Consciousness researcher Robert Prentner and cognitive psychologist will tell a prestigious music and philosophy festival in London next month that great physicist Donald Hoffman, quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) believed that “The total number of minds in the universe is one.” That is, a universal Mind accounts for everything.
In a world where many scientists strive mightily to explain how the human mind can arise from non-living matter, Prentner and Hoffman will tell the HowtheLightGetsIn festival in London (September 17–18, 2022) that the author of the famous Cat paradox was hardly a materialist:
In 1925, just a few months before Schrödinger discovered the most basic equation of quantum mechanics, he wrote down the first sketches of the ideas that he would later develop more thoroughly in “Mind and Matter”. Already then, his thoughts on technical matters were inspired by what he took to be greater metaphysical (religious) questions. Early on, Schrödinger expressed the conviction that metaphysics does not come after physics, but inevitably precedes it. Metaphysics is not a deductive affair but a speculative one.Robert Prentner, Donald Hoffman, “Schrödinger and the conscious universe” at IAI News[ (July 25, 2022)
Inspired by Indian philosophy, Schrödinger had a mind-first, not matter-first, view of the universe. But he was a non-materialist of a rather special kind. He believed that there is only one mind in the universe; our individual minds are like the scattered light from prisms:
A metaphor that Schrödinger liked to invoke to illustrate this idea is the one of a crystal that creates a multitude of colors (individual selves) by refracting light (standing for the cosmic self that is equal to the essence of the universe). We are all but aspects of one single mind that forms the essence of reality. He also referred to this as the doctrine of identity. Accordingly, a non-dual form of consciousness, which must not be conflated with any of its single aspects, grounds the refutation of the (merely apparent) distinction into separate selves that inhabit a single world.Robert Prentner, Donald Hoffman, “Schrödinger and the conscious universe” at IAI News[ (July 25, 2022)
But in Mind and Matter (1958), Schrödinger, we are told, took this view one step further:
Schrödinger drew remarkable consequences from this. For example, he believed that any man is the same as any other man that lived before him. In his early essay “Seek for the Road”, he writes about looking into the mountains before him. Thousands of years ago, other men similarly enjoyed this view. But why should one assume that oneself is distinct from these previous men? Is there any scientific fact that could distinguish your experience from another man’s? What makes you you and not someone else? Similarly as John Wheeler once assumed that there is really only one electron in the universe, Schrödinger assumed that there really is only one mind. Schrödinger thought this is supported by “the empirical fact that consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular. Not only has none of us ever experienced more than one consciousness, but there is also no trace of circumstantial evidence of this ever happening anywhere in the world.”Robert Prentner, Donald Hoffman, “Schrödinger and the conscious universe” at IAI News[ (July 25, 2022)
Most non-materialists will wish they had gotten off two stops ago. We started with Mind first, which — when accounting for why there is something rather than nothing — has been considered a reasonable assumption throughout history across the world (except among materialists). But the assumption that no finite mind could experience or act independently of the Mind behind the universe is a limitation on the power of that Mind. Why so?
It’s not logically clear — and logic is our only available instrument here — why the original Mind could not grant to dogs, chimpanzees, and humans the power to apprehend and act as minds in their own right in their natural spheres — not simply as seamless extensions of the universal Mind.
With humans, the underlying assumptions of Schrödinger’s view are especially problematic. Humans address issues of good and evil. If Schrödinger is right, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Comrade Josef Stalin are really “only one mind” because each experienced only his own consciousness. But wait. As a coherent human being, each could only have experienced his own consciousness and not the other man’s.
However, that doesn’t mean that they were mere prisms displaying different parts of the spectrum of broken light. The prism analogy fails to take into account that humans can act for good or ill. Alternatively, it is saying that good and evil, as we perceive them, are merely different colors in a spectrum. As noted earlier, many of us should have got off two stops ago…
In any event, Schrödinger’s views are certain to be an interesting discussion at HowLightGetsIn.
Schrödinger was hardly the only modern physicist or mathematician to dissent from materialism. Mathematician Kurt Gödel (1906–1978), to take one example, destroyed a popular form of atheism (logical positivism) via his Incompleteness Theorems.
The two thinkers held very different views, of course. But both saw the fatal limitations of materialism (naturalism) and they addressed these limitations quite differently. In an age when Stephen Hawking’s disdain for philosophy is taken to be representative of great scientists, it’s a good thing if festivals like HowLightGetsIn offer a broader perspective — and corrective.
You may also wish to read: Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism. A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not a form of dualism. But, by including consciousness — especially human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end.