Robert Harrison Monologue on Erwin Schrodinger
Entitled Opinions Stanford University
Minute Mark (MM)
Jeff Beck, ya have to love him. Welcome to this special edition of Entitled Opinions. Special in the sense that we are not going to air it on the radio because we don’t have our time slot anymore. I didn’t apply for a spring time slot. But so many of you wrote in expressing your sorrow that the Boccacio show was the last one of the season, I decided that I would share some thoughts with you today about the scientist Erwin Schrodinger. So sit back it might take a little while, but we’ll get through it.
And by the way another thing that keep you going over the months is a little book of mine coming out at the end of April, called GArdens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Now you know that I never plug my own work on this show, but that is a book that is ideal for your spring reading and summer reading I’d say; Gardens: An Essay On the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press.
I’ve been thinking for the last few years about a scientist named Erwin Schrodinger whose name is well known to many of you I’m sure and perhaps not so well known to others of you. He was one of the great scientists of the 20th century. In addition to being one of the great scientists of his age he was also, was Schrodinger, one of it’s great thinkers. When they are great both scientists and thinkers show us reality as it has never been seen before disclosing truths that had not been accessible before. I would claim even more radically that their view of the world transforms the very modes of the worlds self manifestations. Yet these close cousins, scientists and thinkers, are driven by two fundamentally different passions. The passion for explanation on the one hand and the passion for revelation on the other. Schrodinger, exceptionally, was driven by both of them. As a scientist he sought to explore and expound the laws of nature. As a thinker he sought to disclose and draw out the mystery of the world over which those laws hold sway. By the mystery of the world what I mean is the mystery of it’s providence, it’s lawfulness, and above all it’s self display to human witness. I believe that every great thinker is in the end a mystic of sorts. Whereas every great scientists is in the end a sleuth of sorts. Schrodinger was a sleuth who followed clues to edge of sciences field of vision and then looked beyond that edge into the mysterium of spiritual reality which is so bound up with and yet so unlike the reality of matter. That’s why I would say that Schrodinger reversed the usual trajectory of scientific inquiry. Science begins in wonder and ends in insight. Whereas Schrodinger’s inquiries began with insight and ended in wonder. A successful scientific investigation is supposed to put an end to wonder. At least that is what Francis Bacon, who was a classic apologists for modern science tells us: Bacon, in an essay of his called The Advancement of learning denigrated wonder as an inappropriate or at best a temporary scientific disposition. He spoke of wonder as, I’m quoting, “Broken Knowledge, Contemplation broken off or losing itself.” By which he meant that science as it advances toward certainty dispels the initial ignorance out of which wonder is born. I invoke Bacon here not because I believe he was a great thinker. He was far from that in my opinion. But because his ideas of wonder as broken knowledge express a far from obsolete presupposition of scientific inquiry. Namely that the unknown is merely as yet unconquered territory and that what Bacon confidently called the advancement of learning dissipates the cloud of mystery that otherwise attends phenomena. For Schrodinger this was exactly not the case. If science seeks to explain natural phenomena by natural causes, He found in scientific explanation an intensification, expansion, and justification of wonder. For it is the known that is the most wondrous of all for Schrodinger. It is reality itself that makes the case for mysticism. If one is a thinking scientist like Schrodinger the natural world in it’s intelligibility is what proves most astonishing at all. Far from demystifying the phenomena science renders it uncanny provided we are ready to think about what science explains. As Schrodinger practiced it thinking begins where science ends even if both are oriented toward the same object. Now one of the best examples of the way Schrodinger thought through scientific explanation enlisting it on behalf of wonder is his little book What Is Life? I spent a lot of time studying that book. It’s a book we read in our philosophical reading group here at Stanford a couple of years ago. It’s a book that brings together a series of public lectures that Schrodinger originally delivered at Trinity College in the year 1943. Here he looks at life or what he calls the physical aspect of the living cell, that’s the subtitle of his book: What is Life? He looks at this physical aspect of the living cell from the point of view of the laws of physics, only to conclude that the reproductive patterns of living things so defy those laws that the physicist is obliged to acknowledge the astounding exceptionalism of life in the order of matter. Schrodinger reminds us that the laws of physics are statistical in nature with inanimate matter and most of the universe is inanimate there is such a quotient of irregularity in the motion of individual atoms that order can only occur in very very large statistical numbers. That is why atoms are so small. Schrodinger explains in a beautiful chapter entitled precisely Why Are Atoms So Small. Have any of you ever asked yourselves that question, why are atoms so small? Well it takes an almost incalculable quantity of atoms to produce those statistical averages on which order depends in even the smallest organizations of inanimate matter. Schcrodinger writes, “in biology however we are faced with an entirely different situation where a single group of atoms, namely chromosomes, existing only in one copy produces orderly events marvelously tuned in with each other and with the environment according to the most subtle laws.“ These laws, Schrodinger adds, I’m quoting again, “cannot be reduced to the ordinary laws of physics. For the trans-generational stability and resiliency of a single molecule containing all the genetic information for the reproduction of life is from the point of view of physical law so improbable as to be essentially miraculous.” This is not to say that life does not obey natural laws. Schrodinger insists that it does even if those laws are so different from those of physics as to be completely baffling. All the more so the more science succeeds in explaining the hereditary mechanisms by which life reproduces it’s forms in unimaginably fine detail.
