World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness

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.”

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… 

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