The roots of scientific knowledge

Post 1 – “Towards an enantiodromic approach to the universe. Jung, Pauli,​ and beyond …”

Authored by Alain Negre

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Scientific knowledge advances through superseding theories and refutations—Quantum physics—Paradoxes appear—The principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle—Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli

Scientific knowledge advances through superseding theories and refutations

Scientific knowledge advances by going beyond previous knowledge and by successive refutations of old models. Driven by a desire for unity and simplicity, Newton explained in the 17th century that the force pulling the apple from the tree is the same force pulling planets towards the sun.

This was followed by the unification of the theories of electricity and magnetism by Maxwell in the 19th century, and by theories of electromagnetism and dynamics from Einstein in the 20th century.

However, with the emergence of quantum physics, irreducible paradoxes appear in the behavior of microscopic objects.

Besides the irreversible nature of any measurement which fundamentally disturbs the object being measured, light behaves both as a wave and as a flow of particles. In spite of these paradoxes, the progress towards a unified mathematical description of quantum behavior increases, leading to an imposing scientific synthesis.

Quantum physics

Quantum physics provides a unified descriptive framework for matter and radiation. It was merged with special relativity into what has come to be known as Quantum Field Theory, which allows for the development of unified theories for three of the four fundamental interactions.

But although these models are in perfect agreement with the experiments, the strange behavior of quantum objects persist. It is not understood why they can be in a multiplicity of places at the same time, nor how they can remain linked, despite the distance between them, and behave as both waves and particles.

These failures to understand are indications that physics is reaching the limits of its ability to explore using the traditional modes of western thought responsible for its historical advancement.

The principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle

Since the thirteenth century, western thought has been structured by the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle of Aristotelian logic which stipulates that a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite. These principles had allowed the reduction of classical objects to independent elements and simple basic principles.

Today, in order to understand the oddities of quantum objects, this logic could be extended by another form of logic with four positions (tetralemma) already mentioned by Plato in the 4th century BC, in his dialogue of the Theaetetus, devoted to science and its definition:

1. affirmation: a thing is (exists) 

2. negation: a thing is not (does not exist)

3. affirmation and negation: a thing is and is not

4. neither affirmation nor negation: a thing neither is nor is not

Subsequently, his pupil Aristotle kept only the first two of these positions; the “principles of non-contradiction” and the “excluded middle.” He disqualified the last two options; the “both-at-once” and the “neither/nor.”

This four-branched logic is also present under the name of Catuskoti in Indian logic, which helps to understand the interest of the founders of quantum physics in the philosophies of the East.

Faced with a world that was slipping away under their feet, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and Robert Oppenheimer, had developed alternative models in an attempt to get out of the paradoxes that had arisen. These detours through Indian or Chinese thought allowed them to discover other possible modes of understanding and to reexamine the implicit biases of Western reason.    

Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli

Around the same time Bohr and his colleagues were struggling with quantum contradictions, psychologist Carl Jung was delving into the paradoxical nature of opposites and exploring concepts that are very difficult to speak of in the context of Western thought and human language.

The unconscious forms a duality with the conscious, for example, in a dream we remember when we wake up: the perception of a dream that we have just had modifies the state of the unconscious, which creates a new phenomenon in a way analogous to the measurement made by the observer in quantum physics.

The unconscious, wrote physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was keenly interested in psychology, “has a certain analogy to the ‘field’ in physics”. When observed, both the “unconscious” and the “field” become non-visual and paradoxical.

In their quarter-century collaboration around mind-matter relationships, Jung and Pauli were led to hypothesize an underlying unified reality inaccessible to science, from which everything emerges and to which everything returns.

They revived the metaphysical notion of unus mundus from medieval alchemy, a “one world” in the background of the empirical universe. Conscious knowledge allows for a division within this unified psychophysical world. This division allows humans to distinguish and discriminate, and constitutes the nature of science.

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[1] Manjit Kumar, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2009). 

[2] Wolfgang Pauli, “Ideas of the Unconscious from the Standpoint of Natural Science and Epistemology,” in Writings on Physics and Philosophy, ed. C. Enz and K. von Meyenn (Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1994) p. 150.

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.