In 1982 I had the privilege of
meeting Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007) at his private
home near Munich.
While working at
the Center for Nuclear Energy
Documentation located in the premises of the Karlsruhe
Nuclear Research Center (1980-1985), I asked a small group of
engineers and physicists interested in natural philosophy to discuss
Weizsäcker’s works. After a while we wanted to meet him
personally. He invited
us to visit him and I took some notes of the conversation that were
Spanish in the Uruguayan weekly newspaper Opinar
whose Founder and Director was Enrique Tarigo (1927-2002), Professor of
Procedural Law at Uruguay
(Capurro 1982). Tarigo became Vice President of Uruguay under President
María Sanguinetti between 1985 and 1989, which was the first
government after the military intervention of 1973-1985. In the
this interview Enrique Tarigo wrote:
From Germany: Rafael Capurro interviews von Weizsäcker.
Friedrich von Weizsäcker is one of the great names in 20th century
His life was dedicated to this: thinking. A disciple and friend of
Heisenberg, his original interest was in physics. In the thirties he
Quantum Theory together with Niels Bohr. This was the start of a deep
controversy about some presuppositions of Einstein's thinking that
persists. But physics was not the only passion of this man. His
deeper thinking took him to philosophy and particularly to the study of
thinkers, namely Plato and Kant. Religious thinking was also among his
of interest. But his life was not only dedicated to thinking. The
arising from nuclear weapons led him some years ago to setting up the Max Planck Institute for the Study of the
70, von Weizsäcker has retired from teaching but continues working
with a group
of scientists devoted to what remains his main research interest,
Quantum Theory. What follows are the responses of a multifaceted and
man given to the critical questions of our correspondent Rafael
and men come across a privileged mind. (Tarigo 1982, p. 20)
I. Physics and
Question. What is the contribution of philosophical thinking to modern physics and to science
Isn't it superfluous? Is it not enough to simply do science?
Answer. The fundamental
concepts of physics (matter, space, time, energy, etc.) originate in
philosophical tradition. I became aware very early on that physicists
not know what they are talking about. I decided to do research on the
such concepts. This took me first to Kant. But in order to understand
is necessary to have read Descartes who takes us to the Platonic and
Aristotelian medieval traditions. Plato and Aristotle can be considered
originators of such concepts, that is to say, they gave them an
crucial shape. My first philosophical steps in Kant were under the
my friend Georg Picht with whom I read without understanding much of
it, to say
the truth, the first twenty pages of the Critique
of Pure Reason.
Q. How would you see the relation
between philosophical thinking and a physicist’s everyday research?
A. In this point I think that the
distinction made by the American philosopher and historian of science,
S. Kuhn, in his book The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1962) might be helpful. Kuhn
between "normal" and "revolutionary science." Progress in
science is achieved, according to Kuhn, not by accumulating knowledge
based on leaps or "revolutions" when a traditional "paradigm"
used so far to explain phenomena is questioned and replaced by another
This is the case of, for instance, the revolution brought about by the
Copernican paradigm as opposed to the Ptolemaic one. During a period of
"normal science" scientific progress aims at looking for solutions to
a "puzzle" within a given paradigm. During such periods, philosophy
has no direct influence on scientific research, and can even be
contrast to a "revolutionary" period when a scientist can get an
opportunity to question given presuppositions thanks to radical
thinking. This is what we see in the case of Einstein influenced by
who himself criticized Newton.
Einstein did not believe in the Newtonian paradigm, although it worked.
Q. According to what you say,
philosophical thinking has the quality of incessantly questioning.
A. This quality originates in Greece.
Philosophy is a Greek experiment. Only analogically can we speak of
"philosophy" with regard to, for instance, the Vedas. Philosophy is per se
so beautiful that, similarly to other activities, it does not need a
The Path of
Q. How do you see the
questions raised by so-called alternative movements such as the
A. Ecology, in my understanding, is
a branch of modern biology and cannot be understood without it.
criticize some devastating applications of modern biology. But such
applications, I believe, are not a necessary consequence. A
path can be found also within the frame of modern natural science. Our
technology is not at its end. The path of natural science is consistent
true although we cannot predict the next steps of evolution based on
it. It was
not possible, for instance, to predict the existence of the main
before they arose or to predict Homer before the rise of epic poetry.
Q. But nevertheless, during the
A. Yes, there was a start, for
instance, with Leonardo da Vinci’s first attempts to predict. But the
such attempts are obvious.
Q. How would you see the relation,
for instance, between the path of natural science with other
reality such as poetry or painting?
A. Such paths, well understood, are
not opposed to natural science but they address different ways of
ourselves to reality that do not have the structure of
science. Our perception of beauty concerns the connections of a whole
natural science does not deal with and that, in a certain way, cannot
Natural science is of recent origin. Humans as hunters, farmers, poets,
have a long history. From an historical point of view, the description
reality provided by natural science was not and is not the only one.
