In Praise of Mystery

It seems innate in human beings to have a sense of wonder. Being confronted with mystery however brings out different responses in people.

The left-brain dominant determinists and materialists are uncomfortable when they can’t answer the questions of “why” and “how”. For that we probably should be grateful because such people have done the legwork of science which has immeasurably increased our understanding of the universe and enhanced our standard of living. Mind you they have seldom been the ones to conceptualise new theories and different ways of viewing the world.

Yet, whilst there is some value in dicing, dissecting and analysing the universe to enhance our understanding, it seems however, that whilst we improve our understanding of the world at some level by these processes, they often merely serve to open up new horizons of mystery.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon is atomic theory.

In antiquity philosophers from both the Greek and Vedic traditions proposed that matter was comprised of tiny individual particles which could not be further divided. These particles were termed “atoms” by the Greeks which meant “indivisible”. Because this was initially a philosophic rather than a scientific concept, and technology hadn’t yet provided the tools to do so, it was unable to be subject to proper scrutiny.

It was not until the late eighteenth century, when scientific knowledge and practices had considerably advanced, that John Dalton and others produced physical evidence in support of atomic theory. In the next century the elements, atoms of which comprised all matter either alone or in combination with other elements (forming molecules), were gradually discovered and their atomic weights calculated enabling the periodic table to be populated.

But then late in the nineteenth century J J Thomson through his work with cathode rays discovered the electron. From this work it became evident that there were entities even more fundamental than atoms.

It was later shown by Ernest Rutherford and others that the electrons which were negatively charged, orbited around the central nucleus of the atom which was positively charged. This nucleus was ascertained to be composed of another two, much heavier particles, protons (which were positively charged) and neutrons (which had no electric charge at all).

Logically, given the state of knowledge at that time, the component parts of the atom came to be called “fundamental particles”.

Atomic theory, now embellished with the knowledge of the fundamental particles – electrons, protons and neutrons – greatly advanced our scientific knowledge, particularly with respect to chemistry and how elements combined and interacted with each other.

But inevitably each discovery in atomic theory raised further questions thereby causing scientists to probe even deeper.

When I studied physics in the early 1960’s scientists were seeking evidence for subatomic particles that they called positrons, muons and neutrinos. Now the pantheon of fundamental particles comprises gluons, quarks, and many others including the elusive Higg’s boson. These particles have bizarre properties and I often think that our scientists are not so much inspired by Newton and Einstein these days but by Edward Lear!

And then of course along came quantum theory. quantum theory proposed that all moving particles could best be described by treating them as a wave function rather than as a discrete particle. The wave function could only be described in terms of probabilities. Nothing could be defined in absolute terms but only in statistical terms.

So, one could summarise that although the development of atomic theory has yielded very beneficial outcomes in terms of our understanding of physics and chemistry, even if it has resolved some mysteries it has opened up another Pandora’s Box which we must now grapple with.

It is easy to postulate, therefore, that the more we know, the more we unearth that we don’t know.

There are many other fields of knowledge where the same situation prevails. One that immediately comes to mind is neuroscience. Whilst we have learnt a tremendous amount about the human brain and how it functions, its almost infinite complexity ensures that many new discoveries unearth more mysteries.

Perhaps it is time to question what we can know? Because humanity is but one part of the universe, and it seems unlikely that a part could ever understand the whole, I suspect that we should reconcile ourselves to the fact that the universe will always hold mysteries for us. (Although I must confess there was a time when my children were teenagers, I am sure they thought they knew everything!)

Surely to aspire to omniscience is to aspire to god-like status. Further, determinism must be the natural state of an omniscient being, for whom no mysteries remain. I doubt that would be at all desirable for most of us. Imagine a life that was laid out in front of us like an undeviating road to a known destination. That doesn’t sound like a very attractive option to me.

(It seems to me that an omniscient God probably created quantum physics and then created a random number generator which allowed various unpredictable outcomes of the quantum fluctuations to occur just to amuse himself when an absolutely deterministic universe became too boring to contemplate!)

When we look at human discovery and the advancing frontiers of science it is worthwhile revisiting the “God of the gaps” notion.

The God of the gaps is a reflection of lack of overall perspective of fundamentalists in both religious and scientific communities.

