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What Is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches (Canto Classics)

Image of What is Life? (Canto Classics)
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
April 2016
Fred's Rating: 
Erwin Schrödinger
Total Pages: 
Cambridge Univ. Press

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933, for his 1926 introduction of Schrödinger's mathematical equation for the wave function of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics. First publication dates: 1944 for ‘What Is Life?’, 1956 for ‘Mind and Matter’, 1960 for ‘Autobiographical Sketches.’

The Amazon website for the paperback edition of this book is

The Home page has too brief a summary for these two books. I recommend you first scroll down the home page and read the first two of Amazon’s reviews.

I recommend Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option. The 4-pp Contents gives details of subtopics for each of the seven chapters of ’What Is Life?’ – I really like to see such details in the Contents of a book. I also like the fact that the notes are actual footnotes at the bottom of a page – something that rarely happens in more recent books. The 1-p Foreword by Roger Penrose provides an excellent overview of ‘What Is Life?’

The 2-pp Preface by Erwin Schrödinger gives a superb preview of his thoughts on writing in language fit for much of the general public on the implications quantum physics has on the formidable topic of an understanding of what is the meaning of life in the new age of quantum physics. Many people came to his talks, for his reputation of giving good explanations to the public became widely known. Including the Preface, ‘What Is Life?’ covers some diverse topics that he makes come together in just 90 pages. The Epilogue – On Determinism and Free Will – is a philosophic topic that philosophers have argued about for many ages. What he says about it in just a bit over four pages is significant, for he reviews concepts from both eastern and western ideologies, and at the end he presents concepts that have been shared by many scientists and philosophers, but, as should be expected, may still remain too vague to satisfy those who want more certainty or clarity.

I had read ‘What Is Life’ while in graduate school at Indiana University. My major professor, Roger Wilkinson, loaned me his well-worn book – he had lost count of how many physicists and others he had loaned it to. He loaned it to me when I asked him how to explain to non-scientists how essential quantum physics is for life on earth. When I returned it we discussed parts of it that may be a bit hard for a non-scientist to grasp. Then he gave me a few minutes to come up with a short answer to this question: “How essential is quantum physics for life?” As I recall, I said something like: “Classical physics failed to explain why life existed. Classical physics couldn’t even explain the simplest atom, H (hydrogen) – it predicted the e (electron) in H would spiral inward, radiating away energy in about 10 billionths of a second and then colliding with the p (proton) in H. This collision would give one n (neutron) and there would be no life in the universe. But quantum physics explains the stability of H and atomic structure in general. Atoms can form molecules. Groups of molecules can form the cells needed for life. The details get more difficult when many more basic particles – p, e, n – combine.” He was satisfied with my short answer. In ‘What Is Life’ Schrödinger discusses many of the “details” of quantum physics.

The part I most enjoyed rereading was the brief Epilogue – On Determinism and Free Will. Here are a few quotes. He opens with “As a reward for the serious trouble I have taken to expound the purely scientific aspects of our problem, … I beg Ieave to add my own, necessarily subjective, view of the philosophical implications.” He soon gets to comments about human experiences.

“But immediate experiences in themselves, however various and disparate they be, are logically incapable of contradicting each other. So let us see whether we cannot draw the correct, non-contradictory conclusion from the following two premises:

“(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.

“(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and may be all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.

“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.”

A key point to consider is, at that time as well as today, determinism (or materialism, or no-free-will) is a philosophy that has the inescapable consequence of, to put it most simply, saying: “I’m not responsible for my actions.” Another consequence for anybody taking a hard stance of being a wholly convinced believer of determinism would be to empty all jails and prisons, for those inside can’t be held responsible for their actions. Yet I’ve read of philosophers who claim to be deterministic, but say we should still ‘act’ as if people are responsible for their actions. I’ve always wondered how anyone could be comfortable with such inconsistent ideas; for me, they are too weird to believe. (So I end up assuming their philosophy is a “work in progress,” to be as gentle with them as I can.)

