Erwin Schrödinger on the value of science

You may ask – you are bound to ask me now: What, then, is in your opinion the value of natural science? I answer: Its scope, aim and value is the same as that of any other branch of human knowledge. Nay, none of them alone, only the union of all of them, has any scope or value at all, and that is simply enough described: it is to obey the command of the Delphic deity, get to know yourself. Or, to put it in the brief, impressive rhetoric of Plotinus […] ‘And we, who are we anyhow?’

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I own a little, uninteresting-looking book I found in a second hand bookshop in the UK for two-pounds-fifty. I’ve never seen it for sale in any shop since. Yet it contains thoughts about science I think are so important I’ve quoted from it in at least a dozen public presentations that I can remember, most recently last Tuesday.

The book is Science and Humanism, and it’s by quantum mechanics overlord and notorious metaphorical cat boxer-upper Erwin Schrödinger. It contains material from four public lectures Schrödinger gave in 1950 for the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at University College Dublin. In it, Schrödinger addresses the following questions: What is the value of scientific research? How has quantum mechanics changed our views of the nature of matter? and Does quantum mechanics give free will a chance? It’s just the first bit I want to talk about here. (If you’re curious further, I’ve written more over here.)

What is the value of scientific research?

In just the opening 11 pages Schrödinger makes a succinct point about something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently – the nature and value of science.

Has the promotion of knowledge within a narrow domain any value in itself? Has the sum total of achievements in all the several branches of one science – say of physics, or chemistry, or botany, or zoology – any value in itself – or perhaps the sum total of the achievements of all the sciences together – and what value has it?

His answer is that science’s value is the same as that of other fields of learning – it’s an endeavour, as he says beautifully in the quotation atop this post, that aims to do what all our other fields of study do: it tries to discover more about who we are and what this place is in which we live.

Consider the study or research in history or languages, philosophy, geography – or history of music, painting, sculpture, architecture – or in archaeology and pre-history; nobody would like to associate with these activities, as their principal aim, the practical improvement of the conditions of human society, although improvement does result from them quite frequently. I cannot see that science has, in this respect, a different standing.

Incidentally, the first time I heard someone say this was Margaret Wertheim when she was a guest on a Roy and H.G. show on Australian TV. She said, as a scientist and science writer, that she didn’t believe there was any justification for spending billions on the Large Hadron Collider while cutting funding to the arts. As a young physics student, I was scandalised; the audience however applauded.

He then directly confronts the idea that the greater value of science lies in its practical application to society. Firstly, he points out that several fields of science have no direct application – astrophysics, cosmology and seismology, for example. (While seismologists can sense earthquakes and use them to learn about the earth, they cannot foretell them in any useful way.) And then, he makes the following point:

I consider it extremely doubtful whether the happiness of the human race has been enhanced by the technical and industrial developments that followed in the wake of rapidly progressing natural science.

He cites the potential for nuclear winter as an extreme case, and the case of modern transport as a more benign one. It’s easier to travel nowadays, he says, but it’s still expensive, so that families get spread across the globe but aren’t rich enough to meet again. Has this increased their happiness?

I’m not sure how I feel about this one. When I imagine being time-travelled back to 1900 and thinking what would cause me the greatest inconvenience, my answer is the lack of women’s rights (I wouldn’t have been able to study what I love, or write about what I think, for starters) – and our progress in that has hardly been a scientific advancement. However, household appliances and contraception are products of science, and these certainly, indirectly, helped things along. The problem, of course, is that for every good advancement from science you can think of an equally bad one: the mining of coal in England stopped deforestation, but it’s given us global warming. The internet has given us global communication and information access, but it’s allowed Big Brother-scale government spying. As Richard Feynman says, ‘The same key that opens the gates of Heaven also opens the gates of hell.’

So while I reserve my judgement about whether technology has made our lives better overall, I do firmly agree with Schrödinger that if it has, it’s because of non-scientific things like ethics and governance (yes) and philosophy, and not because of anything intrinsically good in science.

Interestingly, this goes directly against much of C.P. Snow’s contemporaneous argument for science in The Two Cultures – most of Snow’s accusations against the ‘literary academics’ are based around the fact they’re just too pig-headed to realise that science, unlike watery subjects like the arts, has made everyone’s life super great! Hey ho!

Finally, Schrödinger exhorts all scientists to remember that science is just one part of life, and to learn to recognise its limits. He quotes from a report of the Commission for University Reform in Germany:

Each lecturer in a technical university should possess the following abilities: (a) To see the limits of his subject matter. In his teaching to make the students aware of these limits, and to show them that beyond these limits forces come into play which are no longer entirely rational, but arise out of life and human society itself. (b) To show in every subject the way that leads beyond its own narrow confines to broader horizons.

And then he makes this conclusion to the section:

I believe [the prior quotation] applies to any teacher at any university, nay at any school in the world; I should formulate the demand thus:

Never lose sight of the role your particular subject has within the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life; keep in touch with life […] and, Keep life in touch with you. If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.

As a student who sat through thousands of hours of technical lectures as part of my education, with just one single hour that I remember (a second year quantum mech lecture) given over to discussing how that technical knowledge impacted on our actual understanding of what it is to be human in the cosmos as we know it, this part of the book is like a salve to the soul. I experience the same feelings reading Schrödinger write about this stuff as I feel when reading the Sermon on the Mount, which is one of the greatest things ever written. It’s not a scientific evaluation, but it makes me feel like I’m not alone.

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