Aesthetics / Philosophy / Recommended books / Science

Some Remarks on Heisenberg

File:Bundesarchiv Bild183-R57262, Werner Heisenberg.jpg

In 1969 Werner Heisenberg published an autobiographical book called “Der Teil und das Ganze”[1], a title meaning „The parts and the whole“. The book is partially an autobiography, partially a collection of philosophical dialogs in the tradition of Plato, based on conversations Heisenberg had with several other people, like, for example Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli or Albert Einstein, exploring the border zone between physics and philosophy. The book is interesting and I recommend reading it, but I disagree with Heisenberg on certain views expressed in it. Before describing my objections, let me briefly sketch Heisenberg’s views, as I understand them. The two – closely interconnected – topics I am dealing with here are the role of beauty in science and the question why nature is understandable to the human mind.

The role of beauty in science is one of the recurring themes of the book. In the fifth chapter of the book Heisenberg describes the discovery of quantum mechanics during a stay on the island of Helgoland:

At the first moment I was deeply shocked. I had the feeling to look through the surface of atomic phenomena down to a ground of strange inner beauty lying deep beneath it and I nearly got dizzy from thinking that I should now go into the matter of investigating this abundance of mathematical structures nature had spread down there in front of me.[2]

A few pages later, where he reports a discussion with Einstein, Heisenberg, referring to laws of nature, writes about “Forms of great simplicity and beauty” (“Formen von großer Einfachheit und Schönheit”).

Reading the book, it becomes clear that Heisenberg operates here within a platonic concept of beauty. In a talk entitled “Die Bedeutung des Schönen in der exakten Naturwissenschaft“[3], he explicitly discusses the role of the concept of beauty in ancient Greek philosophy of nature and in the works of Plato. Here he also refers to a definition of beauty derived from Neo-Platonism, where beauty is defined as the agreement of the parts with the whole. It looks like this has provided the motivation for the original German title of the autobiographical book, so it seems to have been very significant for Heisenberg. In the conclusion of that talk he writes:

But in the moment when the right idea appears, a totally ineffable process of highest intensity takes place in the soul of the person seeing it. It is the astonished shock about which Plato is talking in the ‘Phaedrus’, by which the soul in a way remembers something that unconsciously it always possessed already.[4]

This refers to the Platonic concept of anamnesis according to which knowledge is gained through a process of remembering the forms already known. It looks like this idea had a strong influence of Heisenberg. He also discusses it in another article in the same collection[5] where he describes the philosophical views of his friend, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was a friend of the psychologists C.G. Jung and referred to Jung’s concept of “archetypes” as well as writings of Johannes Kepler. Kepler also uses the term “archetypus” in a similar meaning. All these conceptions can be viewed as forms of Platonism.

The question of how it is possible that we are able to understand the laws underlying the world is answered by Heisenberg in this platonic context. In chapter 8 of “Der Teil und das Ganze”, he writes:

But with respect to nature, I firmly believed that its structures were after all simple; it was my conviction that nature is structured in a way that it can be understood. Or maybe I should more correctly say it the other way around: that our faculty of thought is structured in a way that it can understand nature. […] The organizing forces that gave rise to nature in all its forms are the same ones that are responsible for the structure of our soul and thus of our faculty of thought”.[6]

This idea, that nature is understandable because our understanding was formed by the same forces that formed nature, is connected to those concepts of anamnesis and of archetypes.

Now, what do I think about Heisenberg’s ideas? First of all, as I have explained in several articles on my Blog Creativistic Philosophy, I think that there is no such thing at all as a fixed structure of our faculty of thought, and I think this is exactly the reason why we are actually able to understand the world. The tradition that goes from Plato and Kepler to Pauli and Heisenberg (and also Kant) is that our thinking and perception has a fixed structure that is a precondition for the possibility of acquiring knowledge.

