Werner Heisenberg: science, mysticism, Christianity

Werner Heisenberg: science, mysticism, Christianity

God created the world. God used mathematics to do so. Mathematics can be understood by us because we are made in God’s image. Physics is the service of God because it explores his creation. These are the paraphrased words, not of a priest or pastor, or even a university theologian, instead they come from the father of quantum mechanics, Weiner Heisenberg:

“Galileo argued that nature, God's second book, is written in mathematical letters... Kepler is even more explicit in his work on world harmony; he says: God created the world in accordance with his ideas of creation. These ideas are the pure archetypal forms which Plato termed Ideas, and they can be understood by man as mathematical constructs. They can be understood by Man, because Man was created in the spiritual image of God. Physics is reflection on the divine Ideas of Creation, therefore physics is divine service.” (Heisenberg, Tradition in Science, 1983)

We can certainly add Heisenberg to the list of the very greatest scientists who hold spiritual, deistic, and (it turns out) Christian persuasions.

Great is indeed the word. In fact there are those who say that if it were not for his eventual and reluctant involvement as a scientist of Hitler’s regime, that it may well have been Heisenberg rather than Albert Einstein who was remembered by the public as the greatest twentieth century scientist. His contributions to the development of 20th century science were arguably equally pivotal in its break from 19th century science as Einstein’s, and as we shall see his personality was equally easy to mythologise in order to capture public imagination. Heisenberg’s spiritual writings were philosophically superior to Einstein’s. Perhaps due to his father who was a Professor of Classics, Heisenberg had the best philosophical grounding of all major twentieth century scientists who expressed their spiritual ideas in public.

Yet as fate would have it, while Einstein sat out the war in America having been on the receiving end of Nazi attempts to write his name and theories out of the history of physics, Heisenberg was leading the German push to develop an atomic weapon in the final stages of the war, a quest which he was later to claim he had had no intention of succeeding at. Heisenberg would also later claim that he had stayed in Germany while Einstein and many other German physicists had fled in the build-up to WW2 in order to defend German science from the attack of irrational ideologies and Nazi theories of science that formed part of the philosophical backbone of the Third Reich. These theories, which Heisenberg opposed, sought to eradicate the influence of Einstein and other Jews from German science.

The Third Reich was a concept that had long been alive in German consciousness. It meant “third age” or “third German empire.” It was a prophesied kingdom that had existed in popular culture and in the imaginations of philosophers, novelists, and artists, and attracted a contemporary folklore around it. The Third Reich was to be a mystical age: the culmination and fulfilment of the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire, 800 to 1806), and the Second Reich (the German Empire, 1871 to 1918) which had ended in defeat for Germany in WW1. In the imaginations of many, the coming Third Reich would be a utopia. It was something of which Heisenberg and his friends had dreamed in their youthful discussions. Science and Christianity would exist side by side. Regional princes and political parties would cohere within a unified Empire under a God-appointed Fuhrer, whose rule would ensure harmony and enable the flourishing of a new, refreshed moral age guided by idealism, chivalry, and transcendental interests. For Heisenberg and his friends as they were growing up, this utopian state would be the beginnings of the Bible-proclaimed Kingdom of God on earth.

As it turned out, the Third Reich, when it finally arrived, would issue in what is probably history’s darkest chapter. The Fuhrer, long anticipated as a wise and benevolent ruler, was when he finally arrived instead one of history's most depraved criminals. A man who had hated Christianity from a young age, Hitler surrounded himself with a leadership group obsessed with the occult and with the revival of pre-Christian German Paganism, and led an army enmeshed – recent evidence suggests – with Satanic worship rituals. In the battle of good and evil that ensued, Heisenberg was to find himself, in the eyes of the world, on the wrong side.

Be all of this as it may, it is certainly the case that another of science’s very greatest figures had a keen interest in mysticism and Platonic spirituality. In one of his most quoted philosophical remarks, Heisenberg stated his view on the relationship between science and religion, in 1974:

 “In the history of science, ever since the famous trial of Galileo, it has repeatedly been claimed that scientific truth cannot be reconciled with the religious interpretation of the world. Although I am now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on. Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.”

"Heisenberg believed in a personal God, and defended this view in his spiritual reflections."

