The Philosophical Significance of the Idea of Complementarity

  • Wolfgang Pauli


This lecture is published in the hope of furthering by this small contribution those major efforts which have the general aim of once more bringing into closer contact the various partial disciplines into which our intellectual life (Geistigkeit) has fallen apart. The splitting off of the exact sciences and of mathematics as independent partial disciplines from an originally unified but pre-scientific natural philosophy, which began in the 17th century, was of course a necessary condition for the subsequent intellectual development of the western world (Abendland). At the present time, however, the conditions for a renewed understanding between physicists and philosophers on the epistemological foundations of the scientific description of nature seem to be satisfied. As a result of the development of atomistics and quantum theory since 1910 physics has gradually been compelled to abandon its proud claim that it can, in principle, understand the whole universe. All physicists who accept the development that reached a provisional conclusion in 1927 in the systematic construction of the mathematical formalism of wave mechanics, must admit that while at present we have exact sciences, we no longer have a scientific picture of the universe (Weltbild). It is just this circumstance that may contain in itself, as a corrective to the earlier one-sided view, the germ of progress towards a unified total world-picture, of which the exact sciences are only a part. In this I would like to see the more general significance of the


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  1. 1.
    The formal mathematical operation which is correlated with an actual observation, and whose result the theoretical laws do not determine, is the so called “reduction of wave packets”. The abstract wavefunction involved (in general a complex quantity in a multidimensional space) has a significance of a symbol uniting the contradictory features of the visualisable pictures (anschauliche Vorstellungen). The statistical connection of this wavefunction with series of observations on systems of the same nature, which have been subjected to the same previous treatment, is analogous to the connection, mentioned above, between the probability of a hit for a photon and the classical wavefield. This new type of natural law forms a link between the ideas of a discontinuum (particle) and the continuum (wave), and can therefore be regarded as “correspondence” in Bohr’s sense, which forms a rational generalisation of the classical deterministic type of a law of nature.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    N. Bohr, Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (Cambridge 1934), p. 96.MATHGoogle Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1994

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  • Wolfgang Pauli

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