It was a frosty but luminous evening in Alpbach, Austria. Snuggled in a bowl lifted by the Kitzbühel Alps, Alpbach is a village of 2500 people at 1000 meters above sea level. Scattered about me were traditional Austrian homes like mountainside inserts seemingly assembled from chestnut-colored sequoias. These broad wooden structures had low pitched roofs spread wide to shield stories below from heavy snows. So robust, they appeared able to support another building or a planet. Each story was draped in banks of pink and red flowers, four to five feet high, flattering their way around the full circumference of the house. Quite appropriate for a place that won the “Most Beautiful Floral Village in Europe” award. While spring had defeated snow in Alpbach, it was king for a while longer another thousand meters above me. Peaks so white against that cobalt sky, my iris exceeded its contraction limit and I had to look away. Better than most cameras, my eyes had insufficient “dynamic range” — that distance between the darkest darks and lightest lights. I was there for a synthetic aperture radar symposium, after all, and dynamic range was sure to arise as a radar’s response to radio waves — another sibling in the spectrum of light. At that moment, I felt what it meant.
Spiring over my head was the green steeple of St. Oswald Catholic Church. Hugging the church like Alpbach hugged the mountains was an immaculate graveyard and daily reminder of why the church was there. Each grave was capped by an ornate iron cross four feet high. Each held a plaque as identifier for those who once stood in this little town before they lay here. A custodian of chiseled stone enclosed each plot for the safety of more flowers, though these were for the dead.
I’d been anticipating this occasion for a while. To stretch the moment, I surveyed my surroundings, squinted back up at the white-tipped peaks beyond the green spire, then down to a tomb in front of me. Attached to its cross was an addition like no other in the yard. One of the most potent encapsulations of human mental horsepower. It was Schrödinger’s quantum mechanical wave equation, inscribed on a circle of iron. A short reach beneath my feet and two meters ahead lay the mortal remains of Austrian physicist and Nobel Laureate, Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961), tunneler to nature’s unseeable micro world. His famous equation, like a dusty window into the mind of God at his weirdest, bedeviled me as a university student. Perhaps anything so close to creation should. I assumed in those far off years of younger days that quantum mechanics made sense to everyone but me. So, I suffered alone, in silence, lest I be discovered a fool (test scores proved it). Years later, I learned that a paragon of physics, Richard Feynman, declared, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Rehabilitated, I made friends with quantum, and with the aid of engineering pals, had fun in the field.
Schrödinger’s wave equation is, in the micro-world, analogous to Newton’s equations of motion in the macro (almost). Newton’s equations describe the motions of everything around us, from clouds to the aircraft that fly through them. While in our everyday Newtonian existence, where something is and how fast it moves can be known with precision, Schrödinger’s land of miniatures allows only probabilities instead.
Standing before the old Austrian, I held his final book in my hand, My View of the World. I extended my arm, holding its title in Schrödinger’s direction, in case by some marvel beyond me, he might be able to read it. If so, I decided, he’d be a bit happier than his current condition would suggest. Perhaps he’d not mind if I hovered a while. So, I did.
I checked the people-less vacuum about me. I opened Schrödinger’s book to page 20. I read what he wrote out loud. “Suppose you are sitting on a bench beside a path in high mountain country. There are grassy slopes all around with rocks thrusting through. On the opposite slope of the valley, there is a stretch of scree with a low growth of alder bushes. Woods climb steeply on both sides of the valley up to a line of treeless pasture. Facing you, soaring up from the depths of the valley, is the mighty glacier-tipped peak. Its smooth snowfields and hard-edged rock-faces touched at this moment with soft rose-color by the last rays of the departing sun…” I peeped above at rock faces and wondered where he sat up there when he wrote this.
“According to the usual way of looking at it,” I read, “everything that you see has, apart from small changes, been there for thousands of years before you. After a while — not long — you will no longer exist, and the woods and rocks and sky will continue, unchanged, for thousands of years after you. What is it that has so suddenly called you out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while this spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?”
By then, the sun had dipped beneath the local Alps. Though too early to see the stars, with our solar orb obstructed, lanterns of Venus and Jupiter dimpled the dimming sky. Thanks to a colossal wreck between tectonic plates, those peaks above me got their biggest boost for the heavens about 100 million years ago, less than 1-percent the age of the universe. Once a seafloor, they were now a mile high, three in some places, and littered with the lives of once-dominant creatures that swam here. Hoisted by the earth, fossil offerings of life’s creative genius seemed tendered to the planets and stars soon-to-shine. So they could see what nature made here: trilobites, corals, snail-like brachiopods. And there I was, in the same line they led ahead of me, just behind Schrödinger. Each in the queue, here for an instant, compared to the cosmos, too brief for even quantum mechanics to measure.
What “called me out of nothingness” may well be discovered by the current scientific revolution in complexity theory. Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe makes a stunning case for it and what he calls “order for free;” the self-organization of complex molecules, catalytic processes, and self-reproductive systems that appear to have given evolution a head start by the laws of physics and chemistry alone. From simple systems emerge new properties not envisioned by their building blocks. One example is wetness. Less than about a million water molecules will feel dry on your hands, dusty, not wet. But from the propinquity of a million such molecules is born the emergent property of wetness.