Heisenberg believed in a personal God, and defended this view in his spiritual reflections. Those who knew him said his belief in the personal God found expression as Protestant Christianity. Throughout his life he made reference to Greek philosophy in his writings and talks. He attempted to situate his science in relation to the philosophical currents that began in ancient Greece and cut a defining course across Western academic history. He believed that twentieth century science, and quantum mechanics in particular, had shown the spiritual or “ideal” world of Plato and Pythagoras to be the real world, rather than the material world of Democritus, which had been supported by nineteenth century scientific outlooks. The fundamental mathematical systems which Plato described were the closest science could get to the “One” of Neoplatonism. Along with nature and music, science touched the eternal world, and transcended the ephemeral layer of daily human interactions from which politics, power-games, and ultimately war arose.

It was this world which Heisenberg intended to defend, to the extent that he could, from the Nazi regime. Heisenberg’s claims that he remained in Germany in order to defend German science from the destructive influence of Nazi ideas can largely be substantiated. Records document the moral struggle he underwent, and the meeting with Max Planck in which they decided that the correct course of action was to remain in Germany and to defend the honourable aspects of German culture – including its scientific heritage – as best they could from the Nazis.

Science and Platonism

Like Einstein, Heisenberg had a magnetic and courageous personality. He had excelled at almost everything from a young age, being outstanding at athletics, music, chess, skiing, and outdoor leadership. He developed his mathematical knowledge to such an extent that at the age of 16 he was able to tutor a 24 year old family friend and doctoral student in calculus for three months. He wrote his first published paper on atomic theory 18 months after leaving school.

Defeat in WW1 crushed the German nation psychologically as well as financially, and in the societal carnage that followed alternative youth cultures blossomed. Heisenberg was himself the leader of a youth group called the Neupfadfinder who took to the Bavarian hills in school holidays and camped for weeks at a time, climbing mountains, reading literature, and discussing science, religion and politics. Largely their discussions focussed around otherworldly topics, and many of the group went on to careers as clergy, professors of religion, or monks. This was a strong formative period for Heisenberg, which he referred back to throughout his life.

It was on one of these adventures in the early 1920s, when seated at the foot of a tower on a Summer evening and listening to the sound of a violin floating down from an upstairs window, that Heisenberg had his first mystical experience. It was a revelation of what he was to term the “Central Order” – a mathematical harmony or unity that connected all things, which also had a soul or personality. Heisenberg was to make reference to this Central Order in philosophical books and lectures for the rest of his life.

Above: It was in these Bavarian hillside forests, as a young man, that Heisenberg first experienced the “central order,” a mystical harmony which existed between all created things, which was also imbued with a personal aspect, which Heisenberg identified with the God of Christianity.

The Central Order was closely related to Plato’s “One.” The One was a harmony which Plato believed existed between all components and relationships in space and time, but was itself transcendent to space and time. Unlike Plato’s One, Heisenberg’s Central Order also had a personal aspect to it, and in this respect it resembled the God of Christianity. In fact his combination of Plato’s mathematical worldview with the personal God was reminiscent of the approach taken by the founders of the Christian church in the first centuries AD. These thinkers married Neoplatonic ideas with the revelation of the personal, incarnating God.

Heisenberg placed his scientific work within the tradition of Plato, whose work gave rise to the mathematical sciences of nature. Plato gave philosophy the notion that the world was rational. This idea was carried forward in the Neoplatonic tradition, taken up by the Church Fathers, and reignited by Aquinas. Aquinas taught that science and revelation were parallel streams of reason, both of which issued from God, and both of which could inform and enrich the other. Modern science, for Heisenberg, did not come down on the side of materialism and against religion as some had begun to believe in the nineteenth century. Instead, Heisenberg believed that the fundamental units of reality had been shown to be mathematical or even mental entities, rather than material building blocks. Hence modern science supported Plato’s idealism, and contrasted with Democritus’ atomic materialism.

Heisenberg studied physics and mathematics from 1920 to 1923 at Munich and Göttingen with many illustrious teachers including Arnold Sommerfeld, Wilhelm Wien, Max Born, James Franck and David Hilbert. His breakthrough theory of quantum matrix mechanics arrived in 1925. In the midst of a bout of hey fever, from which he took refuge in the Heligoland hills, Heisenberg produced his atomic theory and related Uncertainty Principle, that was the making of the quantum revolution which transformed physics. In 1927, at the age of twenty-six, he became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig. In 1929 he submitted the first of his two papers that would form the basis of relativistic quantum field theory. The Nobel prize for his contributions to quantum mechanics followed in 1932.

