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irregular times logoThe Practical Mysterian

To go beyond atheism, I am trying out a new concept, with a new name for myself. I call myself a Mysterian.

What I mean by calling myself a Mysterian is that I accept that there are mysteries that I do not understand. Instead of pretending that I understand those mysteries I honestly claim ignorance. In finding myself in ignorance, however, I do not celebrate that ignorance and rest in it, as if ignorance is in itself a fine state of things, or at least as good as I can expect.

The Non-Mystery of God

Being a Mysterian is not the same thing as being an agnostic. For one thing, I don't consider the question of whether the character of God actually exists as a true mystery.

Differences in belief in God are just disagreements, not real mysteries. There is evidence that God exists, plain and simple, and so the matter of whether God exists is not worthy of serious consideration. Mysteries are genuine puzzles, not just disagreements about things that people imagine, or speculate about without actual information.

Some people say that they believe in God in spite of the lack of evidence that ay such character exists. They say that they have faith, and that's enough for them. I see no reason to take their claims any more seriously than the claims of whether Peter Pan exists as anything more than a fictional character. I don't need to make myself an agnostic on the matter and say that I can never truly know whether Peter Pan exists.

What honest believers in the literal reality of God tell us is that, when confronted with a lack of evidence for something that they want to believe in, they will believe anyway. Their philosophy might be called obstinatism, or defiantism. Their own word for this philosophy of purposeful self-delusion is "faith".

Many of these people will claim that God is a mystery, but they are using the description of God as a mystery as a cover for a much plainer truth that fails to satisfy them: It is clear that there is no reasonable foundation for belief in God.

This use of the idea of mystery is dishonest in the same way that it is dishonest when supporters of the invasion of Iraq say that it is a mystery where Iraq's massive arsenals of weapons of mass destruction went. It isn't a mystery, of course. The arsenals of WMD never existed. Belief in those weapons weapons mass destruction was a mistake of the same sort as belief in the existence of God. There isn't a puzzle about how the WMD can be found. They just aren't there.

My Mysterianism is something different. To be a Mysterian, as I understand the position, is to accept that some genuine mysteries exist, but retain an interest in solving those mysteries.

What Is And What Is Not A Mystery

To understand the significance with which I take the position of a Mysterian, it is important to consider what is a genuine mystery is, and what is not.

In the quest to understand mystery, I can start out with a statement by the Catholic St. Jerome: "The true profession of the mystery of the Trinity is to own that we do not comprehend it."

This statement reveals the ease with which the concept of mystery can be abused. Mystery is a concept that most people do not comprehend, but that does not make it a mystery itself. The definition of mystery is clear, though it is often forgotten as the concept of mystery is misused by those like St. Jerome.

A mystery is not just anything that is not understood. Pure ignorance is not the experience of true mystery. Nor is incoherence mystery. If someone asks us what the capital city of South Dakota, and we don't know, it's not right to say that the answer is a mystery, for as soon as we get to the nearest computer or library, we can easily find the fact. Encountering a babbling infant, its speech is not truly mysterious either, for there is no linguistic meaning yet in its sounds, beyond the expression of emotion in raw form.

The problem with St. Jerome's claim of mystery is not quite like either of these, though. The problem with St. Jerome is that he and his followers have mistaken incorrect information for mystery.

If one person gives us directions to a destination, and those direction do not take us to our destination, and we have to ask other people for help in finding where we want to go, there is no mystery in why the first person's directions didn't work out. The first person to give us directions was simply wrong.

Even worse, if a person tells us that he thinks that there ought to be a Chinese restaurant on a particular street, though he's never been on that street himself, and he gives us directions for where he expects the Chinese restaurant ought to be on that street, it's not a mystery if we follow those directions and don't find any Chinese restaurant at all. It's not even a surprise. Such is the situation we find ourselves in with St. Jerome.

The mistake of St. Jerome is that he has been given directions to a place, and then discovered that what he was told he would find there is in fact not there. He has been given the roadmap of the Trinity of God, and followed it, only to discover that the map makes no sense.

It is like a child's playful babble to say that there are three separate divinities, and that they are nonetheless just one divinity. The rational mind easily rejects this concept as incoherent. Yet, that is the roadmap to God that St. Jerome offers us, and expects us to be happy to receive. Finding that his directions lead us nowhere, St. Jerome expects us to accept that failure as a mystery, the "mystery of the Trinity".

Of course, there is no genuine mystery involved. The Trinity doesn't make sense. Yet, the followers of St. Jerome and his version of Christian theology insist that, somehow, the roadmap of the Trinity must make sense. Like drivers who won't admit that they're lost, they keep turning around and around in circles, dizzy with the sense that if they just stop trying to understand the obvious incoherence of their movements, it will all end up being an elegant dance of transcendent truth.

Others' Philosophies of Mysterianism

There are others who claim a philosophy of Mysterianism. They call themselves the New Mysterians, and their basic idea is that there are some mysteries - such as the nature of human consciousness - that are by their nature too complex to be solved.

The New Mysterians point out that the human species has a particular blindness for its own intellectual limitations. We are able to see that there are some problems that other animals' are not capable of comprehending, but we are reluctant to say that our own human minds could have similar limitations.

Aesthetically, New Mysterianism seems a bit too preening. It's a position developed by people who pride themselves on their intellects, yet then adopt the position of saying that, when it comes to understanding the dazzling nature of the human mind, even intellect has its limits. It's more than a cop-out. It's a contradiction.

New Mysterians try to have it both ways, praising the mind and damning it at the same time. They praise the human mind as the ultimate unsolvable mystery, but then claim to have found the limits of that mysterious thing. The question they never seem to ask themselves is this: If we don't understand human consciousness, how can we claim to know the limits of human consciousness? To say that the human mind is a mystery beyond comprehension is to acknowledge the possibility that the human mind might have the capacity of understanding itself after all, in some mysterious way, which would make the human mind not really mysterious after all. It's logical backwash.

I acknowledge the existence of profound mysteries of human consciousness, but I reject the form of New Mysterianism that claims that materialistic foundations for consciousness cannot be discovered because of shortcomings in the human brain. The analogy of the our analytical ability to other animals' limited abilities is flawed, because other animals are not capable of using technology to expand their intellectual capacities.

The advent of computers has given humans the ability to conceptualize things that they might never have been capable of imagining before. Computers help us to expand our minds' dimensions, not just in terms of raw computations, but also in terms of imagination. As Douglas Adams pointed out in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, supercomputers can help us to build even greater supercomputers, and what in turn might they build?

It is silly impatience, when humanity is just starting to learn about how to expand the human brain's abilities with computer technology, to declare a limit to the brain's ability to understand itself. If we are altering consciousness, who is to say that we could not understand consciousness through its own alteration.

I can, however, embrace the sentiment of New Mysterianism, in the form of appreciating the realm of the inherently subjective experience of consciousness that appears to be facilitated by the material brain. Though the foundations and mechanisms of consciousness may soon come within the grasp of human understanding, the subjective experience of consciousness itself may exist qualitatively in a separate realm from analytical explanation, and may not be something that can be shared or preserved outside of the momentary singular realm of perception in which it exists.


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