Schrödinger briefly discusses a few philosophies about consciousness and the existence of a soul. What he concludes is that: … “the immediate experience that consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing.” This does not tell us what consciousness or a soul is. But it tells us that they can only be singular, even when one matures and lives in a new place, with new friends, and a new lifestyle. This example is worth considering: “less and less important will become the fact that, while living your new life, you still recollect the old one. ‘The youth that was I’, you may come to speak of him in the third person, indeed the protagonist of the novel you are reading is probably nearer to your heart, certainly more intently alive and better known to you. Yet there has been no intermediate break, no death.” . . . “Nor will there ever be.”

“Nor will there ever be” is the very last sentence of ‘What Is Life’. What is means is uncertain. Does it mean he believes your soul is immortal? Or does it mean that there are no deaths in the person you are, in comparison to the person you were in your youth or the person you may become at the time of a possible future major change in your lifestyle? This is one of the things I discussed with my major prof, Roger Wilkinson, after I had returned the book to him. As an agnostic, he told me he didn’t know what Schrödinger had in mind. He had pondered this earlier, but he couldn’t decide what was meant by Schrödinger. We never discussed this again. As a Christian, I stand, as I did then, with the concept of an immortal soul, even though, as it is with consciousness, the meanings of these two words are still undergoing much effort among many philosophers, theologians, or others, like me.

The second book – ‘Mind and Matter’ – is also short at 72 pages. It is what he presented at the Tarner Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1956, thus a dozen years after his book ‘What Is Life?’ was first published. I had to read ‘Mind and Matter’ twice to be sure I had not missed anything important. He first discusses the nature of a scientific worldview, then later expands that to the full nature of a human.

Schrödinger begins Ch.1 – The Physical Basis of Consciousness – with “The world is a construct of our sensations, perceptions, memories. It is convenient to regard it as existing objectively on its own. But it certainly does not become manifest by its mere existence. Its becoming manifest is conditional on very special goings-on in very special parts of this very world, namely on certain events that happen in a brain.” This leads to his thoughts on the concept of consciousness and unconsciousness. A problem here (possibly due to translation from German) is that he uses the word unconscious to include what we call a nonconscious state – the mental state of our doing something without having to think about how we do it, such as riding a bicycle. Anytime we do something without ‘thinking about it’ is the signature of the nonconscious. We reserve the word unconscious for mental states like deep sleep. This is nothing new. He doesn’t give any answer to define what the consciousness state is, other than to say that the brain is involved. He does state: “I would summarize my general hypothesis thus: consciousness is associated with the ‘learning’ of the living substance; its ‘knowing how’ is unconscious [i.e., nonconscious]” To limit his hypothesis to just consciousness that involves learning something (so that we can do it while in a nonconscious state) is quite inadequate. In Ch.1 he doesn’t mention ‘mind’ and how it may (or may not, as some today claim) involve more than the brain. Some today say that the brain is like the hardware of a computer, so it operates on the software we give it as input to produce some output. As with many philosophers today, I also think this is an oversimplification, for the ‘mind’ is more than software. But he gets around to ‘mind’ and “Mind’ in Ch. 4.

In Ch. 2 – The Future of Understanding – he examines the evolution of humans, stating: “In the case of man several arguments seem to militate against further evolution.” … “Even if this were so, it need not bother us.” … “Still, from a certain philosophical point of view, the idea is depressing, and I should try to make out a case for the contrary.” In Ch. 2 he does not succeed in making such a case, mainly because humans make better and better machines to do work or solve problems for us. Near the end of Ch. 2 he states: “Now I believe that the increasing mechanization and ‘stupidification’ of most manufacturing processes involve the serious danger of a general degeneration of our organ of intelligence.” At the time (1956) he gave this talk, computers still lay in the future, but it seems to me that, had he known about using robots in manufacturing, he would have included computers as better and better machines, requiring less and less human work.