It can be useful to place these achievements in the context of Platonic philosophy. Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist, and as such mathematics was central to his understanding of the world. The world was constructed from mathematics. Nature could do nothing that was not possible in mathematics. All natural forms behaved in ways which could be described through equations. Hence mathematical structures could be used to determine and predict physical phenomena. The task of the theoretical physicist was to find out which mathematical models reality corresponded to.  Sometimes mathematics would lead, and a set of mathematical principles that had been derived as pure mathematics would provide a model which fully described a certain set of observed physical phenomena. At other times the results of physical experiments would show the theoretical physicist which phenomena they had to find mathematics to describe. In this way mathematics and physical phenomena were brought together, and their unison became a system of truth. At each stage, there was corroboration: to assume a particular equation would govern a physical phenomena because the terms balance on paper was not enough. It must be shown experimentally that it does so: evidence must be gathered showing that physical phenomena really are following the mathematical relationships that have been shown to balance on paper. Likewise, experimental results on their own were not complete without finding the mathematical rules which integrated those results into a wider model. The test of physics at all levels was the predictions that it could make, which could be corroborated by experiment, and which ultimately lead to the physicist being able to manipulate the physical world.

Nonetheless, Heisenberg found that the locus of religious truth could not be dismissed or superseded by science. It was not the case that once the mathematical basis of Platonic spirituality had given us science, spirituality was now redundant. Science and Platonic spirituality met in the world of mathematics, and both continued to reside there. Greek spirituality had recognised the eternal truths of mathematics and had venerated those truths religiously. The focus on mathematics had then lead to science. But science and religion could not be reduced to one another, nor one replace the other.

Goethe’s levels and the personal God

These conclusions regarding the relationship between science and religion had largely been formed during Heisenberg’s youth. Confirmed by his vision of the Central Order, they remained largely unchanged for over twenty years. This was to change in his late thirties when another powerful period of spiritual reflection commenced. A reading of Heisenberg’s biographical reflections and letters from this time shows that the optimism of the spirituality of his youth had departed, but the same themes – Platonism and the central order – still occupied his thought.

It was a dark time for Heisenberg, as it was for Germany. The great tradition of Germany thought – rivalling India and Greece as the worlds greatest philosophical nation, ranking alongside Britain as its greatest scientific culture – was now plunged into shadow by a force that threated to occlude it forever. A mad man orchestrating history’s most devastating war, pursuing its most terrible genocide. And now, as the Russian winter came early, and operation Barbarossa ground to a halt, and its enemies pushed back in several directions, the very future existence of Germany at all began to come into question.

Amidst this atmosphere of gloom and despair, Heisenberg surveyed his life as his fortieth birthday approached. The great scientist, in an internal quest for more substantial meaning, now acknowledged the limits of science and revisited the ideas of his youth, turning to philosophy as a means of grounding a life of scientific work within a grander vision, and sought personal resolutions to the existential questions that his world-renowned research had failed to touch.

The mystical vision of the “central order” that he had experienced at the youth camp all those years ago was now, it seemed, no longer quite enough to provide an anchorage, and Heisenberg looked to the body of work in philosophy for further answers.

A period of reflection resulted and eventually a book in which Heisenberg described Goethe’s nine hierarchically ordered layers of reality: the accidental, mechanical, physical, chemical, organic, psychic, ethical, religious and genial. These layers were ordered by degrees of their movement from the objective to the subjective – that is, from areas of reality that are external to us to those that are internal, but were more easily visualised as levels. Heisenberg placed his own life’s work – atomic  physics – close to the bottom of the scale in the chemical level. He described how the man who sought to know reality to the fullest extent must ascend the ladder of graded realities moving from outer to inner. In this manner Heisenberg situated himself, his life’s work, and science itself, far below the peak of knowledge and accomplishment.

The genial sat closest to the One and was the source of creativity, including the creative play of the Forms, which provided the mathematical basis of science. Creativity itself, we might say, issues directly from the creator. In this way Heisenberg orientated his life’s work in relation to the divine. Like all creativity, it stemmed from the internal world, even though the subject matter of his investigation – the physical world of atomic physics – sat close to the bottom of the divine hierarchy. It was an affirmation of his allegiance to the spiritual, and simultaneously an exercise in humility – a downplaying of the accomplishments the world had recognised in him.

Above: A neo-Platonic version of the great chain of being. In a kind of mid-life crisis, Heisenberg plunged himself back into the philosophical spirituality of his youth, and emerged with a hierarchical vision of reality influenced by Goethe, in which levels of being unfolded “upwards” through the accidental, mechanical, physical, chemical, organic, psychic, ethical, religious and genial, towards the One.