Instead, my conviction is that the mind is a creative system capable of extending itself by incorporating information from the world. There are no a priory structures, no archetypes or pre-viewed platonic forms. Instead, the mind has a limitless plasticity, an ability to develop out of any limited framework. If there are innate structures at all, they are probably simple and not very sophisticated and they only form the starting point of development and modification, a scaffold on which the knowledge is erected and which may then be broken down.

In Heisenberg’s view, the platonic view of knowledge is closely connected to the platonic concept of beauty. Here I also disagree with him. Beauty, I think, is an emotion rewarding a successful unification, a discovery of order (see On Beauty).  This refers to the discovery of order in perception as well as to the discovery of order in scientific data. Beauty is not a property of the thing we find beautiful, it is also not a form in a platonic realm of abstract forms, it is a property or consequence of the cognitive process. When Heisenberg managed to unify a lot of single results in a single framework of what became known as quantum mechanics, he was rewarded with a strong feeling of beauty. The same happened to Kepler when he discovered regularity in the motions of the planets. Both of them interpreted this in the context of the ultimately platonic theory of beauty and truth that was available to them. Both of them seem to have believed in some version of the platonic anamnesis theory. And in this, I think, both of them where wrong. Beauty does indeed play an important role in processes of discovery, but, I think, for different reasons than Heisenberg thought.

No a priori structure of the mind is the condition for the possibility of knowledge, but the absence of such a fixed structure. No algorithm can discover every instance of order. The mind is universal because it is not an algorithm. It is a creative system. If order could be discovered by an algorithm, a reward for its discovery – and that is what I think the feeling of beauty is – would not be necessary. Beauty is involved in discovery because the mind and thus the process of discovery has no fixed form.

[1] An English translation has been published as “Physics and Beyond”. Since this translation is not available to me at the moment, the citations are my own translations. The meaning of the original German title is “The Part and the Whole”.

[2] „Im ersten Augenblick war ich zutiefst erschrocken. Ich hatte das Gefühl, durch die Oberfläche der atomaren Erscheinungen hindurch auf einen tief darunter liegendn Grund von merkwürdiger innerer Schönheit zu schauen, und es wurde mir fast schwindelig bei dem Gedanken, daß ich nun dieser Fülle von mathematischen Strukturen nachgehen sollte, die die Natur dort unten vor mir ausgebreitet hatte.“

[3] „Die Bedeutung des Schönen in der exakten Naturwissenschaft. In Heisenberg, Werner: Schritte über Grenzen, 2. erweiterte Auflage, Piper & Co. Verlag, München 1973, p.288 – 305.

The German title of this book means „steps across borders“.

[4] „In dem Moment aber, in dem die richtigen Ideen auftauchen, spielt sich in der Seele dessen, der sie sieht, ein ganz unbeschreiblicher Vorgang von höchster Intensität ab. Es ist das staunende Erschrecken, von dem Platon im ‚Phaidros‘ spricht, mit dem die Seele sich gleichsam an etwas zurückerinnert, was sie unbewusst doch immer schon besessen hatte.”

[5] In: „Schritte über Grenzen“ (see Footnote 3), p. 43 – 51.

[6] „Bei der Natur aber glaubte ich fest daran, dass ihre Zusammenhänge letzten Endes einfach seien; die Natur ist, das war meine Überzeugung, so gemacht, dass sie verstanden werden kann. Oder vielleicht sollte ich richtiger umgekehrt sagen, unser Denkvermögen ist so gemacht, dass es die Natur verstehen kann.  … Es sind die gleichen ordnenden Kräfte, die die Natur in allen ihren Formen gebildet haben und die für die Struktur unserer Seele, also auch unseres Denkvermögens verantwortlich sind.

16 thoughts on “Some Remarks on Heisenberg

  1. To the mammalian mind beauty (or the awareness of it) is reward not for discovering a thing but for solving a problem. Not simply the solving of the problem but in solving the problem realizing something that your brain cannot emulate – a set of simulator conditions that one does not feel can be emulated given previous knowledge. In this way we can see a mushroom cloud as beautiful.

