Synchonicity (IFC Finals S2R1)

in OCD2 months ago


This is my entry for the Information Finding Championship Season 2 finals hosted by @ifc and @apolymask.

After a long hiatus, the IFC is back with the topic of "Synchronicity". Unfortunately, as this is a concept that is completely unknown to me... I had to go and look up what the word actually meant! I had a suspicion about what it could mean, and it appears that I wasn't too far off. After all, the it has a similar sort of construction to the word "Synchronous", which is much much more familiar to my mind!

So, a quick trip to everyone's favourite online encyclopaedia to get an incredibly shallow understanding of the concept and the word. Here is some of the extract from the beginning....

Synchronicity (German: Synchronizität) is a concept, first introduced by analytical psychologist Carl Jung, which holds that events are "meaningful coincidences" if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related.
During his career, Jung furnished several different definitions of the term, defining synchronicity as an "acausal connecting (togetherness) principle;" "meaningful coincidence;" "acausal parallelism;" and as a "meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved."
Jung's belief was that, just as events may be connected by causality, they may also be connected by meaning. Events connected by meaning need not have an explanation in terms of causality, which does not generally contradict universal causation but in specific cases can lead to prematurely giving up causal explanation.
As it is neither testable or falsifiable (see: scientific method), synchronicity does not fall into the realm of empirical study. Main objection from scientific standpoint is that synchronistic events are experimentally indistinguishable from ordinary coincidences.

So, on the surface... it appears that it appears to be that the concept of Synchronicity is the attachment of meaning or purpose to otherwise apparently unrelated events. This meant that certain events appear to be linked because the chances of them happening seem to be beyond the realm of probability. Using this concept, Jung appears to have argued for the existence of the paranormal.

In the last line of the Wikipedia blurb, is the objection from a rational or scientific point of view. For those who have followed my blog... it will be no surprise at all that this is the part that appeals more to my way of thinking.

Stuff happens

In non-trivial systems, outcomes and events have multiple inputs and multiple outcomes. The more complex the system, the more tangled the relationship between cause and effect. Unfortunately, our minds are hard-wired to not think in terms of this sort of fuzzy probabilistic manner, but is much more geared towards a simple cause and effect sort of analysis. There is nothing wrong with that, however, it is inherently flawed when you do not access to complete and perfect information.

...and sadly, this Universe constantly presents us with a mess of flawed and incomplete information!

The only tool we have to glean signals from noise is Mathematical Statistics, a field that is often confused for market polling because it has numbers and percentage signs. However, it is also a field that notoriously difficult for the layman to grasp as it can tend to be quite counter-intuitive.

Even more frustratingly for non-experts, it is a field that gives conclusions that are non-definitive. At it's fundamental core, an analysis will lay out a null hypothesis that will be either accepted or rejected after comparing data to random chance. Of course, there will always be the chance that you have correctly or incorrectly accepted or rejected the null hypothesis (4 different outcomes). The Universe is a bastard, and will never let you know definitively if you chose right! However, there are techniques for minimising the possibility of error... but it will always be non-zero. For some fields of study, infinitesimally small... for others less so.

Probability and Randomness


As humans, we tend to have a really poor grasp on randomness and probability. You can see this in early ages, when children will suspect that the probability of a coin toss is altered if the coin has already landed 10 times on the Tails side. They seem to think that it is more likely that the next toss will come as Heads... perhaps it is a sense of fair play, that the Tails side has already won out too many times?

It continues through to adulthood, where people are often surprised how small a gathering of people is required for the probability of two people sharing the same birthday to start become the MOST LIKELY occurrence.

It turns out that small probability events are almost certain if you roll the dice enough times and define the event loosely enough to be not too specific. So, for instance, two people sharing the same birthday but NOT which two people and NOT what date. Or that someone will win two lotteries, but NOT which lotteries and WHICH person.

Correlation is not...

