Wolfgang Pauli: Resurrection of Spirit in the World

Wolfgang Pauli: Resurrection of Spirit in the World

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The dialogue between religion and science takes place not only as an open debate between two disciplines.  It is also a movement towards wholeness in an individual who seeks to reconcile inner and outer, subjective and objective, theory and experience.  In considering this relationship between science and religion it is useful to turn to the life of Wolfgang Pauli, one of the most important physicists of the twentieth century.

Pauli was born in 1900 in Vienna and published his first scientific paper within two months of leaving high school.  By the age of twenty he had written a 200-page article on the theory of relativity that was praised by Einstein in the following words, “no one studying this mature, grandly conceived work could believe the author is a man of 21(sic).  One wonders what to admire most…the psychological understanding of the development of ideas, sureness of mathematical deduction, profound physical insight, capacity of presentation.”

Pauli’s conversations with Heisenberg paved the way for the quantum theory and, within months of Heisenberg’s discovery, Pauli had applied the new theory to calculate the spectrum of the hydrogen atom.  His later discussions with Bohr helped to formulate the interpretation of that theory.  His famous Exclusion Principle explains why there is structure in the universe.  Electrons, protons and other particles called fermions are governed by a principle of antisymmetry, which means that they cannot all be in the same quantum state.  This restriction gives rise to the differentiation of the material world into the various chemical elements.  On the other hand, boson particles are governed by principles of symmetry which allows them to congregate into a single coherent state, as is the case with lasers, superconductors and superfluids.  Pauli’s vision of overarching symmetry in nature also led him to predict the neutrino, twenty-five years before it was discovered experimentally.

For his part, Max Born, believed Pauli to be a greater scientist than Einstein.  Yet Pauli’s name has never been well known to the general public as the other scientific giants of the last three hundred years.  The reason is that Pauli preferred to work behind the scenes proposing new ideas and providing critical comments in conversations, lectures and letters.

In his personality Pauli was something of a paradox.  While some referred to Pauli as “the conscience of physics” others nicknamed him “the frightful Pauli” and “the whip of God” because of his brutal and scathing comments during seminars.  Referring to a colleague’s paper, for example, he said, “This isn’t right.  This isn’t even wrong.”

Pauli was deeply attached to his mother who committed suicide in 1927 on discovering her husband was having an affair.  From this point on Pauli’s life went to pieces.  His marriage to a nightclub singer lasted only a few weeks.  Increasingly he turned to drink and became aggressive in bars to the point where he was thrown out.  Finally in his thirtieth year he consulted as Carl Jung who found him, “a very one-sided individual whose unconscious had become troubled and activated; so it projected itself onto other men who appeared to be his enemies…he became terrible lonely….he began to drink…quarrel…got beaten up” In Jungian typology, Pauli was a thinking type whose feeling function had been so repressed and unacknowledged that it now threatened to burst out and overwhelm him.

Jung also found Pauli so “chock full of archaic material” that, not wishing to influence or “contaminate” this material in any way, he referred him to a colleague, Erna Rosenbaum, for dream analysis.  Rosenbaum had only just qualified so Jung knew she would not “tamper” with her patient.  And indeed over the five months of analysis Pauli reported hundreds of remarkable dreams.  He had opened up a dialogue with the very deepest levels of his unconscious mind and, in turn, it had begun to teach him.  Pauli’s encounter with the unconscious culminated in a vision of such sublime harmony – the World Clock – that it produced something akin to a religious conversion in the physicist.  This dream expressed the mysterious harmony of the cosmos and in its symbolism united two worlds – represented by rotating discs.  This theme of unification of two worlds would occur again and again in Pauli’s waking and dreaming life.

Thanks to these messages from the unconscious Pauli began to have insights into his own nature and sensed the danger of his personality in oscillating from one extreme to another.  He realized that he had been cold, cynical, atheist and intellectual.  He could swing, he wrote, from the thug and criminal to a nonintellectual hermit who had outbursts of ecstasy and visions.