    • I think beauty is not a reward for discovering a thing but specifically for discovering order or regularity. Discovering order or regularity in the environment is very important for an animal. A lot of our perceptual and cognitive machinery seems to be devoted to it. One may also think of it as finding possibilities for information compression. Different pieces of information are unified and can be represented together by some rule. E.g., a number of points may be recognized as a strait line or a circle, etc. This recognizing of order happens on all levels and leads to new knowledge. My hypothesis is that beauty is a reward for the successful discovery of order not known before. An object of low complexity or an object whose regularity is known already will not appear beautiful. It will appear boring. An object whose complexity is too high will appear confusing. Between these extremes are objects for which you get a high rate of successful discoveries of order. These appear beautiful. As you get to know them, the beauty might reduce (they become familiar) and something that was confusing initially (think of an unfamiliar style of music, for example) might turn beautiful when you learn more about it. So the beauty of things depends on your previous knowledge, on your culture or level of education. It can shift. That makes testing my hypothesis tricky because it might be difficult to set up reproducible experiments, but I think it could be done.
      See also and and generally the articles under

      • I think I see what you’re getting at, but this does not appear to account for the beauty of the Mona Lisa or the beauty of a sunset – both of which have been seen many times and will qualify as objects whose regularity is known. We can find beauty in a simple dandelion under certain conditions etc.

        On the point of music, unfamiliar music translates to a cacophony until it is familiar enough for us to see what it’s made of to appreciate the ways in which our brain had not contemplated its composure previously.

        I think we are both in the same ball park, just looking from different endzones. You are calling it ‘regularity’ or order and I’m saying that it is not the recognition of that order/regularity but how that relates to the simulation in your head. Simply seeing a beautiful thing does not require you to instantly understand it’s beauty. No, often enough we must think about a thing before seeing beauty in it and that encompasses more than simply recognizing order, it includes how we think about the thing as well as the thing itself. Beauty cannot be appreciated without thought on the beautiful thing first happening and this makes it fully subjective. I posit that the thoughts lead you to see order only because you are modelling that object in your head and the realization that this is not a simple object or thing that your brain would have modelled on it’s own gives us pause to appreciate it as beautiful… hence why you and I would probably find beauty in differing things.

        The order in a mushroom cloud is dubious at best yet it can be seen as beautiful. It might be said that recognized order/structure and wonderment spawns the feeling of beauty. Wonderment comes at the end of ponderance of the ‘thing’ … hence it is not simply recognizing order, rather it is the combination of our thoughts about the thing and the thing’s construction or order put together as we work on the problem of modelling the object in the simulation in our heads.

        Not trying to argue against your point, only that I think it is more than that.

        • I developed these ideas while thinking about music and abstract art. In experiencing abstract art, I often have a strong feeling of beauty before or without any recognition or modelling of what is is or what it means. Even then, it is highly subjective since it depends on the shapes or patterns you have encountered before. With music it is similar.
          But indeed, if meaning, thoughts, recognition of objects and situations etc. come in, things become more complicated. My ideas on the subject of beauty are definitely incomplete.
          There are also some special areas where other effects come into play. The beauty of humans and of faces, for example, definitely depends on some special mechanisms, connected to sexuality and to communication. There might be other effects as well in the processing of color, and so on.
          As I wrote in some article, reality always has more properties than our theories about it describe. I just think that this idea of beauty as reward for order recognition covers an important part of it. But it certainly is not the whole story.

          • Ahh, this engages another part of the brain. When you view something about 7 things are being analyzed subconsciously….

            A Quick Tour Through the Brain
            Light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second from a light emitting source, the sun maybe; streams through the earths atmosphere, bounces off a landscape and zooms into the eyes of a human being. The optical structure of the eye, being constructed as it is (and assuming that it is working correctly), plants a nicely focused upside down image on a part of the brain called the retina. The retina organizes the reflected image into three separate wavelengths (color detection), and it measures the degree of illumination (brightness levels and changes in brightness over time). Signals from the retina can be understood to travel along either of two general pathways (collections of pathways): either to lower brain subconscious centers; or to centers for conscious processing in the cerebral cortex.