During this hour I’m not going to go into the more scientific and technical aspects into Schrodinger’s investigation of life. His definition for example of the chromosome as an a-periodic Crystal which was so hugely important in the development of what is now known as molecular biology or these fascinating conclusions he reaches with respect to the role of what he calls “negative entropy” plays in the sustenance of life. What I’d like to insist on here is that the marvel he expresses before the phenomena of life, especially in the final chapters of his book is not the breaking off of knowledge. Nor is it mere puzzlement before the unknown. It is precisely to the degree that Schrodinger comprehends the mechanism of life that he is in awe of them. That awe is an act of thinking that does not merely observe the phenomenon, it provokes it’s self-manifestation to human apperception. That, in my view, is what great scientific thinking does. It coaxes the phenomenon to appear. For a phenomenon does not appear where it goes unapprehended. To shine forth in it’s wonder the phenomena needs the thinker every bit as much as the thinker needs the phenomena. Now Schrodinger engages in plenty of explanation in What Is Life. Yet what makes it such a thoughtful book is it’s drive to account for the broader, even metaphysical implications of what he submits to lucid scientific analysis. What are we to make of life’s defiance of the laws of physics? Where does our knowledge of life’s reproductive mechanisms leave us with regard to our understanding of our place in the cosmic order of things. And most importantly, who are we, who seek to know the nature of things like life, matter, and their interaction. These are the kinds of questions that lurk in the penumbra of Schrodingers book. For what interests him most crucially is to bring scientific explanation to an outer perimeter from which or beyond which thinking may provoke a revelation of the irreducible occult nature of reality.
This is most evident in the epilogue to What Is Life. It’s brief fragmentary and altogether bizarre foray into this issue of determinism and free will seems to come out of nowhere. From what I can tell this epilogue has been largely if not completely ignored even by the most ardent of Schrodinger’s enthusiasts. I’m sure someone out there will say no it hasn’t been ignored at all look at this page look at that jopurnal, look at this publication. I have’nt found anything on it. Which is what intrigued me to further these reflections on Schrodinger. The epilogues eccentric after thought, that’s what I would call it, it has next to nothing to do with the matter at hand, namely what is life, yet Schrodinger insists there that he has earned the right to turn his thinking to the deeper question of what his investigation of the question of life all means in the end. I’m quoting him: “ As a reward for the serious trouble I have taken to expound the purely scientific aspects of our problem: sine ere et studio, (without anger or eagerness) I beg leave to add my own necessarily subjective view of the philosophical implications.”
