Wolfgang Pauli, Carl Jung, and the Acausal Connecting Principle: A Case Study in Transdisciplinarity

Wolfgang Pauli, Carl Jung, and the Acausal Connecting Principle: A Case Study in Transdisciplinarity

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The same organizing forces that have shaped nature in all her forms are also responsible for the structure of our minds.
—Werner Heisenberg1

While many universities and colleges have only recently begun moving toward multi-and interdisciplinary programs and offerings, transdisciplinarity, a concept that first appeared on the academic scene in the early 1970s, has become an important trend in some circles. NYU, for example, has established a Transdisciplinary program in Trauma and Violence; several universities now have Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers. The case for trans-rather than inter-disciplinarity in graduate education has been made by educational researchers on the basis of expectations that “graduate students need to be educated for a diverse, technical, problem-oriented world that does not yet exist, which makes it imperative that they become self-directed, lifelong learners who can thrive and participate in collaborative environments with ever-changing disciplinary boundaries.” However, there appears to be little idea yet of how this kind of education should be structured: “Only as scholars develop, study and share multiple case studies will we begin to see consistencies across cases as evidence for connections between learning and design decisions, developing generalizable principles for achieving best practices in transdisciplinary graduate education and scholarship.”2

I agree with the transdisciplinary agenda in principle. I fear, though, that there has not been sufficient public discussion of the potential problems inherent in this kind of work.  Scholars are prone to enthusiastic and wholesale commitment to new approaches, and in this case such a response glosses over very real pitfalls in the offing. In order to illuminate some of these problems, I explore here the collaboration between Nobel Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, a founder of quantum theory, and Carl Jung, founder of archetypal psychology, with focus on their development of the concept of synchronicity. The history of Jung’s reception by the scientific and scholarly communities serves as a caution to all who venture into the realm of what Basarab Nicolescu has called the “Included Middle”. Exploration of the Pauli-Jung collaboration is particularly apropos here, given that Nicolescu is himself a specialist in quantum physics and attributes his vision of transdisciplinarity to his scientific work.3

Nicolescu’s quest for “a space of knowledge beyond the disciplines”4 is exemplified by the Pauli-Jung collaboration aimed at explication of a unifying or connecting principle bridging the gap between mind and matter.  Jung’s theory of synchronicity posited that certain events-often called coincidences-actually reveal the operation of an acausal connection between mental and physical events through meaning. Jung’s paradigmatic example of a synchronicity occurred during a therapy session. In this session, his patient was in the midst of relating an intense dream she had had in which someone gave her a piece of gold jewelry in the shape of a scarab beetle. As she related the dream, Jung heard a tapping sound on the office window, which was caused by a very large insect flying repeatedly against the glass. He opened the window, and in flew a small goldish-green colored scarabeid beetle. The connection between the woman telling the dream and the appearance of the actual beetle is non-causal – the inner dream experience did not cause the beetle to appear, and yet there is a connection through meaning for the woman. The connecting meaning in a synchronistic event is experiencer-specific, related to the individual’s process of psychological maturation, or individuation. Events like this occur often enough to be more than meaningless coincidence, Jung and Pauli believed.

Jung and Pauli were convinced that synchronistic events reveal an underlying unity of mind and matter, subjective and objective realities. Synchronicity was (and continues to be) a prime target for criticism of Jung that for decades bordered on outright dismissal by many in the scientific and academic communities. For example, historian of science Suzanne Gieser writes that she finds Pauli’s interest in Jung “unusual” because “most of those with an academic or scientific background dismiss Jung totally.”5

Following Pauli’s death in 1958, Pauli’s wife actively opposed including any of his correspondence with Jung in the collections of his papers.6  The chairman of CERN’s Pauli Committee recently wrote that, “inclusion of letters dealing mainly with psychology … was much debated by the committee.”7 In the end, they did decide to publish the correspondence, explaining that, “it is of no importance what we think of Jung and his psychology. The important thing is that Pauli was a convinced adherent of Jung’s teachings.”8 A brief look at the evolution and content of the decades-long correspondence between these two men will reveal the possibilities and problems inherent in efforts of even the most brilliant of specialists to transcend disciplinary limitations.

