Gems from Alchemical Studies CW 13

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 Gems from Achemical Studies CW 13

Part II: Jung on Modern Science

“Nevertheless, anyone who belittles the merits of Western science is undermining the foundations of the Western mind. Science is not indeed a perfect instrument, but it is a superb and invaluable tool that works harm only when it is taken as an end in itself. Science must serve; it errs when it usurps the throne. It must be ready to serve all its branches, for each, because of its insufficiency, has need of support from the others. Science is the tool of the Western mind, and with it one can open more doors than with bare hands. It is part and parcel of our understanding, and it obscures our insight only when it claims that the understanding it conveys is the only kind there is.”

Jung (1929)[1]

“The authenticity of one’s own experience of nature against the authority of tradition is a basic theme of Paracelsan thinking. On this principle he based his attack on the medical schools, and his pupils carried the revolution even further by attacking Aristotelian philosophy. It was an attitude that opened the way for the scientific investigation of nature and helped to emancipate natural science from the authority of tradition. Though this liberating act had the most fruitful consequences, it also led to that conflict between knowledge and faith which poisoned the spiritual atmosphere of the 19th century in particular. Paracelsus naturally had no inkling of the possibility of these late repercussions. As a medieval Christian, he still lived in a unitary world and did not feel the two sources of knowledge, the divine and the natural, as the conflict it later turned out to be.”

Jung (1942)[2]

As we did in Part I, we will present a paragraph from Jung’s Alchemical Studies, followed by some commentary–with a focus on his comments about modern science.

Jung:

“… I can understand the paradoxes of primitive beliefs in terms of “ethnology” or “comparative religion.” This is of course the Western way of hiding one’s heart under the cloak of so-called scientific understanding. We do it partly because the miserable vanité des savants fears and rejects with horror any sign of living sympathy, and partly because sympathetic understanding may transform contact with an alien spirit into an experience that has to be taken seriously. Our so-called scientific objectivity would have reserved this text [“The Secret of the Golden Flower”] for the philological acumen of sinologists, and would have guarded it jealously from any other interpretation. But Richard Wilhelm penetrated too deeply into the secret and mysterious vitality of Chinese wisdom to allow such a pearl of intuitive insight to disappear into the pigeon-holes of specialists. I am greatly honored that his choice of a psychological commentator has fallen upon me.”[3]

Commentary:

We live in an intellectual environment of “silos”–college and university departments organized by disciplines which rarely, if ever, collaborate or even communicate. In my experience, the only time a mathematician spoke with an English professor was at the Phi Beta Kappa meetings, which brought together faculty from all over campus to elect new members. Jung’s experience was in Swiss universities, but the system was the same: We label the “subjective” things like art, music, literature etc. and park them in their silos, lumped together as the “humanities,” as a consequence of our “miserable vanity as intellectuals.” As Jung notes, intellectuals are fearful of revealing any “sign of living sympathy” in the rationalistic atmosphere of our society, and especially so on the college campus.[4] This labeling tactic is also useful in fending off the possibility that we might contact anything spiritual and then have to take this experience seriously. So many times, in my decades as a college professor, I was amazed at the resistance academics have to anything psychic or spiritual. Pressed by our societal bias toward “scientific objectivity,” we shunt books like The Secret of the Golden Flower off to “lesser” disciplines like sinology or comparative literature, lest they possibly challenge our scientistic paradigm. Jung came to know Richard Wilhelm, a German sinologist, when Wilhelm returned from years of living in China.[5] He had become steeped in the Chinese worldview–holistic, refined, integrative, appreciative of paradox and polarity–a worldview so different from our Western paradigm. Jung worried about how Wilhelm would adjust, and properly so: Wilhelm lived only a few years after his return to the West.[6]

Jung:

“The authenticity of one’s own experience of nature against the authority of tradition is a basic theme of Paracelsan thinking. On this principle he based his attack on the medical schools, and his pupils carried the revolution even further by attacking Aristotelian philosophy. It was an attitude that opened the way for the scientific investigation of nature and helped to emancipate natural science from the authority of tradition. Though this liberating act had the most fruitful consequences, it also led to that conflict between knowledge and faith which poisoned the spiritual atmosphere of the 19th century in particular. Paracelsus naturally had no inkling of the possibility of these late repercussions. As a medieval Christian, he still lived in a unitary world and did not feel the two sources of knowledge, the divine and the natural, as the conflict it later turned out to be.”[7]

Commentary:

