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Mystery: Numinous, yet decipherable

From the Hedgehog Review

Photo by Stefan Widua / Unsplash

Students of Plato will remember Socrates’s encounter with the young prodigy Theaetetus, who would become one of the most influential mathematicians of the ancient world. As Plato tells the story, Theaetetus became so enthralled with Socrates’s dialectical riddles that he confessed himself “dizzy” with “wondering” whether these mysteries could ever be unraveled. To which Socrates responded with an approving pat on the head, “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

Plato’s student Aristotle agreed: It was “wonder” that prodded the first philosophers to engage in their characteristic activity. And Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle’s devoted student more than a millennium later, echoed the claim that philosophy “arises from awe” and the philosopher is one who is “big with wonder.”

Yet the connection between the sense of wonder and the drive for knowledge has not stayed constant in subsequent years. Aquinas himself hinted that wonder might cease once the “causes of things were known.” Some six centuries later, Max Weber followed up on that prediction, lamenting that the rationalizing spirit of modern life—one of the proudest of the West’s intellectual achievements—had led to the “disenchantment of the world,” a cold and forbidding view devoid of all shadows of mystery. Does philosophy therefore cease when there are no mysteries left to gaze upon in wonder?

How we got to this doleful point is beyond the scope of this brief essay, except to speculate that it has something to do with the drive to know becoming indistinguishable from the desire to control. But it is also important to point out that we do not seem to be universally content with the status quo. A growing number of scholars—the list is too long to recount—have pushed back and proposed a re-enchantment of the world. To which I say, nice work if you can get it! It sounds like a quixotic errand, to say the least, to imagine that we can coax the fair maid Enchantment back into circulation, in a grand act of intentional self-forgetting. But what if such knight-errantry is pointing us toward something important, a real and profound human need? Toward the need for wonder, enchantment, mystery—not merely in the form of the flickering romantic allure of a candlelit room, but as something enduringly true, and essential to our souls?

Mystery gets too little respect. Scientific progress has always been sustained by a tension between what is known and what is unknown, between the things that may be questioned and those that must be presumed. This is what the late and great physicist Freeman Dyson meant when he said that “science is not a collection of truths,” but rather “a continuing exploration of mysteries.” It is what astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser meant when he noted that while “we strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge…[we] must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” In this regard, Dyson and Gleiser are not outliers in the scientific community. Prominent scientists—from Newton to Einstein to Steven Weinberg—have always acknowledged the essential role of mystery and wonder in the advancement of science.

We need the presence of mystery in the same way that the coherence and beauty of a landscape require the presence of a horizon, whether as a line defining the field of vision or as a dark boundary that gives sharper definition to the world that is illuminated. Or as language needs the refreshment of silence. We need a sense of communion with that which lies beyond human understanding, that which it is not only forbidden to express, but also which is in its nature inexpressible.

Read the rest at The Hedgehog Review