Does Science Destroy Mystery?

Wrisberg epitaph in Hildesheim Cathedral, showing the distribution of the divine graces by means of the church and the sacraments, or mysteries. By Johannes Hopffe 1585.

© Sander Van de Cruys, Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

(Some of my colleagues have been discussing the appeal of mystery—especially why people resent that science tries to solve mysteries, often preferring pseudo-scientific, religious, or other supernatural explanations. One explanation offered for this is that knowledge excludes, for example, miraculous cures while mystery does not. In such cases it is easy to see why believing in mystery would be appealing—we often want miracles. In reply, Dr. Sander Van de Cruys penned the following.)

Thanks for sharing this insight in the appeal of mystery. It intuitively rings true for me. However, I want to take seriously the feeling or complaint of people in the arts that science disenchants the world, or more broadly takes ‘something’ away from it. Indeed, I think this feeling is broadly shared, not only by people in the arts but also by people who are on the scientist’s end of the spectrum (e.g. myself). It seems totally possible to be enchanted by the ‘quest’, the hunt for making things comprehensible or predictable, while at the same time be thoroughly displeased or even depressed by the resulting worldview.

Indeed, discovering the deeper regularities that allow us to thriftily “compress” phenomena, as we sometimes succeed to do in science, can be a brief silver lining for the world science discloses. Insights that are very bleak, but increase our predictive grasp, can be deviously pleasurable. I count the theory of evolution by natural selection among this type of insight. It gives me a deep grasp of the regularities that govern a multitude of living creatures (and their niches).

But at the same time, these forces are mechanistic, passive (selective dying instead of ‘selecting’) and indifferent to the concerns of the agents, except insofar as it pertains to fitness. For example, even “kind behaviors” emerges as strategies to optimize fitness in a particular niche (see Frans de Waal’s work). The criterion is this mindless competition, which gives the insight its sense of elegance (in the scientist) but at the same time the sense of alienation (in many others).

As humans, we can value kindness as an end in itself, but we’re fighting against the tide here, against social and evolutionary forces that just succeed because they produce succession. Succession (fitness) is orthogonal to kindness. One could of course point to the deep connection between organisms, as shown by evolutionary biology. That can be a consolation, an uplifting story about our shared fight against demise/entropy. However, it easily dissolves because we regularly (have to) fight against each other (within and between species). Symbiosis can easily veer into parasitism. Indeed, much of what ‘succeeded’ in history (the landmarks of civilization) were products of a form of parasitism. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” 

So the intrinsic value that we as humans can attach to a human or organism in itself, irrespective of merits or capacities, is something quite alien from a scientific point of view. Hence the alienation in people’s experience with science. Even pleas for diversity (in capacities of) human beings or in biosystems are often motivated by appealing to the greater creativity or resilience of a (social) system (good for the further continuation/adaptation of the system). Such utilitarian reasons should, I think, not be what deplete ethical ‘personhood’.

So I don’t think we can wash away people’s discontent with secularized, scientific/technological civilization by saying: Yes, but science still has a lot of uncertainty and wonder. If science produced the same kind of deep wonder and inspiration as prescientific worldviews, we would now have a lot of great artworks inspired by science instead of religion. Instead, when art is inspired by science, I mostly see interesting gimmicks instead of expressive art (I may show my limited knowledge of modern art here).

In terms of experience (of smelling a flower, of feeling love, etc), I think a scientific analysis does rob us of something, diminishing or shortening the ‘mystery’ or full, intense experience. The very act of analyzing already does this, if not the product of the analysis. This is despite the initial wonder that instigates the analysis, or the admiration and pleasure that might be secondarily created by a scientific explanation. One could compare the latter to admiration or wonder about a musician’s technical craftsmanship or virtuosity. It’s real and pleasurable, but it does not concern the emotional expressiveness of his/her music. It’s a different kind of wonder. So I don’t agree with Dawkins and the like who say that science only increases the experience (of wonder).