Jung’s fascination with physics actually began early in his career as a result of a series of dinners with Albert Einstein between 1909 and 1912. He later wrote that “It was Einstein who first started me thinking about a relativity of time as well as space, and their psychic conditionality…years later this stimulus led to my relation with the physicist Professor W. Pauli and to my thesis of psychic synchronicity.” His first public mention of the concept occurred 1928 during a seminar on the interpretation of dreams. Jung noted then that, in addition to the frequent appearance of common mythic motifs, dreams are often connected to coincidences in people’s lives. Taking a phenomenological stance, he said that while it would be “absurd” to consider the conjunction of dream material and life events to be causal, “it is wise to consider the fact that [these coincidences] do happen…The East…considers coincidences as the reliable basis of the world rather than causality. Synchronism is the prejudice of the East; causality is the modern prejudice of the West.”9 In 1930, Jung mentioned the concept again in his speech honoring Richard Wilhelm, a scholar of Chinese philosophy who had died earlier that year. In this address (later published as part of his commentary on Wilhelm’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower), Jung said “the science of the I Ching is based not on the causality principle but on one which-hitherto unnamed because unfamiliar to us-I have tentatively called the synchronistic principle.” He concluded that “the causality principle” cannot explain “psychic parallelisms” that must somehow be connected but are not causally related.10 In 1935, he referred once again to the idea during lectures given in London. This time he equated synchronicity with the Chinese Tao and described it as “a peculiar principle active in the world so that things happen together somehow and behave as if they were the same, and yet for us they are not.”11 It was to be many years before Jung would write about this concept again, and when he did, his focus would shift from the empirical and phenomenological aspects of synchronistic phenomena to the ontological and archetypal nature of such events.12 This shift was the outcome of his long term relationship with Wolfgang Pauli, which began in 1932, when Pauli sought help during a period of intense psychological distress.

This “crisis of his life”, as Pauli would later call the period between 1927 and 1932, was stimulated by his mother’s suicide, his father’s quick remarriage to a woman Pauli’s age, and the end of his own brief marriage to a cabaret singer, all complicated by his own meteoric rise in the world of physics. Pauli’s father suggested he seek treatment with Dr. Jung, and the two great men had their first meeting in January, 1932. By the time of this encounter, Pauli had already written a critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity so perceptive that Einstein later said Pauli was perhaps the only physicist who truly understood his work. Pauli had already done work foundational for the new field of quantum mechanics, developed the Exclusion Principle (for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945), become the youngest person ever to hold the Chair of Theoretical Physics at Zurich, and postulated the existence of the neutrino (which was not demonstrated experimentally until 1956) by the time of this meeting.13 Needless to say, Pauli’s career as a highly respected physicist was well established by the time he met Jung.

During their initial session, Jung discerned that Pauli’s most immediate problems stemmed from his difficulty in relating to women and referred him to one of Jung’s students, Erna Rosenbaum. In later writings, Jung made reference to Pauli without identifying him and confessed that, upon realizing that this scientist offered a unique opportunity to explore his theory of archetypes and dreams, he had decided not to treat Pauli himself in order to “get [dream material] absolutely pure, without any influence from myself.” Since Rosenbaum was “just a beginner,” said Jung, “I was absolutely sure she would not tamper” with the raw dream content. During five months of analysis with Rosenbaum, Pauli recorded hundreds of dreams. He then worked on his own for several months before entering into a two year period of meetings with Jung himself, which some biographers claim was for analysis and others say was the meeting of colleagues exploring theories related to their common interests.14 Regardless of interpreters’ claims, in a letter written to Jung in July of 1934 Pauli makes it clear that the relationship was a therapeutic one. He wrote to break off the sessions, which had been focused on “dream interpretation and dream analysis.” The next year, Pauli renewed contact by sending Jung some notes and drawings from his own efforts to work though fantasy and dream material; thus began a relationship that would continue until 1957, when Jung experienced a period of illness. Jung recovered, but Pauli subsequently became very ill and died in 1958 as a result of pancreatic cancer.15

