Quantum Dreams: New Play Explores Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli’s Relationship

Posted on Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Author: Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Performer

In the fall of 1932 in Zurich, a young physicist tormented by his dreams went to a psychologist for help. As explored in my new play Entangled (premiering at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in June), what started as psychotherapy resulted in one of the most intriguing cross-disciplinary intellectual relationships of the 20th century—one that offers important insight for how we think about science and society interactions.

The physicist was the brilliant Wolfgang Pauli, later Nobel Prize recipient, who with more well-known colleagues Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg played a central role in the elucidation of quantum mechanics.

The psychologist was the famous, and controversial, psychoanalyst Carl Jung whose insights underpin much of our modern understanding of self, from coining the terms introvert and extrovert to the framework for the Myers-Briggs personality test to dream analysis.

What’s remarkable is that much of Jung’s dream work is based on some of the more than 1300 detailed dream recollections that Pauli shared with him, resulting in Jung’s seminal work “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy”.

After Pauli’s death in 1958, Jung and Pauli’s extensive quarter-century long written correspondence was kept secret for more than 40 years at the insistence of Pauli’s widow. Franca Pauli thought Jung was a crack-pot and by association diminished her husband’s reputation. It wasn't until 2001 that Atom and Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters 1932-1958 was published in English.

What we see in their correspondence, their other writing, and in their biographies is that Jung and Pauli were drawn together (entangled, as I see it) through the amazing parallel revolutionary intellectual developments in the fields of psychology and physics. Or, put another way, they were a meeting of mind and matter. Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and in 1900, Max Planck announced his seminal discovery of h, the Planck constant opening the way to quantum physics.

What more deeply connected Jung and Pauli is that in many ways they were exploring and explicating almost identical issues in these different, emergent fields.

Both were describing the fundamental constituents of personality. For Pauli, it was the personality of a quantum particle. His discovery of quantum spin, the fourth quantum number, and the basis of the Pauli exclusion principle explains why no two particles can occupy the same space. Similarly, Jung developed a “science” of personality based on the four quadrants of intellect, intuition, emotion and the senses (the underlying framework for current personality tests), and of individuation involving the integration of the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.

Both were gripped by understanding transformation. For Pauli, this was understanding radioactivity, which led to his accurately predicting the existence of neutrinos. For Jung, it was understanding the interaction of the unconscious, including dreams, in shaping individual development.

Both grappled with the relationship between the observer and observed; subject and object. Jung believed that successful analysis is as much about the analyst's inner journey as that of the “patient”, and quantum physics is famous in popular culture for the way that the viewer shapes the observed phenomenon.

But unlike many of their contemporaries, in particular physicists who dismissed talk of the unconscious and dreams, both Pauli and Jung were deeply devoted to rigorously exploring all aspects of the human condition. They were both intensely intellectual people who were trying to square the circle of personal experience and science, their inner and outer worlds.

However, much of the popular writing and discussion of Jung and Pauli’s relationship has focused on aspects that lend towards the mystical, including their fascination with the number 137. In physics, the fine-structure constant is a dimensionless physical constant characterizing the strength of the electromagnetic interaction between elementary charged particles. It’s also the Kabbalistic numeral for death and God.

What’s often lost in discussions about Jung is that he was desperately trying to create a science of psychology, to use reason to understand our psyches. This more broadly accepted science of psychology emerged decades later with the quantification of the field in sub-disciplines, first behaviourism, neuroscience and behavioural economics. (The insights in Thinking Fast and Slow are in essence, quantified versions of Jung’ s intuition vs. intellect-based approaches to decision making.)

Pauli was dubbed “the whip of God” by his physics colleagues, and he brought this same critical intensity to his thoughts about the nature of self. In seeking to understand his dreams and what they said about him, Pauli the physicist, opened himself to exploring how the non-quantifiable – love, identity, feelings, intuition – are part of the human whole.

In this, he extended Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, the idea of wave-particle duality, or both/and, to what it means to be human. As he wrote towards the end of his life in a book published with Jung:

“Physics and psychology reflect again for the modern man the old contrast between the quantitative and qualitative....the possibility of bridging these antithetical poles has become less remote. To us (Jung and Pauli), the only acceptable point of view appears to be the one that recognizes both sides of reality—the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.”

In this, Jung and Pauli were pioneers in plowing the ground of science and society studies, considering the human dynamics of the interaction of ideas and facts with feelings and myths.

Entangled is a play about the search for absolutes and the way we’re left with dualities, with fundamental uncertainties, interpretations and with that which matters the most in the end, one another.

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