After the assault on Christianity that Darwin initiated, many believers were compelled to seek out flaws and omissions in science which could justify their on-going belief in God. It was inevitable that they were quick to point out that there were yet many things that science could not explain and consequently they maintained that science had not supplanted God. If a full understanding of the universe was to be attained it could only be achieved by embracing the notion of an omnipotent and omniscient deity whose interventions could explain those things that were yet beyond science’s capacity to do so.

On the other hand, the scientific fundamentalists denigrated this notion and were confident in their belief that sooner or later science could explain everything!

Although the concept had actually arisen in the nineteenth century, it came to the attention of that exemplary human being and 20th century Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer rejected the notion. He wrote:

…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

Despite Bonhoeffer’s protests the concept has continued to be promoted by fundamentalist Christians seeking to preserve their simplistic notions of God and derided by scientists, such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), who in promotion of atheism chose to target those believers with such naïve beliefs.

The Judaic religions in their folk myths regarding creation intimated that accessing knowledge (portrayed by Eve’s temptation of Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge) was somehow a sin and doomed humankind to be evicted from the Garden of Eden and condemned it to enduring lives of pain and suffering. God’s prohibition of knowledge as portrayed in the Old Testament creation myth is difficult for us to understand. As Karen Armstrong points out:

Our culture has been deeply influenced by the classical literature of Greece, which saw knowledge and reason as supreme values. It is from Greece that we inherited our prodigious thirst to find out as much as possible about the world we live in.

Consequently God’s command to prevent Adam from eating of the Tree of Knowledge seems strangely perverse.

The fundamentalist Christians that rejoice in the gaps of our knowledge as a prop for their irrational beliefs regarding creation, are then in some way reflecting the perversity of the God of the Old Testament.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe for most things I have an enquiring mind and am happy to acquire as much knowledge as I reasonably can in the subjects that interest me. But I am sure my mind, and I suspect all other human minds, do not have the capacity to acquire anything but a modest fraction of the knowledge required to completely understand the universe. And even if we were to pool all our knowledge I am sure that would not be nearly enough to accomplish that impossible task.

But that is not a depressing thought for me on a number of fronts.

Firstly it would eliminate the joy of discovery.

Let me give you a simple example. As a keen fisherman it was always exciting to be introduced to a new stream or find a part of a familiar river I had never fished before. It is such an exhilarating feeling to walk the banks of the stream and wonder what will be around the next bend. Will there be rapids? Will there be deep water? Will there be fallen timber or rocks that might provide sanctuary for the fish I am seeking? There can be no novelty for someone who is omniscient. And of course the implications are far broader than my trite example.

I have been involved with research now for many years. Whilst researchers might be gratified by making new discoveries, their principal motivation seems to be easing the itch of their ignorance.

Or take human relations. We are often stimulated by meeting someone new and working out what they believe and how they think.

Then when we go to a restaurant, whilst we are often inclined to order our old favourites it is always tempting to try a new dish.

So, in this way our incomplete knowledge allows us the joy of discovery, which to my mind is not an inconsequential thing.

Secondly, understanding the incompleteness of our knowledge and the impossibility of being omniscient encourages humility and tolerance. It is in fact doubt that saves us from arrogance. It disposes us also to be more comfortable with ambiguity.

But, for me, the prime benefit of not knowing, is that it allows us to engage the world (albeit in a state of well-informed ignorance) with a sense of wonderment. It is perhaps a little sad that we associate wonderment mainly with childhood. Life seems to me greatly curtailed when we lose that capacity, and even though my wife accuses me of entering my second childhood, I can do that willingly if it means I can sustain my sense of wonderment. It is a source of joy to me that my world contains many intriguing mysteries. Sorry, God – but I can’t understand why anyone would aspire to omniscience!

[And by the way let me express my gratitude to the metaphorical Eve who allowed us to access knowledge. No doubt her feminine intuition (never mind any serpent) told her that humanity was better served by having the capacity to deal with mystery through our pursuit of knowledge (understanding of course it could never be complete) rather than remain the infantile playthings of a paternalistic and vengeful God!]

3 Replies to “In Praise of Mystery”

  1. I have always had the feeling that the universe we live in can approach infinity in both directions. I enjoyed your blog. Ted, it was easy to read and because I am one of those who asked “why” l have not contributed to the answers too much.
    Well done again.
    Bernie Burke

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