"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Werner Heisenberg on "The Spirit of Modern Physics"

See also: "Einstein on Spirituality and Religion."
In his Introduction to Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Werner Heisenberg's "Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, David Lindley observes that, "despite its thorough familiarity, most physicists, if pressed, will admit to finding something strange, something mysterious, something not quite graspable about quantum mechanics."

Just how an "observer" and an "observation" somehow trigger a quantum 'event' and so form the basic substrate of our physical 'reality' appears to be intrically connected with matters of consciousness and perception, making leading edge science not only stranger than we believe, but perhaps even stranger than we can believe - a point made by Richard Dawkins, one of today's leading voices of 'evangelical atheism.' As renowned physicist Richard Feynman wryly observed, "Anyone who thinks they understand quantum mechanics, does not understand quantum mechanics."

Werner Heisenberg was one of the 'fathers' of quantum theory. He first developed and postulated the "Uncertainty Principle" that often bears his name and that demonstrates one can only know either the position or the frequency of a particle at any one time with precision, but not both - a notion that is completely antithetical to classic Newtonian mechanics.

Heisenberg frames the fundamental 'strangeness' and 'unfathomability' of the most basic operations of physics and, thus, our 'reality' in 'spiritual,' almost 'mystical' terms. In 1958, writing in the dark shadow of the development of the hydrogen bomb, Heisenberg recounts how quantum theory was first developed and elaborated, observing that:
". . . (E)very tool carries with it the spirit by which it has been created. Since every nation and every political group has to be interested in the new weapons, irrespective of the location and the cultural traditions of the group, the spirit of modern physics will penetrate into the minds of many people and will connect itself in different ways with the older traditions. What will be the outcome of this impact of a special branch of modern science on different powerful old traditions? In those parts of the world in which modern science has been developed the primary interest has been directed for a long time toward practical activity, industry and engineering combined with a rational analysis of the outer and inner conditions for such activity. Such people will find it rather easy to cope with the new ideas since they have had time for a slow and gradual adjustment to the modern scientific methods of thinking. In other parts of the world these ideas would be confronted with the religious and philosophic foundations of the native culture. Since it is true that the results of modern physics do touch such fundamental concepts as reality, space and time, the confrontation may lead to entirely new developments that cannot yet be foreseen. One characteristic feature of this meeting between modern science and the older methods of thinking will be its complete internationality. In this exchange of thoughts one side will be the same everywhere and therefore the results of this exchange will be spread over all areas in which the discussion takes place.
Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)
Of course, with the advent of the Information Age, and a potential for the sharing of information, ideas and insights which Heisenberg could only possibly dream of, this exchange of thoughts between West and East is the norm, rather than the rare exception to the old adage, "East is East, and West is West, but never the 'twains shall meet."

One cannot help but think that it is this "exchange" between a Western scientific vision that can be 'explained but not really known,' with a millenia-old tradition of Eastern wisdom teachings which can be 'known but not really explained,' that is driving a seemingly global thirst for spirituality insights and wisdom teachings both old and new, both Eastern and Western.


  1. I don't think you really understand QM or measurement theory...the point is not that mysticism needs to be invoked to reconcile things like the uncertainty principle with more traditional notions; only that reality appears to contradict these more primitive notions. An excellent description of why this may be so is given by Schrodinger in the idea of objectification: since the scientific method is based on the fact that you must observe something to record it, there is no way of determining the nonlocal effects you may cause to a sufficiently fine structured system by observing it in the first place. That is why any canonical uncertainty principle is in general derivable from the Schrodinger Equation.

  2. Of course, I don't understand QM, AS Feynman observed: "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don't understand quantum mechanics." I am constantly reassured, however, by the knowledge that our "reality" as yet is not what it seems to be, but rather something far greater.

    Indeed, mysticism does not need to be invoked to reconcile the uncertainty principle, or QM more generally, with classical physics. Bell's theorem shows that they are fundamentally irreconcilable.