Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up: The Pauli-Jung Collaboration
"The simple but radical idea proposed by Pauli and Jung suggests a background domain of reality from which the mental and material are supposed to emerge as epistemically distinguishable. Although physics and psychology point to their common basis in different ways, the basis itself is assumed to be of unitary nature: a psychophysically neutral domain that is neither mental nor material..”
Atmanspacher and Fach, Beyond Physicalism, Chapter 6
Pauli and Jung came together in late 1930 after Pauli divorced his cabaret-singer wife and Pauli’s mother committed suicide. His personal crisis and cry for help from one of the most famous psychoanalysts of his time led to the two of them corresponding about the nature of reality. They recognized in their very different fields of study some remarkable similarities, even what might be called synchronicities.
The Pauli-Jung Collaboration on What Is Real
This is the second of a series of articles on the controversy in science referred to as “top-down” vs. “bottom-up.” Does physicalism describe all there is to reality, or is there something more. The collaboration of two twentieth century pioneers of physics and psychology provides an enlightening example of how great minds think about these issues. The introduction to this series can be found here.
In 1930 one of the pioneers of the rapidly advancing science of quantum mechanics had a personal crisis. Troubled by a divorce and his mother’s suicide, he consulted one of the leading lights of the new science of psychology. The coming together of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Gustav Jung resulted in a long term and mutually beneficial relationship and contributed significantly to the advance of science. Their correspondence and collaboration in attempting to answer the deepest questions of human experience and physical reality has left us with a fascinating exploration of dual-aspect monism — the idea that the mental world of thoughts and ideas and the physical world of matter and forces are two aspects of a single reality. Their thoughts and ideas on how the psychic world of thoughts, ideas, dreams, etc., may connect to the world of particles and their interactions may shed light on the controversy of bottom-up verus top-down views of reality. If nothing else, the collaboration of a Nobel laureate physicist and a leading thinker on the mind and human experience demonstrates the value of approaching the question of reality in a holistic way, meaning from more than one field of study.
The mainstream position of science today is physicalism which says there is no reality beyond matter and the forces which dictate how matter behaves. This results in a “clockwork” universe where all is determined by the laws of nature and free will is an illusion. This is often referred to as “bottom-up” as it requires that whatever there is to emerge from the interactions of matter and forces. This includes life, mind, thoughts, ideas and experiences. This view of reality is very, very new. Bottom-up physicalist thinking evolved over the last 250 years from the Enlightenment and was given credence by classical physics following Newton. The remarkable success of scientists in uncovering how the physical world works has created the technologically-driven world we live in. Consequently, science holds the pedestal of ultimate authority in answering the questions of what is real and what it all means.
The “top-down” understanding of reality held sway for all of human history except for the past hundred to two hundred years. It holds that reality includes more than matter and forces and that consciousness or mind or thoughts or soul are real, may constitute a separate part of reality (dualism) and likely pre-date matter and the controlling laws and forces. The central thrust of this series is that both the current scientific understanding of physics, psychology and biology suggests that the mainstream position should be reconsidered or at least expanded. If the top-down perspective on reality is reestablished, the question needs to be asked what this might mean for our culture, society and individual beliefs and actions.
Wolfgang Pauli was an Austrian physicist who made groundbreaking contributions to the emerging science of quanum mechanics. A Nobel laureate, he is most famous for the Pauli Exclusion Principle which is a fundamental law of nature that explains why two electrons, though occupying vast space, cannot intrude on each other’s territory. It’s why we don’t fall through our chair, our floor, or the ground beneath us despite the fact that the electron is as small and as far away from its nucleus as a fly buzzing around the outer perimeter of a football stadium. Among his many accomplishments was the discovery of the neutrino, a nearly massless and ubiquitous particle in our universe. Pauli was born in 1900 and died at the age of 58 from pancreatic cancer.
Carl Gustav Jung remains one of the most famous and respected scientists who helped create the new science of psychology. He was born in Switzerland twenty five years before Pauli in 1875 but outlived him, dying in 1961 at the age of 85. A pioneer in analytical psychology, Sigmund Freud recognized his gifts and ideas and declared him his successor as President of the newly formed International Psychoanalytic Association. But Jung’s understanding of human experience was different from Freud’s and the two split, much to Jung’s pain. As with Freud, Jung attempted to understand human experience by connecting the unconscious mind with conscious experience.
Pauli and Jung came together in late 1930 after Pauli divorced his cabaret-singer wife and Pauli’s mother committed suicide. His personal crisis and cry for help from one of the most famous psychoanalysts of his time led to the two of them corresponding about the nature of reality. They recognized in their very different fields of study some remarkable similarities, even what might be called synchronicities. This is a term that Jung invented to refer to a non-causal connection. This idea of synchronicity is near the heart of their ideas about reality. As the wikipedia article on this topic explains, synchronicity refers to events which are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. Physicalists reject non-causal events entirely and explain them as coincidences or mere chance events made possible by a very large number of possible opportunities even if it means multiple universes are needed for a sufficient number of chances. To both Jung and Pauli this kind of reductionism could not account for the great accumulation of human experiences, especially what are considered “extreme experiences” including the paranormal.
