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Divine Contenders: Wolfgang Pauli And The Symmetry Of The World

An earlier version of this essay was originally published in Psychological Perspectives: A Semi-Annual Journal of Jungian Thought, Spring-Summer 1988

While I was researching material for my book, Synchronicity: The Bridge between Matter and Mind (Bantam NY 1987), I had occasion to write to a well-known physicist who had been a student of the great Wolfgang Pauli. ‘Synchronicity,’ came his reply, ‘is something which physicists do not know about, nor would they wish to.’ His implication was clear: synchronicity smelled of pseudoscience and loose thinking, so why on earth would anyone in the sciences choose to get mixed up with ideas like that? It was also his opinion, quite erroneous as it turned out, that Pauli himself had never taken the notion seriously. But at least it demonstrates that Pauli was at times unwilling to talk openly about his interest in Jungian ideas to his scientific colleagues.

Scientists have not always exhibited such a hostile attitude toward Jung’s notion of an acausal connecting principle. Jung himself, in a letter to Einstein’s biographer Carl Seelig, related how he was introduced to the great physicist by one of Einstein’s assistants, Ludwig Hopf. Einstein and Eugen Bleuler (professor of psychiatry at the University of Zürich and director of the Burghölzli Asylum) dined at Jung’s house on a number of occasions, and the conversation turned to the physicist’s early attempts at formulating the special theory of relativity. It was during these meetings that Jung first began to think about relativity of time and its psychic connections.

Synchronicity, as a firm concept, did not really occur to Jung until around 1929. It is remarkable that the development of this idea a year later coincided with the appearance of a new patient, the brilliant young physicist, Wolfgang Pauli. The relationship that grew between Jung and Pauli is remarkable and well worth the telling, for it illustrates how scientists of that period were willing to entertain Jung’s ideas about synchronicity, archetypes, and the collective unconscious, and even attempt to extend them into their own fields. That one of the creators of modern quantum theory was also deeply interested in Jung’s ideas is not generally known, particularly amongst the scientific community. Indeed, I first learned of Pauli’s interests while chatting with the Dutch physicist, George Uhlenbeck, shortly before a radio interview. We had been talking about Newton and his interest in alchemy as well as in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations. ‘You would be surprised,’ Uhlenbeck told me, ‘but Pauli also had unorthodox interests. In fact, he probably thought more and has written more about such things than about physics, but they have never been published.’ It was only later, while reading Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, that I learned that Pauli was the author of the series of remarkable dreams analyzed in that book.

Wolfgang Ernst Pauli was born into a well-to-do Viennese family in 1900. Pauli’s father was a doctor and a Jew named Pascheles who converted in Catholicism, changing his name to Pauli in order to obtain more patients. The philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach served as Pauli’s godfather and sparked the boy’s interest in physics. Indeed, Pauli proved so exceptional that his first scientific work was published while he was still at high school. By his late teens, he had enrolled as a student in the University of Munich under Arnold Sommerfeld and at the age of 20 he published a 200-page account of the theory of relativity of which Einstein wrote ‘no one studying this mature, grandly conceived work could believe that 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…etc.’

Pauli also became the mentor of the young Werner Heisenberg and suggested to him that a deeper theory was required than the ‘old quantum theory’ developed by Niels Bohr. And when Heisenberg later made his discovery of quantum mechanics it was Pauli who made the first application, a detailed analysis of the hydrogen atom, which convinced most physicists that the new theory had to be correct. He also continued to work behind the scenes, talking with Heisenberg and Bohr, and helping to develop a new philosophy for sub-atomic matter—one which contained the radically new idea of complementarily: that sub-atomic nature is so rich that it cannot be exhausted by a single explanation and requires complementary and even paradoxical explanations.

Pauli was also responsible for the important exclusion principle, a profoundly new idea that was based upon notions of abstract symmetry within the quantum domain. In fact, the principles of symmetry were to become the driving force within Pauli’s intellectual life. It was on the basis of symmetry considerations that Pauli hypothesized, in 1931, the existence of the massless and chargeless neutrino, a particle whose existence was not confirmed until 1956.