Pauli’s early dreams provided Jung with a rich resource for theoretical exploration, and his own interpretations played a role in Jung’s theories. In 1935 Jung sought and received permission to use Pauli’s dream content in lectures and in his essay, “Psychology and Alchemy”. Pauli was happy that his dream work might help advance Jung’s exploration of human psychology, and clearly believed that this effort was scientific: in his letter of October 2, 1935, he said, “I am pleased that my dreams may serve some scientific purpose”.16 In a 1937 letter, he said that “even the most modern physics also lends itself to the symbolic representation of psychic processes, even down to the last detail.”17

Their collaboration transformed Jung’s understanding of synchronicity. He had argued early on that “the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state”,18 was a phenomenological concept. As a result of his interaction with Pauli, Jung gradually came to see this acausal connecting principle as an explanatory theory which, in combination with causality, might well lead to a more complete understanding of deep reality.19 The first reference to the concept in their written correspondence appears in a 1948 letter from Pauli to Jung. The two had recently conversed, and Pauli wrote to offer an illustration of synchronicity using one of his own dreams. He alluded to an unpublished essay, “Modern Examples of ‘Background Physics’” and explained that his ‘background physics’ idea referred to “the appearance of quantitative terms and concepts from physics in spontaneous fantasies in a qualitative [symbolic] sense” which is “ample proof of the fact that the kind of imagination I call ‘background physics’ is of an archetypal[in the Jungian sense] nature…the purely psychological interpretation only apprehends half of the matter. The other half is the revealing of the archetypal basis of the terms actually applied in modern physics.” This ‘background’ seems to be directed toward development of a “description of nature that uniformly comprises physics and psyche.” To accomplish this, the physicist necessarily shifts from background physics to psychology. He said, “As I regard physics and psychology as complementary types of examination, I am certain that there is an equally valid way that must lead the psychologist… (through investigating the archetypes) into the world of physics.”20  In the unpublished essay, he delves more deeply into the connection between psychics and psychology: “Complementarity in physics…has a very close analogy with the terms ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ in psychology, in that any ‘observation’ of unconscious contents entails fundamentally indefinable repercussions of the conscious on these very contents.”21

Pauli thought that the probabilistic nature of quantum theory and the Uncertainty Principle offered the possibility of discovering something beyond the mind-matter gap: “’we must postulate a cosmic order of nature beyond our control to which both the outward material objects and the inward images are subject.”22 There is, he thought, a quantum explanation for synchronistic occurrences which somehow “acausally weaves meaning into the fabric of nature.” Exploration of this might lea to an answer to the conundrum posed by quantum indeterminacy: if the deepest structures of reality are probabilities then “what fixes what actually happens”?23 Jung and Pauli sought a unifying theory that would allow interpretation of reality as a psycho-physical whole. Pauli thought that probability mathematics expresses physically what is manifested psychologically as archetypes (deep-structure patterns for certain types of universal mental experience, or patterns of the instincts) and synchronistic events.24

The two men collaborated on the synchronicity concept for several years before publishing anything on the topic. Between 1949 and 1952, Pauli reviewed Jung’s written drafts and offered many suggestions for developing the concept, including suggestions for defining terms like “acausal” and encouragement to clarify the connection between meaning and time. Jung hoped to substantiate the theory using statistical analysis of the Rhine ESP experiments and astrological claims, but his physicist collaborator said it “is paradoxical that physicists are now obliged to tell psychologists that they must not eliminate the unconscious in their statistical investigations.”25 His suggestions were often quite specific. Once he reminded Jung of the need to explain that “appearance of [synchronistic events] is complementary to the archetypal contents becoming conscious.”26

In his responses to Pauli’s input, Jung clearly shifted from an empirical-phenomenological approach to an ontological one which led the two men toward a more explanatory and interpretive view of synchronicity that promised to reveal the much sought-after unified mind/matter worldview. In his final version of the synchronicity essay, Jung wrote that the “archetype represents psychic probability” (italics in original).27Pauli wrote in his Kepler essay (published as part two of The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche-Jung’s synchronicity essay was part one), that “pure logic” is not capable of establishing a “bridge between the sense perceptions and the concepts.” Kepler himself thought that scientific ideas discerned by humanity exist eternally as archetypes in the mind of God, and Jung’s theories pave the way to understand archetypes “as ordering operators and image-formers” in the symbolic realm which may well function as the sought-after bridge between mind and matter.28 “It would be most satisfactory” said Pauli, “if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.”29

