Schrödinger – What is Life? / Mind and Matter

Working my way through a number of perennial philosophy references provided by Bruce Adam, initially in response to my After the Fireworks” Pirsig piece, and some subsequent posts. In fact I already collected most of the links in the “Perennialism” post.

I have the Clifford and J S Haldane materials ready to read.

Bruce also provided links to some on-line archive copies of Schrödinger – “What is Life?” and  “Mind & Matter“. I’d already read, liked and blogged reviews of these way back in 2004.

Out of curiosity I opened my copy of Schrödinger. The specific pages Bruce referenced – with Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy” were heavily annotated by me at the time:

The final note to the Epilogue of “What is Life?“:

And later in “Mind & Matter“:

That Schrödinger quote on Huxley: “fit to explain, but difficult to grasp and liable to meet with opposition” – same problem I was having with “meta” in my previous post. Same problem dealing with anything tainted with “woo”.

Quick skim also reminds me of Schrödinger’s references to Spinoza and to some of the same Sanskrit / Upanishad terms and concepts picked-up on by Pirsig. What goes around comes around. I mused on that in my 2004 comments too.

[PS – One of the most irritating things about the man’s damn cat, is that so many people quote it without realising it was only ever a thought experiment intended to show how ludicrous the theory was around uncertainty and superposition, NOT as a means to visualise a physical possibility AND by concentrating on this trivial, social-media-friendly-cuddly-cat erroneous item, the quality of the man’s actual thought and writing is practically consigned to oblivion. Grrrr.

That was one thing Stephen Hawking got right, “When I hear of Schrödinger’s  cat I reach for my gun.“]

[Post Note: And ha, apparently it is 75 years since Schrödinger gave the What is Life Lecture:

And this image sums up the regretful state of his damn cat. If only!]

5 thoughts on “Schrödinger – What is Life? / Mind and Matter”

  1. Nice one, Ian. Schrodinger’s double endorsement of Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy is valuable , as are the two essays themselves.

    I agree wholeheartedly about his half-dead pussy. That’s one of the reasons I think he’d endorse QBism.

    I’ve just read the first half-dozen chapters in his “My View of the World” in which he pursues his Vedantic thought relentlessly even to the point of persuading this reader to suspend disbelief in reincarnation until he concludes the essay. I think he’s earned enough respect that I’ll even follow him into these rather treacherous waters. I’ll suspend judgement as well as disbelief , but watch this space . I’ll probably start looking back through “Huxley and God” the anthology of his essays for the Vedanta Society in California. ( with an intro by Huston Smith.) And it may lead me to look back through some of Copleston’s “Religion and the One”.
    The religious aspects of the mystical monism at the core of perennialism are best approached with trustworthy , well grounded guides like these and Hossein Nasr , in Islam . Apparently Copleston was a Jesuit, but you wouldn’t know that from his philosophology , which is academic and objective.

    I tend to avoid this theological side of the equation as anything remotely theistic is a minefield of reifications. But Anseri of Herart , St John of the Cross and The Cloud of Unknowing and the other theists quoted in “The Perennial Philosophy” sing the same song nonetheless.

    As Schrodinger says in “My View of the World” : ” This kind of account practically forces us to regard one or other of these thinkers , or both of them , as crazy , or at the very least as totally lacking in judgement . One is then very apt to start wondering how posterity , including oneself , can possibly think the ill-considered babblings of such blockheads worth any closer attention.

    But one is dealing at least in very many cases with well founded convictions of highly competent minds and hence one can be sure that differences in their judgement correspond to differences in the object of it , at least in so far as different aspects of it were given prominence in their reflective consciousness.

    A critical account of their thought should , instead of stressing the contradictions between them , as is usually done , aim at combining these aspects into one total picture – needless to say ,without compromise , which can only lead to confused and hence a-priori untrue statements.

    The real trouble is this , giving expression to thought in the observable medium of words is like the work of the silkworm. In being made into silk the material achieves its value. But in the light of day it stiffens, it becomes something alien , no longer malleable.
    True we can then more easily and freely recall the same thought but perhaps we can never experience it again in its original freshness.”

    That last paragraph distinguishes static quality from dynamic quality rather well .