I would like to review what Schrodinger takes to be these philosophical implications of these physics of the living cell. In less than four pages in the epilogue Schrodinger seeks to resolve the apparent contradiction between the following two premises each of which or so he claims is true. “One, my body functions as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature. Two, yet I know by incontrovertible experience that I am directing it’s motions.” Neither of the two premises has been established by the way given that one, Schrodinger has sown that the body is in fact a very exceptional phenomeon whose laws are quite different from mechanical laws. Two, there really has been no discussion in the preceding pages of who or what directs the body’s motion. This is not a problematic of the lectures What is Life. Nevertheless, Schrodinger presumes to reconcile his two premises by peremptorily declaring the following, “ The only possible inference from these two facts is I think that I, I in the widest meaning of the word that is to say every conscious mind that has ever said or felt I am the person if any who controls the motion of the atoms according to the laws of nature.” Now that statement is not as innocuous as it sounds because for SChrodinger the one who controls the motion of the atoms is God. Or the transcendent force we might call God. Indeed, he doesn’t shrink from declaring that were he to phrase his conclusion in more simple words he would be obliged to declare. “ I am God almighty.” “I am God almighty.” Quoting him again:
“Consider whether the above inference, that I am God, is the closest that a biologist can get to proving God and immortality at one stroke.” He then goes on to appeal to the authority of the Upanishads where wisdom consists in the realization that “the personal self equals the omnipresent all comprehending eternal self.” He appeals furthermore to the mystics of the Christian tradition as well as to the spontaneous certainty of “ those true lovers who when they look into each other’s eyes become aware that theor thought and their joy are numerically one not merely similar or identical.” So the main thesis here is the following: “conciousness is never experienced in the plural only in the singular.” expressed even more decisviely “conciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown.” Sharodingers conclusion “ There is only one thing in the universe and what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of the samething produced by a deception.” The Indian Maya. These are extravagant claims indeed and it leads me to suspect or maybe his readers to suspect that either Schrodinger the scientists went on holiday here or that he had been reading too much Aldous Huxley at the time. In fact in a note to his epilogue he acknowledges his debt to Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy. Which he calls “a beautiful book singularly fit to explain not only the state of affairs of human consciousness but also why it is so difficult to grasp and why it is so liable to meet with opposition.” So I would say that the epilogue performs a sudden somersault that propels us out of the realm of scientific reasoning and into a completely different realm of mystical speculation. In the form it takes here that mystical somersault is neither great science nor great thinking. We shouldn’t fool ourselves about that. Yet I believe it would be a mistake to dismiss it or not to take it seriously or to divorce it’s intent from Schrodingers scientific vocation. In fact I see the epilogues leap as a parting reminder to the reader that scientific knowledge of the material world in the final analysis throws us back upon the essential mystery of things. Including the mystery of those who pursue science in the first place namely ourselves.
What Schrodinger discusses so inadequately in his epilogue to What Is Life he treats in a much more serious rigorous and systematic vien in his other little book called Mind and Matter. In fact both of these little books are contained in the same edition published by Cambridge University Press. The most recent edition of which was published in the year 2004. I can’t summarize here all the fascinating phenomena, physical and psychical that Schrodinger deals with in this other provocative series of lectures called Mind and Matter. Suffice it to say he is primarily concerned here with two antinomies he calls them. Which are reminiscent of but not identical to the two premises mentioned above. Schrodinger phrases the first antinomy as follows, “All our knowledge about the world around us rests entirely on immediate sense perception, yet in the picture or model we form of the outside world guided by our scientific discoveries all sensual qualities are absent.” The second antinomy can be phrased as follows,” while the mind is a prime actor in the world the place where mind touches matter is uclocatable perhaps even non-existent.” Let’s take these two antinomies one at a time.
