What is the “profound mystery of existence”?

January 17, 2016 • 9:30 am

Once again, while doing my early-morning grocery shopping, I listened to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” show on National Public Radio. If you ask why I listen to a show I dislike so much (Tippett, whose words are what cotton candy would sound like if it could speak, has never met a brand of religion or “spirituality” she doesn’t love), it’s for the same reason we sniff the milk when we already know it’s gone sour.

Today’s show wasn’t as bad as usual, as it featured a secular Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor (listen here if you must). Batchelor is a non-deist, but sees some value in Buddhist practice (I partly agree, especially vis-à-vis meditation), and he was quite eloquent. Tippett, on the other hand, was her usual unctuous self, punctuating Batchelor’s words with “uh-huh”s, up-talking, and agreeing with him even when what he said was unclear.

But leaving the oleaginousness aside; what I want to discuss is the idea of the “profound mystery of life”—something repeatedly mentioned and extolled by both Batchelor and Tippett. As the program proceeded and the pains in my lower mesentery increased, I noticed that neither of them specified exactly what those mysteries were. As far as I could discern, one was our existence and the other was our death.

Those, of course, are explained by science, especially evolution. The other “profound mysteries” remained mysterious.

We hear all the time from the spiritual folk about these “mysteries”, but I wonder what they mean. To me, a “mystery” is our lack of understanding of some phenomenon, like consciousness or our sensation of having free will. Or whether there are multiverses, and what is dark matter, anyway? Or even our feeling of joy or beauty when we encounter love, a beautiful landscape, or great music.  We already understand why we live, and largely understand why we die.

But those are scientific mysteries: things that can, at least in principle, be explained by research. And I have a feeling they are not what people like Batchelor and Tippett mean. What they seem to mean is either “amazement” or “emotionality” (I don’t use the word “wonder,” since that can be equivalent to inquisitiveness about the origin of a phenomenon). Amazement that a woodpecker doesn’t beat its brains out when it hammers a tree; “emotionality” of the sort that you feel when you hear music (I remember how I wept the first time I heard Beethoven’s Fifth); amazement that complex living beings evolved from inert chemicals derived from stars, and by a simple process of differential survival of replicators.

I’m probably going to be accused of scientism here, but every time I think of the “profound mysteries” of life, they turn out to be phenomena susceptible to scientific inquiry. And that even goes for our emotions, and why we react to some music with tears and other music with disdain. Many times I don’t know why I am moved or baffled or amazed by something I see or hear, but I don’t see that as a profound mystery that somehow transcends naturalism or materialism.

So, dear readers, perhaps you can explain to me what people consider to be the “profound mysteries” of life. Are do they really comprise wonderment about empirical phenomena, or is there something more? It it all numinous?

It’s a profound mystery why Tippett gets an hour each week to blather about spirituality on NPR, and is paid a lot of money for it.

93 thoughts on “What is the “profound mystery of existence”?

  1. In my view, people who yammer on about “profound mysteries” are just wallowing in ignorance and making a virtue of the practice. They’re saying, in effect, “I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t care to try thinking about how I might figure it out.”

    1. New agers often confuse the numinous with the nebulous. In Carl Sagans universe the literal nebula were numinous but not in a sense of unexplainable.

  2. I think a lot of this “mystery” talk evolved from our natural impulse to emit a Homer Simpson “Doh!” when something escapes our easy understanding. Expressions of “mystery” and amazement are therefore merely euphemisms that make us sound less stupid.

  3. You probably hit on it with “numinous”. Religious inclined tend to make mystery out of everything because their belief, if we are honest about it, is a real mystery. When you believe in stuff without any evidence, you have done a hell of a self-convincing job. It becomes easy to then see mystery in many things because looking for hard reasons and truth is not in your nature.

  4. Fascinated, I listened to her. Then I explored her husband, her projects and her vacant eyed coterie.

    For me she shares the same relative value as measles virus.

  5. Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like today if the eukaryotes that became plants had taken in red photosynthetic bacteria rather the green. But I doubt that’s the kind of profound mystery of existence they’re talking about. It lacks wizards, fairies, blood sacrifice, guilt and salvation.

  6. I caught a few minutes of her a couple of weeks ago, rapidly got bored and moved onto a podcast on my phone (which is what I normally listen to in the car). I’m not sure why you torture yourself, perhaps you enjoy the mental anguish.

