Some people love mysteries. They seek things that are not merely unknown, but unknowable --- beyond all human understanding. When they encounter an important issue that escapes our current comprehension, their instinct is to declare it a mystery for all time. Consciousness is one example of a popular enigma.

Other people abhor mysteries. Their prejudice, upon meeting a new puzzle, is to declare with confidence that it will someday be figured out. They argue, by analogy with the vast progress of science, that there is no ignorabimus ... no "we shall remain ignorant" ... no ultimate limits to our understanding.

A third position that some people adopt is to select distinct mysteries and declare that, in a deep but unspecified way, they must be related to one another. Past experience sometimes justifies these hunches. Electricity and magnetism, apparently separate forces, are now understood to be complementary aspects of a single field.

How should we approach mysteries? That depends on the problem, on the state of our knowledge, and on our goal. Some questions are not important enough to be worth demystifying. Others, after investigation, seem so far beyond our capabilities that we may cheerfully suspend judgment and leave them for future generations to think about. Still other problems are so critical that we must grapple with them. We can take heart in the thought that even if we don't successfully solve the immediate challenge, we are likely to learn enough in the process to make the effort worthwhile. In rare but fortunate circumstances, our instincts may guide us to connect hitherto disjoint domains --- a leap of creative faith that lands on solid ground, from which we can build bridges and move forward.

But the extreme "Mysterian" position, that there are vital issues forever beyond our reach, is in many ways deeply unsatisfying. Yes, the stars at night are awesome to observe. But they become infinitely more awe-inspiring and worthy of wonder when we know that they are suns like ours, billions of years old, shining by the fusion of hydrogen atoms, visible to us through photons of electromagnetic radiation interacting with chemicals in our eyes. How marvelous!

Monday, August 02, 1999 at 17:36:23 (EDT) = 1999-08-02

TopicScience - TopicPhilosophy

(correlates: BabySteps, FocusAndFanout, LineariZation, ...)