Discussing the way the world and our scientific description of it is deprived of sensual qualities Schrodinger dwells at length on the example of the color yellow. He writes: “If you ask a physicist what is his idea of yellow light he will tell you that it is transversal electromagnetic waves of wavelength in the neighborhood of five hundred and ninety millimicrons. Yet if you ask him where the sensation yellow fits into his picture the physicist will answer that it doesn’t enter his picture at all. All he knows is that, continuing to quote, these kinds of vibrations when they hit the retina of a healthy eye give the person whose eye it is the sensation of yellow.” The sensation of color as color cannot be accounted for by the physicists description of light waves nor by the physiologists description of retinas, nerve fibers, brain processes etc…. “We may be sure there is no nervous process whose objective description includes the characteristics yellow color or sweet taste. Just as little as the objective description of an electromagnetic wave includes either of these characteristics.” In his ensuing discussion of the sensation of sound Schrodinger arrives at exactly the same conclusion namely that while we have an exact physicalistic understanding of the characteristics of sound waves and an equally exact understanding of the physiological mechanisms by which the inner and outer ears register them “neither the physicists description nor that of the physiologists contains any trait of the sensation of sound.” This is prodigious paradox because all scientific knowledge passes through our senses even when it relies on computers and measuring instruments. You have to read those off a screen. You have to hear them off an instrument. So all scientific knowledge passes through our senses yet sensation as such is alien or unknown to science. Why? Because the experience of color touch taste and sound takes place in a realm that lies outside of the purview of science. The experience of sound, “is simply not contained in our scientific picture but is only in the mind of the person whose ear or brain we are speaking of. This mind it turns out is all together inaccessible to the objectivist reach of science.” What is it? (MM 24:09)
Well, Schrodingers first antinomy blends into the second antinomy regarding the place where mind and matter intersect. Now by mind Schrodinger means the subject of conscience as well as sentience and the reason why sensation, emotion, and thought are absent form the scientific picture is because “without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it we exclude the subject of cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand.” By that Schrodinger means that we step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world which by this very procedure becomes an objective world. This stepping back is a necessary condition for scientific knowledge which means objective knowledge. Schrodinger is aware that this is a high price to pay as he calls it, “I continue to regard the removal of the subject of cognizance from the objective world picture as the high price paid for a fairly satisfactory picture of the world.” And one has to say that he often reiterates his conviction in Mind and Matter that it’s not an unfair price to pay. In this regard he is unlike someone like Jung, for example, who “blames us for paying this ransom.” Schrodinger quotes Jung in Mind and Matter who, Jung who lamented, this is Jung now, “all science is a function of the soul in which all knowledge is rooted. The soul is the greatest of all cosmic miracles. It is the conditio sine qua non of the world as an object. It is exceedingly astonishing that the western world apart from very rare exceptions seems to have so little appreciation of this being so. The flood of external objects of cognizance has made the subject of all cognizance withdraw to the background often to apparent non-existence.” Now although at bottom he agrees with Jung on this score, Schrodinger nevertheless cautions that “a rapid withdrawal from the position held for two thousand years is dangerous.” In other words he’s not calling for science to turn a suicidal gun on it’s own head. Certainly that caution I would imagine is well founded. Perhaps what is called for is a slow withdrawal if not a rapid withdrawal. But it’s probably even better to say what is called for is an inner transmutation of the objectivist mission of science.
One of Schrodingers heroes among scientists was Sir Charles Sherrington who was an experimental physiologist early 20th century who embodied two qualities which for Schrodinger are utterly crucial to the calling of science, honesty and sincerity. Early on in Mind and Matter Schrodinger says the scientist only imposes two things, namely truth and sincerity. The word honest is used repeatedly with respect to Sherrington about whom Schrodinger writes the following, “Sheerington with his superior knowledge of what is actually going on in a living body is seen struggling with a paradox which in his candidness and absolute intellectual sincerity he does not try to hide away or explain away as many others would have done, nay have done, but he always almost brutally exposes it knowing very well that this is the only way of driving any problem of science or philosophy nearest it’s solution.” The paradox Schrodinger is referring to here is the existence of a mind that is the matrix of perceiving, feeling and thinking but yields no evidence of itself there where these events of feeling, perceiving and thinking presumably occur. Just as in his epilogue to what is life Schrodinger had declared that their are not many minds but only one universal mind in his Mind and Matter he quotes Sherrington to the effect that, “ from the physiological perspective there would appear to be many sub-minds in the brain.” And I don’t know enough about brain physiology to know what all these sub-minds refer to, but Sherrington says that despite the fact that there would appear to be multiple sub-minds we know that there is finally only one mind. This is the mind that says ‘I’ in the singular even when it suffers from schizophrenia.