What Makes You You Makes the Universe: Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger on Quantum Physics, Vedanta, and the Ongoing Mystery of Consciousness


“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole.”


What Makes You You Makes the Universe: Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger on Quantum Physics, Vedanta, and the Ongoing Mystery of Consciousness

It is not easy to confront the question of who we really are, whether it be with courage or lucidity and full of emotion.

It is exactly what quantum mechanics’ Nobel-winning founder father did. Erwin Schrödinger (August 12, 1887–January 4, 1961) addresses in some exquisite passages from My View of the World (public library) — the slender, daring deathbed book containing two long essays penned on either side of his Nobel Prize, thirty-five years apart yet united by the unbroken thread of his uncommon mind unafraid of its own capacity for feeling, that vital capacity for living fully into the grandest open questions of existence.

Erwin Schrödinger, circa 1920s.

Schrödinger opens with one swift, awe-striking defense of what scientists dismiss as metaphysics — a realm of knowledge that lies beyond the current scientific tools and modes of truth-extraction, which history attests always reveals more about the limitations of the tools than about the limits of nature’s truths. (Lest we forget, even so pure a form of physics as the hummingbird’s flight was long considered a metaphysical phenomenon — that is, a yet-unsolved phenomenon explained as magic — until science fermented the technology of photography to capture the mechanics of the process.) Echoing Hannah Arendt’s daring indictment that ceasing to ask unanswerable question would mean relinquishing “not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded,” Schrödinger writes:

As Kant demonstrated, it is easy to wipe out all metaphysics. A slight puff of air can blow it off. All that was necessary was a pair or more of strong lungs. But, it was a lot of courage and determination to defeat such an illustrious house of cards.

However, you should not assume that metaphysics has been removed from empirical human knowledge. If we eliminate all metaphysics, it will become much harder, and possibly quite impossible to present any coherent account of the most narrow area of specialization within any specialty science. Metaphysics includes, amongst other things — to take just one quite crude example — the unquestioning acceptance of a more-than-physical — that is, transcendental — significance in a large number of thin sheets of wood-pulp covered with black marks such as are now before you… A real elimination of metaphysics means taking the soul out of Bothart Science, making them ineligible for further development.

Even as he made his reality-reconfiguring contributions to science and its search for fundamental truth, Schrödinger never relinquished his passionate curiosity about philosophy and the ongoing questions of meaning that kernel every truth in the flesh of consciousness. He was as drawn to Spinoza and Schopenhauer as he was to the ancient Eastern traditions, and especially in their untrammeled common ground of panpsychism — one of the oldest and most notoriously misunderstood theoretical models of consciousness in relation to the universe.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. Available as a printed copy, face mask, or stationery cards.

A century after the pioneering Canadian philosopher, psychiatrist, and nature-explorer Richard Maurice Bucke drew inspiration from Whitman to develop his theory of cosmic consciousness, and a century before the emerging science of counterfactuals threw its gauntlet at our fundamental assumptions about the nature of the universe, Schrödinger takes up the parallels between the discoveries of quantum physics and the core ideas of the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. He invites us to picture ourselves on a mountain bench watching the sunset and contemplating the transcendent beauty of nature.

You will see the majestic, glacier-tipped peak rising up out of the valley. The smooth snowfields on its summit and the hard-edged rocks-faces that are touched with the last rays by the sun at the end of the day give way to a stunning, brilliant blue sky.

Everything you see has existed for thousands of years, unless you make small adjustments. After a while — not long — you will no longer exist, and the woods and rocks and sky will continue, unchanged, for thousands of years after you.

Is it something that suddenly called you out of nowhere to witness a moment which is quite indifferent for you?

Nature is my reflection of me. by Margaret CThe following is the. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version.

In a passage evocative of Whitman’s timeless lines from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — “Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore… Others will see the islands large and small… A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them… I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence … Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt… Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd… What is it then between us?” — Schrödinger answers:

Your conditions are as ancient as the rocks. Since thousands of years ago, men and women have tried and struggled for their existence. Perhaps a hundred years ago another man stood on the spot, looking with wonder at the dying lights of the glaciers. He was also conceived of man, and born from woman. Like you, he experienced pain and short moments of joy. It wasHe was someone else? It was not you? Is this not your Self? How did you create the condition necessary to turn the idea into reality? Please enter your email addressJust Please enter your email addressAnd not another? This is clearly understandable scientific meaning can this ‘someone else’ really have? Would it be possible for your mother to have cohabited and given birth with a different man? Please enter your email addressAre you wondering how they came to be here? Or were you living in them, and in your father’s father… thousands of years ago? If this were true, how can you be not your brother or your cousin distant from you? What justifies you in obstinately discovering this difference — the difference between you and someone else — when objectively what is there is SimilarWhich?

[…]

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you — and all other conscious beings as such — are all in all. This life you live is not just a part of all of existence. It is also in some sense the entirety of it. Whole

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Also available in print form and as a mask for the face

Once we fathom this fundamental reality of interbeing, Schrödinger observes, it becomes impossible to wish anything for ourselves that we do not wish for everyone else or to harm anyone else without harming ourselves:

All morally good activity is based on the realization of this truth, of which an individual is often unaware.

A decade later, in a lovely testament to Schrödinger’s insistence on the indivisibility of science and art in addressing those grandest unanswered question, Iris Murdoch — one of the vastest minds and finest literary artists of her time, and of all time — captured this elemental truth in her case for art as “an occasion for unselfing,” observing:

Illusion is the only place we can see our self. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.

Complement this fragment of Schrödinger’s My View of the World — a superb read in its slim totality — with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on selfhood, mortality, and what makes life worth living, then revisit Alan Watts — who introduced the Western mind to Vedanta and its consonance with “the new physics” of the quantum world — on the self, the universe, and becoming who we really are.


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