Jung stressed the need for us to internalize three loci: the locus of control (in which we refuse to play the “blame game” by taking responsibility for our lives and how we live them);[8] the locus of authority (in which we look within and to our own lived experience in making decisions);[9] and the locus of security (in which, over years of experience, we build up trust in our intuition or inner guidance).[10] Jung appreciated much about Paracelsus, who, like Jung, was both Swiss and a physician. Both were also independent thinkers, formulating ideas and philosophies at variance with the collective geist of their time.[11] Paracelsus lived in the 16th century, when scholasticism still held sway in universities. This medieval intellectual model was built on “the authority of tradition,” rather than on one’s own personal observation of reality. Example: the scholastic scientist took as a given that an arrow flew through the air because, as Aristotle had written, it was held up by divine force.[12] This reverence for ancient authorities (Plato and Aristotle were special favorites) held back scientific investigation for centuries. As Jung notes, Paracelsus had little use for this reliance on authority: he focused on relieving the suffering of his patients, and he used his observation of what worked as his guide, rather than what authorities like Galen had written. In this way, as Jung says, Paracelsus helped to liberate science from the dead weight of ancient authority. Scientists are their own authority, using the results of their laboratory experiments to determine what is true. But a conflict arose with the Church, seen in its condemnation of Galileo and many other intrepid researchers. Galileo recanted (but under his breath he still insisted that the earth moves, not the sun),[13] and so avoided the stake, but more and more scientists tended to ignore the Church, as a secular orientation settled over Western culture. As Jung notes in this paragraph, a conflict developed especially in the 19th century with discoveries by people like Charles Darwin (humans descended from apes) and Othniel Marsh (fossils prove the earth is far older than Bishop Ussher calculated).[14] The result of this conflict was to intensify the rupture between natural and spiritual sources of knowledge, leading to growing disparagement of intangible things, like psyche and spirit. Paracelsus operated within a unitary paradigm, with “two sources of knowledge, the divine and the natural,” and saw no conflict between them. Concerned about our culture’s denigration of intangible things, especially the psyche, Jung would have us revise our current materialistic paradigm, to acknowledge the existence and value of soul and spirit.

Jung:

“Whereas the scientific attitude seeks, on the basis of careful empiricism, to explain nature in her own terms, Hermetic philosophy had for its goal an explanation that included the psyche in a total description of nature. The empiricist tries, more or less successfully, to forget his archetypal explanatory principles, that is, the psychic premises that are a sine qua non of the cognitive process, or to repress them in the interests of “scientific objectivity.” The Hermetic philosopher regarded these psychic premises, the archetypes, as inalienable components of the empirical world-picture. He was not yet so dominated by the object that he could ignore the palpable presence of psychic premises in the form of eternal ideas which he felt to be real. The empirical nominalist, on the other hand, already had the modern attitude towards the psyche, namely, that it had to be eliminated as something “subjective,” and that its contents were nothing but ideas formulated a posteriori, mere flatus vocis. His hope was to be able to produce a picture of the world that was entirely independent of the observer. This hope has been fulfilled only in part, as the findings of modern physics show: the observer cannot be finally eliminated, which means that the psychic premises remain operative.”[15]

Commentary:

Hermeticism, or Hermetic philosophy, refers to “the body of writings supposedly given by God to Egypt’s Hermes-Mercurius-Trismegistus, also thrice-great Thoth, to disseminate among the wise of all lands… it has exerted a profound influence during times of upheaval, serving as inspiration for innovators of the Renaissance, as well as of the romantic and modern periods.”[16] Jung was well acquainted with this ancient philosophical system and appreciated its inclusion of “the psyche in a total description of nature.” In this paragraph, Jung contrasts the Hermeticist with the modern scientist: Where the scientist ignores or represses psychic premises and archetypes–anything intangible–in his quest for “scientific objectivity,” the Hermetic philosophy had a more inclusive view, regarding the archetypes as “inalienable components of the empirical world-picture.” Note the “empirical:” On the basis of personal observation the Hermetic philosopher recognized the reality of the psyche; its presence was “palpable,” clearly observable, just as Jung came to know centuries later. Working with his own and his clients’ dreams, Jung saw how the psyche shows up in our lives, both inwardly (in things like dreams and intuitions) and outwardly (in things like synchronicities, health issues, and personal interactions with others). While the “empirical nominalist” (aka the modern scientist) eliminates the psyche “as something ‘subjective,’… [dismissing] its contents as nothing but ideas…,” the Hermeticist operates with a paradigm that appreciates both objective and subjective facts. The modern scientist tries to “produce a picture of the world that was entirely independent of the observer,” the Hermeticist (and some cutting-edge scientists these days who are willing to be iconoclasts)[17] recognizes that pure objectivity is a myth: Heisenberg proved that with his Uncertainty Principle,[18] which Jung refers to here, in his reference to “the findings of modern physics.” Jung collaborated on several projects with the Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli,[19] who taught him about quantum reality, so Jung was on solid ground when he states that “the observer cannot be finally eliminated,…” and what does this mean? “… the psychic premises remain operative.” A science that tries to deny or ignore the psyche is a science that is deficient.

