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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  1. I like the “big” natural mysteries. When I go to sleep and haven’t anything else to think about, out comes The Big Bang Theory or how did DNA or even the easier impossible problem, how did RNA first form. These type of questions and thinking about them are comforting to me, thinking about either usually gracefully takes me off to a happy sleep.
    Even though I realize and believe I’m living in an immeasurable vastness, I don’t really have a sense of it. It’s like trying to sense what a non-mathematical idea of infinity is.

  2. Dennis Sceviour

    It is certainly fun to challenge mystery, and “keeping a sense of mystery alive” is temporarily fine. However, there is a pitfall trap when examining the unsolvable mysterious. It is also important to be aware of what is there, rather than what is mysterious. That is: “Be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life (Zen proverb).”

  3. It wasn’t Aristotle who said that philosophy begins in wonder, but Plato. And he didn’t say it exactly in those words.

  4. From our commentator D R Khashaba I do not get any sense of the sense of mystery, whatever sense he wishes to give the term (to either Aristotle, or Plato)- natural or supernatural, or . I guess however that Aristotle with his penchant for the sciences of his day would subscribe to a natural sense, and perhaps Plato to his supernatural sense, (though Plato demanded a decade of.)
    It was, (of course Plato), who said the words( in Greek of course): “wonder is the feeling of philosophy and philosophy begins in wonder”.
    . It might be interesting to speculate how either Aristotle (or Plato) might respond in our oh so different world from that of the Greek City state. It might not be so interesting to engage in detailed exegesis of Greek texts to answer that; possibly because it would be very difficult in a blog such as this.
    My sense of wonder is at the organisation and seeming order that constitutes life. it is something that is less and less of a mystery as knowledge increases, but its conjoined complexity and purpose/function leave me with that sense of wonder.
    Stopping a journey to gaze at the clear starlight night gives me a sense of awe and wonder, but not mystery
    I also wonder at those bits of experience which do not fit into the path of structure/function. Those experiences such as premonition, feelings about places, awareness of someone else’s state of mind without communicating with them in any five senses sense. These are mysteries which once can wonder at, but not ones in which wonder provides any path. These seem to be mysterious and hence unlikely as they stand. God falls for me in that category, for I do not know what it is to have experienced him( or her), hence cannot begin to place that in any path of wonder. Perhaps we (I) are too much entrenched in the notion of the path of science to see any mystery apart from that we do not want to be investigated.

  5. This is a favorite subject of mine. While I can romanticize the gift of wonder as well as the next person, I’m often trying to bring this down to practical terms. For this, my thinking is often along these lines: the contents of the mind, which is contained within the Universe, can be no more than a subset of the Universe. The rest is a matter of how the impression of the Universe is perceived and summarized within the mind.

  6. Re Dennis Sceviour “there is a pitfall trap when examining the unsolvable mysterious.”
    I would be interested to know exactly a what a pitfall trap would be in this connection. Can you also define what you mean by an unsolvable mystery and give some examples?

  7. The famous passage from the Metaphysics Book 1,2: 982b is an echo of Plato’s from Theaeteus : I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.

    Aristotle is talking about the science of first principles or metaphysics which is a disinterested study as there is no practical use for it, it is a knowledge for its own sake. Though we begin in wonder:
    “Yet the acquisition of it (science of first principles) must in a sense end in something which is the opposite of our original inquiries. For all men begin, as we said, by wondering that the matter is so…..- But we must end in the contrary and, according to the proverb, the better state.”

    Whitehead demurs, as does Jeff Mason:
    Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. ~Alfred North Whitehead

    Thomas Aquinas of course agrees with the man he called ‘the Philosopher’. About the sacred mysteries he would have said that the revealed truths about them are more sure than the truths arrived at by discursive reason. Science is always in a corrigible state which is what makes it to be science.