Screenshot 20201203 16.21.33.png

Spurious Correlations - Tyler Vigen

Again, as a species, we are highly attracted to simple cause and effect ideas... a well-crafted narrative or story with a definite cause-and-effect is much more convincing to us than a dry and difficult to understand statistical analysis with outcomes with a degree of uncertainty. This can tend to lead us in "interesting" but flawed directions at best, or leave us open to manipulation at worst.

Anyone who has studied any basic statistics will be able to complete the sentence in the heading... "Correlation is NOT causation". It is a phrase that is drilled into us over and over and over again... Just because there is a correlation, does NOT imply a casual link. A rational mind sees this as the BEGINNING point for an investigation and nothing more than that.... however, too often in the public discourse or the laxer disciplines that aspire to be "scientific" it is often seen as conclusive evidence of causation.

For example, the above graph shows the data sets of Cheese Consumption being incredibly highly correlated (r = 0.947) with death by bedsheets over the time period 2000-2009. Now, the purpose of this website is to highlight (hopefully) obvious spurious correlations in order to educate about the dangers of relying on a Correlation coefficient to be proof of linkage and causation. It is ludicrous to expect that cheese consumption and death by bedsheet are linked causually, but we still manage to attribute causation to other arguments with even less correlation when they are put forward by our favourite storyteller.

Relative interpretation


The biggest issue that I have with the concept of attributing "meaning" to otherwise unreleated events is the lack of an objective definition of "meaning". What one person sees as incredibly meaningful is completely nothing to another person. So, how is it possible to come to any conclusion as to what actually is meaningfully linked or not? The only possible outcome to this in my eyes is to have everything ALWAYS meaningful linked, however trivial... OR that there doesn't need to be meaning.

I would tend towards the latter as a general worldview... we desire meaning, but it doesn't mean that there has to be one. We can give unrelated events meaning if it makes us better, I guess there is no harm in that!

However, the other viewpoint that EVERYTHING is ALWAYS meaningfully linked is also enticing. I guess in the end, everything is linked by virtue of existing in the same Universe. However, I would definitely debate the point that states that that link is "meaningful".


Now, it appears that I am coming out hard against the idea of Synchronicity completely. I'm not sure that I do.... after all, we are not machines. Things happen, co-incidences by random probability occur... and the Universe is just a bastard.

...and since the beginning of time, we've wanted to attribute meaning to events that are either beyond our control (for better or worse) or beyond our current level of understanding. I would argue that this is both a good and bad thing...

On the good side of things, attributing meaning can give one purpose or inspiration. It can drive and motivate to do great things or to leave us with feeling of purpose in an otherwise uncaring Universe. It can fill the need and desire to have meaning in our lives and existence.

However, the same desire for meaning can leave us vulnerable to manipulation. It can lead us to find signals where there are none, and build our castles upon quicksand. Or to ignore objective facts until it is impossible to hide from them.

So, I would say that there are good and bad things about the idea of Synchronicity (if I have understood it properly on such a short reading...). It is a useful outlook that can inspire and motivate us despite the fact that it is not really a rational way of looking at the Universe... however, like many things, it is a tool that can be used to manipulate others or to delude and blind ourselves.

In the end, I guess it boils down to how much one desires a narrative to one's life. Of course, I do crave one (I wouldn't be human if I didn't!), but I'm not sure that it requires one to find "meaningful" linkages in life to live a life of meaning. I would argue that events can have meaning just by virtue of existing, no need to go further than that!

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Correlation does not equal causation. I think that is the theme of your entry. It's an important thing to be sure. But I also tend to think that there's more stuff going on... Why do you end up hearing multiple instances of the same lesson within a short space of time? Or go for months without thinking of a particular joke/anecdote/story then suddenly have use for it multiple times within a few days. Maybe it's for the same reason as the fact that you can have two pairs of ballroom dancers in a large open room and they'll still run into each other from time to time... Maybe more to do with wave theory than anything else? Lots of thoughts... Thanks for your entry.

I guess... but I would say that it is a little bit more than that. I would say that everything is linked, but perhaps not in the way that we think it is, and perhaps not with the meaning that we attribute to it. Just linked, no meaning required.