World’s Smartest Physicist Believes Consciousness Will Remain a Mystery


Knowledge about the universe is one of the most satisfying things that we can achieve. As humans we have our limitations that we can’t avoid, but within our limitations we do the best we can. We don’t know how far we can get or how close we can come toward finding what might be the final understanding of it, but trying to get as close as we can to it certainly enriches our lives while we’re here.  – Edward Witten

Consciousness is a problem for some people. Having been indoctrinated into the rigorous material paradigms of the scientific revolution, we tend to think that everything can and should be explained. Opposing materialism, spiritual experience has been largely hijacked by religion, yet consciousness remains the bridge between the two.

But is consciousness really a puzzle that must be solved and thereby explained with language and analytical thinking?

The conversation is intriguing, to be sure, but it goes nowhere, and until you’ve had a genuine spiritual experience it’s tempting to get stuck in the mousetrap of trying to understand consciousness by reducing it into scientific terminology.

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. – Ash Jogalekar

Enter theoretical physicist Edward Witten, former professor at Princeton University, often compared to great scientific minds like Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Recognized primarily for his advancement of the String Theory, quantum gravity, and for his unique contributions to mathematics, Witten is widely thought to be the world’s smartest living theoretical physicist, and in 2004 Time magazine stated so in an article about the most influential people in the world.

Where Einstein failed, physicists may finally be on the verge of success, largely thanks to Edward Witten, generally considered the greatest theoretical physicist in the world – Time Magazine

Witten’s current thoughts on the problem of consciousness were expressed in a recent interview with Dutch journalist Wim Kayzar, and come as refreshing to some who are glad to hear such an important mind acknowledge the limitations of science.

“I tend to believe that consciousness will be 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, so I tend to believe that biologists and perhaps physicists contributing will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think will remain mysterious, perhaps I’m mistaken.

I have a much easier time imaging how we will understand the big bang than I can imagine understanding consciousness. – Edward Witten

Consciousnessis the human force that makes it possible for us to have both material and spiritual experience. In a flash of insight or a blinding moment of clarity, as the result of dedicated painstaking practice or for seemingly no reason at all when you least expect, as humans we can instantly come to realize the magnitude of what it means to be human and conscious. This feeling is known to many, yet is far too profound to be adequately expressed with the mind, and therefore defy definition.

There are terms with which we have an intuitive feeling, but we don’t define them. There are concepts like consciousness and happiness about which we have an intuitive feeling, which I believe we share. We can’t exactly define them. We can say from what we derive happiness, but I don’t think we can define happiness. We can say when we’ve been happy, or what we see as some of the sources of happiness, but we can’t explain what we mean by happiness, but generally speaking we don’t have to because other people know, luckily.  – Edward Witten

Perhaps it’s not something that needs to be solved at all.

Why we’re here will remain a mystery, but why life is possible in a sense will be clearer. – Edward Witten