As Kauffman shows, natural reactions in sufficiently nutrient-rich environs, with disequilibrium energy gradients pushing reactions up or downhill, can find their way to islands of stability in a sea of complexity-collapse. Each isle a different stable molecule, catalyst, cell, or organism on its particular fitness landscape. Forces self-coordinate blindly toward the boundary between order and chaos. They cross into the oblivion of runaway reactions, fall off fitness peaks into valleys of less orderly arrangements, or tempt fate at the door to one or the other in long term survival. Evolution doesn’t need an eternity to wait on random chance and deterministic selection; the raw materials and organization are already there. (Sorry, Creationists.) Life becomes the expected outcome of fundamental physical laws with all the implications this has for life in the universe.
What about consciousness? Was it an emergent property, budding from the structure of our brains and its biophysics? If so, what happened next? One suspects recognition, not only of the external world but of self, separate from other conscious beings. With a drive to survive that predates consciousness, respect for our ending couldn’t be too far behind. And with that, the ending of others we know. Would grief, then morality, then desires for magic emerge to fix what’s wrong?
That such perceptions sprouted early in living complexity is implied by Neanderthal burials ca. 100,000 years ago. They buried their dead with flowers (pollen remains) and red ochre in their graves. Like a womb, they were placed in fetal position. Facing east and the rising sun, were they placed like a seed or a savior, to be resurrected with the next season, poised for the sunrise of another day in a new life? There’s ample speculation in what they meant, yet the same symbols persist to this day in different parts of the world by a different species — our own.
But is our lineage alone in this emergence? For centuries it was assumed only humans made tools, recognized faces, planned ahead, were self-aware, transmitted culture and ethics among their own kind, and only humans grieved. As primatologist Frans de Waal elaborates, all such assumptions have sunk under the weight of measured evidence. Dolphins, with equal or larger brain-to-body mass ratios than humans, call for their pod, as men carve their live bodies for mercury-rich flesh to put in our mouths. Fur seal mothers cry over remains of snow-white infants ripped free of their skin for the vanity trade — a bloody carcass she labors for three days to feed. Infant rhinos bleat for their mothers, shot for nothing more than her horn (the same protein as toenails), pulverized and added to beer for better sex or miraculous cures — despite the fact it doesn’t work, and the planet doesn’t need more humans. And in 2018, a mother orca carried her dead newborn for 17 days across a thousand miles to prevent it from sinking, nudging it to the surface to breathe, in what the media labeled a “tour of grief.” A tour commenced by human decimation of north Pacific salmon fisheries, sustenance for orcas. Humans aren’t the only ones conscious of self and others, a reckoning that leads to morality, ethics, and sorrow.
If consciousness emerged from ordered brains, spawning grief and magic yearnings, what about God? Ignoring elaborations of the idea (scriptures, canon, dogmas), could God be an emergent property of consciousness? Would that mean God is or isn’t real? Will God disappear when humans are extinct?
Reduce the count of water molecules below a million, and wetness goes away. But isn’t the emergence of wetness a physical reality? Try it in your shower. Is faith in water’s wetness, omnipresence, and aid in daily life, unfounded?
Perhaps God’s appearance is a matter of emergent capacity to perceive what’s already there, external, and independent of us. But if God is not external, born only from our brains, does that change anything for humans? Thanks to complexity theory, rather than irrational, God might be — like the emergence of complex molecules, cells, life, and consciousness — among the most rational and expected consequences of physical laws, and of being human.
References not linked to above:
Paragraph 4: Actually, Schrödinger’s equation should be simpler than Newton’s as Schrödinger’s is linear, and Newton’s is not. So, for example, one wave will have a solution under Schrödinger as will another and another added to it as will the scaling of either one or all of them. As for Newton, his equation has a solution for the two-body problem (like a planet that orbits a star) but add a third body for the so called “three body problem,” and it has no solution. No one knows what that system will do, so its position, velocity and momentum cannot be predicted exactly. Numerical methods come close.
Paragraph 5: Erwin Schrödinger, My View of the World, Oxbow Press, 1961.
Paragraph 9: Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Paragraph 13: Frans de Waals, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, Norton, 2016.
Paragraph 14: The concept of “gods” accompanied the idea of magic early. See Henri Frankfort, Before Philosophy, Penguin, 1960. Our many cosmic bellhops (Sumer even had a god for the pickaxe) were simplified by coalescing the many benevolent or villainous gods down to one with the invention of monotheism, either by Akhenaton (ca. 1350 B.C.) or Zoroaster (ca. 1750–760 B.C., his dates vary wildly). Author and cherished skeptic, Michael Shermer maintains that God and consciousness are “mysterians” that can never be explained. Maybe that’s not so. Michael Shermer, The Final Mysterians, Scientific American, July 2018.