The best evidence suggests that Heisenberg’s spiritual views were a mixture of Platonism and Christianity, and here he was in good company: the company, in fact, of the early Orthodox and Catholic “church fathers” who shaped Christianity. Augustine, for example, scoured ancient philosophy for cues, taking the idea of the One and the ascent of the Soul towards the One from Plato and Plotinus, but synthesised these pagan concepts with Christian thinking and the historical event of the resurrection. For Augustine, the atonement closed the gap between the soul and the One, and so made possible the complete return of the soul to the One. This was glimpsed in the Beatific Vision described in the writings of the Christian saints and mystics, and was completed in the Resurrection Body and the Life Eternal. The mediator in this process was not the Neoplatonic “daemon” which stood part way between man and God – how, we might ask, as Augustine did, could anything be halfway between the finite and the infinite? Instead the mediator was the Son, who was – uniquely – both fully man and fully God.

Christian theology thus provided a philosophically pure completion to Greek philosophy. Christianity was the completion of the otherwise perennial Pagan philosophy of return to a lost state of perfection, which reached its apogee in Platonism, but was also developed to a high level in the East through the notion of the mediating “master” who dwelt between God and the earth, and could serve as a bridge for others. But the fully human and fully divine Son brought the revelation of the personal God, which corrected and completed the Platonic notion of the impersonal One.

And so it was with Heisenberg. Despite the vast influence of Platonism on his life and work, he ultimately bowed to the personal God of Christianity, and not to the impersonal One of Pagan philosophy. In a paraphrased transcript of a dialogue that was said to take place with Pauli in 1952, he was asked directly on the subject, and responded:

“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? I am using the term ‘soul’ quite deliberately so as not to be misunderstood. If you put your question like that, I would say yes. And because my own experiences do not matter so much, I might go on to remind you of Pascal’s famous text, the one he kept sewn in his jacket. It was headed “Fire” and began with the words: ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not of the philosophers and sages.’”

In this exchange Heisenberg distinguish between the God of philosophy whose existence is suggested by so many objective areas of investigation from pure logic to cosmology, and the personal God whose existence can only be established personally to each individual, and appeared to find the latter superior.

Ethics and the defence of science

Although he chose to remain in Germany during the regime, there is no evidence in any of his biographies that Heisenberg actually approved of the Nazis. The opposite appears to be the case.  He expressed horror at the regime on many occasions in the years before WW2 in letters to colleagues and family. He refused to participate in a highly publicised nationalist rally held in Leipzig on 9th November 1933, which caused something of a scandal at the physics institute. He refused to sign an “acknowledgement by professors to Adolf Hitler” the same year. Yet unlike many leading German physicists, he did not leave Germany in the years building up to the beginning of WW2.

It was a decision which has inevitably garnered much attention from historians. His decision to remain in Germany in the years prior to the second world war appears to have been partly motivated by a simple desire not to leave his home country. But as the Nazi grip on the country intensified, more complex motivations emerged. Heisenberg’s driving motivation appears to have been to defend German science from dismantlement at the hands of the Nazis, who were attempting to rid it of Jewish influence and in particular of the ideas of Einstein, and instead base teaching, theory and research upon the principles of German science during the Prussian era. This created a conflict between world science and “Deutsch Science.”

To compound this the still more questionable “Aryan Science” also garnered attention with leading members of the Nazi party and with the German public. World science embraced the insights of Einstein, while Deutsch science was hostile towards the revolution in thinking that Einstein had brought, regarding it as a Jewish inspired delusion. But Aryan science, which was popular among central figures in the Nazi regime (many of whom had an interest in the occult, pre-Christian German paganism, witchcraft, and demonology), was something more like the pseudoscience of today’s New Age book stores: an eclectic mix of alternative health, Westernised versions of shamanism and Eastern mysticism, and alternative world histories focussed around lost continents and rumours of ancient wars that unfolded on earth between advanced beings using “superweapons.” While Aryan science, raising dark powers, recreating superweapons, etc, remained an obsession of the Nazi elite, there was also a more realistic push to return German research and German education to the principles of Deutsch science. This unfolded primarily as attempts to replace unsympathetic professors and university chairs with those sympathetic to Deutsch science.

The older physicist Max Planck was influential in Heisenberg’s decision, and pushed upon him the importance of defending German culture from the distortions of the Nazis, under the façade of co-operation. Heisenberg’s reflections around this period also revealed a kind of fatalism. He saw the Nazi regime as the awakening of a titanic, even archetypal power, the kind of force that emerges periodically in history, and in the face of which individual objections are futile. Under Planck’s influence, Heisenberg’s letters show a resolution by the end of 1933 to remain in Germany and see things out no matter what. He had decided to think of the future, and was committed to the preservation of noble aspects of German culture, to serve as focal points for the recreation of a restored Germany, once feted events had run their course. The world of politics was seen as transitory, ephemeral. Honourable aspects of German culture, including its science, appeared to represent something more eternal, which should be protected.