Probably the reflex to (scientifically) analyze/explain is born out of the uncertainty attached to the mystery, and our inability to just stay with the ambivalence. Of course, this would hold for religious explanations as well. However, in a prescientific, religious worldview, explanations are structured by an appeal to agents with rich goals, concerns, and motivations all around you, benevolent or bad, but not indifferent. For humans, this seems to be a world where they can feel more at home.

For artists, a world infused with agents (i.e. mythology) has always been an endless inspiration. As someone on the autistic spectrum, I’m not sure all these rich agents make the world more comprehensible, but the idea in the literature seems to be that most people more easily think in terms of social constructs, because of evolutionary reasons (importance of social intelligence for human survival) and lifetime learning. Predictably and pragmatically, social constructs have more power in our interaction with the animate world.

The theory of evolution is far from the only example of science creating discontent or alienation in people. Say, for example, we could scientifically explain love, would it be useful in daily life to have this explanation? To the contrary, probably. Say we would have the technology (based on solid science) to detect, based on micro-expressions or other physiological data, the true motivations of what someone says. A kind of lie detection on steroids. Would it improve our daily interactions? Again, to the contrary. Or think of depressive realism, the empirical finding that our judgments about own capacities or about the world are more truthful when we are depressed. It seems the lies or delusions are functional. Here a positively biased self-image can improve your self-image in the future, even though it is misrepresenting the present. I think science will keep on revealing these kinds of dynamics, and make human interaction more ‘calculating’ if we do not protect it somehow.

Hence, it’s no wonder that people are motivated to (and often succeed to) bracket the science by clenching to the fact that “there are still many things science cannot explain. There must be ‘more'”. Some will grab on to scientific ideas that seem deep and mysterious (eg popularity of ‘quantum’ ideas in new age milieu). Others will, as you say, embrace the true limitation principles (uncertainty, indeterminacy) that modern science has discovered. But this will not make them feel more at home in the world, nor will it replace the wonder and mystery lost because of a scientific worldview.

I appreciate [the] point that an agent-based approach (based on complex adaptive systems) can unify narrative and scientific worldviews, but that keeps the focus on fitness instead of concerns and aims people have, and the ethical value people can ascribe to the world. It introduces agents as fundamental units of reality, hence maybe making it more intuitive/friendly as a worldview for humans (as agents), but obscures two things: First … goals do not simply require equifinality but also work or effort (hence also the emotions associated with them). It follows that goal-directedness in the animate world cannot just be equated with ‘goals’ in the inanimate world (e.g. simple attractors). Second, there’s a disjoint between the conscious goals that humans can have and deal with (e.g. when we attach moral value to something), and the ‘goals’ that figure in scientific theories (e.g. fitness maximization, reward maximization, free energy minimization, etc.).

Science has the tendency to reduce (and explain away) human goals and concerns to other, more mechanistic ones (such as fitness, free energy,…), and rightly so. I suppose one can think of our conscious goals and concerns as part of our ‘user interface‘ allowing us to efficiently act in our (mostly social) world, but hiding the complexity and dynamics of the actual operations (similar to what icons, pointer, ‘desktop’, etc do on your computer). Something along these lines must be true, it seems to me, although this view threatens to undermine the autonomy of the (ethical) agent.

Note that I don’t think human, conscious goals and concerns are powerless or that they are not somehow actually represented and effective in our brain. Neither do I believe that when science succeeds in reducing them, it makes behavior easily predictable (cf. path-dependency and an enormous amount of minute differences that should be known to do this). However, their power crucially depends on assuming/asserting that they are irreducible, while science exactly emphasizes that they are reducible if they are ‘natural’. For example, we intrinsically value every human life irrespective of how ‘fit’ it is in the biological sense and irrespective of how conducive this idea of valuing human life is for the further continuation of the social system (other ideas might help the maintenance of a particular social system better).