Symmetry, for Pauli, was an archetype, the underlying ground out of which scientific descriptions of nature arise. Rather than seeking the ultimate level of nature in terms of elementary particles, Pauli believed that the material level is the manifestation of something deeper, an unus mundus that is also the domain of symmetry (Jung had adopted this Latin phrase, unus mundus or ‘one world,’ from the medieval alchemists).

In his late twenties Pauli was appointed to the Chair of Theoretical Physics at Zurich. While he continued to lecture and work with his students, he was also becoming increasingly irritable and in seminars, became known as Die Geissel Gottes(scourge of God) and Der fürchterlich Pauli (The Terrible Pauli). A year later, Pauli’s mother poisoned herself. His father married ‘the wicked stepmother’ and Pauli himself married a small-time nightclub singer. The marriage broke up a few weeks later when his wife left him for a chemist. As Pauli remarked ‘had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood, but an ordinary chemist…’ Soon Pauli was at a crisis point; he was drinking heavily, getting into heated arguments and had been thrown out of a number of bars. Since Carl Jung was at that time giving a series of lectures at Pauli’s University, he consulted the noted psychologist.

Jung found him a one-sided individual, someone whose thinking function had overwhelmed his whole being. What is more he was ‘chock full of archaic material.’ Not wishing to contaminate the analysis Jung placed him in the hands ofErna Rosenbaum—a beginning analyst—and over five months of analysis and then three months of self-analysis Pauli experienced a remarkable series of dreams. At first they involved an escape from the father figure and a movement towards the feminine principle, as exemplified by the ‘unknown woman.’ On one occasion, for example, in a dream his mother offered water to his father who rejected the offer. Pauli also became aware of a demonic aspect within him, appearing as Mephistopheles or the Spirit Mercury. Finally his dreams culminated in a vision of The World Clock, an object of ‘the most sublime harmony’ which, according to Jung, produced something akin to a religious conversion to the physicist. As Jung writes in Psychology and Alchemy

There is a vertical and a horizontal circle, having a common centre. This is the world clock. It is supported by the black bird. The vertical circle is a blue disc with a white border divided into 4 X 8—32 partitions. A pointer rotates upon it. The horizontal circle consists of four colours. On it stand four little men with pendulums, and round it is laid the ring that was once dark and is now golden (formerly carried by four children). The world clock has three rhythms or pulses: 1) The small pulse: the pointer on the blue vertical disc advances by 1/32. 2) The middle pulse: one complete rotation of the pointer. At the same time the horizontal circle advances by 1/32. 3) The great pulse: 32 middle pulses are equal to one complete rotation of the golden ring.

According to Jung this dream heralded a complete cure and from that time the physicist gave up his drinking. However Jung’s account of the therapeutic success of this case (in C.G. Jung: Analytical Psychology, Its Theory and Practice, 1968) is somewhat overblown. According to his assistants, Pauli continued to drink to excess and could be a hard opponent at any seminar. While the dreams that Jung published came from 1934, the physicist continued to send him dreams during 1935 and 1936 which Jung chose not to publish because of their sexual nature. Pauli felt they contained valuable material and was concerned that they might be lost with the rise of the Nazis. Regrettably they remain unpublished and in the hands of the Jung family. Public access to Pauli’s dreams would be invaluable.

Over the years that followed, Pauli continued to work as a theoretical physicist, attempting to bring order into the increasingly complex world of the elementary particles. With his discovery of abstract symmetry and antisymmetry he had been able to divide the world into two parts—technically particles with integral spin (0,1 or 2) are called bosons and exhibit abstract ‘symmetry’ while particles with fractional spin (1/2), called fermions, exhibit ‘antisymmetry.’ In an attempt to create a unified theory of physics he sought to reconcile these two symmetries which he referred to as ‘Christ and the Devil.’