Around 1935 Pauli dreamed that Einstein came to him and told him that quantum theory was one-dimensional but reality was two-dimensional.  Pauli must accept a new dimension to reality and he believed that the missing dimension was the unconscious and its archetypes.  Jung had proposed the archetypes as structuring principles of the unconscious mind but Pauli now argued that they were also the underlying principles for structures and processes in the physical world.  To this end he embarked on a research program to develop what he termed a “neutral language”, one that would apply equally well to physics as to psychology.  He collaborated with Jung on the latter’s work on synchronicity (Jung’s “acausal connecting principle” or “meaningful connection”).  Independently he began to study the way the archetype of the Trinity had influenced Kepler in his formulation of the laws of planetary motion.

But Pauli was now having other dreams in which an “exotic woman” visited him.  Pauli believed her to be his soul.  He began to see that the most important issue was “the lack of soul in the modern scientific conception of the world”.  The “spirit of matter”, he believed, had been denied for 300 years and was now struggling for resurrection.  He was driven by a vision of the return of soul to the world.  While he spoke to very few about his new work he did once tell his assistant, H.B.G. Casimir, “I think I know what is coming.  I know it exactly.  But I don’t tell it to the others.  So I am rather doing five-dimensional theory of relativity although I don’t really believe in it.  But I know what is coming.  Perhaps I will tell you some other time.”

In parallel with his work on psyche, Pauli continued to struggle with the principles of symmetry and antisymmetery in physics which, in his many conversations with Heisenberg, he referred to as an attempt to reconcile “Christ and the Devil”.  If we follow Carl Jung’s injunction that alchemy was not so much primitive chemical experimentation but a psychological movement towards wholeness, in which internal processes of the psyche are projected outwards onto matter, then Pauli’s work in physics is all of a piece with his endeavor to make a mystical marriage between matter and spirit.

According to Jung, Pauli’s dream of the World Clock had produced something akin to a religious conversion and a radical change in Pauli’s life.  Nevertheless in mid life he began to become depressed.  At the age of 47 he had the first of a series of disturbing dreams in which a “Persian” visited him.  On the first occasion the stranger arrived carrying letters.  He wanted to enter Pauli’s university and study but he was not allowed to do so.  When he began to speak to Pauli in a sharp voice Pauli asked him if he is his shadow.  “No,” said the stranger,” you are my shadow”.  Pauli asked if he wanted to study physics.  The visitor said that he couldn’t understand Pauli’s language and Pauli would not understand physics in his language.  But he was going to help Pauli by bringing him a chair for there was no chair in Pauli’s study.  Pauli must give up his illusions.  “He has many women but there can only be one.”

Thinking over the dream Pauli realized that his own attempt at a mystical marriage had been too academic.  Despite his psychological insights he himself remained unrelated to reality – his office did not even have a chair.  In spite of his vision of unification he continued to live in a world where there was a clear split between spirit and matter.  The Persian’s message was clear, Pauli’s neutral language would never be sufficient to bridge that gap.  Pauli had realized that the key element in our modern world is the lack of soul in the scientific conception of the world, yet he is now being told to be loyal to one woman – his own soul.

Pauli’s dreams continued to alert him.  Two years later he dreamed he was in the physics department of a high building.  He read a notice that a cookery class will be given by Professor Pauli.  Suddenly a fire broke out in the building.  Pauli managed to escape and found a taxi at the entrance.  The driver was the “stranger” who said “I’ll take you to where you belong”.

Again Pauli was being warned that he had lost contact with reality.  Cookery would take him to the raw material of life, to alchemical transformation.  He believed that the stranger was the Hermes or Mercury who was tempting him to enter the world of the senses.  If Pauli was unable to take this step within his own life, how could he ever transform the scientific vision to include the soul?  In a letter to Jung he wrote that the missing element was Eros; only love could bridge the gap between physics, spirit and psychology.

Increasingly Pauli felt split in his life.  His dreams had showed the direction in which he should move, yet he lacked the courage to change.  He began to visit Jung’s assistant, Maria von Franz, and formed a relationship that had deep spiritual significance for him.  He persisted in the analysis of his dreams yet, according to von Franz, he “would not surrender himself to the demands of the unconscious and suffer the consequences.”

