What is Life?

We have finally finished up the reading for 2015, ending the first year of the Great Books Reading Project with Erwin Schrodinger’s What is Life?, which provides us with a look at some of the questions we have been exploring in the readings over the past year from the perspective of a 20th century scientist. Though I was previously familiar with Schrodinger’s famous cat thought-experiment, this was my first time reading any of his works.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a 20th century scientist in such firm contact with the preceding scientific and even religious and philosophical thought. Sadly, it is rare today to find a scientist who is conversant in the liberal arts (and, vice versa, someone conversant in the liberal arts who is also able to speak coherently and knowledgeably on scientific topics). This is a sad state of affairs as today, in the wake of the eugenics movement and the invention of nuclear weaponry in the 20th century, the restoration of science to its place as one of the humanities (that is, properly speaking, one means of studying human existence and experience) is a necessity. In his ability to speak cogently on literature, philosophy, religion, and history in addition to physics and biology, Schrodinger reminded me Jacob Bronowski, whose Science and Human Values is perhaps the best exploration of this subject I have yet read.

Through What is Life?, but especially in the final chapter, in which Schrodinger attempts to reconcile the earlier discussions of genetics with man’s inherent sense of freedom of will and volition, I was also reminded of Jacques Barzun’s commentaries on modern science, particularly in his From Dawn to Decadence. While Barzun’s writings are packed full of insights, one in particular that has long stood out to me is his contention that modern genetics, and the sort of determinism it posits, is, in a sense, part of a return to the fatalism of the ancients. Schrodinger’s appeal to Upanishadic monism as the means of reconciliation between modern physics and human freedom certainly seems to be a demonstration of Barzun’s observation.

And just as the modern world has, in some sense, cycled around to give the ancient superstitions another turn, so will we next month. It seems quite fitting to launch now, as we will, into Homer’s Illiad, a story about the relationship between fate and freedom.

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