The other day I mused on Twitter about three big origin questions: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness. Which isn’t to say they are related, just that they’re all interesting and important (and currently nowhere near solved). Physicists have taken stabs at the life question, but (with a few dramatic exceptions) they’ve mostly stayed away from consciousness. Probably for the best.
Here’s Ed Witten giving his own personal — and characteristically sensible — opinion, which is that consciousness is a really knotty problem, although not so difficult that we should start contemplating changing the laws of physics in order to solve it. Though I am more optimistic than he is that we’ll understand it on a reasonable timescale. (Hat tip to Ash Jogalekar.)
Anyone seriously interested in tackling these big questions would be well-served by acknowledging that much (most? almost all?) progress in science is incremental, sneaking up on major discoveries by a series of small steps rather than leaping right to a dramatic new paradigm. Even if you want to understand the origin of the universe, it might behoove you to think about some more specific and tractable problems, like the nature of quantum fluctuations in inflation, or the emergence of spacetime in string theory. If you want to understand the origin of consciousness, it’s a good strategy to think about something like our perception of color, with the idea of working your way up to the more challenging issues.
Conversely, it’s these big questions that attract crackpots like honey attracts flies. I get a lot of emails (and physical letters) from cranks, but they never have a new theory of the branching ratio of the Higgs boson into four leptons; it’s always about the nature of space and time and everything. It’s too easy for anyone to have an opinion about these big questions, whether or not those opinions are worth paying attention to.
All of which leads up to saying: it’s still worth tackling the big questions! Start small, but think big. Because they are so hard, it’s too easy to make fun of attempts to solve the biggest questions, or to imagine that they are irreducibly mysterious and will never be solved. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had quite compelling pictures of the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness within the next hundred years. But only if we’re willing to tackle the big problems seriously.