The Atom and the Doctrine of Identity: Quantum Pioneer Erwin Schrödinger on Bridging Eastern Philosophy and Western Science to Illuminate Consciousness

“The over-all number of minds is just one.”

The Atom and the Doctrine of Identity: Quantum Pioneer Erwin Schrödinger on Bridging Eastern Philosophy and Western Science to Illuminate Consciousness

“Our minds are all threaded together,” the twenty-one-year-old Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in the first years of the twentieth century, “& all the world is mind.” Those were the dawning days of quantum mechanics, just beginning to illuminate a whole new order of golden threads holding the world together, just beginning to reverse-engineer the loom with nothing more than the human mind. A decade after Woolf’s death, the Nobel-winning quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger (August 12, 1887–January 4, 1961) would bring the lens of his new science to this age-old question threading together the minds of artists, philosophers, and mystics since the dawn of thought.

In October 1956, Schrödinger delivered a set of lectures at Trinity College under the title Mind and MatterPosthumously, he included it in the lecture collection What Is Life? (public library). A generation of science later, on the cusp of our own century, the visionary mathematician, philosopher of science, and Nobel laureate Roger Penrose described the book as brimming with “points that, once they are grasped, have a ring of almost self-evident truth; yet they are still blindly ignored by a disconcertingly large proportion of people.” Today, as we continue to unravel the ongoing mysteries of mind and matter — which might be a single and permanent mystery — Schrödinger’s book remains a tapestry of ideas epochs ahead of their time, yet stretching back to some of humanity’s most ancient wisdom.

Erwin Schrödinger, circa 1920s.

Drawing on his lifelong inquiry into the relationship between quantum physics and Vedanta, Schrödinger writes:

Our science — Greek science — is based on objectivation, whereby it has cut itself off from an adequate understanding of the Subject of Cognizance, of the mind. However, I believe this is exactly the moment when our current way of thinking needs to change. Perhaps by some blood-transfusions from Eastern thought. That will not be easy, we must beware of blunders — blood-transfusion always needs great precaution to prevent clotting. It is not our intention to lose the scientific precision and logical clarity that we have achieved, which is unprecedented anywhere in history.

With an eye to the ego’s illusion of separateness from the totality of life and the ancient Buddhist notion of no-self — which the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would articulate with ravishing vividness in his account of the epiphany he had the year of Schrödinger’s death — Schrödinger writes:

The same elements… 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. Only one world was given to me, and not both one exists and one is perceived. There is only one subject/object. They cannot be separated by the result of [discoveries]This barrier is not present in physical science.

One mindMaria Popova. Available as both a printed copy and as stationary cards. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

Schrödinger’s point seems at first more poetic than scientific, consonant with Ursula K. Le Guin’s perceptive observation that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside, [and] both celebrate what they describe.” And yet beneath this surface intuition is the point itself: such binaries are themselves a function of our misplaced dualism. There is no barrier that separates the poetic from the scientific. This barrier does not exist as well as the one between subject and object or any two minds. This is, naturally, what The Universe in Verse celebrates. Schrödinger considers how we have erected these artificial barriers to cope with the “arithmetical paradox” of one-mind:

Our sentient, percipient, and thinking egos are not met in our scientific world view can be easily explained with seven words. It is the world picture itself. Because it is one with all of the other parts, it cannot be included in them as part. This is where we have to challenge the mathematical paradox. Although there appear to be many conscious egos, however, the universe itself only has one. It is the way the world-concept generates itself. The several domains of “private” consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the “real world around us.” With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: Is my world really the same as yours? Are there any? OneHow can the real world be separated from the pictures that have been introduced to us through our perceptions? And if so, are these pictures like unto the real world or is the latter, the world “in itself,” perhaps very different from the one we perceive?

Precisely because we perceive the world not as it is but as we are — because our world-concept is shaped by the particular atoms of experience and neurochemistry composing our particular unchosen minds — Schrödinger observes that such questions, while genuine and natural, are actually “sham questions” that only further muddle this paradox of numbers — the numerous conscious egos of which the one world is composed. Instead, he endeavors to borrow from Eastern philosophy its “doctrine of identity” — a term uncolored then by our present political connotations, which he uses to mean rather the opposite: the inter-identification of minds with each other due to each mind being identical with the whole — and to integrate it with the Western scientific worldview “without having to pay for it by a loss of soberness and logical precision” — an endeavor still met with staggering resistance by mainstream science, yet one taken up with renewed rigor by a new generation of scientists.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. This print is also available as stationery cards.

In the scientific counterpart to the 19th-century naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” and in a premise far subtler and more intellectually robust than the enticing but limited notion of panpsychism, Schrödinger considers the central empirical fact of this “doctrine of identity”:

The singular experience of consciousness is the only way to have consciousness. Consciousness cannot be experienced in plurals. There is no evidence that any of us have ever had more than one experience of consciousness. If I say that there cannot be more than one consciousness in the same mind, this seems a blunt tautology — we are quite unable to imagine the contrary.

The reflexive impulse to counterargue — perhaps by invoking the psychiatric disorder of dissociative identity, or some classic Oliver Sacks case study of a neurophysiological lesion resulting in multiple personalities — must be preempted with the simple recognition that personality, personae, and all the other performances of personhood we call identity are still playing out on the single stage of a person’s one and only consciousness. And yet the theater of reality is only one — there is only one world, atom by atom and moment by moment. With this, Schrödinger arrives at his Woolfian point:

There are only one mind. It is indestructible, I would venture to say. Mind has its own timetable. Mind doesn’t have a before or after. Only a Now can include memories and expectations.

A quarter century earlier, while Schrödinger was doing the quantum work that would earn him the Nobel Prize, the young Hannah Arendt — perhaps the most penetrating philosophical mind of the twentieth century — captured this aspect of consciousness in its most intimate manifestation, observing that if love is ever to prevail over the entropic inevitability of loss, “the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.

Subscribe to our newsletter

MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Related Posts