The Art of Being Right: Schopenhauer’s Anticipation of Quantum Mechanics and the Interconnectivity of Reality.

Introduction: Feline Affiliations.

In his What is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches (2012), the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger stated that 1918, when he assumed a post as lecturer in theoretical physics at Czernowitz University, he envisaged himself spending all his “free time acquiring a deeper knowledge of philosophy, having just discovered Schopenhauer, who introduced me to the Unified Theory of the Upanishads” (WL?, p169).

In 1818, over a century before Schrodinger wrote The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics that featured in The Science of Nature (November 1935) and included the discussion of a “cat penned up in a steel chamber,” the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in the second volume of his Magnum Opus The World as Will and Representation (1818–19) that:

I know quite well that anyone would regard me as mad if I seriously assured him that the cat, playing just now in the yard, is still the same one that did the same jumps and tricks three hundred years ago; but I also know that it is much more absurd to believe that the cat of today is through and through and fundamentally an entirely different one from the cat of three hundred years ago. (WWR, V2, p482).

The extent to which Schrodinger was inspired by Schopenhauer’s feline fancies is open to debate, but he would later restate the above passage in his My View of the World (1983/2009) by saying “the Self is not so much linked with what happened to its ancestors, it is not so much the product, and merely the product, of all that, but rather, in the strictest sense of the word, the SAME THING as all that: the strict, direct continuation of it, just as the Self aged fifty is the continuation of the Self aged forty” (MVW, p28).

Both statements are an assertion of the oneness of noumenal reality. From Schopenhauer’s metaphysical perspective, the unity of the will that lies outside space and time, and from Schrodinger’s scientific viewpoint, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

In this essay I will discuss Schopenhauer’s anticipation of quantum theory and the interconnectivity of reality.

The Copenhagen Interpretation.

The Copenhagen interpretation is the dominant understanding of quantum mechanics that was largely devised in the years 1925 to 1927 by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. It has three primary components:

  • The wave function is a complete description of a wave/particle. Any information that cannot be derived from the wave function does not exist. For example, a wave is spread over a broad region, therefore does not have a specific location.
  • When a measurement of the wave/particle is made, its wave function collapses. In the case of momentum, a wave packet is made of many waves each with its own momentum value. Measurement reduced the wave packet to a single wave and a single momentum.
  • If two properties are related by an uncertainty relation, no measurement can simultaneously determine both properties to a precision greater than the uncertainty relation allows. So, if we measure a wave/particles position, its momentum becomes uncertain.

Central to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the principle of complementarity, meaning that the wave and particle nature of objects can be regarded as complementary aspects of single reality. For example, an electron can behave either as wave or a particle, but never simultaneously.

Waves do not refer to any material substance, but measures of probability. These waves of probability relate to the uncertainty principle in that the actions of any given particle cannot be predetermined absolutely. Despite an element of statistical predictability, this represents a fundamental breakdown of determinism in nature.

Bohr admonished the speculation whether an electron is really a wave or a particle, as no experiment can ever measure both wave and particle aspects concurrently.

The adoption of the Copenhagen Interpretation introduces a conceptual abyss between classical macroscopic physics and quantum microscopic mechanics. In the macroscopic world, probabilities can be substituted for exact knowledge of acting causes. But the quantum universe is pure chance. At the subatomic level classical physics dissolves into wave-like patterns of probabilities that ultimately do not represent probabilities of things, but probabilities of interconnections in a singular cosmic web.

Schopenhauer and Quantum Mechanics.

In The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer wrote:

There yet remains something on which no explanation can venture, but which presupposes, namely the forces of nature, the definite mode of operation of things, the quality, the character of every phenomenon, the groundless, that which depends not on the form of the phenomenon, not on the principle of sufficient reason, that to which this form in itself is foreign, yet which has entered this form, and now appears according to it law. This law, however, determines only the appearing, not that which appears, only the How, not the What of the phenomenon, only its form, not its content. (WWR, V1, p121–122 emphasis original).

He then continues:

For in everything in nature there is something to which no ground can ever be assigned, for which no explanation is possible, and no further cause is to be sought. This something is the specific mode of the thing’s in action, in other words, the very manner of its existence, its being or true essence. Of course, of each particular of the thing a cause can be demonstrated, from which it follows that it was bound to act at that particular time and place, but never a cause of its acting in general and precisely in the given way. If it has no other qualities, if it is a mote in a sunbeam, it still exhibits that unfathomable something, at any rate as weight and inpenetrability. But this, I say, is to the mote what man’s will is to man; and, like the human will, it is in its inner nature not subject to explanation. (WWR, V1, p124 emphasis original).

