Question marks of the mysterians

By leaps, steps, and stumbles, science progresses. Its seemingly inexorable advance promotes a sense that everything can be known and will be known. Through observation and experiment, and lots of hard thinking, we will come to explain even the murkiest and most complicated of nature’s secrets: consciousness, dark matter, time, the origin and fate of the universe.

But what if our faith in nature’s knowability is just an illusion, a trick of the overconfident human mind? That’s the working assumption behind a school of thought known as mysterianism. Situated at the fruitful if sometimes fraught intersection of scientific and philosophic inquiry, the mysterianist view has been promulgated, in different ways, by many respected thinkers, from the philosopher Colin McGinn to the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. The mysterians propose that human intellect has boundaries and that some of nature’s mysteries may forever lie beyond our comprehension.

Mysterianism is most closely associated with the so-called hard problem of consciousness: How can the inanimate matter of the brain produce subjective feelings? The mysterians argue that the human mind may be incapable of understanding itself, that we will never know how consciousness works. But if mysterianism applies to the workings of the mind, there’s no reason it shouldn’t also apply to the workings of nature in general. As McGinn has suggested, “It may be that nothing in nature is fully intelligible to us.”

The simplest and best argument for mysterianism is founded on evolutionary evidence. When we examine any other living creature, we understand immediately that its intellect is limited. Even the brightest, most curious dog is not going to master arithmetic. Even the wisest of owls knows nothing of the physiology of the field mouse it devours. If all the minds that evolution has produced have bounded comprehension, then it’s only logical that our own minds, also products of evolution, would have limits as well. As Pinker has put it, “The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours.” To assume that there are no limits to human understanding is to believe in a level of human exceptionalism that seems miraculous, if not mystical.

Mysterianism, it’s important to emphasize, is not inconsistent with materialism. The mysterians don’t suggest that what’s unknowable must be spiritual or otherwise otherworldly. They posit that matter itself has complexities that lie beyond our ken. Like every other animal on earth, we humans are just not smart enough to understand all of nature’s laws and workings.

What’s truly disconcerting about mysterianism is that, if our intellect is bounded, we can never know how much of existence lies beyond our grasp. What we know or may in the future know may be trifling compared with the unknowable unknowns. “As to myself,” remarked Isaac Newton in his old age, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” It may be that we are all like that child on the strand, playing with the odd pebble or shell — and fated to remain so.

Mysterianism teaches us humility. Through science, we have come to understand much about nature, but much more may remain outside the scope of our perception and comprehension. If the mysterians are right, science’s ultimate achievement may be to reveal to us its own limits.

This post originally appeared in Edge, as an answer to the question “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”