Schrödinger on Consciousness

Schrödinger on Consciousness November 10, 2017

I dig philosophy of mind. For those with an interest in metaphysics and the big questions, the nature of consciousness is an irresistible topic. Baffling theists and atheists alike, what is the relationship between the body (physical) and the mind (conscious experience)? Is the mind “soul stuff”? If so, how does it react with the body? If nothing exists but the physical, what do we make of the mind?

One of my favorite bits on consciousness actually comes from Nobel prize winner and quantum mechanics pioneer Erwin Schrödinger. Specifically touching upon the theme of “intentionality” – the unique “aboutness” of conscious experience. At the heart of the mind/body problem (for those unimpressed with a strictly physicalist conception of mind) lies a key ontological distinction between physical facts (objective, reducible) and mental facts (subjective, irreducible); hence “mind” cannot be reduced to just “body”. In Schrödinger’s words:

The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so. We could at best attain to an objective knowledge of what nerve fibres are excited and in what proportion, perhaps even to know exactly the processes they produce in certain brain cells—whenever your mind registers the sensation of yellow. . . . But even such intimate knowledge would not tell us anything about the sensation of colour . . . . [1]

Several leading philosophers of mind such as Chalmers, Searle, and Nagel are naturalists, but do not feel mind (again, the subjective, “aboutness”) can be reduced to brain (even in principle). I’m neither a naturalist, nor a dualist of mind, but I do find it interesting how many naturalists have a problem with a strict eliminative materialism. On my specific view hylomorphic view (following the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas), consciousness is not just suddenly something mysterious. Rather, everything in nature is an irreducible composite of matter and form. Conscious humanity is the rational animal, not “just brain” (physicalism), nor an immaterial entity separate from the body (dualism).

In that sense, I agree with naturalists that dualism of mind has far out interaction problems (how does the immaterial mind/soul interact with the body?), but also agree with dualists that mind cannot be reduced to body. Hylomorphism presents a happy metaphysical middle where neither philosophical problems are apparent.


[1] Schrödinger, Erwin, What is Life? Cambridge University Press, 1992, 154-155.

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