( I have to say that I am quite reminded of Immanuel Kant in the Critique Of Pure Reason when he’s talking about the synthetic unity of apperception precisely in the use of first person singular. Nevertheless, Kant does not enter into the discussion here.) What Sherrington wants to drive home is the fact that the mind has no native home in the brain. These are not just idle speculations of a scientist whose name has by now been largely forgotten, this is one of the most crucial issues in our own time regarding what is the relationship to the mind and the brain. So with that I quote a long passage from Sherrington’s immortal book ,as Schrodinger calls it, Man on Nature, was the title of that book where Sherrington writes the following: “Are there thus quasi independent sub-brains based on the several modalities of sense, ( because it would seem that for the sense of touch, for the sense of hearing, for the sense of sight and so forth there are separate clusters in the brain where these sensations are registered) so he asks, “are there quasi-independent sub-brains based on the several modalities of sense? In the roof brain the old five senses instead of being merged inextricably in one another and further submerged under mechanisms of higher order are still plain to find each demarcated in it’s separate sphere. (Fascinating with respect to synesthesia all this.) How far is the mind a collection of quasi-independent perceptual minds integrated psychically in large measure by temporal concurrence of experience? When it is a question of mind the nervous system does not integrate itself by centralization upon a pontifical cell. Rather it elaborates a million fold democracy whose each unit is a cell the concrete life compounded of sub-lives reveals,although integrated, it’s additive nature and declares itself an affair of minute foci of life acting together. When however we turn to the mind, away from the brain, there is nothing of all this. The single nerve cell is never a miniature brain. The cellular constitution of the body need not be, for any hint of it, for mind. A single pontifical brain cell could not assure to the mental reaction a character more unified and non-atomic then does the brain roofs multitudinous sheets of cells. Matter and energy seem granular in structure and so does life, but not so the mind.”
What we encounter here is the puzzlement of a scientist who has looked everywhere within his scientific purview for the mind’s connection with matter and has come up empty handed. It is more than puzzlement. It is astonishment. Sherrington writes, “Then the impasse meets us. The blank of the how of mind’s leverage on matter. The inconsequent staggers us. Is it a misunderstanding?” Analytical philosophers may well say that it is a misunderstanding. And that Schrodingers and Sherrington’s use of the word ‘mind’ is confused or inconsistent. Yet their academic misery does not touch us here. La Vostra miseria no mitange …as Beatrice says to Virgil in Inferno 2. What interest us is the call to thinking in declarations of Schcrodinger like the following, “Mind has erected the objective outside world of the natural philosopher out of it’s own stuff. Mind could not cope with this gigantic task otherwise than by the simplifying device of excluding itself withdrawing from it’s conceptual creation.” Perhaps it is only by virtue of it’s abstention from the picture of it’s own self withdrawal that mind makes room for it’s conceptual creation; that is for the world of space and time as such. Perhaps it is the mind’s removal from it’s creation that makes the movement of the sun and the other stars, or the movement of thought that thinks on objects or the movement of perception that takes cognizance of them through the medium of sensation. Perhaps the world like a stage or a piazza needs to be empty if it is to be filled and that mind leaves behind in it’s wake as it were this original emptiness in whose void the phenomenon first makes it’s appearance. Indeed perhaps it is because mind has left behind no hard evidence of itself in it’s creation that reductionists like E.O.Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennet and any other number of pseudo scientific materialists can claim that there is no ghost in the machine, that mind is a declension of the brain and parts of the central nervous system. Or in E.O. Wilson’s summation of the reductionists view, “The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction. The intellect was not constructed to understand atoms or even to understand itself, but to promote the survival of human genes. Aesthetic judgements and religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanistic process.” I actually like Edward Wilson. He was here for a conference a couple of years ago. He is a very nice gentleman but I obviously do not share his reductionism. You know a reductionist is by definition an enemy of wonder. For a reductionist the fact that one can not find any material evidence for what Schrodinger calls the mind means that the mind is not a transorganic phenomena. Whereas for Schrodinger the absence of material evidence in the scientific picture of the brain is the most wondrous of all confirmations of the mind’s spiritual and even transcendent nature.