    This phrase “at least in so far as different aspects of it were given prominence in their reflective consciousness ” has echoes of a notion that’s floated across my mind a few times since reading of Kastrup’s concept of mind.
    I envisage an organ, like a Hammond say, with a infinite number of “stops” each of which plays the same tune with a different raft of overtones ,that in this type of organ mimics other instruments and voices each of which is accompanied by different harmonic combinations. In our case the “overtones” are not harmonic vibrations but harmonic ideas , analogous to the experience being expressed by them. It’s a half-baked notion but I thought it might just be worth sharing.

    I’ll be very surprised if I don’t glean some valuable insights from the rest of Schrodinger’ s small book , so back to the book it is.



  2. Well , I’ve just finished “My View of the World” . He has a fine dry wit at play in his writing and it’s never far away in these two essays.
    The first , from 1925 , takes us into deep metaphysical conceptions which entertain not only re-incarnation but scientific theories which , though current at that time , now appear Lamarckian. But he deals with these in a manner which needn’t lose him a rational readership.

    The second , from 1960 , separates the wheat from the chaff , and recognizes that our choice of metaphysical theories is a matter of taste and temperament. Despite this he presents a simply expressed rationale for adopting a Vedantic, monist , perennial philosophy.

    In his summary , he is quite ruthless in avoiding those aspects the Vedantic tradition which fail to deliver.

    “Any one who wishes to adopt the Vedantic view of the world will above all be well advised to leave out the theme of the transmigration of souls , because it is logically meaningless , if combined with that of a complete obliteration of memory.
    We cannot but eliminate this doctrine of “special” identity , and with it go both the aristocratic attitude and the idea of salvation by enlightenment from the cycle of births , because there is no such cycle. Nor can we save the pretended justice in the world-process. (karma) But we still have that lovely thought of unity which Schopenhauer said was his comfort in life , and would be his comfort in death .”

    Well worth reading . And I’m now more of a Schrodinger fan than ever.



  3. I was looking back at some other Schrodinger essays in “THE WORLD OF
    A small library of the literature
    of mathematics from A’h-mose
    the Scribe to Albert Einstein,
    presented with commentaries and
    notes by JAMES R, NEWMAN .

    This is a gold-mine of classic essays in four volumes. Check it out at The contents of all four are found here :

    Sadly the commentary , from Newman , I wanted to quote doesn’t appear in the digitised copy online , so I’m forced to type it , since I can’t bear not share it.

    ” Schrodinger makes things clear rather than easy ; he does not hesitate to share perplexities with his readers . He writes short books , which are models of exposition , but are always too short . Everything he writes – from statistical thermodynamics to free will – carries his special mark . But the energy , the play of wit , the freshness , the independence , the fondness for startling analogies and more startling conclusions recall the handicraft of William Kingdon Clifford . There is no higher praise.”

    There are several pieces in this wonderful anthology by WK Clifford , JBS Haldane , and Schrodinger which are exquisite. But the rest, which even includes Aldous Huxley , are of a similar quality . 2500 pages of Quality.

    I can post you volumes one and 2 in paperback, as a gift, as I’ve got a boxed set of hardbacks now. They need a new home , I need the space , but they’re way too precious to trash. They’re well used but complete.

  4. This lecture , presented at the Vedanta Temple in 1955 is transcribed in “Huxley and God” . It is a perfect compliment to Schrodinger’s “My View of the World.” The same song in another key, as it were .
    H&G also contains “The Minimum Working Hypothesis” ( for metaphysics)from his novel “Time Must Have a Stop.”

    The hypothesis boils down to this ;

    ” For those of us who are not congenitally the members of an organized church, who have found that humanism and nature-worship are not enough, who are not content to remain in the darkness of ignorance, the squalor of vice, or the other squalor of respectability, the minimum working hypothesis would seem to run to about this:
    That there is a Godhead, Ground, Brahman, Clear Light of the Void, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestations.
    That the Ground is at once transcendent and immanent.
    That it is possible for human beings to love, know, and, from virtually, to become actually identical with the divine Ground.
    That to achieve this unitive knowledge of the Godhead is the final end and purpose of human existence.
    That there is a Law or Dharma which must be obeyed, a Tao or Way which must be followed, if men are to achieve their final end.
    That the more there is of self, the less there is of the Godhead; and the Tao is therefore a way of humility and love, the Dharma a living Law of mortification and self-transcending awareness.”

    Cheers Bruce

  5. Hi Bruce – can’t believe another raft of comments from you I missed at the time.
    Lots of good stuff.
    (I think these particular set of Schrödinger comments must have got lost in the perennial philosophy and social media comments the following month.)

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