The tone of Pauli’s written communication with Jung was always that characteristic of peers who respect one another’s work. When disagreeing with Jung or expressing a point that arose due to Jung’s less complete knowledge of physics, he was clear about his reasons, never belittling or demeaning Jung for having less knowledge of physics than he. Pauli’s letters to others about Jung contain, however, an altogether different tone. In a 1948 letter to another physicist (Pascual Jordan), Pauli stated that he did not think Jung’s essay, “The Spirit of Psychology”, was good, nor did he think it scientifically feasible to substantiate paranormal phenomena. And yet, the record shows that Pauli was actually at this time engaged in study of paranormal events, examining them with Jung in the context of their work on synchronicity.30 Another example of Pauli’s strikingly different tone when talking about rather than to Jung comes from letters to his assistant Marcus Fierz. In 1948 he wrote, “’The danger of this situation lies in Herr Jung publishing nonsense about physics and could moreover quote me in the process’.” In 1950, he commented to Fierz that Jung was “’quite without scientific training.’”31 To Neils Bohr in 1955 he wrote, “most unsatisfactory seems to me the emotional and vague use of the concept ‘psyche’ by Jung, which is not even logically self-consistent.” Yet Pauli published in Dialectica, the British philosophy of science journal, that “’Jung employs a psychological-scientific terminology instead of the philosophical-metaphysical’.”32As Geiser says, “Apparently we have here an example of Pauli showing one face to his colleagues and another to his Jungian friends.”33

Jung was well aware of the potential for professional damage inherent in publishing his work on synchronicity, although there is no indication that he was aware of Pauli’s negative appraisal of his work when speaking with fellow physicists. In the foreword to The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche, Jung said that he “lacked the courage” to publish this work for many years, and even then, this effort was nothing more than an attempt to open discussion on “a very obscure field which is philosophically of the greatest importance.” He did not even pretend to be offering “a complete description and explanation” of synchronicity.34. Although he made reference to discoveries in quantum physics throughout the essay and hoped the pairing of it with Pauli’s work would open more minds to the concept, he was not successful in communicating this intent to the wider scientific and psychological communities. In the end, the failure of many readers to grasp that his project was shaped by quantum theory as filtered through his relationship with Pauli conspired to damage his reputation. His reception has been quite mixed, sometimes praised as prophetically brilliant, often dismissed as obscurantist purveyor of mystical mumbo-jumbo.

On the positive side, the collaboration between these two men illustrates the power of a non-reductive approach to scientific exploration. Pauli’s influence echoes throughout Jung’s work. Examples in addition to the work on synchronicity include the parallels between Pauli’s complementarity principle and Jung’s “coincidence of opposites”, and Pauli’s background physics and Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious.

Returning to the article by the chairman of CERN’s Pauli Committee regarding publication of Pauli’s papers, his scientific works

are presented in strictly scientific terms and make no reference to any influence of the psyche in theoretical physics. Nevertheless, Pauli was convinced that science was unable to provide all of the answers. He was deeply interested in psychology and in particular in the significance of dreams… It was therefore considered proper that the publication of his scientific correspondence should reveal the thinker as a whole and not only the physicist, providing clues about how Pauli reached his ideas… The psychological correspondence of Pauli culminated in his long exchange of letters with C G Jung from 1932 to 1958. This reveals an hitherto poorly known facet of Pauli’s mind. It is fascinating to follow how these two intellectual giants argue from different sides to find mutual enlightment [sic].35

The declared goals of the Transdisciplinarity movement are consonant with the aims of the Pauli/Jung collaboration. Nicolescu says that “‘beyond disciplines’ precisely signifies the Subject-Object interaction,” “the Subject-Object interaction seems to us to be at the very core of transdisciplinarity,” and further, “the logic of the included middle is the very heart of quantum mechanics.” This logic is “a tool for an integrative process” that will eventually provide us with the means for reconciling differences not just among academic disciplines but between cultures and religions. Sounding a bit like Jung himself at his most poetic, Nicolescu proclaimed in his 2007 speech that transdisciplinarity will lead to a new spirituality that promises to carry us to a “’fusion of horizons’” without succumbing to the temptation of creating a “super-science or a super-religion”.36 Transdisciplinarity’s “included middle” is precisely the issue at stake in the Pauli-Jung collaboration on synchronicity.