To conclude … I suspect science cannot make up for much of the emotional lacuna (i.e. not limited mystery-related emotion) it created itself by displacing religious worldviews. I think this might boil down to a need for consolation for the human condition that science does not (and cannot, or so I’ve argued) have an answer to.

Art can do that, partly in the sense that … it can invoke (the possibility of) a richer, open-ended world. And in part, because it succeeds in (metaphorically) representing emotional dynamics that resonate with … embodied self-models and hence validate them, i.e. providing ‘sensory evidence’ for very individual emotional dynamics that often cannot even be articulated (see this brief comment I wrote about this). Art’s consoling powers derive from these two elements, namely, the suggestion of alternative paths (open-endedness) and the validation of core self-models. Your individual goals and concerns are no longer alien in such a world, but rather possible to be fulfilled. In other words, there is a prospect for progress relative to your concerns. That said, I’m not sure art (even if it is socially-experienced, as in musical performances) will be enough to console and make people make feel ‘at home in their world’ in a post-religious world.

Religion did/does a good job at making personal goals seem attainable in the face of adversity (e.g. by praying and other rituals; note that ‘seeming’ is enough to keep a man going), and at emphasizing common goals that are central, intrinsic to the world (‘pre-ordained by god’), hence not alien to it. The success of nationalism and other radical ideologies in an increasingly secularized world may suggest that ‘de-ideologized’ art isn’t enough to make people feel at home. However, secularization went together with individualization and commercialization in modern culture, so it is hard to trace the key cause(s) of discontent. Maybe improved secular well-being is possible if the latter, capitalist tendencies can be reined in, reestablishing the human-world by improved interpersonal instead of religious practices. I tend to think capitalist and scientific logic are tightly linked, but I like to dream otherwise …

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3 thoughts on “Does Science Destroy Mystery?

  1. ‘Does Science Destroys Mystery’, is well-written, ambitious, and a topic which becomes more salient each year. We know that jihadists of all creeds (incl. today’s GOP) are rebelling against lack of meaning; they’re searching for nomos. De Cruys is a psychologist, thus he does understand how people think.Yet naturally the topic is such a large one, that it would take a book or two to merely start with. De Cruys is too ambitious– we are dealing with mysteries going back to the origins of yhe cosmos.

    (Received this from Mr. Brooks. Suggested he post as comment.)

  2. Science does not, has not, and is not likely to destroy the mysteries of the existence of the physical universe, life, and human participation in consciousness. All the leading philosophers of consciousness agree that consciousness is mystery. Consciousness is the capacity with which humanity, including scientists use to “believe” all the things that they believe. If consciousness is a mystery, so is everything else.

    The real problem here is with the dogmatism of nominalism that only the physical exists. Science works with the things that can be sensed. The dogmatism of physicalism, which is not scientific, has a strong heritage, tracing back to Aristotle. Aquinas read Averroes, and introduced Aristotle to western thought, and gave rise to nominalism and provided a foundation for empirical science. That worldview, as practiced in the west, leaves little room for Platonism, that was the incubator for Christianity. But the “unseen” is not “unreal”.

    Plato’s rejection of the physical world was not sound, but neither is the dogmatic rejection of the existence of things–like consciousness itself–that are not physical. Of course the “physicalists” are out to prove that that even consciousness has a physical base. But it you read and understand this comment, something has moved from me to you, and I weigh no less, and you weigh no more because of the transfer.

    Science is no threat–or solution–of the ultimate mysteries. Science is doing great! The need is to develop the world of reality that is not susceptible to the senses commensurately with what science is accomplishing with the physical. There is plenty of room for art, religion, and science.

  3. Dale

    Thanks for your perceptive comments. It appears you studied philosophy at some point, which was evident in your previous comment that included a reference to Heidegger. There is a lot here, and it would take an entire post if not a book chapter to respond adequately to your many points. But let me just say that I believe science to be the greatest achievement of human culture.


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