In Ch. 3 – The Principle of Objectivation - he begins with “Nine years ago I put forward two general principles that form the basis of the scientific method, the principle of the understandability of nature, and the principle of objectivation.” He then focuses mainly on the latter. After discussing the concepts of subject and object, he came up with this: “In my own words I would express this by saying: Mind has erected the objective outside world of the natural philosopher out of its own stuff. Mind could not cope with this gigantic task otherwise than by the simplifying device of excluding itself – withdrawing from its conceptual creation. Hence the latter does not contain its creator.” In further discussion he says that “we accept the time-hallowed discrimination between subject and object. Though we have to accept it in everyday life ‘for practical reference’, we ought, so I believe, to abandon it in philosophical thought. Its rigid logical consequences have been revealed by Kant: the sublime, but empty, idea of the ‘thing-in-itself’ about which we forever know nothing.

“It is the same elements that go to compose my mind and the world. This situation is the same for every mind and its world, in spite of the unfathomable abundance of ‘cross-references’ between them. The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have been broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.”

Subject and object being only one is one tough concept to grasp. In term of doing a physics experiment, as I have said often to nonscientists, there is a practical aspect – if all physicists who repeat the experiment get the same result then we say that the result is objective. When many different scientists, with a diversity of personalities, all agree on the experimental result, that is a ‘practical objectivation’ – being independent of the individual subjectivity of the various experimenters. But results require interpretation, which is where individuals, or teams of them, come to different conclusions about what the result means. Usually the best interpretation wins after very much discussion.

In Ch. 4 – The Arithmetical Paradox: The Oneness of Mind – he goes beyond a scientific worldview. His first sentence is “The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere in our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be a part of it. “ …”The several domains of ‘private’ consciousness partly overlap.” But no two human minds are identical with each other, which is the idea of the arithmetical paradox. And then he rather abruptly leads the reader into the mind beyond that of the scientific worldview (where ‘their’ refers to human’s minds): “Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind. This is the doctrine of the Upanishads. And not only of the Upanishads. The mystically experienced union with God regularly entails this attitude unless it is opposed by strong existing prejudices; and this means that it is less easily accepted in the West than in the East.” I’ve learned that a mystical state of mind - the result of deep meditation in the West as in the East - can sometimes get one into the ‘open mind’ mental state where one can have experiences of the ‘Unity of the Universe,’ the Oneness of the Universal Divinity, whose Mind, Soul, and Consciousness are aware of and connected to each of our minds, souls, and consciousness. Experiencing this mystical state of Oneness is beyond clear explanation – perhaps the best allegory is when one’s feeling of beauty and truth become uplifted upon hearing tremendously moving music. Words to describe it are usually impossible, or at best very far from adequate.

In Ch. 4 Schrödinger says: “My purpose in this discussion is to contribute perhaps to clearing the way for a future assimilation of the doctrine of identity with our own scientific world view, without having to pay for it by a loss of soberness and logical precision.” Near the end of Ch. 4, he says: “Most painful is the absolute silence of all our scientific investigations towards our questions concerning the meaning and scope of the whole display [what we observe in science].” I feel that his pain is what lead him to the “My purpose …” sentence above. Many efforts in making science and religion become united into a new world view have progressed significantly since his time. At the end of Ch. 4 he says: “No personal god can form part of a world model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it. We know, when God is experienced, this is an event as real as an immediate sense perception or as one’s own personality. Like them he must be missing in the space-time picture. 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 whose catechism is written: God is spirit.” There is very much food for thought here in Ch. 4 of the book ‘Mind and Matter’.

I suggest the reader stop here, for the two remaining chapters are too dated for science and religion and depend too much on math and physics. In comparison to the buildup to Ch. 4, the last two chapters are letdowns that I feel should be considered as adequate for appendices that one can ignore. I found the 18-pp ‘Autobiographical Sketches’ to be interesting, but this likely because I’ve known about most of the people and places of his life – they only reinforce my already high opinion for his contributions to quantum physics during the early and middle years of the twentieth century.

This review involves two books by Erwin Schrödinger, so it is about twice as long as my usual long reviews. The topics don’t have much overlap, but I consider each book to be worth five stars.

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