    There are many deep and unexplained mysteries in life, perhaps the most pressing right now is why nobody was covering Larry Fitzgerald during OT 🙁

  7. Profound mystery? I can think of two absolute, unquestioned examples!
    1. According to A.E.Neuman, “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.”
    2. According to E.Hemingway, “Love is love, and fun is fun. But it is always so quiet when the goldfish dies.”
    Neither has ever been ‘splained by science. I await a program from Ms Tippett to elucidate either or both.

  8. I experienced as a kid, that the “I” is an illusion that disappears if you look for it in a certain way. I could do it at will when I was 4 — make the “I” disappear and feel the buzz of consciousness still existing despite its not knowing who the fuck it is.

    I tried to talk about it to people for a while but none of them seemed to understand, so I stopped saying anything about it. Later I found out this experience is the aim, basically, of Buddhism. (Sam Harris talks about it very clearly in his excellent book Waking Up. (He said the 3 Abrahamic religions are predicated on the denial of this experience/fact, and stick with the idea of an individual soul.)

    As a kid it used to feel like there was just consciousness expanding endlessly, a bit like water emerging from a fountain. The experience is the aim of meditation, ultimately, but you can get it directly with a bit of luck, too. But maintaining access to it requires practice (which I haven’t done enough) and a side effect is that the body calms down. For some reason it’s good.

    But as soon as people starting talking about it, it just puts me to sleep.

    1. Interesting.

      When it comes to the phrase “the profound mysteries of life” I like to insert the original meaning of the term “mystery,” which had to do more with a special practice, craft, or even art. Thus it now refers to the whys and wherefores of living and dying … not mysteries as in whodunits, but as in how its done.

      Consciousness and the sense of self come under that interpretation. So, when I come to think of it, would everything else, understood or not.

      1. The definition of “mystery” I found was, “anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown”
        – I’ve noticed for years that there appear to be many people who just aren’t happy unless they have a little ongoing “mystery” in their lives. I suspect it’s an ancient genetic thing, tied into the sense of anticipation of food, sex, or other stimulating sensations that gives one an extra shot of dopamine over and above the experience itself, and I feel that it is probably the main reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories.

          1. Yes, very bizarre. I either saw this movie or read a book about it. The latter, I think. I recognize certain photos, no videos.

  9. I feel that people like this simply have a very poor understanding of our place in nature. If you have a full understanding of our place in the 3.5 billion year-old carbon-based tree of life that evolved on this 4.5 billion year-old planet, then there simply is no room for the supernatural.

    It can indeed appear that we are separate and different from other creatures, but that is just due to our technology and development of language, which had their own particular “evolutions”.

    I suspect that she’s dumber than a sack of hammers.

    1. At least a sack of hammers can be useful. And you stand a chance of trading the ones you don’t really need for wrenches, screwdrivers and the like.

  10. I don’t have much to add since I’d generally agree with your analysis Prof CC.

    When countering the idea that without God life is meaningless, nihilistic or negates transcendent goals beyond ourselves, among the responses I give is to point out what we are born into the equivalent of a giant mystery novel. We just get thrown into existence, in a massive universe…and have to figure it all out for ourselves, how we came to be, how countless things in the universe arose, why there is even a universe. It’s just a MASSIVE project getting to the bottom of all those questions and one which marshals all our resources.
    And it’s project to goes well beyond the confines of our own interests and our own life span. Scientists of course know they are participating in a project far beyond the span of their own life.

    It seems no matter WHAT the explanation of our existence, or that of the universe, it can’t help but be astounding to us.

    Though, getting closer to the emotionalism/mystery Jerry is getting at: it’s one thing to understand this intellectually. But we’ve all, no doubt, had those moments when it we “get it” or “feel it” in our bones. There’s the cliche of getting high for the first time and suddenly being struck: “Man, do you ever wonder what this is all about?” It’s like the mystery that’s pushed into the background during everyday life is pushed to the foreground with gravitas. And I think we’ve all had a similar “feel it in your bones” experience, looking at something in nature, in art, or whatever.

    It’s certainly an fascinating question as to whether our theories can ever get to the bottom – a fully self-contained theory of reality, or whether there will always be one more mystery question beneath what we’ve managed to explain.

    One thing that I HATE when people refer to as a mystery is death. I’m amazed how many secular people actually give ground to religious and fringe thinking by “admitting” we “don’t know” what happens after death (even while taking religion to task for claiming it does know). But at this point, with billions of examples (people dying) and a good understanding of biology and physics, we certainly do “know” as much as we know anything what happens to human beings once we die. Cessation of consciousness, physical decay. That is the obvious default position now and anyone suggesting it’s wrong needs to have strong, new evidence for doing so.

