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Erwin Schrödinger

Michel Bitbol

Erwin Schrödinger

A non-dualist approach of mind and matter

Inspired from the Upanishads

The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) is the author of two pillars of quantum mechanics: the “Schrödinger equation” and Schrödinger’s cat paradox. But he is also the proponent of an original philosophy of mind and matter that drew inspiration from various Indian philosophies. Schrödinger’s philosophy also had similarities with the views of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), an eminent German idealist philosopher who took the philosophy of the Upanishads as a source of his thought. 

After a short sketch of Schrödinger’s biography, I will present Schrödinger’s metaphysics of mind and his deflationary conception of matter. 

From his reading of the Advaita Vedânta, and especially from the kind of lived experience that underpins this doctrine, Schrödinger denounced a basic illusion in our ordinary and scientific materialist view of the world. The illusion of duality and multiplicity: duality of mind and matter, multiplicity of minds in the living bodies, and multiplicity of things in the material world. 

Firstly, according to Schrödinger, the belief in a duality of mind and matter, the belief that there are inherently existing objects with inherent properties that impinge on our bodily senses, is just naive. It results from our wrongly endowing with inherent existence those aspects of phenomena that we have isolated within our conscious experience in order to provide them with some fake autonomy with respect to us, to our feelings. This non-dualist conception had important consequences for Schrödinger’s interpretation of quantum mechanics. While Werner Heisenberg declared that in quantum physics, the barrier between subject and object has fallen down, Schrödinger replied that speaking thus is absurd because there never has been such a barrier. The famous “cat paradox” first formulated by Schrödinger in 1935, is better understood in this framework

Secondly, Schrödinger denounced what he called the illusion of the multiplicity of minds and consciousnesses. According to him, the unity of mind and consciousness does not need to be argued, because it is directly experienced. It is based on the “empirical fact that consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular”. But then, one has to explain how this illusion of a multiplicity of minds and consciousness arises, despite the most direct evidence. 

To recapitulate, Schrödinger’s deep assimilation of Indian philosophies enabled him to address the mind-body problem; to clarify quantum physics; and to replace a narrow view of the world inspired by science, with a broader view that encompasses science yet does not reduce to it.