Path of Meditation
Q. How in this context
do you see the concept of meditation as a path of knowledge?
R. Meditation is an experience that
arises originally in different religious traditions. Today it is
speak about it. This is why I only dare deal with your question with
shyness. On the other hand, it is something that I do not feel
teach. In order to come near to this phenomenon, the question, 'what
not very helpful. It is better to ask 'how do you do it?' But in this
well as in other fields, one only sees what one previously knows.
Q. Can you give a simple example
of 'how do you do it?'
A. You view a flower, for instance.
You view it. You remain a little bit longer. You close your eyes and
viewing the flower. You think that you and the flower are alone in the
It is a process of retreat. Imagine what this experience can mean if
you do not
do it just once but every day and if, instead of a flower, you
yourself. Learning to see the things themselves is what religions have
about. They are older than natural science. Its relation with them is
Q. In your writings you mention the
relativity of religious traditions.
A. Relativity in the sense of their
interconnection. Think about the Jesuit priest Ennomiya Lasalle, for
whom I know personally. He is also a ZEN monk. Religious experience is
sometimes the same but interpretations vary.
Q. And in the case of Christianity?
A. We have a high level of
rationality due particularly to the influence of Greek philosophy, in
to Buddhism, for instance. The question about 'salvation as such' has
had an historical answer. It is different in each case. The encounter
religions is, without doubt, the most important event of our age. If
science could become a partner in this dialogue on a parity basis,
after some world catastrophes, a new phase of consciousness could arise.
IV. The Unification of
Q. In your writings and
particularly in The Unity of Nature
(Weizsäcker 1971) you point to different paths that could lead to
the unity of
A. The present physical theory,
valid in all fields and tested millions of times, is Quantum Theory.
basically deals with can be summarized on a single page. The project is
formulate the conditions of possibility of the quantum phenomenon. To
the foundations for this theory is something to which I have pointed in
book you mentioned and also the one on which I am working at present.
Q. How do you see Einstein's
position with regard to Quantum Theory?
A. For Einstein it was difficult to
accept the fundamental probabilistic character of this theory. He
hidden parameters that would explain in a deterministic way all
phenomena. It was Heisenberg who, proceeding from the indeterminacy
radically questioned the world or, as we previously said, the paradigm
classical physics. In quantum physics we think with the category of
which is nothing other than the quantification of what is possible, and
possible is one of the dimensions of the structure of time, the
the future. A thinking of the possible is given only in relation to a
past from a concrete present. Modern physics is based on this
structure of time without which, as Heidegger says, we could not even
or understand the second principle of thermodynamics.
Q. How do you see modern currents
in the philosophy of science?
A. I already mentioned Thomas Kuhn.
But if we go back a little more we will remember Rudolf Carnap and his
criticism of apriorism: science must be empirical. But, what does
mean? Carnap defines it a priori.
Karl Popper remarked that the path of induction is wrong. The truth of
theories and general propositions cannot be achieved through
singular experiments. Science proceeds through propositions that prima facie do not look well-founded.
But, on the other hand, in my view, Popper's thinking is oriented
classical physics. This is the reason why I think that it is
Kuhn, by comparison, is more empirical by relying on the history of
revolutions. Scientific revolutions are, accordingly, paradigms that
yet been falsified.
Q. The introduction of the temporal
scheme would be one of these revolutions.
A. From a philosophical
perspective it was Heidegger who asked profoundly, again and again,
phenomenon of temporality.
V. Physics and
Q. How are quantum
physics and the experience of thinking addressed by Heidegger related
phenomenon of temporality?
A. The closeness of the issues is,
without doubt, greater with regard to Heidegger than to the philosophy
science, without implying a total equivalence with Heidegger's
Philosophy of science moves further and further from the real problems.
reminds me of Ernst Mach ― we talked
about him before ― who denied the existence of atoms and relativity.
Q. Heidegger says that science does
A. Which must be understood in the
sense that normal science ― in Thomas Kuhn's terminology ― does not
is to say, it does not question its own paradigm. In contrast to Edmund
Husserl, I believe that the basic shape of a phenomenon is not
unchangeable but takes place in time and can change according to
Plato's terminology, I would say that our challenge is about thinking
"idea" of time. We cannot escape time. We are not free to do it. I
remember an anecdote about Einstein asking Carnap and Popper 'what is
without receiving an acceptable answer. Einstein tried to eliminate
Shortly before he died, when somebody told him that a friend died a few
ago, he answered that "a few weeks ago" is an illusion. For a
physicist, as a believer, the difference between past, present and
future is an
illusion. I think, quite the contrary, that the introduction of three-dimensional time, that
was made explicit by Heidegger, can
bring about a new revolution in physics that would also resonate in
Already in Plato and Aristotle we find the key concept of kinesis,
that is to say, movement and change. Chronos,
literally translated as time, is already for Plato a
derivative representation of aion, a
term that I would like to leave untranslated. It implies the temporal
and refers, for instance, to a person’s lifetime.
