What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on August 31, 2009

what-is-lifeOprah Winfrey is a billionaire. She is certainly the most influential, if not the most powerful woman alive. She has a personal chef. She has a personal physician. She has a personal trainer. She has built her empire in large part on the promotion of self-improvement. Her magazine and television programs are filled with inspiring stories of people who summoned the will and energy to make positive changes in their lives.

Recently, Oprah admitted that she had, once again, lost her personal battle with her weight, gaining over forty pounds over a couple of years, going above 200 pounds. She did this while daily being viewed by millions of admirers and true believers. She asked out loud, “How did I let this happen again?”

What does this have to do What Is Life? It shows how this little book (it can be read at one sitting) continues to amaze, intrigue and tease. In this case, we turn to the Epilogue, titled On Determinism and Free Will, where Dr. Schrödinger presents his opinion that quantum indeterminacy has no effect on biology: “… I believe every unbiased biologist would, if there were not the well-known, unpleasant feeling about ‘declaring oneself to be a pure mechanism.’ For it is deemed to contradict Free Will as warranted by direct introspection.” Where he’s headed is toward the ultimate conflict of facts: Our bodies “function as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature,” and yet we undeniably experience the “reality” that we direct our bodies’ motions and are fully responsible for them. In short, we’re a clockwork that somehow makes its own decisions on how to position its hands. Or are we? If we are commanders of our being, how do we explain Oprah’s veering so far off the course she wished to set? How do we explain that, despite a huge industry of self-help literature, going back at least to How to Win Friends and Influence People (and, of course, countless prior religious tracts) that most of us are, at one time and to one extent or another, disappointed in our own behavior?

This book is chock full of fantastically intriguing questions such as this (including the big one, of the title). And while scientific discoveries made since its writing have enormously enriched the scope and understanding of the issues raised here, the fundamental questions remain, and that’s why this little book continues to be essential to any open-minded person seeking to, if not better understand life, to at least marvel and better contemplate its most important questions.

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