            A whole bunch of incredible stuff happens (signals coming and going all over the brain, mostly to the subconscious centers) before the signals from the retina reach the occipital lobe of the brain; the visual cortex. The visual cortex detects borders, brightness contrast, and the movement of edges.

            From the visual cortex signals go to the association areas where the borders are combined into shapes. At this level, we recognize faces and objects. This is the level at which the figure is distinguished from the ground.

            Signals then pass to the angular gyrus where the meaning of the visual image is interpreted.

            The message is then sent to Werniche’s area in the temporal lobe where language is controlled. The face or object is assigned a name.

            From Werniche’s area signals are transmitted to the orbitofrontal cortex (and to the limbic system) where feelings are associated. Do we like this policeman’s face? Are we afraid of the chocolate cake?

            From the orbitofrontal cortex signals go to the prefrontal cortex where we put our thoughts into sequences, and where we decide what to do (Run screaming from the chocolate cake; tell the police officer to have a #@#!% good day himself).

            Alas, if it were only so simple. It isn’t, but that’s the general idea. The complex truth is that tracts go to 32 different brain centers for vision (at last count); all the centers are inner connected with each other and (directly or indirectly) with all the rest of the brain. Some processing is going on serially, most happens in parallel.
            == That was from

            In all that unconscious visual processing the brain begins to activate other sections of the brain. That a painting is on a canvas and perhaps framed is recognized and the right brain stuff for that scenario is activated etc. Before you have a chance to think about the painting/art parts of your brain are analyzing it, structuring it, activating other parts of the brain for use in ‘thinking’ about it. By the time you begin to think about the artwork, your brain has already done a boat load of work…. thinking for you so to speak. So it is not possible to view art and appreciate it without brain activity that has begun to detect the order and structure of the viewed object. The subconscious activity may be enough in some cases to cause a pleasant ‘summary’ reaction before any thought has been consciously put into the effort.

        • What you mean might be an instance of what I mean. If you understand a thing by thinking it through or modelling it in your mind, you create a unified view of it in which many initially separate bits of information are integrated into one thing. That is an instance of information compression or order recognition. Integrating many experimental observations into a single scientific theory, like Heisenberg did, is just an extreme instance of this.
          On the other hand, something similar may happen on a low level of perception, when you realize, for example, that a number of dots together form a certain shape. But there as well, information is compressed by finding order.

          • See my other response. The simulation or integration happens largely on a subconscious level for things we view. I was speaking of things we can’t see and can’t have known previously as communicated from another mind.

    • I absolutely agree. It is very subjective. However, that is completely compatible with my view of what beauty is. I think the feeling of beauty arrises when we find some regularity in perception or thinking. That totally depends on our previous experience, cultural background, level of education etc. What is new and interesting for one person might be old and boring for another. Nothing is beautiful as such. A painting that is beautiful to you when you see it the first time might become well known for you until after some time, you might not even notice it again.
      I think the things that have the highest potential for beauty are of medium complexity. Very simple things (think of monotonous music) become boring quickly. Very complex things are confusing. Between these extremes, there is an area of medium complexity where we are able to discover some order repeatetly, so the rate of such experiences is high.
      See also and and generally the articles under
      Of course, this is at present just an untested theory and I might be wrong with my views on this topic.

  2. Thanks for the insight, Nannus. I’ve never read his autobiography, and it looks like we agree in certain objections, but I’ll reserve my own judgments until after reading it. It sounds quite interesting!

  3. Hey Nannus, thanks for checking in on my blog and the LIKE of saloon. I’m replicating geological formation most often in my abstract artworks. Interesting work presented herein and look forward to more exploring.

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