When Schrodinger declares that the mind’s conceptual creation does not contain it’s creator he is making a statement that cannot be verified. Since verification belongs to the domain of the conceptual creation, that is to the objective world of the natural philosopher. Wether or not we believe as Schrodinger does, or did, that there are no discreet minds in the plural but only one universal mind to which all individual minds belong by participation we can be sure that “the blank of the how of the mind’s leverage on matter” is a genuine blank and not just the result of a linguistic or categorical confusion. We can also trust Schrodinger when he claims the following, “While the stuff from which our world picture is built is yielded exclusively from the sense organs as organs of the mind so that every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence yet the conscious mind remains a stranger within that construct. It has no living space. You can spot it nowhere in space.” Again, it is not a belief in ghosts that affirms this. It is the honest and sincere scientific search for the place where mind and matter intersect. A place that withholds it’s location even as it constantly takes place in animal sensation and human consciousness. This is what one might call the mystical irony of Schrodingers thought namely his awareness that scientific knowledge is a form of not knowing. His awareness that there is a blind spot at the heart of the scientific world picture. And not just any blind spot, but one that opens the objective field of vision itself. As the subject of sensation and cognition the mind is the happening of perception itself. It’s the conversion of matter into meaning, the translation of nature into world, and the opening of the “eye” that sees things for what they are. This happening of world disclosure is what science does not see as it scrutinizes what appears within it’s field of vision. Schcrodinger called on us not to overcome but to acknowledge the irony of this human condition. Because that’s what it is finally, a condition. To acknowledge it as ineluctable and ultimately fruitful. Such acknowledgement is not easy though. It means living with or better living in the mystery of who we are and that means living in the mystery of not knowing finally who we are in so far as we are sentient and thinking beings. This in turn means accepting the fact that the selfhood of a person is not located in the interior of his or her body. We are so accustomed, Schrodinger says to locating the conscious personality, “inside a persons head, I should say an inch or two behind the mid-point of the eyes.” That we forget that this localization, “is only symbolic and just an aid for practical use.” We forget that it’s only symbolic. We may as Schrodinger writes, “observe several efferent bundles of pulsating currents which issue from the brain and through long cellular protrusions, motor nerve fibers, are conducted to certain muscles of the arm which as a consequence tends a hesitating trembling hand to bid you farewell for a long heart rending separation. At the same time you may find that some other pulsating bundles produce a certain glandular so as to veil the poor sad eyes with a crepe of tears, but nowhere along this way from the eye through the central organ to the arm muscles to the tear glands, nowhere you may be sure however far physiology advances will you ever meet the personality, will you ever meet the dire pain, the bewildered worry within this soul.”
I think we can take a short break there about one minute.
Jeff Beck again.
So I just read a long quote from Schrodinger: “never will you meet the dire pain the bewildered worry within this soul.” The scientist, the physiologist, the physicist finding himself at such a loss if he’s a thinking scientist will be confronted by the mystery of what our scientific picture of the world fails to contain. By the same token one is confronted by the mystery of what that picture does in fact contain. Namely the stubborn existence of matter. In fact I find it much more mysterious what is in the picture than what is outside of the picture. Nothing is more mysterious finally than matter in it’s refusal to yield the secret of it’s connection to mind. I know that ‘mind’ is a completely impoverished word here for the phenomena in question. But be that as it may we continue to use it because it’s Schrodinger’s word. The more we learn about matter in it’s inanimate and animate modes, the more we actually fail to grasp it’s nature. This failure has nothing to do with Bacon’s broken knowledge and everything to do with the way the world of matter resists humanization. All the more so when it lends itself to scientific explanation. We simply cannot nor will we ever recognize ourselves in the picture short of a mystical vision that takes us beyond our human limitations. In What Is Life Schrodinger probes the disconnection between the laws of physics and the phenomenon of life. In Mind And Matter he probes the disconnection between our lived experience of sentience cognition and emotion on the one hand and the material substrate on which that experience depends on the other. Scientists are not particularly fond of disconnections. Schrodinger suggests on various occasions that is takes a great deal of intellectual sincerity to acknowledge the blanks the impasses and the dead ends of scientific inquiry. That is one reason why he admired Sir Charles Sherrington so much. Who, in his absolute intellectual sincerity, did not hide away or explain away the paradoxes that he struggled with, but brutally exposed them, “knowing very well that this is the only way of driving any problem in science or philosophy nearer to it’s solution.” I would venture to put forward the notion that this is the kind of sincerity that we do not always find in the scientific discourse of our times today. A scientific discourse which is often reluctant to acknowledge how much is left out of it’s increasingly delimited objectivist picture of matter above all of living matter. Certainly when it comes to the relation between mind and matter we find a particular aversion to grapple with the quandaries in a meaningful way. Rather we just hide them away more than grapple with them. There is this widespread tendency I believe to either hide or explain away the paradoxes through reductionist or purely materialist schemes. Rather than to confess the inadequacy of those schemes when it comes to matters’ infusion by spirit. We do not ask of science to abandon it’s drive to explain natural phenomena through natural causes. Science is one of the glories of the world. But the lesson one draws from Schrodinger, at least that I am drawing from Schrodinger, my reading of him, is that one may ask of science that it strive to become more thoughtful. To say nothing of becoming more respectful with regard to the mysterium that surrounds and permeates the world of nature. Instead of becoming more thoughtful however science today seems determined to become ever more defensive with respect to suggestions that, “there is more between heaven and earth then dreamt of in your philosophy.”