Jung:

“… and today we see how the spokesmen of so-called objectivity are defending themselves with similar outbursts of affect against the psychology that demonstrates the necessity of psychic premises.”[20]

Commentary:

Jung was aware of the irony here: Scientists who purport to be “objective” display (even now, 50+ years after Jung’s death) “outbursts of affect” when faced with the reality of intangibles, i.e. they get mad, producing letters, articles and speeches full of vitriol and intemperate remarks that are the very antithesis of objectivity. Jung was aware of what this suggests: Fanaticism is a sign of doubt, and the more vocal and fanatical scientists become, the more they reveal an inner doubt or anxiety about their endeavor and intellectual commitment.[21]

Jung:

“Nevertheless, anyone who belittles the merits of Western science is undermining the foundations of the Western mind. Science is not indeed a perfect instrument, but it is a superb and invaluable tool that works harm only when it is taken as an end in itself. Science must serve; it errs when it usurps the throne. It must be ready to serve all its branches, for each, because of its insufficiency, has need of support from the others. Science is the tool of the Western mind, and with it one can open more doors than with bare hands. It is part and parcel of our understanding, and it obscures our insight only when it claims that the understanding it conveys is the only kind there is. The East teaches us another, broader, more profound, and higher understanding – understanding through life.”[22]

“Whether we know it or not, there remains in each of us the tremendous tension between the man who serves God and the man who commands God to do his bidding.”[23]

Commentary:

We must be clear that, while Jung frequently criticized science, he was well aware of the vital, central role of science in our Western mind and society, and he considered himself a scientist too.[24] So he cautioned us against “belittling the merits of Western science,” lest we “undermine the foundations” upon which our society is built. Jung saw science as powerful tool, “superb and invaluable,” but only when it serves, not “when it is taken as an end in itself.” Science must know its place: When it “claims that the understanding it conveys is the only kind it is,” it “usurps the throne” and “obscures our insight.” This is no small thing: We have come to value science so highly that its claim to be the only arbiter of truth has resulted in a soul-deadening, values-destroying materialism[25] that has leached our society of moral understanding and ethical probity[26] (as seen in the election to the American presidency of a man who lies, cheats, abuses women and gloats about it!). Back in 1928 Jung could look to the wisdom of the East, as expressed in The Secret of the Golden Flower, and other Oriental texts, for “another, broader, more profound, and higher understanding–understanding through life.” Whether 21st century China continues this tradition in its eagerness to be the global leader of the future is questionable.[27] China’s current leadership seems to be of the ilk more inclined to command God, rather than to serve God. Jung reminds us that we all have the tension between these two inner desires. He also recognized just how hard it is for us to wait on the “will of Heaven,”[28] trusting inner guidance and being willing to surrender to the psyche’s tempo.

Bibliography

Asimov, Issac (1982), Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology. Garden City: Doubleday.

Blum, Ralph (1987), The Book of Runes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Deresiewicz, William (2015), Excellent Sheep. New York: Free Press.

Economy, Elizabeth (2018), The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feinstein, Blossom (1973), “Hermeticism,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, II, 431-434. New York: Charles Scribners’ Son.

Goudge, Thomas (1973), “Evolutionism,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, II, 174-189.

Hunter, James D. (2000), The Death of Character. New York: Basic Books.

Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

_______ & Wolfgang Pauli (1955), The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. New York: Pantheon Books.

_______ (2001), Atom & Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters, ed. C.A. Meier. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mehrtens, Susan ed. (1996), Revisioning Science. Waterbury VT: The Potlatch Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Collected Works 13 ¶2. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW, and unless otherwise specified, all paragraph citations will refer to CW 13.

[2] ¶149.

[3] ¶1.

[4] Deresiewicz (2014), 79-80, 174-181.

[5] CW 15 ¶84.

[6] Ibid. ¶s93-94.

[7] ¶149.

[8] “Letter to Fräulein N.,” 23 January 1941; Letters, I, 292.

[9] CW 7 ¶s263-264.

[10] CW 17 ¶333.

[11] ¶150.

[12] Asimov (1982), 101-102.

[13] Ibid., 104.

[14]Using the Bible as his source, in 1650 Archbishop James Ussher calculated the creation took place in 4004BC; Goudge (1973), 176.

[15] ¶378.

[16] Feinstein (1973), II, 431.

[17] E.g. Charles Tart, Brian Josephson, Henryk Skolimowski, Elmer Green; see Mehrtens (1996) for a collection of their essays.

[18] Asimov (1982), 784.

[19] Cf. the two books they co-authored: Jung & Pauli (1955) & (2001).

[20] ¶379.

[21] CW 17 ¶156.

[22] ¶2.

[23] ¶153.

[24] Cf. “Letter to Baronness Tinti,” 10 January 1936; Letters, I, 209, and “Letter to Pastor Max Frischknecht,” 7 April 1945; Letters, I, 360.

[25] “Letter to Michael Fordham,” 24 January 1955; Letters, II, 216.

[26] Hunter (2000), especially pp. 225-227.

[27] Economy (2018), 232-233.

[28] Blum (1987), 101.

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