What emerged from their collaboration through many letters and conversations over the years is considered a coherent explanation of the philosophy of mind called dual-aspect monism. Humans have been thinking deeply about the relationship between the brain and the mind for about as long as they have been thinking deeply about anything. We know our thoughts are real. We know our bodies and the physical world are real. But thoughts and experiences appear outside of our bodies. In fact, when thinking about things we leave the world of “appearances” as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Life of the Mind. How does the brain (the physical world) and the mind (the mental world) relate? If we leave the world of appearances, the physical world perceived through our senses, where do we go? Rene Descartes observed that the fact that we think is what gives us assurance that we actually are, that we have being or existence. He considered the mental and the physical as two separate substances or realities. Dualism, as Descartes’ idea was named, has been a main discussion point for philosophers and physicists who venture into philosophy ever since. Bottom-up physicalism completely and thoroughly rejects dualism because of the firm conviction that only the physical world exists. This view is sometimes called “monism” but it comes in a number of forms. Dual-aspect monism says, yes, there is but one reality but that one reality accommodates the two different aspects of mind and physical material including the brain.
Sir John Polkinghorne, one of Britain’s greatest theoretical physicists and a renowned theologian is one who considers dual-aspect monism to be the best approximation to the truth. The Pauli-Jung exchanges provide an interesting insight into how two of the greatest scientific minds of the last hundred years thought through issues of mind and brain. They both saw a strange similarity between the role that consciousness plays in affecting physical reality — the quantum measurement “problem” — and the interchange between the unconscious and conscious in the mind.
As will be explored in much greater depth in this series, the measurement problem emerged in the early days of the study of quantum behavior. It showed that particles such as electrons exist in a cloud of possible locations with no definite location. Particles behave like a wave spread out over great distances with no definite location, but also behave like particles with specific locations in space and time. They exist in the “here, there and everywhere” condition known as “superposition” until that condition is intruded upon by an observer. The superposition state is described mathematically as a waveform using the Schrödinger equation which precisely expresses the evolution of the particle over time. But, when an observer chooses to locate a particle the waveform collapses and all the potential locations are collapsed into a single location that the observer can determine. The truly strange thing about this is that the observer must be conscious. The observer must know that an observation is being made and aware of the increase in knowledge represented by the observation and collapse. In this way, consciousness or the mental realm was found to have a profound, perhaps the most profound of all, effect on physical reality.
What Pauli and Jung found is that something similar happens in the relationship between our conscious minds and our unconscious minds. As explained by Harald Atmanspacher and Wolfgang Fach in Chapter 6 of Beyond Physicalism titled “Mind-Matter Correlations in Dual-Aspect Monism” the impact of consciousness and physical material and unconsciousness and consciousness is bidirectional. In other words, the mental impacts matter and matter impacts the mental in a similar way to how the conscious-unconscious interchange works both ways:
“Unconscious contents can be conscious, and simultaneously this very transition changes the unconscious left behind. Analogously, physical measurement necessitates a decomposition of the holistic realm, and simultaneously this very measurement changes the state of the system left behind.”
Jung reflected these observations in The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche in 1969:
“The application of statistical laws [Shrödinger’s equation] to processes of atomic dimensions in physics has a remarkable correspondence in psychology insofar as it pursues the foundations of consciousness to the point where they dim out into the inconceivable…”
To these two brilliant minds, the fundamental and established connection between the mostly unknown and maybe unknowable realm of the mental and the knowable realm of the physical reflected a similar connection between the mostly unknown and maybe unknowable realm of the unconscious to the knowable realm of the conscious mind. The unknowable part of the unconscious is what Jung means by the “inconceivable.” Perhaps in this meaningful “coincidence” Jung’s idea for synchronicity emerged.
While this makes clear that both Jung and Pauli understood reality to have the two aspects of the mental and the physical, it does not explain monism or how the two are related in one unity. Again, the two looked at their own areas of specialization and ended up with similar thoughts and ideas. For Jung, the unconscious is in the realm of objective reality while the conscious is not — it is subjective. This division between objective and subjective is one of the most basic discussion points in science and has led to much disagreement between scientists. It is at the root of the question of top-down or bottom-up — material only or material and non-material realities. The physical world can only be studied objectively, that is from a third person view. I, a student of nature, look out at the world and try to understand how it works. But the mental realm cannot be studied objectively, as it is a world of highly personal experiences. It is a first person view. I look inside to better understand the nature of my thoughts and experiences. I can only understand your subjective experience by analogy as I try to understand mine. Actually, one of the great controversies in psychology right now, as explained in Irreducible Mind is the criticism that since the early founders of psychology such as William James and F. W. H. Meyers who excelled in the first person subjective study of human personality, the science of psychology lost its way by insisting only on a third person objective study. The result was behaviorism where psychology as a science was reduced to studying all behavior in terms of stimulus and response. That approach, while still dominant in some sense, is seen as fundamentally flawed.
