Mysticism, Metaphysics and Epistemology
From one of the greatest minds in history, Erwin Schrödinger. Trained in biology, philosophy and many branches of physics, he is better equipped than most anyone to discuss the big questions.
Besides virtually single-handedly draughting the mathematical description of quantum physics (which I should hope puts his credentials as a scientist beyond any reasonable skepticism), he wrote and lectured on his approach to some future synthesis of his three disciplines, shown off best in his What is Life?, Science and Humanism, Nature and the Greeks, My View of the World, What is Real? and Mind and Matter. He is an engaging and clear writer in both German and English, with a twinkle of humor, an earnest desire for knowledge and a very strong intellectual honesty and rigor. His books should be required reading for everyone interested in anything.
It is on the subject of epistemology that his is perhaps at his most needed: while he may have called himself an atheist, there is a world of difference between him and say, Richard Dawkins. To wit, I quote from Chapter IV of What is Real?
At this point I feel it necessary to declare in advance that the ideas considered in this section are not meant to have the same logical force as what as gone before, but that I regard their ethical importance as much greater. I will freely and frankly admit at the outset that, from now on, not only am I not going to refrain from metaphysics, nor even from mysticism, but that they play an essential part in all that follows. Of course, I know perfectly well that this admission alone is enough to call down upon me a violent attack from the rationalist quarter, that is, from the majority of my scientific colleagues, from whom the most I can hope is that they will say, with a gently mocking smile: “Don’t impose that on us, my dear fellow; you know, it makes us very much more inclined than ever to accept the extremely obvious explanation of a material world as the cause of our common experience; it’s unartificial, it’s accepted quite simply by everybody, and it has absolutely nothing metaphysical or mystical about it.”
Against this anticipated attack my defense consists if a no less amicable counter- or preventative attack, namely, that the assertion italicized above is mistaken. In the preceding sections I have been trying to establish, first, that the hypothesis of a material world as the cause of our wide area of common experience does nothing for our awareness of that shared character, that this awareness has to be achieved by thought just as much with this hypothesis as without it; secondly, I have stressed repeatedly, what neither can nor needs to be proved, that this hypothetical causal connection between the material wolrd and our experience, in regard both to sense-perception and to volitions, differes toto generis from that causal relation which continues in practice, perfectly rightly, to play so important a part in science, even now that we have realized, with George Berkeley, and still more clearly with David Hume, that it is not really observable, not, that is, as a propter hoc but only as a post hoc. The first of these considerations makes the hypothesis of the material world metaphysical, because there is nothing observable that corresponds to it; the second makes it mystical, because it requires the application of an empirically well-founded mutual relation between two objects (cause and effect) to pairs of objects of which only one (the sense-perception or volition) is ever really perceived or observed, while the other (the material cause or material achievement) is merely an imaginitive construct.
I have therefore no hesitation in declaring quite bluntly that the acceptance of a really existing material world, as the explanation of the fact that we all find in the end that we are empirically in the same environment, is mystical and metaphysical. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to make it [ie, assert the existence of a real, causing material world as the source of common-to-all sense perceptions] can do so; it is convenient, if somewhat naïve. He will be missing a great deal if be does. But he certainly does not have the right to pillory other positions as metaphysical or mystical on the supposition that his own is free from such “weaknesses.”
By mooting his thinking in today’s world, I attempt to wrest mysticism from New Age crystals, psychics and astrology; philosophy from those who dream that we are dreaming; religion from the Southern Baptist Convention, the Muslim Brotherhood and Opus Dei; and science from the cocksure limitedness of such alleg’d patrons as Daniel Dennett and Dicky Dawky and the epistemic blindness that allows nothing else (as above).
Thus I hope.