  8. Thanks for the Plato quote about wonder. Aristotle also said it, as you point out. The quote I found was “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at the first began to philosophize.” — Aristotle, Metaphysics

    I am also glad than I am in the good company of Whitehead. Thanks for the great quote. Jeff Mason

  9. Re Tesserid March 23rd.
    I think you may well have become close to hitting the nail on the head here. However it seems to me that the perception and summary you mention is in itself making the universe in some sense a subset of the mind. This perception and summary is of course constrained by the fact that it occurs against the background of a need for the mind’s own survival, so there is an adulteration of what might be the case without the mind. I think it was George Berkeley who maintained that all we ever contemplate are our own ideas. I cannot remember without checking, if those were his actual words.

  10. Don,

    Berkeley certainly comes to mind when probing these kinds of boundaries, and is often accompanied by thoughts of Zen. And, this is why I try to ground myself (as much as I like those flights of fancy) in something mathematical, like set theory.

    And, that concept of summary is certainly along the lines of the distance between the mind and reality (ala. Berkeley). However, I’m also heavily influenced by theories employed in technology, mostly information theory in this case. And, there is always some some inefficiency that results in some loss of information, be it the granularity of resolution or some degradation of signal quality. (And, we might as well throw in the brain-in-a-vat problem.) Ultimately, what is held in the mind is both smaller than what exists outside and also a less-than-precise impression of what is outside.

    I love to imagine a walnut shell, which to me appears similar in form to a brain, pressed into a piece of clay. That impression might be used to create a copy of the walnut shell, but that copy cannot be exact. If we try to take this into the digital realm, we are still confronted with issues of size and capacity, which is why we have lossy compression formats.

    And, this is where I agree on your point: “making the universe in some sense a subset of the mind”. We seem to consider our ability to have some concept of the Universe a key aspect of wisdom. If we did not have some way to summarize and encapsulate the key characteristics of the Universe, we would be very limited in our capacity to anticipate the realms beyond our immediate environment and place in time.

    And, things get even more interesting when considering limits on logical systems, as with Kurt Gödel, or those that have challenged infinity, like Georg Cantor (who Wikipedia states is “best known as the creator of set theory”).

    Still, I’m a bit too cautious to claim these ideas are bullet proof, and I try to imagine how it might be that what we know would not be a subset or a summary. But, it always seems that for each idea along these lines (and I can’t think of an example at this moment), I can always imagine a larger Universe (at least a summarized concept of one). This might hint at an inductive proof, but I still end up being reminded of Zeno’s paradoxes–only in the space of knowledge and ideas.

  11. Don and Tesserid,
    I can’t agree with Berkeley or whoever it was that said “all we ever contemplate are our own ideas” because for the last half hour I’ve been mulling over Tesserid’s statement “the contents of the mind, which is contained within the Universe, can be no more than a subset of the Universe. The rest is a matter of how the impression of the Universe is perceived and summarized within the mind” which I could only wish was my idea. I do have questions though which are mine. What you refer to as a subset of the universe are the thoughts, etc. occupying the mind. Has it been established that thoughts, etc. are entities? I know bits of energy are needed to come up with them in the same way as energy is needed to get a picture in my mind of the screen I’m looking at, but is that picture a thing that “is?”
    I also have a question about the rest of the universe (the complement of the contents of our mind,) which is perceived and summarized in the mind. What you’ve built here can’t be right since as products of the mind they belong to the original subset you defined. So your subset contains it’s complement. This might be a variation of the Russell paradox.

  12. Ralph,

    Indeed, a subset cannot contain its compliment. However, I can distinguish between things and references to things, which will work as independent sets. Admittedly, it gets a little stickier when the references are a subset of the things they reference (not even touching on the idea that references can point to other references). But, it is important to see the references as independent from the things to which they point (especially since some of those things referred to may be fictional). To throw in a bit of Zen culture, when a finger points at the moon, the subject is the moon, not the finger.

    So, I also agree that there are still some unanswered questions about what these things in the mind are. I can easily fall back on Science to suggest that physical items in reality affect their impressions on the mind by way of chemical reactions and electrical impulses across synapses. I can even throw in a bit of information and coding theory to describe how new memories can be encoded without requiring any growth in the amount of chemical matter contained within the skull. But, I’m no better off then the scientists when it comes to identifying a seat for consciousness.

