Remarks on Schrödinger's Concept of Consciousness

Ivan M. Havel

One of the greatest physicists of 20th Century, Erwin Schrödinger is known for having a large breath of interests in non-physical disciplines, including biology and philosophy. In particular, his small book (or long essay) from 1944, What is Life? [1], has been often mentioned in this respect. Schrödinger's ideas about the structure of material carrier of life, in particular of genetic information, and his ideas about living organisms feeding upon their negative entropy has greatly influenced quite a few prominent biologists of the time.

Somewhat less known are his thoughts about the nature of consciousness and the Self included in the same essay as well as in his other works and lectures ([1], [2]). It is worth noting that his views did not change considerably over the period of almost forty years.

In his first text, written in 1925 (shortly before his discovery of wave mechanics), Schrödinger considers four key philosophical questions,

(1) Does there exist a Self?

(2) Does there exist a world outside Self?

(3) Does this Self cease with bodily death?

(4) Does the world cease with my bodily death?

([2], p. 12). He claims there is no satisfactory combination of 'yes' and 'no' answers to these questions due to the paradoxical role of one's own individual Self in the external world. Schrödinger does not find the issue and its possible solution in the subject-object dualism, but rather in the singular-plural dualism. According to him, "the real difficulty lies in the spatial and temporal multiplicity of observing and thinking individuals." (p. 18).

Here (and again in later works) Schrödinger refers to the old Vedantic vision according to which consciousness is only one, singular, identifiable with its universal source (Brahman). The perceived spatial and temporal plurality of consciousnesses or minds is just an appearance or illusion.

[...] knowledge, feeling and choice [which you call your own] are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings,"

he writes in 1925 (p. 21). Nineteen years later:

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, produced by a deception. ([1], p.89).

Thirty years later:

There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousnesses. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind. (p. 129).

And thirty six years later, shortly before his death, he writes again (as a comment to a line in Upanishads):

[...] the plurality of sensitive beings is mere appearance (maya); in reality they are all only aspects of the one being." ([2], p.101).

Schrödinger, as a scientist, would seek an organic or even physical nature of that unity. One hint is to think of genetically connected individuals whose bodily and spiritual life is not interrupted between generations but only constricted, similar to the individual's consciousness during a sleep. An individual's memory interacts with supra-individual memory stored, e.g., in instincts.

For some of us Schrödinger's concept of the singular Self may seem absurd. But then why not to consider similarly absurd the idea of a singular objective real world, yet accessible only through a multiplicity of various of its "personalized" versions, each being a private product of somebody's perception and thought.

In fact, the issue of objectivity, or objectification ([2], p.117ff), is also exposed by Schrödinger who points to its paradoxical aspect: how to exclude my own consciousness from the real world if I do not exclude my body, other persons' bodies, and their consciousnesses (which I can take as objective manifestations of their brains). What is so specific about me, occupying one (why this one?) of the bodies walking around in the objective world?

It is interesting to compare Schrödinger's thoughts with views of one of our contemporary philosophers, Thomas Nagel. According to Nagel we can imagine every (let us say, my own) Self as composed of two parts, the subjective self and the objective self. The former is biased by (my) personal perspective while the latter is centerless, i.e. it admits an arbitrary perspective without any preference. The centerless view of the world is, according to Nagel, "one on which different persons can converge." Thus, from a different direction, he gets close to Schrödinger's view: "The pursuit of objectivity requires the cultivation of a rather austere universal objective self." ([3], p.63).

Schrödinger is very much interested in the nature of material process connected with consciousness. What we know about the functioning of the brain does not give enough clues to distinguish which particular processes serve consciousness and which do not. However, the observation that what repeats itself very often gradually drops out of the domain of consciousness suggests, according to Schrödinger, that

[...] consciousness is associated with those functions [of our nervous system] that adapt themselves by what we call experience to a changing environment [...] with the learning of the living substance; its knowing how (Können) is unconscious. ([1], p.99).

I believe that many of Schrödinger's ideas still wait for a full recognition. One of them is related to a theme which, if properly elaborated, may help to understand some of the most complicated processes in nature. It is the mutual interactive coupling of entities at different levels of description - a part with the whole, an individual with the collective, the particular with the generic, etc. - while being, life and evolution of one cannot be, without lack of understanding, separated from being, life and evolution of the other.

A typical example is the mutual interaction of the actual life and behavior of an individual living organism (specimen) with the evolution of its species. The individual, with its structure, properties and basic patterns of behavior, is subordinate to the laws of the species - in the same way as a game player is subordinate to the rules of the game, or each of us to the rules of social behavior. On the other hand, the individuals are carriers, transmitters, and even modifiers of the laws and rules they obey.

In fact every individual life, indeed every day in the life of an individual, has to represent a part, however small, of evolution [of our species], a chisel-stroke, however insignificant, on the eternally unfinished statue of our species.

writes Schrödinger ([2], p.54).

In this way Schrödinger finds the specific role of consciousness in relation to biological evolution. He understands consciousness as the guardian of anomalies, unusual events, and other novelties that are not yet shifted to the unconscious knowledge and eventually to the genetic memory.

The mutual interactive coupling across different levels may help us to elaborate Schrödinger's idea of singularity of consciousness as opposed to the plurality of persons. One can just think of two tightly coupled and unseparable levels, one corresponding to the universal common consciousness in singular, the other to individual personal consciousnesses in plural. An analogous coupling exists, e.g., between a species and its specimens (as mentioned above), between a game and its matches, between a language and its utterances, between a song and its singings, between an artistic style and works of art, between a disease and its occurrences, or between a law and its applications. What is important: the higher level entity has its own "life"; it is not (defined as) an arbitrary collection of lower level entities but rather it involves an actual dynamic interaction between entities of both levels across a large gap in spatio-temporal scales.

My proposal is to treat the singular consciousness together with the plurality of all its embodiments as one dynamically coupled interactive system of the above type.



[1] E. Schrödinger, What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993. (Original editions: "What is Life?", Cambridge, 1944, "Mind and Matter", Cambridge, 1956)

[2] E. Schrödinger, My View of the World. Ox Bow Press, Woodbridge, Conn., 1983 (original German edition: Meine Weltansicht, Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Wien 1961). This book includes two essays, "Seek for the Road", written 1925, and "What is Real?", written 1960.

[3] T. Nagel: The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1986.