluted example of what is known philosophically as promissory materialism, as well as being mere waffle. Elsewhere he tries to give the impression that he has solved the problem, yet concedes that synchronicities are “byproducts of a yet to be identified naturalistic psychological process” (p 62). He may believe that his task is to “omit any notion of a supernatural or transpersonal connection with some assumed realm of absolute meaning”. However, this is merely another example of promissory materialism, which in plain English means: we are at a complete loss to understand something, but we desperately hope that at some point in the future materialistic science will come up with an explanation. Such a tactic is used to help someone avoid the discomfort of having their worldview challenged.
Let’s look in more detail at Williams’ alternative hypothesis. He says: “Rather than attempting to offer a definitive explanation for how inner and outer events mysteriously conjoin resulting in a synchronicity, I focus exclusively on the psychology of the observer to adequately explain this process”. His promise is that we will discover that synchronicities are “the exclusive outcome of a knowable complex psychodynamic process which is analyzable, thus scientifically explainable” (P xiv).
In the first of those quotes he is choosing to avoid the most significant problem in this debate. A “definitive explanation for how inner and outer events mysteriously conjoin”, as I noted above, is precisely what is required if the Jungian hypothesis is to be refuted. Williams is therefore choosing to ignore the most important issue; how convenient for him! Instead we are invited to find convincing alternatives in the psychology (personal unconscious) of the individual concerned. Here are some of Williams’ attempts to do this:
- “What if transformation of the self comes about not in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ but as the result of persistent hard work in which the ‘patient’ struggles to make meaningful connections with himself and the object world such that a synchronicity marks the integration of the various connections resulting in an expansion of consciousness?” (p 100).
- “In short, synchronicities are associated with a strong desire to make significant changes in one’s life even to the point of fashioning wholesale transformations… naturalistic byproducts of human beings making important adaptations in their all too human struggles to both survive and thrive” (p 112).
In the first no attempt is made to explain how the external element in the synchronicity is caused; it may “mark the integration”, but what exactly in a naturalistic universe effects the manifestation of the external element? In the second, the synchronicities are merely “naturalistic byproducts” of a person’s psychological process, which I understand to mean inconsequential accidents — they presumably don’t even need to happen if the “important adaptations” have already been made. This is similar to the attitude of skeptics, that these apparently meaningful, sometimes life-changing, coincidences, are actually meaningless. Again there is no explanation how a person’s psychological process could possibly cause such coincidences to happen; these vague statements merely gloss over the problem.
Williams had indeed informed us that he was not going “to offer a definitive explanation for how inner and outer events mysteriously conjoin resulting in a synchronicity”. He certainly fulfilled that promise! Instead he would “focus exclusively on the psychology of the observer to adequately explain this process”. If the last two quotes are the best that he can manage, then I would suggest that he has failed in this ambition.
The following three suggestions may be meaningful to Williams, but it seems to me that he is merely using a lot of words to give the impression that he is saying something meaningful, when they contain nothing substantial to help us understand how a synchronicity is achieved. They therefore seem more like vague speculations.
- synchronicities are “self generated messages, the byproduct of a person’s idiosyncratic creative process whose origin is the personal unconscious, needing to be actively interpreted so to be able to fully utilize the rich information ‘hidden’ in them”.
- “human beings generate meaningful connections out of the seemingly random raw data of their individual and collective experiences whether synchronistic or not”
- “…the remarkable powers (people) have in jointly utilizing their conscious and personal unconscious for expanding their realistic powers of awareness” (all three, P xv).
- there is “nothing divine or mystical” going on, rather “a wondrous appreciation for the creative capacities of each person to order his own internal and external chaos, potentially choosing to beam it in any direction he or she wishes” (p 219).
No proof is offered of these vague assertions. They are stated as facts, yet are barely less mysterious, and no more revealing, than the Jungian alternative of ascribing synchronicities to supernatural influences. Williams has merely relocated the mystery to the personal unconscious. Since, as he says, the process takes place there, then the conscious self is presumably unaware of all this psychological activity.
The first interesting question is therefore, what is the nature of this he or she, this ‘person’ ordering the chaos in the unconscious? ‘Ordering’ suggests knowledge, intention, and will. Such a ‘person’ operating in the unconscious sounds suspiciously like Jung’s concept of the Self, what other traditions call the Higher Self. So it is relevant to ask, what theory of materialism or naturalism could possibly account for this? A frequently stated understanding of materialism is that ultimately everything that exists can be explained by the interactions of subatomic particles and the laws of physics. It is hard to see how this could account for any person’s creative capacities to order his or her own internal and external chaos, and all this unconsciously. Williams says that he adopts “Freud’s exclusively naturalistic theory of mind”. There’s a lot of background philosophical explanation required on the relationship between psyche and matter before this can be adopted so readily.
The Great Courses Company offers a course called Your Deceptive Mind: a Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, presented by Professor Steven Novella. (Critical thinking is what Williams tells us led him away from Jung to Freud.) In Lecture 17 ‘Science versus Pseudoscience’ Novella says: “The most prominent feature of pseudoscience is that it tends to work backward from desired results, rather than following logic and evidence wherever it leads. This is also referred to as motivated reasoning. If we know where we want to get cognitively, human beings are good at backfilling in justifications, making evidence fit into preconceived notions”.
