In a book called What is life? the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger ask himself why we don't perceive atoms, and says:

The reason for this is, that what we call thought is itself an orderly thing, and can only be applied to material, i.e. to perceptions or experiences, which have a certain degree of orderliness.

From that he derives:

  1. As thought is an ordered thing the brain must be also an ordered thing.
  2. That there must be an order outside so, as atoms move caotically, we can't perceive them.

In other words, internal order of the organism implies that we can not perceive a single atom.

I have never heard an argument like that, i.e, that thought implies internal and external order.

Do you have any argument or know any text about this issue?

  • I think it is important to understand the context he is writing. The quote you give is available here starting on page 3, but I think it is important to read the pages prior to this and the page after to understand his full argument. - archive.org/stream/WhatIsLife-EdwinSchrodinger/… Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 4:47
  • 1
    IMO, the reading must be difefrent: Why we do not perceive atoms ? Because we are too big. Why so ? Because "thinking" needs a sort of complexity (I suggest this term as a more modern substitute for "orderliness") that cannot be produced by single atoms. This complexity needs a complex structure that can oeprate only according to "strict physical laws" (i.e. deterministically) in contrast to the probabilistic behaviour of atoms. Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 11:06
  • Mauro The English translation quoted above is correct. The original German text uses the words "ordnungsmaessig" and "Ordnung" (Chap. 1, Sect. 5). But Schroedinger subsequently speaks about "Organisationsgrad". This would be "level of organisation" and resembles your proposal "complexity".
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 25, 2018 at 5:32
  • But real explanation is much more obvious: cells responsible for perceptions are much larger than atoms. Well, it's similar to what is said here: that's such an order that cells are larger than atoms.
    – rus9384
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 21:13
  • Yes, but schrodinger was quite aware of that...@rus9384
    – user29573
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 21:15

1 Answer 1


Schrodinger's reasoning is wrong. If instead of "order" he means average, then his reasoning makes more sense. Our senses-brain combination responds/measures the average intensity of what ever we are sensing. Also, our senses only operate over a limited range. This forces a limited resolution capability on our senses.
It is well known that the resolution of the testing device (ear, eye, film speed, microscope, oscilloscope, etc.), is what limits the size of the object that can be detected/measured with the given "device".

  • We don't only measure averages with our nervous systems. In fact, we are sometimes extremely sensitive to peaks/outliers - think of somebody being startled by a sudden movement, a shrill sound, an unfamiliar voice in your room etc... do you really think Schrödinger was not aware of the limited resolution capabilites of our senses? That would be unbelievably naive.
    – user159517
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 10:26
  • @User159517: there is not a single average. What you call a peak can be interpreted as an average of a finer level behavior. I myself have also several criticisms to this book, it is a superficial approach to several complex philosophical topics.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 3:52
  • @RodolfoAP it can be interpreted as such, but doing so indefinitely completely defeats the purpose of talking about averages at all - when you see everything as the average of some undefined finer level behavior, unless you really specify how the finer level behavior works, you don't gain any information. In other words, looking at it like that renders it an uninformative truism.
    – user159517
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 10:06

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