“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mystery.”

Albert Einstein

It is easy to get disenchanted with a mundane, physical, secular world. This is a world of scientific determinism where one thing follows after another and things are predictable and it is only a lack of intellect and rationality that allows any room for uncertainty. Most of our scientific endeavour is confined to such a world where data and equations inexorably predict the future.

But whatever the world such determinants describe, we can be sure it is not the real world. Nor would I suspect would most of us want it to be.

The determinists would argue that any gaps in our ability to understand the world merely points to the fact that there is data that is not available to us. Supposedly then, if we knew all the initial conditions, the progress of the universe in its clockwork way could be described in detail and with certainty.

As we have seen in other essays, quantum physics has shown that at the level of the quanta outcomes cannot be predicted absolutely but only ascribed a possibility.

But surely underlying the mysteries of the universe is that there is something out there that is greater than us and therefore must always beyond our capacity to understand. Or to put it differently and in a way closer to how the problem is normally explained philosophically, when the universe as a whole tries to understand itself, through the medium of the human mind, some aspects of the universe must remain unknown. We have encountered this problem before. With the awakening of symbolic knowledge there seems to arise a split in the universe between the knower and the known, the thinker and the thought, the subject and the object. This is sometimes called primary dualism.

The polymath and author, G. Spencer Brown wrote in Laws of Form:

“We may take it that the world is itself (i.e. is indistinct from itself), but in any attempt to see itself as an object, it must, equally undoubtedly, act to make itself distinct from, and therefore false to itself. In this condition it will always partially elude itself!”

Indeed the theologian, Tim Freke, in The Mystery Experience argues that consciousness requires discrimination, the act of separating parts from the whole. He writes:

“It’s discrimination which allows us to be conscious. This means that the experience of separateness isn’t a trivial illusion, because it’s a prerequisite for us being conscious at all.”

In previous essays I have outlined how this splitting of the universe into the “knower” and the “known” results in paradoxes in physics and mathematics (manifested for example in physics in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Theory and in mathematics by Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.)

The principals of classical science served us well for many centuries. Their consistent application expanded Mankind’s knowledge base beyond what was imaginable before. But finally the classical approach ran out of steam. There began to accumulate problems which it was unable to solve. It had relied on measurement and analysis. But suddenly when looking at such small phenomena as subatomic particles and photons it was no longer adequate. It was becoming apparent that at this level, the act of observation in fact impinged on the phenomena being observed which rendered errors and uncertainty in data. In this regard dualism was interfering with our ability to apprehend the physical universe.

But then another aspect of dualism asserted itself rendering our understanding problematic. This is sometimes called the ontological dualism. This is where we try to split the universe between mind and matter. This dualistic problem revolved around trying to decide of what basic “stuff” was the universe comprised.

To put the argument differently as the mentalists (e.g. Daniel Dennett) maintain is consciousness really a manifestation of matter, or as the idealists (e.g. Alan Watts) contend is matter a manifestation of consciousness? Again, because I have addressed this issue in a previous blog essay, I will not go over it again here.

Conventionally, we have believed that in order to know reality, we have to step outside the universe and act as an observer. As we saw this vey act of dualism will distort the picture so derived so there will be holes and errors in the knowledge so derived. Thus mystery is created.

This was not only the conclusion that modern phycisists came to, it has been the understanding of sages for millennia. It was a principle known to the sages of Hinduism, Vedanta and Buddhism among others.

But this is not the only way we can know reality.

The British Astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, had this to say:

“We have two kinds of knowledge which I call symbolic knowledge and intimate knowledge…..[The] more customary forms of reasoning have been developed for symbolic knowledge only. The intimate knowledge will not submit to codification and analysis; or rather when we attempt to analyse it the intimacy is lost and it is replaced by symbolism.”

Eddington calls the second mode of knowing “intimate” because the subject and object are intimately united in its operation. However as soon as we start to analyse it or indeed even discuss it we must revert to symbolism, whether it be of mathematics or even language, and dualism is immediately reintroduced bringing with it the limitations discussed above. This experience of reality cannot be related to another other than through the use of symbolism. By doing so however, I can never reproduce reality for you. The best I can do is provide a picture, a map of it. I have to stand outside it to describe it thus resorting again to duality. Inherently then the reality I might experience through intimate knowledge can never be fully shared with another.

William James, often recognised as the father of modern psychology said:

“There are two ways of knowing things – knowing them immediately or intuitively, or knowing them conceptually or representatively.   …….[M]ost of the things we know, the tigers now in India, for example, or the scholastic system of philosophy, are known only representatively or symbolically.”

Again this understanding is not confined to modern philosophers and scientist but has been an integral part of various wisdom traditions. For example in Mahayana Buddhism both the symbolic mode and the non-dual mode of knowing are recognised. They are called vijnana and prajna respectively. The great populariser of Eastern wisdom traditions, D T Suzuki, in Studies in Zen wrote:

“Prajna goes beyond vijnana. We make use of vijnana in our world of senses and intellect which is characterised by dualism in the sense there is one who sees and there is the other that is seen – the two standing in opposition. In prajna this differentiation does not take place; what is seen and the one who sees are identical: the seer is the seen and the seen is the seer.”(Italics in the original.)

So there you have it. It is fruitless to believe that the mystery residing in the Universe is but a shortcoming in Mankind’s intellectual capability or indeed reflecting an underlying lack of knowledge or data. Modern physics and the ancient wisdom traditions concur that mystery is woven into the very fabric of the Universe. It arises because we are active participants in the universe and if we try to withdraw in order to examine and describe the universe we automatically create “blindspots” and paradoxes. If we seek to know directly through non-dual experience we may personally get to experience reality more directly and without distortion but we are confronted with the dilemma that as soon as we try to portray that reality we must needs resort to dualism and symbolism which immediately curtails our capacity to represent reality to another.

As Einstein pointed out in the quote I began this essay with, mystery adds beauty to the Universe. The wonder that has captivated, inspired and provided spiritual nourishment to Mankind comes from this very mystery.

I have written previously that because reality is often difficult to approach directly for the reasons given above, oft-times we can get great insights by approaching it indirectly – through the use of metaphors and parables. Through the use of these tools many of the ancient sages wrote beautiful and insightful treatises on these fundamental questions. In that light then let me finish with a quote from the eighth century Vedantic sage, Shankara.

“Now a distinct and definite knowledge is possible in respect of everything capable of becoming an object of knowledge: but it is not possible in the case of that which cannot become such an object. That is Brahman, for it is the Knower, and the Knower can know other things, but cannot make Itself the object of Its own knowledge, in the same way that fire can burn other things but cannot burn itself. Neither can it be said that Brahman is able to become an object of knowledge for anything other than Itself, since outside Itself there there is nothing which can possess knowledge.”

4 Replies to “Mystery”

  1. Ted, this is a beautiful piece. I believe that without mystery there can be no meaningful life.
    I read somewhere in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “The knowing seeks to be known and is expressed in being”.
    That seeking must surely be another facet of mystery or vice versa.


  2. This blog appears to me to describe the great divide I.e. belief in reason vs belief in something beyond reason.
    Materialist vs idealist
    Science vs supernatural
    Atheist vs religious
    Dennett vs Watts (your example)
    Mind vs matter
    Is there a case for reconciliation…… No if you’re an atheist materialist; yes if you’re a mystic perhaps.
    In regards to determinism – Free will vs no free will. This divide (but not clean cut) is possibly the greatest philosophical delemma of our time requiring day to day application. Both positions are argued from both sides and also complicated by the compatabilist/incompatibilist views. Maybe this divide can provide a glimpse of reconciliation.

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