Jung saw that the “inconceivable” and largely unknowable world of the unconscious mind was a part of objective reality, while our conscious experience deriving in part from our unconscious was subjective. Referring back to the bidirectional connection of consciousness and unconsciousness, he says:
“The study of these effects leads to the peculiar fact that they emerge from an unconscious objective reality which, however, at the same time appears to be subjective and conscious…the elusiveness, capriciousness, haziness and uniqueness, with which the layperson connects the conception of the psyche, only applies to consciousness, but not to the absolute unconscious. The efficacious elements of the unconscious, to be defined not quantitatively but only qualitatively, the so-called archetypes, can therefore not with certainty be designated as psychic” [italicized for emphasis by Jung].
Jung is perhaps best known by most of us for his concept of archetypes. But many may not know that he thought of these as part of an objective reality that becomes subjective through our personal experience. Archetypes were called “primordial images” earlier by Jung and were considered an imprint on the unconscious deriving from a collective unconscious. This idea of a collective unconscious will reappear in many different ways in our exploration of top-down thinking. It finds a closely related companion in William James’ “mother-sea” which will be explored in considerable depth in this series. What matters here for monism is that archetypes are in Jung’s understanding a manifestation of the single unity that comprises the objective and subjective, the mental and physical in their dual aspects. In the italicized portion of the quotation above, when Jung states that the archetypes are not with certainty psychic, it means he considers them apart from or outside of the mental realm. Atmanspacher and Fach explain Jung’s perspective this way:
“Since his mature understanding of archetypes embraces both individual subjective consciousness and the impersonal objective consciousness, Jung invented the term ‘psychoid’ to characterize them as structural principles beyond the conscious psyche alone.”
This idea of structural principles, as we will see, comes together with Pauli in the idea of the unus mundus, or “one world.” Pauli, from the viewpoint of microphysics and the role that a conscious mind plays in the physical world, determined that there were objective and subjective aspects of the mental realm. He also saw this in physics where the “holistic reality” (as named by Atmanspacher and Fach) defines the actual state of particles in superposition as objective reality, the location of those particles and collapse of the wave function as observed by the conscious mind a part of the subjective. In a 1934 letter he wrote the “autonomous activity of the soul” was “something objectively psychical that cannot and should not be explained by material causes.” This is a clear statement against bottom-up physicalism by an early and major contributor to quantum physics. The mental realm (soul, in his words) has autonomous activity not explained by matter or forces. Yet, as shown earlier, the bidirectional activity of the mental and physical in both physics and psychology means that the two are intertwined. Or, in Pauli and Jungian terms, part of one world. Atmanspacher and Fach explain:
“The simple but radical idea proposed by Pauli and Jung suggests a background domain of reality from which the mental and material are supposed to emerge as epistemically distinguishable. Although physics and psychology point to their common basis in different ways, the basis itself is assumed to be of unitary nature: a psychophysically neutral domain that is neither mental nor material..”
In overly simple terms, these two believed that there was something more than both physical and mental. Something beyond the thoughts we are aware of and something beyond the physical reality we experience and study. Both Pauli and Jung considered this background domain to include the laws of nature that control not only the matter and forces but also the way in which the mental realm works. Pauli, in a 1948 letter:
“The ordering and regulating factors must be placed beyond the distinction of ‘physical’ and ‘psychic’ — as Plato’s ‘ideas’ share out the notion of a concept and of a force of nature.”
He then writes that he is in favor of referring to the ordering and regulating factors in terms of archetypes: “The laws of this world would then be the physical manifestations of the archetypes” [Italicized by Pauli].
Jung in 1970, referring to an idea by physician and alchemist Gerardus Dorneus in the late sixteenth century explained the idea of one world, of unus mundus:
“Undoubtedly the idea of the unus mundus is founded on the assumption that the multiplicity of the empirical world rests on an underlying unity, and not that two or more fundamentally different worlds exist side by side or are mingled with one another.”
That clearly expressed the concept of dual-aspect monism. A mental reality and a physical reality that are two aspects of the same single, unified reality of laws, structural principles and manifestations they called archetypes. These are renowned scientists engaging in philosophy. It’s interesting today to see so many physicists who stand on the shoulders of Pauli declaring, as they philosophize, that philosophers have little to nothing to contribute. Pauli and Jung did not prove there is one world, or that there is an underlying structure to reality that incorporates the physical and mental. But they spent a good amount of their incredible thoughtful and productive time thinking through the big issues of what is real and what can we know. This one world that encompasses the mental and physical is not bottom-up in any sense that today’s physicalists mean. It cannot have emerged from the mindless, purposeless accumulation of particles driven by forces, random change and adaptation to an environment.
What is most important for our discussion here is how so many of the great minds of yesterday and today are converging in their thoughts about these questions. Pauli and Jung would enjoy being part of that conversation. Just maybe, through their idea of unus mundus, they are enjoying it right now.