Understanding Mystery

One long strand of philosophical reflection attempts to empty the universe of mystery. Many philosophers have aimed to dispel superstitions, magical thoughts, irrational beliefs and uncanny appearances. Loving truth and knowledge, they have tried to understand the universe and themselves without calling for supernatural help. On this approach, philosophy ends with the disappearance of mystery. An omniscient intelligence would find nothing mysterious, but would have no need of philosophy, either.

Still, philosophy has never totally effaced the idea of mystery, and we can ask about its nature and try to explain why we have it. A mystery is something we do not understand, something that puzzles our senses, imagination or understanding. Some mysteries are solved. Some await a solution. Others remain unsolved for purely contingent reasons. Still others remain mysteries because we lack the intellectual ability to solve them, or because trying to think of a ‘solution’ is already wrong-headed.

To begin, let us distinguish natural from supernatural mysteries. Natural mysteries are things we do not understand, but which, if we finally dispel them, we will understand by thought, observation and experience without appeal to supernatural intelligence or agency. Natural mysteries can be little or big. A little mystery is the random disappearance of my socks, or why it rained living fish in the desert. Big natural mysteries are puzzles like the nature of gravity, dark matter, the Big Bang, the ultimate composition of the universe, and so on.

Believing that natural mysteries have natural explanations, we have sought for these explanations and have been very successful in dispelling some of them. For example, the role of the heart was a mystery for a long time, and there were many ideas about its function. However, when Harvey proved that the heart is a pump for pushing blood through the body, he solved the mystery. This does not mean that we will always be successful in dispelling natural mysteries, but our efforts to understand are not pointless. Magic tricks, too, are mysterious to those who do not know how the magician does them.

Supernatural mysteries also come in small and large sizes. Small ones include sightings of ghosts, the operations of poltergeists, communication with dead loved ones, astral projection, near-death experiences, and so on. We do not know how to take any of this, but even if we believe in the afterlife and immaterial spirits, such things are still mysterious to us.

We find the big supernatural mysteries in religion. In Christianity, for example, it is a mystery how God created the universe from nothing, or become a man; or how, in the Catholic tradition, bread and wine turn into the blood and body of Christ in the sacrament of communion. These are the ‘sacred mysteries’ of the church, and they will remain mysteries forever because God is beyond our comprehension.

Besides these, I would add another sort of mystery, one that is neither natural nor supernatural, but metaphysical. We might call it the ‘mystery of being’, to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. Even if we answer all our scientific questions about the universe and no longer find anything mysterious in it, that there is a universe at all is still a mystery. Each of us confronts this mystery in one way or another. One way is to deny that there are any mysteries that we cannot solve, at least in principle. Another is to embrace and elaborate mysteries through rites, dress and dietary codes, sacrifices, liturgies, particular beliefs about mysteries, and so on.

The first approach has a major flaw. Trying to dispel all mystery is a forgetful response to our being in the world and the amazing universe we inhabit. It closes our horizons and is too rigid. The second approach is liable to fall prey to irrationality, credulity, and, ultimately, superstition. In the extreme, this path leads to the quest for arcane knowledge and the assertion of the wildest superstitions as profound mysteries. However, experiencing the metaphysical mystery of being in a world at all, if only for a short time, keeps open the wide horizon of existence, and gives us a sense of living in an immeasurable vastness. It is hard to put into words. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, and I suggest that it ends in wonder, too. Keeping a sense of metaphysical mystery alive is one way to preserve this sense of wonder in a philosophically comprehensible way.

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