One of the most probable ways we will reach the Singularity is with computers that mimic our brains. But to achieve that, we will have to tackle one of the bigger mysteries of life: consciousness. What it is, how it works, and why it works will have to be answered if we want to put our brains into computers.
Sadly, we may not be able to answer those questions. Edward Witten, a highly-regarded physicist, is of the view that we won’t be able to decipher consciousness, and that it will always remain a mystery to us.
In an interview with journalist Wim Kayzer, Witten had this to say about our understanding of consciousness:
“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.”
If you don’t want to watch the whole video interview with Witten, the relevant part begins at 1:10:25.
Witten is saying that, we either already understand, or will someday understand, the processes behind thinking, learning, feeling, and doing. However, we will never understand the higher philosophy of consciousness. We may know that we are conscious, but not why. In essence, understanding the how of consciousness will be achievable and knowable, while the whys will remain out of our grasp.
While we would be inclined to trust the man who has been called the modern day Einstein, others point out that Witten could be wrong, though. John Horgan from Scientific American writes,
“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.”
We will just have to wait and see if our consciousness can tackle the philosophy of itself.