Above: Farm Hall Manor. Secret recordings made at this comfortable POW accommodation revealed that many of the German scientists who had worked on the Nazi atomic bomb project were pleased when they heard that Germany had lost the war. Heisenberg claimed that defending German culture (and German science) from the Nazi regime had been the reason he remained in Germany during the build up to the war.

Heisenberg’s defence of German science from Nazi influence seemed to be genuine. He came into conflict over the issue with the second most powerful Nazi, Heinrich Himmler, and risked being sent to a concentration camp over his refusal to support Nazi appointments to top science positions in universities. In the final stages of the war, as the nuclear research he was involved with ground to a halt due to lack of materials and the allied force closed in around him, he appears to have put the protection of his staff and his research before the safety of himself or his family. Instead of leaving immediately to be with his family, Heisenberg’s letters reveal a struggle to protect his workers who were under threat from lack of food, German lynch mobs, and aerial bombing raids. Under his guidance, they made their way to a safe hiding place in a factory basement. Heisenberg then spent additional time securing research and burying materials in the ground. Once the team and the research were secured he set off to travel across Germany by bicycle to be with his family. Travelling only at night to avoid infantry units and aircraft fire, his family were of sufficient importance to him to complete the 250 kilometre journey in just three days. But they were not, it seems, as important as securing the research and the staff work force to continue it before setting off. We see here the extraordinary zeal that Heisenberg had for science and its perseveration.

Initially Heisenberg had believed that the atomic bomb was beyond the capabilities of the group he was working with to deliver, given the limits placed on resources and access to materials in the war they were now losing. Heisenberg wrote that he hoped instead to harness atomic energy as a source of power to drive machinery. At other times Heisenberg had claimed that he had purposely failed to build the bomb for Germany. Towards the end of the war in Europe, a number of researchers who had worked on the Nazi atomic bomb project were captured and confined to the prison of Farm Hall Manor in England. Recordings made without their knowledge revealed that many of them were pleased that Germany lost the war.

Nonetheless, biographers have struggled to give a coherent explanation of the various strands that shaped his life at this time. A Christian man, with a life-long fascination for Platonism, who had displayed notable charity and was probably prone to idealism prior to the war, who had objected to the war at great personal risk on several occasions, now attempted to harness nuclear power to drive the war effort of the Nazi regime: the same regime that he appears to have stayed in Germany only to protect German science from! It is a puzzle that biographers have found too complex to unpick satisfactorily, and most have regarded his precise motivations with a similar degree uncertainty to that which characterises his famous Uncertainty Principle.

Final years

Towards the end of his life Heisenberg appeared to escape ever more freely into the mathematical world of Plato’s forms. Alongside his life-long interest in Greek philosophy and the spiritual universe of Plato and Neoplatonism, Heisenberg affirmed his continued affinity with Christianity and the personal God.

At the end of his life he remarked “If someone were to say that I had not been a Christian, he would be wrong. But if someone were to say that I had been a Christian, he would be saying too much.”  These remarks can perhaps be set in the context of the earlier remarks that he made in the conversation with Pauli. In this conversation he stated that he did not believe the same things as his parents, but that the Christian notion of a personal God was still compelling for him. We can perhaps conclude that he did not believe everything that the average Christian at the time believed, but believed his own Platonic, scientific version of Christianity. On the other hand the physicist and philosopher Henry Margenau reflected in 1985 on a meeting with Heisenberg, “Our conversation was intimate and he impressed me by his deep religious conviction. He was a true Christian in every sense of that word.”

Heisenberg appeared to favour traditional theology, rather than postmodern views. He believed in a transcendent source of morals, reaffirming these ideas towards the end of this life, “Where no guiding ideals are left to point the way, the scale of values disappears and with it the meaning of our deeds and sufferings, and at the end can lie only negation and despair,” he remarked in a 1974 speech. The pull of the Neoplatonic “One” drew the world towards it, and the good in the world was the result of orientation towards the One, “If the magnetic force that has guided this particular compass – and what else was its source but the central order? – should ever become extinguished, terrible things may happen to mankind, far more terrible than concentration camps and atom bombs.” He continues, “But we did not set out to look into such dark recesses; lets hope the central realm will light our way again, perhaps in quite unexpected ways.” In this way Heisenberg revisited the ethical dilemma that had dominated his thoughts and behaviour in the 1930s, and appeared to re-affirm his commitment to the transcendental or eternal aspects of society, and the transcendental ethic that had motivated him to defend them.