I’m as impressed by science and technology as anyone. Tremendous focus and organization are required to achieve the astounding changes of the last century. Think about it: as a boy, my grandfather saw Indians squatting across the river waiting to trade deer-meat with his father. As a teenager, my father remembers soldiers returning from WWII teaching the town-folk to form lines at the theater to relieve the mob-like clamor at the box-office.
The age of the scientific method has seen the organization and consolidation of consciousness accelerate exponentially. There is, however, a big downside to it: the conscious mind tends to identify with what it’s focused on. When it does, it’s susceptible to possession by contrary unconscious factors. If history teaches us anything, it’s how easily conscious intent is changed into its opposite.
It’s natural to think highly of our achievements, but pride and self-awe are such subtle vulnerabilities that gods (along with a little belief and reflection) were once needed to remind us of their consequences. Consistent with such ideas, Jung described ego-consciousness as only one complex among many in the mind’s constitution, and unconscious complexes influence it beyond perception.
Some years ago, I read The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene: an informative, well-written book which discussed how the universe works compared to the quantum world. Scientists can accurately predict the movements of planets, but on the sub-atomic level, they can’t predict how particles behave (unsettling, I know). They appear in contradictory form — as particles and waves, depending on the type of experiment.
Position and velocity, for instance, can’t be measured at the same time, and the concept of complementarity describes a “duality paradox” where the mode of observation determines the data. Einstein wrote: “We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena…”
In Jung’s collaboration with German physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, they agreed that psychology and physics had something in common: when one thing is viewed, its complement, or opposite, is obscured. Both sciences proved empirically that even under the most rigorous conditions, observation is relative to the psyche.
When a thing becomes consious, it changes according to the way we see it. It’s no longer objective in the sense it was before we became aware of it. As an object of thought, it’s incorporated into the psyche and becomes subjective. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Einstein’s relativity, Jung’s subjective factor: all describe the nature of cognition.
Instruments minimize subjective influences under controlled conditions; though they’re considerably magnified under natural ones. Often more important than the knowledge itself, the psyche prescribes what we see and how we see it. Add to it the egocentric qualities of individual complexes, and you can imagine how difficult it is to observe ourselves with any objectivity.
How we interpret and apply knowledge is as fundamental as its acquisition. The deeper we look, the more perception contrasts with reality, just as the attempt to reconcile general laws of the universe with those of quantum mechanics show.
You might remember A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar: a biography of the mathematician, John Nash. He ostensibly “cured” his schizophrenia through sheer willpower — at least, that’s how the Hollywood movie-version depicted it. The book tells the real story behind the conscious fantasy.
I saw an interview with Nash on PBS, where he was asked to summarize his experiences. He shrugged, as if it made no sense, and said he was left with this image: his “rational thinking had blocked my view of the universe.”
Nash’s psychosis became evident to his wife when she found him busily painting large black circles on the walls in his study. Though it seems bizarre, its symbolic content becomes more comprehensible when viewed in its historical context. The deeper meaning hidden in the black circle which grew so large to Nash that it overwhelmed him, was examined by Jung:
The black dot is an archetypal idea similar to the Greek atom. Jung showed its relation to the Jewish-Christian idea of Adam as a symbol of wholeness, the Original Man. The Greek historian Hippolytus described the Gnostic idea of this indivisible point in the second century A.D.: “This point, being nothing and consisting of nothing, attains a magnitude incomprehensible by thought… this mustard seed which grows into the Kingdom of God.” Physicists’ theories of black holes and the big bang derive from this prototypal image.
Jung described it as the symbol of a profoundly unconscious organizing function which seeks to unify the personality, something like a primitive god-image; it appears during periods of disorientation: the psyche’s response to a dissociated consciousness.
For Nash, it symbolized not only the split condition his rational mind created but also the healing factor which would gradually guide him back over some thirty years to his emotional foundations.
Nash’s proclivities left him with a vulnerability as extreme as his talent. Not all are predisposed to such creative, hard-to-reconcile differences, but his example highlights the increasing value of a science of symbols.