But in addition to his work on physics, Pauli was now also collaborating with Jung on the development of the notion of synchronicity and proposed a duality between synchronicity and causality as well as between energy and the space-time continuum. He referred to synchronicity as ‘inconstant connection’ for while, when exposed to a given force, a physical system will react in strictly reproducible ways, with the conjunction of a particular archetype a corresponding synchronicity may or may not occur.

Increasingly physics and psychology were to play complementary roles in his thinking and Pauli struggled to develop what he termed ‘a neutral language’—one which would apply equally to physics and to psychology, to matter and to psyche. Just as, for example, Jung’s discovery of the collective unconscious had exposed the objective level of mind, so too Pauli argued that quantum mechanics revealed a subjective element in nature since the outcome of any quantum process depends upon the way it is perceived by the observer. Likewise Pauli also felt that physics should confront ‘the irrational in matter.’

With the rise of Nazi Germany, Pauli was concerned that, as a native Austrian, he may be expelled from neutral Switzerland and sent to a concentration camp because of his Jewish father. For this reason he visited the United States and the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies. It was there that be became deeply concerned that physics had become obsessed with ‘the will to power.’ (Note that Jung had pointed out that when Eros is absent a vacuum is created and that vacuum is filled by the will to power.) During these years Pauli introduced Jung’s ideas to a number of important physicists, most notably Heisenberg, but also Pascual Jordan and Markus Fierz, who appear to have taken Jung’s ideas seriously and to have corresponded with him.

Pauli’s world clock had revolved upon an axis which was both part of the movement and yet stationary. This axis was a speculum, a mirror that stood between two worlds reflecting one into the other. This speculum also entered into the essence of Pauli’s approach to physics. For the speculum can also be taken as the mathematical mirror which generates symmetry, whereby its abstract operations reflect quantum states or elementary particles, one into the other. Note also, that if one considers two discs revolving around a common axis, such an axis cannot exist in our ordinary three- dimensional space but requires a fourth dimension—that is, a missing dimension.

Pauli had also became interested in how new scientific ideas and theories are generated. Ernst Mach and the logical positivists had suggested that scientific theories are essentially hinted at by empirical facts and that extraneous metaphysical notions should be rigorously excluded. Pauli realized, however, that theories cannot be deduced from facts alone; science is a creative, artistic pursuit in which theories emerge from a deeper ground. But how? Just as matter has its subjective side, as shown through the quantum measurement process, so, too, mind has an objective side. The human mind possesses an aspect that goes beyond the purely personal and is not connected entirely to individual experience. This objective or collective side appears to lie within the same ground as that of matter itself. Mind and matter, emerging out of the unus mundus, contain the imprint of their origin, the internal structures and relationships that could be called variously the archetypes or abstract symmetries.

(More recently, physicist David Bohm has called attention to what he terms the ‘implicate order’ and the ‘generative order.’ These seem to give a better account, from a quantum theoretical point of view, of how the various structures of nature emerge out of an underlying ground. These ideas are presented in detail in David Bohm and F. David Peat’s book, Science, Order and Creativity.)

By drawing upon such archetypes, a truly creative physicist is able to formulate new theories. Theories of nature are not produced in an arbitrary fashion, or simply as a way of relating facts together. They are true creations of the human mind, the origins of which lie deep within the objective unconscious, at the speculum that reflects matter and mind. Scientific theories in this way reflect nature back onto itself.

It was through his study of Kepler and the evolution of the laws of planetary motion that Pauli finally formulated these ideas. Nature, according to Kepler, was not simply mathematical and rational but also had a magical-symbolic aspect. It was as if sun and planets were an integrated, living whole. Since Kepler believed in the famous dictum ‘as above so below,’ it was natural to assume that the solar system reflected an image of the Trinity and the human mind itself. Here we should note that Pauli was also sympathetic to Robert Fludd who rejected quantative science and said, ‘I myself am not only Kepler but also Fludd.’  Pauli also believed that, while the ‘spirit’ in matter had been banished by the work of Descartes and Newton, we had now entered a period in which there would be a ‘resurrection of spirit in matter.’