In science, heat is the key to transformation.  As a metaphor it applies equally to alchemy as it does to psychotherapy.  Processes within the alchemical retort are mirrored by those in the therapeutic encounter.  Only heat, which arises in love, will thaw “the frozen accidents of life” as the Jungian Beverly Zabriski puts it.  Through his dialogue with the unconscious and his projections onto the world of physics, as well as his attempts to reconcile matter and spirit in the world, Pauli himself was performing alchemical work. Yet alchemical gold never appeared.  Eros had always been missing from his life.

Towards the end of his life the physicist was granted a final dream.  A woman is going to teach him to play the piano.  She takes a ring from her finger and gives it to him.  She tells him that this ring will unite the two worlds, for it is the ring from his school of mathematics.  It is “the ring of i”.  The significance of this ring is that in mathematics “i” stands for what are known as the imaginary numbers.  Together with the real numbers they create a two-dimensional plane.  Again the symbolism harks back to Pauli’s transformative dream of the World Clock, a device that unified two worlds in the most sublime harmony.

But the figures in his dreams had grown angry and began to persecute him.  He had lost his orientation and finally gave up is dream of unifying the inner and outer worlds.  For a time he persisted with physics and his attempts to reconcile “Christ and the Devil”.  During Christmas 1957, he wrote to Heisenberg, “If only the two divine contenders- Christ and the Devil – could recognize that they had grown so much more symmetrical!”  Shortly after Pauli went to the United States to explain his new theory.  From there Heisenberg received an abrupt letter telling him that he, Pauli, was withdrawing his work.  A few months later Pauli fell ill and, following an operation, died of cancer.

Pauli himself may have believed that his life ended in failure – failure to unite “Christ and the Devil” within his unified field theory of physics and failure to bring about a unification of matter and spirit within the world of physics.  Nevertheless the validity of his dream lives on.  The example of Pauli is salutary.  It tells us that this desire for a marriage between matter and spirit, science and religion, remains one sided when it is only carried out at the abstract or intellectual level.  Eros must enter in, One must not only seek unity without, in the world of ideas, but inward in one’s own life.  This latter, this search for inner wholeness, may be an unending process.  Indeed, it the process itself may be more significant than some fantasy of an ultimate goal.

This brings me to a final point, which, I hope will stimulate some debate.  If that point at which, I believe science (as it is presently being practiced), and religion part company, or at least betray a different attitude towards knowledge and certainty.  Religion is tolerant of mystery, of living with uncertainty and accepting doubt.  Philosophers work in a long tradition, revising and illuminating perennial problems of truth, morals and conduct.  Writers, artists and composers constantly add to, consolidate or transform their own traditions.  Science however, particularly theoretical physics of the latter half of the twentieth century, has constantly been seeking closure.  It wants to reach the most fundamental level, the ultimate equation, the “God” particle.  Physics had created this final goal for itself and believes it to be an achievable end.  The inability to reach such a hypothetical goal can therefore easily be viewed as a personal failure.  It is true that ultimate level or explanation may indeed exist.  Equally well it may not.  It is entirely possible that, in a certain sense, physics could continue to dialogue with nature for the foreseeable future.

Possibly it was at this level that Pauli confused his failure to unify symmetry (Christ and the Devil) in physics with the openness of his quest for the wholeness of matter and spirit and with the inner nature of his own inner quest.  Pauli’s life, I believe, teaches us that the dialogue between science and religion must also continue in the life of each individual who engages in the debate.  In this I am reminded of a story Carl Jung often related.  It concerns the story of a rainmaker who was invited to a village that had experienced a long drought.  After entering the village the old man went to a hut where he stayed for some time.  Finally the rains began and the villagers asked the man how he had made the rain.  “I didn’t make the rain,” was his reply.  “When I entered the village I found it in great disharmony, so that the processes of nature were not operating in their proper way.  This also produced disharmony in myself.  I therefore went into the hut to compose myself until my internal harmony was restored and equilibrium established.  Then it began to rain.”