A. Physics and philosophy meet
here, in the question concerning time,...
as if Magellan and Vasco da Gama, starting
from different points and in opposite directions, would meet during
this conversation – originally in
German, then published in Spanish –, thirty five years later is an
experience, not only because my thinking and, of course, my life have
but particularly because the world has changed with regard to what we
to calling the digital revolution, a paradigmatic change in the sense
by Thomas Kuhn and von Weizsäcker, having impact not only on
philosophy but also on everyday life. Nobody could have predicted at
the invention of the internet, although it was not far away. As with
paradigm changes, it has the tendency to overestimate itself and even
believe that this is eventually the final true paradigm change bringing
whom? – the foundation and the tools needed to better understand nature
in the case of physics, both classical and the
quantum, it is important not to forget, as von Weizsäcker remarks
beginning of this interview, the roots of digital technology not only
but also in Greek philosophy. Von Weizsäcker himself mentions
these roots with
respect to one key concept of our age, namely, information. He remarks
information, as distinct from matter and consciousness, is a third
category whose roots are the "Platonic eidos" and the
"Aristotelian form" "dressed up in a way that a human being in
the 20th century might learn about them." (Weizsäcker 1971a, 51).
remark sent me on a long journey of
research on the concept of information whose first result was my PhD on
etymology and history of ideas of the concept of information (Capurro
Von Weizsäcker mentions philosophy as being a Greek invention.
This is true.
But it is not less true that this invention became widespread in the
Hellenistic age as well as in the Arabic world, with the translation of
philosophers and, through them, later on into Latin in the Middle Ages.
Philosophy is originally intercultural, that is to say, it disseminates
hybridizes through the ages. If we want to understand who we are in the
age, that is to say, how we understand nature and ourselves from a
perspective, and what are the theoretical and practical gains and
such an enterprise, we must think about how foundational philosophical
categories such as time, matter, information, etc. are "dressed up" –
"eingekleidet" writes von Weizsäcker – in our time also in
languages and contexts (Capurro, Eldred, Nagel 2013).
Weizsäcker addresses particularly the issue
of three-dimensional time – as distinct from the pervading concept of
time as a
succession of 'nows' – being one of the main discoveries made by
essential not only for understanding Quantum Theory but also for
nature beyond the cast of Modernity (Eldred 2014, 2015). He also points
potential impact of this discovery in philosophy, an impact that
unthought, having also high relevance in the field of information
(Nakada, Capurro 2013). It needs no further evidence to become aware of
impact of digital technology in the lives of most people with different
of dependency on the time regime
instantiated by digital technology that regulate and even rule life,
becoming what is being called onlife.
The gains and losses of onlife
concern not only surveillance issues by different private and public
but also a loss of freedom that we could get back by going offlife
not only in everyday life but also in experiences of
meditation as addressed by von Weizsäcker in order to distance
oneself from the
obsessions of the digital age. What is particularly relevant for future
research in natural philosophy is to think about how the present
time regime grounded in digital technology affects the way we
and ourselves, the gains and losses thereof, and the possibility of a
revolutionary cast based on three-dimensional time as addressed by von
Weizsäcker thirty five years ago.
(1978). Information. Ein Beitrag zur
etymologischen und ideengeschichtlichen Begründung des
Rafael (1982). La deuda de la ciencia
natural. Opinar, Dec. 30, p. 20.
Rafael; Eldred, Michael; Nagel, Daniel
(2013). Digital Whoness: Identity,
Privacy and Freedom in the Cyberworld. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Michael (2014). Being Time Space:
Heidegger's Casting of World.
Michael (2015). A
Question of Time. An Alternative Cast of Mind. North
Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
of Chicago Press.
Makoto; Capurro, Rafael (2013). 'An
Intercultural Dialogue on
Roboethics,' in Makoto Nakada and Rafael Capurro (eds.): The Quest
Information Ethics and Roboethics in East and West. Research report on
in information ethics and roboethics in Japan and the West. Research
Group on the Information Society (ReGIS), Tsukuba (Japan)
and International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) (Karlsruhe, Germany)
(eds.), March 31, 2013, pp. 13-22. ISSN 2187-6061. http://www.capurro.de/intercultural_roboethics.html
Enrique (1982). Introducción. Opinar, Dec. 30,
Carl Friedrich von (1971). Die Einheit der Natur.
Munich: Hanser (Engl. The Unity of Nature. New
Friedrich von (1971a). Sprache als Information. In ibid.: Die
Einheit der Natur. Munich: Hanser.
Last update: August 14, 2018