    What I’ve describe here is really just my way of trying to identify a starting point, an attempt to describe and establish some boundaries that might help quantify these things and give them a sense of proportion.

  13. Tesserid,
    Thanks for the reply. I’m afraid you passed me by, but I did like the Zen quote.

  14. Re Tesserid March 23rd.
    I am basically in agreement with what you say here. The concepts of granularity and degradation of signal quality could I think be used as analogies when speaking of the system we call human perception. You say:- “Ultimately, what is held in the mind is both smaller than what exists outside and also a less-than-precise impression of what is outside.” I agree that is seems likely, or if one includes optical illusions etc, certain, that the mind does contain an imprecise impression of what lies without. This assumes that one is not a strict Idealist holding that it is all in the mind. Even Bishop Berkeley as I recollect, wriggled out of that one by claiming it was in the final analysis all contained in the mind in God, which is no help at all as the onus is than to explain what God is. I am somewhat puzzled by your claim that mental content i.e. what is held in the mind, is smaller than what exists outside. How would we measure/quantify this? Are we not dealing with two differing entities that is to say mental content and matter, which presumably has some part to play in generating mental content. I think Ralph has made similar comment on this point too.

    There seems to be no ultimate authority to say what outside of a human mind reality is like. Even if there were such an authority I doubt we would be able understand or or grasp such an explanation in the light of human cognition as it presently stands.

    Your statement- “If we did not have some way to summarize and encapsulate the key characteristics of the Universe, we would be very limited in our capacity to anticipate the realms beyond our immediate environment and place in time.“ reminds me of Alfred North Whitehead who already has had a mention here. Not an easy person to read but his Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness i.e. taking an abstract characteristic and dealing with it as if it were what reality is like in its concrete form, seems to have an application here, as doers his Fallacy of simple location, the belief that reality consists of bits of matter isolated from each other at give locations in space and time. I think that what he is saying is that human beings are only able to examine reality in bits, an example being A causes B. and these bits are only abstractions from reality and not truly representative of it.

  15. Dennis Sceviour


    Examples of an “unsolvable mysterious” might be Socrates continual pursuit for an ultimate definition of the meaning of the word “good”, or a mathematicians effort to calculate the infinite value of pi to the last decimal place, or Robert Pirsig’s pursuit of the meaning of “quality” which drove him to a mental hospital (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). For some people, the pitfall trap when examining the unsolvable mysterious is the psychological abyss from which there is no return.

  16. Colin McGinn reckons that consciousness is a problem that is not soluble in our present state even though he thinks that it is undeniable that there is a link between the brain and mind but as to what that link is we cannot say. For this he has been dubbed a mysterian by those inclined to muscular scientism. Even if we accept monism, can we understand monism or a dual aspect theory. To say that neuronal traffic just is mental activity does not mean that we have thereby solved how it can be.

    The feeling of an unbridgable gulf between consciousness and brain-processes: how does it come about that this does not come into the consideration of our ordinary life?

    (from Wittgenstein. P.I. #412

    And again at P.I. #129 :

    The aspect of things that are most important to us, are hidden because of their simplicity and their familiarity.

    The complete remark is a profound one and Sacks uses it as the epigraph to The man who mistook his wife for a hat which relates a series of cases of sports of nature and the odd mental states of brain lesion victims. Here the bafflement is a temporary state without conceptual barriers to its solution. The point is that when we get down to the metaphysical we are at the point of transcendental postulates. All we can do is offer a picture of how things fundamentally are for us to be able to do what we actually do. The critique of the Berklean from the Wittgensteinian perspective is that it would not allow us to do what we do. This is an adequate reductio.

  17. Sorry, but this is just a smokescreen for religious apologia.
    And, excuse my saying so, but I think it’s bullshit.

    Ther are plenty of mysteries that need plenty of work.
    How much Dark Matter IS there in the universe, and how is it distributed?
    Does Dark Energy actually exist, or have we got our knickers in a twist?
    Ditto the Higgs Boson.
    What is the solution to the incompatibility of QM and Relativity?
    (My bet is that there is a hidden variable, giving underlying order to QM, but that’s just me….)
    Are there / were there other intelligent life-forms elsewhere?
    Is there life elsewhere (try Titan or Europa, for starters…)
    Are there a set of therapies that can potentially prolong mentally-active human life by significant amounts?