In this respect Pauli believed that we should practice physics with the attitude of ‘the alchemists of old’—that is, for our own salvation. Also that we seek wholeness in nature in order to discover the wholeness within ourselves. Such ideas are certainly not far-fetched. David Bohm told me how, while working on his theory of the plasma state, he felt that the whole plasma was a living thing, a society of electrons, as it were. This approach would be familiar to Pauli, who pointed out how science and religion have a common origin which, alas, has been forgotten today. The contemporary composer, John Tavener, also refers to this as the ‘one simple memory.’


Before continuing with Pauli’s story, it may be worthwhile to add some words about synchronicity itself. Jung’s own definitions included ‘an acausal connecting principle’ and ‘meaningful coincidence.’ The latter definition clearly distinguishes a true synchronicity from a mere coincidence of events. Synchronicities are always characterized by strong affect and their numinous quality. In this sense meaning is not totally reducible to subjectivity but also retains an objective nature. It is an event both in the material world of space, time and causality, as well as an event in the inner world of psyche, dream and symbolism.

Clearly synchronicities are also linked to the activation of an archetype and they tend to occur when ‘the time is right,’ that is they are associated with the quality of Chronos. Those trapped within the grip of an archetype tend also to be trapped in time, whereas the appearance of a synchronicity can free us from that frozen time. Just as causality connects us to the past so too synchronicities can connect us to the future. They make a marker in time, a distinction between past, present and future.

I am indebted to the insight of Jean-François Vézina (Necessary Chances, Pari Publishing 2009) that synchronicities can also be considered as meetings or encounters. Generally these may be with some human figure, such as a mentor, but could also be with a book, work of art, or piece of music that has considerable numinous affect within a person’s life. Vézina cites, for example, Jung’s meeting with Freud, but one could think of many other examples. Vézina suggests that such a person acts to open a door for you. It is a door you must pass through, but the one encountered cannot enter themselves. (I should add that when speaking about this during workshops I have offered on Synchronicity, I have been struck by the profound examples I have learned from people’s experiences.)

To complete this brief overview of synchronicity I would like to connect it to two other concepts—James Joyce’s notion of epiphany and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ inscape. Joyce believed that a word overheard, or an object seen, could suddenly create a moment of illumination in which an overall pattern of the world is seen. Indeed his collection of short stories, Dubliners, is based on a series of epiphanies. Probably one of the most famous occurs in The Dead, in which the main character, Gabriel, who had been emotionally blocked in his marriage, learns that many years ago his wife had been in love with a sickly young man, Michael Furey, who had died after serenading her in the rain. The wife falls asleep and Gabriel is suddenly stuck with an emotion which he realizes must be love. At the same time he hears the tapping of snow on the windowpane and realizes that snow is falling all over Ireland. Not only falling here in Dublin but in the little graveyard in Galway where Michael Furey lies buried. ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon the all living and the dead.’ That is Joyce’s epiphany, the unity of the living and the dead.

Hopkins, a Jesuit, who had been deeply influenced by Duns Scotus, introduced the notion of inscape and instress. Inscape could be taken as the authentic voice of every unique and living thing. It is something that we can access directly when in nature. Instress is the force that sustains inscape and makes inscape manifest to the mind. It both supports the object, as the energy by which all beings are upheld, and at the same time acts on the senses to actualize the inscape in the mind. In this sense it is a synchronicity that produces a unity of matter and psyche, a meaningful connection and a true acausal connecting principle. It is expressed variously by Hopkins as

The World is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to greatness, like to ooze of oil
Crushed.                        God’s Grandeur

The second line evokes Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote that the cosmos was created out of beauty, and beauty was ‘the cause of the harmony and splendor in all things, flashing forth upon them all, like light, the beautifying communications of its originating rays.’