In a recent NYT editorial physicist Paul Davies declared that a rigid separation between science and faith is untenable since science has a faith of it’s own when it comes to believing in the existence and immutability of the laws of nature. I quote Davies from that article: “Clearly both religion and science are founded on faith. Namely on belief in the existence of something outside the universe like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws. Maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes too. For that reason both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.” There’s the scientist in Davies, his ultimate goal is still to provide a complete account of physical existence. This is the passion I was talking about at the beginning. There is nothing to do about it. If you have that passion then you are bona fida scientist. I have absolutely no desire myself to come up with a complete account of physical existence. On the other hand a revelation of the unthinkable the unimaginable, the completely improbable, now that would turn me on.
Davies relates in that article how over the years he has often asked his physicists colleagues where the laws of the physical universe come from and why they are the way they are? The replies vary from that’s not a scientific question to nobody knows. The favorite reply he writes is, “There’s no reason why they are what they are they just are.” But Davies rightly insists that there is at least a paradox here. Acknowledging a paradox is the very beginning of intellectual sincerity in this domain. So the paradox is on the one had we believe that the existence of laws certifies that nature is open to rational investigation and explanation on the other we believe that those same laws are without reason. The ‘we’ here include those scientists who insist that science has no business in dealing with those paradoxes and who feel that any attempt to do so would threaten the integrity of science itself. Precisely because one cannot deal with such a paradox scientifically. Davies article in fact illicited an enormous response in the blogoshpere. Much of it hostile and much of it from his fellow scientists who took Davies to task for even suggesting that science and religion are not as far apart as some believe. Schrodinger who was a hero to many of those who attacked Davies was not nearly as defensive about the promiscuous relationship between science and religion. Early in Mind And Matter he addresses the paradox of one world cyrstallizing out of the many minds. Later in the same book he discusses the paradox confronted by Sheerington regarding one mind arising out of manifold sub brains. Quoting Schrodinger, “I submit that both paradoxes will be solved by assimilating into our western build of science the eastern doctrine of identity. Mind is by it’s very nature a singulare tantum. I should say the overall number of minds is just one. I venture to call it indestructible since it has a peculiar time table namely mind is always now. There is really no before or after for mind there is only a now that includes memories and expectations.” Schrodinger’s speculation about mind in the singular, (very reminiscent of Avveroes’ universal intellect by the way -but we won’t get into that here,) these speculations are beyond the pale of science to be sure . Yet it was science that led him to them. In his own words, “But I grant that our language is not adequate to express this and I also grant should anyone wish to state it that I am now talking religion not science. A religion however not opposed to science but supported by what disinterested scientific research has brought to the fore.” One cannot say that in the past half century science has moved in the direction Schrodinger envisioned when he spoke of assimilating into our western build of science other kinds of doctrines more spiritually oriented than the militant materialism of the western models. If anything western science has become ever more narrow minded if you’ll permit me that pun. And evermore dominated by it’s drive to explain as opposed to reveal. That explanatory drive in turn is bound up with the whole era of modern technology or the drive of modern technology to achieve what Descartes called “a complete mastery and possession of nature.” As a result of such a drive much of contemporary science remains aggressively objectivistic as it continues to advance and to realize that Cartesian dream which is rapidly becoming a reality for better or worse.
