Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists

Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists, edited by Ken Wilber is a refreshing book to read. It is a collection of writings of the founding fathers of modern physics. Eight great scientists: Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Einstein, de Broglie, Jeans, Plank, Pauli, and Eddington. In these essays they have elaborated their philosophical thoughts on the nature of reality. And this is what would surprise most people: All of the physicists in this collection were not the narrow materialists that modern scientists are imagined to be. All of them were sympathetic to a mystical worldview. This is not to say that they believed modern physics proved mysticism but they realized that there was a transcendent reality that could not be captured by the symbols and equations of physics. None of them was religious in the conventional sense either. To use Pauli's words, he considered the relation between him and theologians to be that of a 'hostile brother'.

All of these physicists were neither mystics nor philosophers, so how can we treat them as authorities on this subject matter? Well, we can't. But they were among the most brilliant minds the last century had to offer, and the philosophical issues these people grappled with and the answers they came up with are, at least, worthy of consideration.

Below are short quotations from some of the physicists to give a small taste of what the book offers:

Werner Heisenberg:

* "I think that on this point modern physics has definitely decided for Plato. For the smallest units of matter are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures or -- in Plato's sense -- Ideas, which can be unambiguously spoken of only in the language of mathematics."

* "Wolfgang asked me quite unexpectedly:
"Do you believe in a personal God? I know, of course, how difficult it is to attach a clear meaning to this question, but you can probably appreciate its general purport."
"May I rephrase your question?" I asked. "I myself should prefer the following formulation: Can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being?... If you put your question like that, I would say yes."

Erwin Schroedinger:

* "Let me briefly mention the notorious atheism of science... Science has to suffer this reproach again and again, but unjustly so. No personal god can form part of a world-model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it. We know, when God is experienced, this is an event as real as an immediate sense perception or as one's own personality. Like them, he must be missing in the space-time picture. I do not find God anywhere in space and time -- this is what the honest naturalist tells you. For this, he incurs blame from him in whose catechism is written: God is spirit."

* "From the early great Upanishads the recognition ATMAN = BRAHMAN (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.

Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other (somewhat like particles in an ideal gas) have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: DEUS FACTUS SUM (I have become God.)"

Albert Einstein:

* "Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. Only individuals of exceptional endowments and exceptionally high-minded communities, as a general rule, get in any real sense beyond this level. But there is a third state of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form, and which I will call cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear in earlier stages of development—e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learnt from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer especially, contains a much stronger element of it.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no Church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with the highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as Atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are capable of it. We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one."

Sir James Jeans:

* "We are led into the heart of the problem of the relation between mind and matter... [Imagine a poet sees the light originating from a star and has a poetic thought] There is a continuous chain, A, B, C, D... X, Y, Z, connecting A the poetic thought - through B the thinking mind, C the brain, D the optic nerve, and so on - with Z the atomic disturbance in the sun.... [It is difficult] to see how a disturbance of material atoms can cause a poetic thought to originate, because the two are so entirely dissimilar in nature....

Berkeley and the idealist philosophers agreed with Descartes that if mind and matter were fundamentally of different natures they could never interact. But they insisted that they continually do interact. Therefore, they argued, matter must be of the same nature as mind.... Modern science seems to me to lead, by a very different road, to a not altogether dissimilar conclusion....

Physical science, troubling little with C, D, proceeds directly to the far end of the chain, its business is to study the workings of X, Y, Z. And it seems to me, its conclusions suggest that the end links of the chain, whether we go to the cosmos as a whole or to the innermost structure of the atom, are of the same nature as A, B -- of the nature of pure thought; we are led to the conclusions of Berkeley, but we reach them from the other end. Because of this we come upon the last of Berkeley's three alternatives first, and the others appear unimportant by comparison. It does not matter whether objects 'exist in my mind, or that of any other created spirit' or not; their objectivity arises from their subsisting 'in the mind of some Eternal Spirit.'"

Wolfgang Pauli:

* "The attempt at a psychophysical monism seems to me now essentially more promising, given that the relevant unitary language (unknown as yet, and neutral in regards to the psychophysical antithesis) would relate to a deeper invisible reality. We should then have found a mode of expression for the unity of all being, transcending the causality of classical physics as form of correspondence (Bohr); a unity of which the psyhophysical interrelation, and the coincidence of a priori instinctive forms of ideation with external perceptions, are special cases. On such a view, traditional ontology and metaphysics become the sacrifice, but the choice falls on the unity of being."

* "I consider the ambition of overcoming opposites, including also a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, to be the mythos, spoken or unspoken, of our present day and age."

Sir Arthur Eddington:

* "To put the conclusion crudely -- the stuff of the world is mind-stuff."

* "If I were to try to put into words the essential truth revealed in the mystic experience, it would be that our minds are not apart from the world, and the feelings that we have of gladness and melancholy and our yet deeper feelings are not of ourselves alone, but are glimpses of a reality transcending the narrow limits of our particular consciousness -- that the harmony and beauty of the face of Nature is, at root, one with the gladness that transfigures the face of man."

* "The idea of a Universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least, it is in harmony with it. But if so, all that our inquiry justifies us in asserting is a purely colourless pantheism. Science cannot tell whether the world-spirit is good or evil, and its halting argument for the existence of a God might equally well be turned into an argument for the existence of a Devil.... [T]here is not much hope of guidance from it as to ethical orientation. We trust to some inward sense of fitness when we orient the physical world with the future on top, and, likewise, we must trust to some inner monitor when we orient the spiritual world with the good on top.... The question is almost beyond my scope... It is obvious that the insight of consciousness, although the only avenue to what I have called intimate knowledge of the reality beyond the symbols of science, is not to be trusted implicitly without control. In history, religious mysticism has often been associated with extravagances that cannot be approved,... but that does not necessarily imply that no advance is possible."


mysticservant said…
Very interesting. Thanks for posting! :)
ahish said…
Schrodinger's essays of his speculations in mysticism are collected in a book: "What is Life? and other essays" published by OUP.
Daud Khan said…
ur bolg is very beautiful, and ur material also interesting.