The Limits of Science

Abstract: A scientific outlook requires that we accept metaphysical postulates insufficient for creating a full-fledged worldview. Ultimate truth must be sought within.

Keywords: pseudoscience, David Bohm, Niels Bohr, Copenhagen model, guidance field, teleology.

Although we have today gone beyond Immanuel Kant (1724-1804, Encyc., here), he once outlined the metaphysical postulates that we must keep to if we don’t want to overstep the boundaries of the scientific paradigm. Contrary to this, the phenomenon of “New Age” fuses foreign metaphysical categories with the traditional. It has been surmised that late physicist David Bohm (cf. Pratt, 1993, here) belongs to this ilk. No doubt, he is brilliant (if only Bohr had had his lucidity of style), but I’m going to argue that he and certain other physicists make the Hegelian mistake of projecting their own unconscious onto the outer world. This leads to an overestimation of the scientific project and elicits mytho-scientific notions.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744, Encyc., here) heroically but unsuccessfully tried to counter the development during the rise of science (Age of Enlightenment). As he saw it, Descartes and Newton, et al., only picked the raisins out of the cake. They, at least publicly, merely focused on the quantifiable part of reality, which is the minor part. Vico wanted to raise myth and culture to its proper place and thereby counter the overestimation of the scientific paradigm.

It is rather chocking the way things went. Simply because scientists had grasped the motion of inanimate bodies, many intellectuals thought that virtually everything, including society, could be understood and delineated logically and mathematically. This amounted to an overestimation of the findings of Newton and Laplace. For the first time mankind could exactly predict a tiny part of reality. Learned people became so exhilarated so they thought that it opens the door to the explanation of everything. All the subjective ideas of the soul could safely be forgotten. So this is the direction where cerebral energy still goes: only that which is quantifiable is worthy of intellectual interest.

A good example of scientific overextension is Bohm’s “guidance field”, which is akin to the Aristotelian teleological concept (Wiki, here). However, teleology is not in keeping with the scientific paradigm. Nor does cosmic non-locality conform with accepted scientific principles. Allegedly, even if physicists should perform their experiments in underground shelters, God’s finger would still poke in and apply rotation to the particles. It doesn’t really matter if you call this “God’s finger” or “guidance field”; no matter how sophisticated names are given to such non-local forces, they are unacceptable to scientists as they really belong to an archaic paradigm, namely pantheism. Such notions derive from an age when the human unconscious permeated the outer world. Science rose only when we learned to separate the mythological from the empirical.

When studying thinkers such as David Bohm, one must learn to do the same, that is, to separate their mythological conceptions from those who accord with the scientific paradigm. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, likewise, postulates a universal “morphogenetic field”; a guidance field in the biological realm (Encyc., here). It seems that thinkers of this ilk remain unaware of the unconscious. Because of this their conceptions become a mishmash of unconscious projections and science. Wolfgang Pauli (Encyc., here) once discussed with a young physicist (Bohm, perhaps?). Physicist X remarked: “But, surely, Pauli, you don’t think what I’ve said is completely wrong?” to which Pauli replied, “No, I think what you said is not even wrong” (Wiki, here).

From a scientific perspective, mytho-scientific ideas are “not even wrong” as they cannot be falsified. This was probably why Niels Bohr (Encyc., here) remained completely distant when he met Bohm. There simply wasn’t anything to say, because his ideas aren’t even wrong. In fact, Bohm could be right. Perhaps God’s finger steers every particle. Perhaps an “implicate order” exists in nature and not in the human unconscious, which is the supposition of modern psychology. Bohm’s ideas are not necessarily wrong simply because he refuses to keep to the limited metaphysics approved by antiquated philosophers such as Kant. Yet, although his ideas could be valuable to a religionist, they have no value to a scientist. Science must, as far as possible, keep to the principle of locality and must try and explain things from prior and local conditions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that science will ever be able to fully explain the workings of nature. Maybe there is a God involved, too. Perhaps, in the end, we have to concede that the rest is taken care of by a universal spirit. But before we resort to the final asylum ignorantiae we must sternly keep to the scientific paradigm.

It is imperative to separate science from unconscious projections. Wolfgang Pauli; did just this. C.G. Jung (Encyc., here) writes that he was “chock-full of archaic material” when he first entered Jung’s office. In the subsequent analysis his unconscious gushed forth with remarkable revelations, accounted for in “Psychology and Alchemy”, part II (Jung, 1980). Pauli was on the brink of a breakdown and had no other choice than to confront the reality of the unconscious. So he learnt something which Bohm wasn’t aware of, namely that there exists another reality than the outer world. This explains why he spoke of “the reality of the symbol”. As long as we remain unaware of inner reality, it is bound to be projected. Due to this realization, Pauli could detach his scientific thinking thoroughly from unconscious mythological symbols, and become known as “the conscience of physics”.

Accordingly, Niels Bohr refused to go into metaphysics. He was quite content with classical metaphysical notions belonging to Newtonian physics. Simply apply the principle of complementarity, and we may still keep to classical categories. In this sense he was on a peaceful footing with Kant. Bohr said that we simply have to accept two fundamental facts of nature: the quantum of action and the phenomenon of mind. These two phenomena are presented to us as irrational, irreducible factors. We simply have to accept them as fundamental facts of nature. If we refrain from asking where these derive from, and proceed to develop our scientific understanding, while recognizing these contingent factors as an incontestable groundwork, then we can avoid going astray in metaphysics. I think this was Bohr’s position.

Can we accept the orthodox quantum theory, i.e. the Copenhagen model (cf. Best, here) without becoming dissatisfied with its insufficient metaphysics? My answer is, yes, but only as long as we follow Pauli’s example of accepting the reality of the unconscious. The psychological effect is that we lose the impetus of projecting the unconscious on the outer world. As a consequence, the unconscious no longer comes to expression as preposterous metaphysical conceptions. We may go inwards when reaching for the ultimate truth. Since scientific reality is ultimately dependent on inner categories, science cannot account for fundamental truth. In this way we may continue in the footsteps of Bohr and remain content with the realization that there may be no rational answer to metaphysical questions, since these are answered only in the inner world.


© Mats Winther, 2001.


Best, B. ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’. (here)

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Jung, C.G. (1980). Psychology and Alchemy. Bollingen Series. Princeton University Press.

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Pratt, D. (1993). ‘David Bohm and the Implicate Order’. (here)

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See also:

Winther, M. (2001). ‘The Morphic Deception’. (here)