Glory be to God for dappled things-
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-fall; finches wings;

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who know how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.                        Pied Beauty

Pauli and the Persian

Pauli’s relationship with Jung was not always smooth. When Jung corresponded with the Vatican in support of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin—ie the possibility of including a feminine principle into the Trinity to produce a Quaternary—Pauli accused him of projecting ‘disinfected matterinto heaven. For Pauli the true image of the Self was not a square but two triangles in the form of a Star of David—the combination of the full feminine with the masculine.

While he continued to attempt to reconcile matter and psyche through his neutral language, as well as unify symmetry and antisymmetry in physics, his dreams became increasingly troubled and he turned to Marie-Louise von Franz—a relationship which did not always go smoothly as both were unbalanced in favour of a strong thinking function with weak feeling. Certainly a great deal of emotion was generated in their stormy relationship and as Jungians tactfully put it ‘von Franz did not handle her countertransference very well.’

Increasingly Pauli was visited in dreams by ‘the Persian’ who on one occasion told the physicist that he was unable to understand his language and that Pauli did not even have a chair to sit on—the physicist was no longer grounded and his ‘neutral language’ was overly intellectual. In a final dream, or active imagination, a woman gives Pauli a piano lesson. She also presents him with a ring. It is the mathematician’s ring, the ring of ‘i.’ And, of course, ‘I’ stands for the imaginary number, the square root of minus 1. When combined with the real numbers, a complex plane is created—an additional dimension. In an earlier dream Einstein had told Pauli that quantum theory was one-dimensional but reality is two-dimensional. Again, I have interpreted the two rotations in Pauli’s dream of the world clock as only being possible in a fourth dimension.

So the notion of a missing dimension appears to Pauli in several of his dreams. And what was that missing dimension—that dimension in which it would be possible to unify physics and psychology, matter and psyche? None other than Eros, the missing dimension in Pauli’s own life—that vacuum he recognized as existing in a physics that had become obsessed by a will to power.

Tragically Pauli, who assisted Jung in the refinement of the notion of synchronicity was not himself given the gift of transformation; of an opening of the psyche to its deeper connection with nature and humanity.

In December 1957 he wrote to Heisenberg of his work in physics ‘Division and reduction of symmetry, this then is the kernel of the brute! The former is the ancient attribute of the devil. If only the two divine contenders—Christ and the devil—could notice that they have grown so much more symmetrical.’ In great excitement Pauli rushed off to the United States to lecture on this work, yet returned to Zurich a changed man, an almost total reversion to his former, critical, hostile state. He refused to reply to Heisenberg’s letters and gave up all research, as well as his attempts to reconcile matter and psyche. Shortly after he was admitted to hospital complaining of pain. He asked his assistant in which room he had been placed. ‘Number 137’ was the reply. Pauli well knew that 1/137 was the size of the mysterious ‘fine structure constant’; of all the fundamental constants of nature it is the only one of a human size (in the sense that it can be counted with ease). The size of the fine structure constant had been a constant puzzle during Pauli’s life. His response to his assistant was, ‘now I know I will die’ and shortly after he died of cancer of the pancreas. The missing dimension was never revealed, matter and psyche remained fragmented, spirit yearns for its resurrection within matter. Pauli’s vision becomes our collective responsibility.

Author bio

F. David Peat was a quantum physicist, writer, and teacher who founded the Pari Center in 2000. He wrote more than 20 books which have been translated into 24 languages, as well as numerous essays and articles. In 1971-72, he spent a sabbatical year with Roger Penrose and David Bohm, and thereafter his research focused on the foundations of quantum theory and on a non-unitary approach to the quantum measurement problem. Peat continued an active collaboration with Bohm and in 1987 they co-authored the book Science, Order and Creativity. While living in Canada, Peat organized discussion circles between Western scientists and Native American Elders, and while living in London organized a conference between artists and scientists. He has written extensively on the subjects of science, the arts and spirituality. He wrote two books on synchronicity: Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (1987) and Synchronicity: The Marriage of Matter and Psyche (2014). He was adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, and a Distinguished Fellow at the University of South Africa. David Peat died in Pari in 2017.