Despite the progress made by modern science over the past few centuries, one of the biggest questions that has been on the mind of man since time immemorial, and yet remaining perhaps the most elusive, is that of the nature of consciousness: we know it exists, but we have no real way to measure, quantify, or even define it. On top of this, science can’t even definitively determine where it comes from, or even why it exists to begin with. And now a prominent physicist, renowned for his work in the field of string theory, feels this scientific mystery may remain permanent.
Physicist Edward Witten, a prominent promoter of string theory, is compared to Einstein and Newton by his colleagues when it comes to his influence on the field of physics. So it came as a surprise to some when he announced that the enigma that the nature of consciousness presents to modern science may remain just that: an elusive, unsolvable mystery. In a recent video interview, he revealed:
"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…
"Understanding the function of the brain is a very exciting problem in which probably there will be a lot of progress during the next few decades. That’s not out of reach. But I think there probably will remain a level of mystery regarding why the brain is functioning in the ways that we can see it, why it creates consciousness or whatever you want to call it. How it functions in the way a conscious human being functions will become clear. But what it is we are experiencing when we are experiencing consciousness, I see as remaining a mystery…
"Perhaps it won’t remain a mystery if there is a modification in the laws of physics as they apply to the brain. I think that’s very unlikely. I am skeptical that it’s going to be a part of physics."
This is coming from a mind that is supremely confident in the ability of science to unravel the universe’s deepest mysteries, including that of the elusive concept of string theory. While his statement hints at the possibility of science unlocking the mechanics of the function of consciousness in the brain, the core of the perceptual experience, the origin and nature of the individual that is doing the experiencing, is likely to remain an unsolvable enigma.
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