Writing in the German Idealist tradition, Schopenhauer used the term will to describe the supreme principle of the universe. Though it is not the rationally infused will of his predecessors, but a mindless and impulsive foundation of being. Had he written his treatise a century later it is likely he would have chosen words such as energy or potentiality.

Schopenhauer held that the world had a double-aspect, namely, as Will (Wille) and as Representation (Vorstellung). He did not believe that the Will caused representations, but that representations are one and the same reality, regarded from different perspectives. They stand in relationship to each other in a way that compares to the relationship between a force and its manifestation, such as in the relationship between electricity and a spark, where the spark is electricity. This is opposed to saying that the thing-in-itself causes sensations, as if referring to a causal chain. The correlation with the macroscopic-microscopic divide between classical and quantum physics is striking.

Ontological Interconnectivity.

Schopenhauer’s metaphysical anticipation of quantum mechanics can be developed further when considering the ontological interconnectivity at the level of being itself. A notion that is counter-intuitive to the common-sense impression of a separation between the perceiving subject and the observed object.

To bridge the apparent subject-object dichotomy Schopenhauer posited a transcendental ground as the solution, stating:

The fundamental mistake of all systems is the failure to recognise this truth, namely that the intellect and matter are correlatives, in other words, the one exists only for the other; both stand and fall together; the one is only the other’s reflex. They are in fact really one and the same thing, considered from to opposite points of view; and this one thing…is the phenomenon of the will or the thing-in-itself. (WWR, V2, p15–16 emphasis original).

Schopenhauer also collapsed Kant’s twelve categories of human understanding that logically organise the field of sensations into comprehensible and interrelated individual objects with the single category of causality which, along with the forms of space and time, he felt sufficient to explain the basic format of all human experience.

In addition to time, space and causality, Schopenhauer also asserts that plurality and difference are impositions of the perceiving subject, stating that the thing-in-itself “is free from all plurality, although its phenomena in time and space are innumerable. It is itself one, yet not as an object is one, for the unity of an object is known only in contrast to possible plurality. Again, the will is one not as a concept is one, for concept originates only through abstraction from plurality; but it is as one as that which lies outside time and space, outside the principium individuationis, that is to say outside the possibility of plurality” (WWR, V1, p113). He later reaffirms this by saying ‘the plurality of things in space and time that together are the objectivity of the will, does not concern the will, which despite such plurality, remains indivisible. (WWR, V1 p128).

It should be noted however, that in Parerga and Paralipomena Schopenhauer states that “individuality does not rest solely on the principium individuationis and so is not through and through mere phenomenon, but that it is rooted in the thing-in-itself, the will of the individual; for his character itself is individual. But how far down it roots here go, is one of those questions which I do not undertake to answer” (PP, V2, p227, his emphasis). I would suggest that Schopenhauer found it necessary to approach the ambiguous nature of individuality in order to incorporate the notion of the denial of the will into his philosophical system. As he states elsewhere:

Individuality of course, is inherent above all in the intellect; reflecting the phenomenon, the intellect is related thereto, and the phenomenon has the principium individuationis as its form. But individuality is also inherent in the will, in so far as the character is individual; yet this character itself is abolished in the denial of the will. Thus, individuality is inherent in the will only in its affirmation, not in its denial.’= (WWR, V2, p609.)

Summary.

The pioneering science of quantum mechanics has revealed that below the world of actual events and phenomenal facts there exists an unobservable universe beyond space and time that is nothing but a ceaseless procession of possibilities for action. And through the principle of complementarity, it has also demonstrated the impossibility of measuring the full properties of the wave and particle aspects of reality at a particular moment and that it is not possible to regard phenomena governed by quantum mechanics as having intrinsic properties independent of determination with a measuring device. With his characterization of the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will, neither of these discoveries would have appeared foreign to Arthur Schopenhauer.

Sources.

~What is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches by Erwin Schrodinger (Canto Classics, 2012).

~The World As Will And Representation: Volumes 1 and 2 by Arthur Schopenhauer (Dover Publications Inc., 2000).

~The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics: A Translation of Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox’ Paper by John D. Trimmer, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124:5 (Oct. 10, 1980), 323–338, 328. Available online.

~My View of the World by Erwin Schrodinger (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

~Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, Volume 2 (Clarendon Press, 1974).

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