I’ve been writing a lot lately about consciousness, the ultimate enigma. I used to think why there is something rather than nothing is the ultimate enigma. But without mind, there might as well be nothing.
Some mind-ponderers, notably philosopher Colin McGinn, argue that consciousness is unsolvable. Philosopher Owen Flanagan calls these pessimists “mysterians,” after the 60’s-era rock group “Question Mark and the Mysterians.”
Recently, physicist Edward Witten came out as a mysterian. Witten is regarded with awe by his fellow physicists, some of whom have compared him to Einstein and Newton. He is largely responsible for the popularity of string theory over the past several decades. String theory holds that all of nature's forces stem from infinitesimal particles wriggling in a hyperspace consisting of many extra dimensions.
Witten is optimistic about science’s power to solve mysteries, such as why there is something rather than nothing. In a 2014 Q&A with me he said: “The modern scientific endeavor has been going on for hundreds of years by now, and we've gotten way farther than our predecessors probably imagined.” He also reaffirmed his belief that string theory will turn out to be “right.”
But in a fascinating video interview with journalist Wim Kayzer, Witten is pessimistic about the prospects for a scientific explanation of consciousness. The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:
I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that's what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness...
Just because Witten is a genius does not mean he is infallible. He is wrong, I believe, that string theory will eventually be validated, and he could be wrong that consciousness will never be explained. I nonetheless find it newsworthy—and refreshing--that a scientist of his caliber is talking so candidly about the limits of science. For reasons that are perhaps too obvious, I like Ash Jogalekar’s take on Witten’s comments. An excerpt:
It's interesting to contrast Witten's thoughts with John Horgan's End of Science thesis… The end of science really is the end of the search for final causation. In that sense not just consciousness but many aspects of the world may always remain a mystery. Whether that is emotionally pleasing or disconcerting is an individual choice that each one of us has to make.