Without mind, there might as well be nothing. Colin McGinn at the University of Miami, believes that no matter how much scientists study the brain, the mind is fundamentally incapable of comprehending itself. “We’re rather like Neanderthals trying to understand astronomy or Shakespeare,” McGinn observed in Consciousness and Space. Human brains suffer from a “cognitive gap” in understanding their own consciousness.”
“Consciousness May Exist by Itself, Even in the Absence of Matter”
“Is it possible that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?” asks Andrei Linde, Russian-American theoretical physicist and the Harald Trap Friis Professor of Physics at Stanford University. “Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness will be inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?”
“I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness.”
Recently, Princeton physicist Edward Witten, who has been compared to Isaac Newton and Einstein, addressed the problem of human consciousness. Witten 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 pessimistic about our ability to comprehend the origins of human consciousness: “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.”
Universe and Observer Exist as a Pair
“The universe and the observer exist as a pair. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of the universe that ignores consciousness,” says Linde. This is the great question –perhaps the central unsolved mystery of the 21st Century. Linde is one of the world’s leading proponents of the inflationary universe theory. The paragraph below from LinEe’s essay Universe, Life, Consciousness brilliantly examines this great question.
“According to standard materialistic doctrine, consciousness, like space-time before the invention of general relativity,’ writes Linde “plays a secondary, subservient role, being considered just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let’s remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my ‘green’ exists, and my ‘sweet’ exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory.”
Quantum theorist John Wheeler’s “it from bit” hypothesis anticipated Linde, speculating that consciousness is fundamental to reality, wrote John Horgan for Scientific American in “Do Our Questions Create the World”. Wheeler, observed Horgan, was one of the first prominent physicists to propose that “reality might not be wholly physical; in some sense, our cosmos must be a ‘participatory’ phenomenon requiring the act of observation–and thus consciousness itself.”
“It to Bit”
Wheeler explained his “it from bit” hypothesis as follows: “…every it–every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself–derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely–even if in some contexts indirectly–from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits.”
“We Still Live in the Childhood of Mankind”
“We live still in the childhood of mankind,” Wheeler said about the many unexplained mysteries of science. “All these horizons are beginning to light up in our day: molecular biology, DNA, cosmology. We’re just children looking for answers. As the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” Wheeler was convinced that we will someday find “the answer,” and we will be astounded by its simplicity.
“Someday,” Wheeler wrote, “surely we will see the principle underlying existence as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, ‘How could we all have been so stupid for so long.”
The Daily Galaxy with Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. via Andrei Linde, Universe, Life, Consciousness and Scientific American. Avi was formerly a NASA Sagan Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Image credit: Shutterstock