Pauli and Jung were trailblazers in their own disciplines as well as in the realm of collaboration across disciplines. Both men benefited personally and professionally from the relationship, although Jung perhaps suffered more negative consequences in the end. His work became quite popular in some circles, with students and practitioners adopting an almost messianic interpretation and a ‘Jungian’ vocabulary that unfortunately prevented the uninitiated from understanding. This trend continues to the present day, with some proclaiming him to have been the prophet of a New Age in human consciousness. I suspect this would have made Jung very unhappy.  His response to the efforts to establish an institute in Zurich dedicated to his work while he was still alive says it all: “I can only hope and wish that none becomes ‘Jungian’.”37 In the broader discipline of psychoanalysis, he has until very recently been marginalized except for Jungians and some who specialize in the psychology of religion. The tide is slowly turning, though, and Jung may yet have his day.

Physicists with a psychological or spiritual inclination, like David Peat and Victor Mansfield,38 have taken note of synchronicity and written of its validity as an experimental conceptual frame for exploring the connection between quantum and classical physics. Other scientists have begun to explore theories of human cognition that rely on constructs very much like Jung’s archetypes and his evolutionary understanding of human religious experience.39 In the end, the history of collaboration between these two brilliant men merits careful reflection for all who venture into the realm of transdisciplinary scholarship.


1 W. Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond. Cambridge University Press, 1971, p 101.

2Sharon J. Derry and Gerhard Fischer, “Transdisciplinary Graduate Education”,  Socio-technical Design for Lifelong Learning: A Crucial Role for Graduate Education. American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada. 2005

3 B. Nicolescu, “Transdisciplinarity as Methodological Framework for Going Beyond the Science-Religion Debate,” Conference Paper, Metanexus Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA. June 4, 2007.  https://www.metanexus.net/conference2007/abstract/Default.aspx?id=227

4 B. Nicolescu, “Transdisciplinarity as Methodological Framework”.

5 Suzanne Gieser, The Innermost Kernel:.Depth Psychology and Quantum Physics. Wolfgang Pauli’s Dialogue with C.G.Jung.  (Berlin: Springer, 2005), 162.

6 Gieser, The Innermost Kernel., p 4. Pauli’s wife’s distress over the possibility that his reputation as a physicist might be damaged by his interest in Jungian psychology was so great that she burned a box of letters from Marie-Louis von Franz after he die. (pg.4n5).

7 Maurice Jacob, CERN Courier, International Journal of High-Energy Physics. Aug 18, 2000. http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/28293  accessed 2/20/09.

8 Gieser,5.

9 W. McGuire, ed. Dream Analysis: Notes on the Seminar Given on 1928-1930 by C. G. Jung (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), 44.

10 Richard Wilhelm, Carl Gustav Jung, and Tung-Pin Lu, The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life. Trans. R. Wilhelm. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1970), 141.

11 Published in C. G. Jung, Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice. Collected Works 18 (London, 1968), 36, 76.

12 M. Donati, “Beyond Synchronicity: The Worldview of Carl Gustav Jung and Wolfgang Pauli,” Journal of Analytical Psychology Vol 49 (2004): 707-728.

13 Beverly Zabriskie, “Jung and Pauli: A Subtle Asymmetry,” Journal of Analytical Psychology 40 (1995): 531-53).

14 David Lindorff, Pauli and Jung: The Meeting of Two Great Minds (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004).

15 C. A. Meier, ed. Atom and Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters 1932-1958. (Princeton University Press, 2001).

16 Meier, 10.

17 Ibid., 19.

18 C. G. Jung, “Synchronicity”, Collected Works 8.

19 Donati, “Beyond Synchronicity”,

20 Meier, 179-80.

21 Ibid., 185.

22 Letter to Marcus Fierz, 1948. Quoted in Henry p. Stapp, Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics /em> (Berlin: Springe