What is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

The scientist’s objective study of matter has led to the discovery of a strict law and order governing its behaviour, and it is to be expected that with the tremendous advances in this sphere of study, the mechanistic conception of the Universe should be steadily gaining ground. The notion of free-will and purpose, which is associated with conscious activity, has always been regarded in the West as a peculiar property of living matter.

The vitalists, in fact, believed that living things possessed a vital force, which, conferring on them the characteristics of life, in some way rendered them free from the tyranny of physical and chemical laws. But modern science has been steadily breaking down the barriers between ‘ living and ‘non-living’  matter, and to-day the question of whether the organism is free to modify and manipulate the laws of Nature to its own ends, or (as the Behaviourists believed) is merely an automaton controlled by them, has arisen with more force than ever before.

Can the behaviour of living matter be wholly accounted for by the determinist laws of physics ? Professor Schrodinger, who was one of the foremost physicists of our time,  set out to answer this question in his book What is Life ? and the answer is of great interest and importance to science and philosophy alike. The major part of the book is devoted to a consideration of the nature of the structures (called chromosomes) which form the vital controlling mechanism of the living cell.

He showed how the classical laws of physics and chemistry do not apply to the behaviour of living matter, and why (as they are statistical laws) it was never to be expected that they should. Physicists however have recently been investigating other forces, which account for the stability of small groups of atoms when they are bound together as molecules or crystals. This subject forms a part of Quantum Theory, a development of physics in which Professor Schrodinger himself has been a pioneer. He shows that it is almost certainly these forces which govern the behaviour of the chromosome substance, and he develops this thesis in a fascinating exposition which, if not easy, is set forth with great clarity and simplicity in language which a lay-man can understand.

His conclusion is that the action of the statistical laws of physics on living matter is profoundly modified by the influence of this controlling mechanism within the cell nucleus. But the forces which rule this mechanism are themselves new laws of physics, and he thinks that there is every reason to believe that physics and chemistry can account for the physical space-time events occurring within the organism, or at least, will soon be able to do so.

This implies a determinist view of life, for, if this is true, the physical organism is, to all intents and purposes, a machine. Professor Schrodinger is not blind to the onesidedness of such a view ; in an Epilogue (which will, for many of his readers, be the most interesting and illuminating part of the book) he discusses its philosophical implications from the wider angle of human experience as a whole. If the objective eye of Science finds that law and determinism is the final truth, there is an equally strong personal conviction of free-will. The truth is not that one of these convictions is right and the other wrong, but that the conflict is only an apparent one.

As the author says :— “ immediate experiences in themselves, however various and disparate they be, are logically incapable of contradicting each other.”

The solution to this conundrum is to be found in that Truth which was given in the Upanishads, and which has been verified by mystics of all ages and all faiths ; namely, that the real Self is in reality, God. The conscious self is free from all laws, since it is, in fact, that power which ordains the laws.

Professor Schrodinger in elucidating this fact, stresses the singleness of consciousness as distinct from the objects of its experience, and the falsity of the idea of plurality, arising as it does from the connection of consciousness with a limited region of matter. The book ends, in effect, with a brief and necessarily fragmentary account of Shri Shankar’s Advaita, and the great interest of the conclusions that it reaches is that they constitute a confirmation of the Vedantic position.

This is of course not an intellectual solution to the problem of determinism and free-will. Shri Shankaracharya emphasised that, for the intellect, there is no final solution to such problems.

The apparent conflict still remains ; to clarify the problem is not to solve it. But the mind is a limited instrument of cognition, and the solution, which is alogical, must be sought in a stage of consciousness which transcends the duality of the subject-object relationship. For how indeed can the conflict between subjective and objective points of view be resolved, except in a state which transcends them both ?

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