It is impossible to imagine a universe more astonishing than ours or a phenomenon more miraculous than a living cell. Yet without a sentient mind to take cognizance of it the world remains a mute colorless impalpable and altogether wonder less place. Schrodinger could not get himself to believe that the world had to wait for a wholly contingent evolutionary development as the animal brain in order to take cognizance of itself. The animal brain is a very special contraption, he tells us, that facilitates the propagation and preservation of certain species. (Remember the Wilson quote. That’s the brain, but Wilson was talking about the mind the human mind.) Millions if not billions of years many life forms maintain themselves without such contraptions as brains and many today still do so. Schrodinger: “Only a small fraction of them if you count by species have embarked on getting themselves a brain.” This scientific fact raises the overwhelming question for Schrodinger. Before certain creatures and particular human beings acquired brains was the world a glorious spectacle without witness: “Should it all have been a performance to empty stalls? Nay, may we call a world that nobody contemplates even that a world.” That question was so disturbing that Schrodinger goes on to ask, “But a world existing for many millions of years without any mind being aware of it contemplating it is it anything at all?” In a statement that assures us that he was not a dualist , at least not a conventional dualist, Schrodinger declared that, “It is a misnomer to say that the world is reflected in a conscious mind.” He writes, “The world is given once, not twice. Nothing is reflected. The original and the mirror image are identical. The world extended in space and time is but our representation.” The romance of the world as he calls it, the romance that the world had with itself prior to the evolution of the brains that became the biological substrate for conscious minds. This romance of the world is perhaps the darkest of all blind spots in the picture of human knowledge. One does not know what to make of it. In Heidegerrian terms one would say that without Dasien there is no Sien. Or without human existence there is no being. Without human being there is no being. Hence that prior to humanities advent in the world there was no world to speak of. Nature existed to be sure yet it had no being. Now Schrodinger doesn’t use this Heidegerrian language of being. Instead without resolving the paradox or dispelling the blindness it condemns us to he says that sometimes a painter will smuggle into his painting an unobtrusive self portrait. For example Michelangelo does this in his Last Judgement fresco. Those of you who’ve seen that at the bottom you see a little self portrait of Michelangelo there in that fresco. Or a poet will do something similar as when Homer gives a discreet portrait of himself in the blind bard who sings of the Trojan War in the halls of the Phiesians. Scrhodinger declares, “To me this seems to be the best simile of the bewildering double role of the mind. On the one hand mind is the artist who has produced the whole. In the accomplished work however it is but an insignificant accessory that might be absent without detracting from the total effect.”
Schrodinger’s reflection on mind are so unabashedly speculative that they can be easily dismissed by scientists and philosophers alike. Yet we don’t need to defend the truth value of his claims in order to affirm that those reflections show why Schrodinger was a great thinker. It takes a great scientific thinker to think through the picture and beyond it. Even if there is nothing that thinker can do to coerce it’s author into the picture. Schrodinger, “I do not find God anywhere in space and time that is what the honest naturalist tells you. For this he incurs blame from him in whose catechism it is written God is Spirit.” So, while that sounds like the statement of a believer one could also read it as a defense of the vulgar atheists like Dennet, Dawkins and so forth, The God Delsuion, authors of books like that. So the difficulty of speaking of certain matters does not mean that he who raises his voice about them is a dreamer or a fool. So when Wittgenstein famously ends his Tractatus with the proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” We could answer that the one thing we learn from Mind And Matter and to some extent also What Is LIfe is that the intrinsic limitations of human knowledge especially in it’s objectivists manifestations is not an excuse for silence. On the contrary, our refusal to remain silent about that whereof on cannot speak is the best evidence for what we might call the life of the mind. That is why we can go along with Schrodinger when he declares, “Most painful is the absolute silence of all our scientific investigations toward our questions concerning the meaning and scope of the whole display. The more attentively we watch it, the more aimless and foolish it appears. The show that is going on obviously acquires a meaning only with regard to the mind that contemplates it, but what science tells us about this relationship is patently absurd. As if mind had only been produced by that very display that it is now watching and would pass away with it when the sun finally cools down and the earth has been turned into a desert of ice and snow.”
It is to be hoped that this absolute silence of scientific research as it pursues it’s objective of an unconditional mastery of nature will not turn the earth into such a desert long before the sun finally cools down. It is to be hoped further more that the stalls, the stalls will not go empty again before the show comes to an end.
Meanwhile this show my friends has come to an end. Bye bye.