The Spiritual Philosophy of The Witness

Luke Cuddy
Muddled Profundity
Published in
4 min readFeb 11, 2021


The Witness by Jonathan Blow, 2016.

Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is one of my favorite video games of all time for many reasons, from the sophistication of the puzzles to the beautiful environments to the windmill videos. I wrote an article about what I took to be Blow’s epistemology when making the game, and I was subsequently interviewed about it on the excellent Parsing Science podcast.

As I note in the podcast and in the article, there’s a lot more philosophical analysis of the game to be done since my focus was only on epistemology. In fact, a full book could probably be written on the overall philosophy of The Witness, especially with respect to the spiritual angle. For now, though, I’m going to touch on just some of that angle with this article (also, spoiler alert!).

Blow’s Advaita Vedanta Roots

The last two windmill videos (the two farthest to the right anyway) are of Advaita Vedanta teachers, Rupert Spira and Gangaji. As Blow reveals in this podcast about his game, he himself was in attendance at this particular talk from Spira. Although not included in the game, Spira’s teacher was Francis Lucille, who is my current teacher.

To reveal the windmill videos, players must solve difficult puzzles elsewhere in the game world to get the keys.

As you can see, I too am a follower of Advaita Vedanta like Blow, which is yet another reason why I love The Witness. But what is Advaita? Advaita is a version of non-dualism, which can best be understood by referencing the more familiar Western concept of dualism. If you believe in body and soul, or even certain versions of mind and body, you are a dualist. You believe that this universe contains physical stuff (matter) as well as some sort of spiritual stuff (mind/soul). Our bodies, such dualists tend to believe, are only the physical part of us, while our souls are something immaterial that will pass on to another world (like heaven or hell) when we die. Many philosophers trace this dualism back to Rene Descartes, who cordoned off mental and physical stuff in exactly this way. Descartes was highly influential on the development of our Western worldview and, some pejoratively argue, still even influences the thinking of respectable scientists.

Non-dualism, in contrast, rejects this distinction between mind and body. However, there are different conclusions to draw from this rejection. Materialist philosophers and scientists, for example, reject the distinction by claiming that mind and body are one in terms of matter. That is, the mind is simply a sophisticated physical thing that happens to have neurons, synapses, etc. This materialist worldview continues to dominate Western thinking and science in particular.

Advaita Vedanta, in contrast, is about the experience of non-dual consciousness versus that of dual consciousness. Advaita’s claim is that humans are naturally conditioned into dual consciousness and that this is the root of suffering and ultimately an error that can be understood through both reason and experience. Unlike the excessive pot smoker who claims that “we’re all one, man!” the non-dualist has a method to reach that truth.

To be even more clear, the claim of Advaita is that the belief that consciousness is dual is actually false, an illusion, and one can only hold such a belief if they have not seen in its entirety the truth of non-dual consciousness. Drawing any conclusions about science, or life in general, without understanding the implications of this experience will be fruitless and even counterproductive in some important ways.

Scientists claiming to be materialists could actually smuggle in a strange type of dualism here, that I could go into more depth on in some other venue. (Iain McGilchrist’s recent discussion on the Waking Up podcast might count as an example, whose knowledge of the physical processes of the brain is outmatched only by his inability to entertain the idea that consciousness could be a more broad phenomenon than he thinks.)

Who is this… Witness? The Experience of Non-dual Consciousness

In the aforementioned podcast with Blow, he makes the excellent but oft-neglected point that many Western scientists and philosophers— including those whose life work has been the study of consciousness — don’t seem to understand their own experience of consciousness at all. The phrase “the witness” is quite common in Advaita circles, often referring to the pure awareness that occurs when one does not identify with objects of their experience — objects in this sense referring to anything that passes through one’s experience, from bodily sensations to emotions to thoughts.

It seems pretty likely (though I can’t recall him directly stating it) that the name The Witness was chosen by Blow with reference to Advaita, especially given the inclusion of the Spira and Gangaji videos.

I’ll end by pointing out how often Western thinkers miss this point about witnessing consciousness rather than identifying with it, dismissing all that people like Blow and I say as religious gobbledegook on par with reincarnation. This is a serious mistake on their part. Luckily, there are more recent arguments from legitimate academics that challenge materialist assumptions about consciousness. Although I am not fully in agreement with his thesis, Philip Goff argues for panpsychism (the view that the universe is conscious), which is at least a step in the right direction. For pushback against Goff, listen to him on Sean Carrol’s Mindscape Podcast.



Luke Cuddy
Muddled Profundity

Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern College, CA | Contributor to @andphilosophy | Blues Guitar Finger-Picker