    And plenty more.
    However, please notr these profound mysteries are potentailly solvable.
    By the production of EVIDENCE.
    Mystic vapourous handwaving will get you precisely no-where. At all.

  18. Don,

    Concerning your question:

    I am somewhat puzzled by your claim that mental content i.e. what is held in the mind, is smaller than what exists outside. How would we measure/quantify this? Are we not dealing with two differing entities that is to say mental content and matter, which presumably has some part to play in generating mental content.

    I must admit that I’m falling back on Science to say that what we know is something that can be represented within the physical space of our brain cavity. While Science still has unanswered questions in this area, I’m using this as an example to address certain issues that arise when claiming that what we know or what any individual knows is a proper subset of what can be known. And, the form taken by quantities of knowledge determines how the rules of set theory are applied. For instance, does knowledge come in discrete bits, like geometric points, or is it more like a chunks of matter, which would suggest that ideas have different sizes. Such considerations are greatly simplified if I settle on a particular model, and I’m avoiding a fair amount of abstract complexity by settling on something that fits current Scientific knowledge. And, this is why I view the mind as having a relatively predefined capacity that is used up as memories, experiences, thoughts, ideas, and such are impressed upon the mind, and that which is impressed upon the mind is never a precise replica of that which had made the impression.

    And, to toss in a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

    He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine.


    Cantor and Godel also suffered psychological challenges. I currently don’t have any plans to join them.


    I would love to have a fitting analogy for your Wittgenstein quotes. The best I can come with is the notion that a camera cannot photograph its own inner workings. Any ideas?

  19. Tesserid:
    I think what Wittgenstein may be on about here is that the everyday can be perplexing when we turn our attention to it but that we do not normally turn our attention to it because it us too ‘normal’ to attract our attention. It is the anomalous that attracts our attention or that which appears to flout our expectation. Your everyday mind is the Buddhamind and Zen mind beginner’s mind are like expressions of the profound as beneath our notice.

    Also being Wittgenstein he had to take back the perplexity of consciousness and ask whether it might not be an artefact of attention.

  20. Ah… isn’t a mystery a mystery? OED says “A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma.”

    If the mystery is secret or inexplicable, by what ken (“mental perception or recognition”) will one know the natural from supernatural?)

    Rumor, by the way, has it that the way to Larissa ends in B.C. where the natural is indistinguishable from the supernatural.

  21. Adrian Powęska

    The mystery of the beauty of philosophy lies not in removing the mystery, but to discover its beauty.

  22. I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

  23. Pancake Croissant

    “A mystery is something we do not understand, something that puzzles our senses, imagination or understanding.”

    I will say that a mystery is something that does not happen regularly, it happens once exceptionally and you cannot be sure at all that it will ever happen again.

    If it happens regularly then it is no longer any mystery but an instance of order in the universe that is accessible to us.

    Thus the following examples [prefixed with an asterisk] you give of mystery are not really mystery:


    *the random disappearance of my socks

    *it rained living fish in the desert (not the first time, and not to be the last time for man’s presence to notice it)

    *the nature of gravity

    *dark matter

    the Big Bang (it’s a mystery but atheists explain it as coming from nothing, which does not explain at all except to atheists but then atheists are not rational)

    *the ultimate composition of the universe

    *the role of the heart (it’s always been there and people know a living thing with a heart cannot keep alive without it)

    *Magic tricks


    *communication with dead loved ones

    *astral projection

    *near-death experiences


    *immaterial spirits

    *how God created the universe from nothing (God did not use nothing to create something, He uses His thought)

    [God] become a man (that is a mystery of Christians, because God does not become man regularly)

    bread and wine turn into the blood and body of Christ

    ‘mystery of being’ (existence is a common fact)

    My two cents.

    Pancake Croissant

  24. For, me i just simply say that, things beyond human comprehension are mysteries, only God knows!..:)

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