This seems to me to be a perfect description of Williams’ book. He is immersed in a worldview of Freudian ‘scientific’ naturalism and determinism, and has decided in advance that only naturalistic explanations of synchronicity will do. I would say that this project was doomed to failure from the start, but his book is an attempt to come up with some fanciful hypotheses — which include no real science — as to how this might be true. ‘Motivated reasoning’ is precisely the right term to describe it.
Given that he is a psychoanalyst, Williams might have thought it worthwhile to spend some of his time analysing himself, to inquire why he is so desperate to find naturalistic explanations, why he has such antipathy towards any suggestion of mystery and supernaturalism. Freud was also not very keen on analysing himself. As Jung explains, he was far more concerned with maintaining his authority and his (I would argue false) ideas, rather than examine their truth or otherwise. However, the psychoanalyst Paul Vitz has done a brilliant job of analysing Freud in Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious⁷ and Faith of the Fatherless⁸. In the first book his aim is to “show how Freud’s anti-religious beliefs and theories are to be understood as an expression of his own unconscious needs and traumatic childhood experiences”. In the second book he explains how atheists’ strong hostility to religion, including Christianity with its belief in a powerful father-figure, can be explained in terms of the personal life of those concerned — their fathers were either dead, weak, or abusive. (I have discussed Vitz’s work in two earlier Medium articles, click here and here.)
Williams tells us that he had 19 ‘especially meaningful coincidences’ over a 13 year period (p 5). He had a split personality in relation to this; one part of him desperately wanted to believe, and there was also a “skeptical cynical side of me” (p 7). Following further synchronicities, he immersed himself in the literature of meaningful coincidences. He began with a Jungian perspective, was indeed “a passionate follower”, and found himself drawn “into the arcane world of the occult. I plunged into the literature of the esoteric occult including astrology, Qabalah, tarot, numerology, the mystics, Steiner, Regardie, Uspensky (sic)”, and spiritualism. “Its appeal was strikingly powerful”. He sums up the metaphysical viewpoint of this world like this: there is a “primary holistic assumption about the nature of reality and how one obtained knowledge from this assumed reality. The assumption is that there is an invisible (occult) primary unitary realm that is transcendent, conscious, and spiritualized. ….accessible by attending to signs, symbols, intuitions, feelings, and a process of seeking and studying correspondences” (p 4).
One might argue that here he had a glimpse of the truth, but that then the skeptical cynical side of him took over and won the battle. He has spent the rest of his life trying to deny his early intuitions. This reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Williams, having somehow escaped the chains and had a clear sight of the light behind him, then decides for whatever reason that he doesn’t like the light and prefers to remain chained, looking at shadows. As he says: “I began as a passionate follower of Jung but switched to a more grounded Freudian point of view”. What is so great about being ‘grounded’, if that is merely a synonym for skepticism, cynicism, and materialism?
Williams says that to accomplish the task of demystifying Jung’s perspective “requires an open minded person to consider that what Jung asserts as proven fact may just be a brilliantly imaginative but unproven hypothesis” (p 98). The expression ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ comes to mind here, for this accusation could just as easily be applied to the author! He offers nothing meaningful towards an understanding of synchronicities, only imaginative but unproven hypotheses. All he has managed to demonstrate is his obsession with naturalism, rationalism, and determinism, and that he shares Freud’s aversion to the occult and the supernatural. In Freud’s case, the aversion borders on the pathological. Williams is somewhat more restrained, but his underlying prejudice is clear for all to see. I imagine that he will accuse me of being a closed-minded Jungian. I confess that I am, but I will need something much better than this, to persuade me to open my mind.
I should add that Mr. Williams had the courtesy to read my critique of his book. He responded to me at Academia.edu:
“It is five o’clock in New York City and I just finished reading your stimulating and proactive critique of my book: Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences (Synchronicities): The Evolving Self, The Personal Unconscious, and The Creative Process. WOW… your words surely woke me up. Much more to follow. You have given me a pathway to try to make my ideas more challenging to those who share your point of view. Obviously I must have touched a raw nerve for you to keep repeating your core argument that I appear to be hopelessly trapped (obsessed.) with my self- confessed biased perspective. That makes you and I co-equals. Rather than just argue that there is no accounting for taste or simply declaring you or I the winner I shall continue to extend the issue and see if I am able to stimulate your curiosity to continue on reading and commenting on my work. In large measure I found your paper to be highly complementary to me highlighting the ideas I believe to be most important in my work. I look forward to a continuing dialogue between us. It is now seven o’clock in New York City — too early to get up — so thanks for stimulating me and good morning as I am going back to sleep”.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Jason Aronson, 2010
2. iFF books, 2014
3. Monthly Review Press, 2008
4. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972
5. Bantam, 1987
6. iFF books, 2021. It could be argued that Kastrup is not actually a quantum physicist. He is, however, a scientist and philosopher with a distinctly quantum viewpoint.
7. Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, William B. Eerdmans, 1993. The quote is from the preface, P xii
8. Spence Publishing, 2000