    1. Yes, the only time I “give ground” to religion and agree that there’s some sort of huge confusion and ignorance surrounding human death is when I’m directly confronted by someone who is either dying or grieving and demanding some sort of response from The Atheist in the room. To be polite, I’ll murmur something like “technically, nobody really knows” and hope they don’t push it. Given that I just used the word “technically” they seem to sense expecting more is a bad idea.

      If the dying or grieving is a loved one I’ll sometimes trot out the profound mystery of time and it’s perplexing narrow arrow of one-way causation. My understanding is that technically, it doesn’t need to have one. That seems to entail that what is also was and will be. Not only was the cup already broken, but in another sense it hasn’t been made yet.

      That idea of simultaneous Theories of Time stimulates a confused and blurred image in my mind of birth, life, and death cycling over and over timelessly. Now, when I say that I just don’t know about that, at least I’ve gotten into the timey-wimey of theoretical physics instead of the everything-is-consciousness of standard metaphysics and am more now much more honest about not being sure of my ground, here.

      1. Sean Carroll has given many lectures about the arrow of time. It seems the fact that entropy increases has a lot to do with why the arrow only ever moves in one direction.

        1. Also (though out of date somewhat) Huw Price’s book, and the one edited by my MA thesis committee member, Steve Savitt. (Guess the latter should be renamed _Time’s Arrows as of 1995_, but …)

  11. Well, here’s my short list of the “profound mysteries” of life:

    What, if anything, came before the big bang?

    What were the first self-replicating molecules on earth and what was their history?

    Does life exist on other worlds? Is it wide-spread or rare? How often does life produce beings that ask these questions?

    The reason I put these in the “profound” category is that they may be impossible to answer in practice even though not impossible to answer in theory.

    1. I would say that two of those are answered in practice and one in theory already:

      – Inflation came before the Hot Big Bang that gave us something like today’s universe (standard cosmology consensus).

      – The first replicators were likely RNA based (RNA World observations) and their history likely vent originated (phylogenetic observations).

      – Life will exist elsewhere (since ~ 90 % of stars remain to emerge and we have one example of life), it is wide-spread (likely emerged as soon the Hadean ocean became habitable from phylogenetic evidence)*, and it is rare that life produces beings that ask these questions (biology is contingent and eukaryotes only emerged once and late)*.

      * These are the theory dependent observations, since you have to use stochastic process models in one form or other.

      I guess it goes to show that what is profound is individual. That is not the impression that the religious sense of “profound” seems to give.

      1. Torbjörn,

        Your comments and replies never fail to make me look up a great quantity of information and in the process learn new things. I’m truly grateful.

        However, I think in this particular case, I didn’t present my points in an accurate enough way.

        – I used “Big Bang” in an amateur sense. I do understand that consensus of the experts is the inflation model and I have no good reason to doubt them. What I was trying to get at – and apparently failed miserably at- was that, we may reach point, prior to inflation, where there is no possible way to empirically demonstrate a given theory. If we can’t capture a photon or neutrino from the space-time we want to know about, how do confirm a theory?

        – For the first replicators – and again I failed spectacularly and being clear – archeobiologists may have reached a consensus (although I have to look that one up) that first replicators were RNA based. But, the question was supposed to be pointed at, where did these chemicals originate? Where they organic to the planet? Did they come from another part of solar system during the bombardment periods? And, what were the actual physical conditions in their local environment that led them to combine the way they did. Because the earth has changed so much over the last 3.5B years, we may never be able to recover an evidence trail strong enough probabilistic certainty.

        – As for the abundance in life in the universe, I understand your logic, but again I meant empirical evidence. The universe is so vast and our ability to access it is so limited, how could we ever verify the probabilities by observations?

        Now, I have to go look up the history of the Hadean ocean.

        Thanks again!

  12. Many years ago on PBS, there was a show in the same vein, hosted by Jeffrey Moshlove, that was called “Thinking Aloud”. I started thinking of this show as “Wishful Thinking Aloud”.

    Perhaps this one should be “On Being Deluded”.


  13. One of the big mysteries for me is the gullibility of so many individuals to believe in just about anything in the absence of a shred of evidence. Intellectually I understand there are several factors involved and much of it starting in early childhood but gee whiz, a lot of this crap that’s believed seems like it’s right out of the Onion!

  14. I find that most religious people know very little science. Everything is a mystery to them. I find that what little science I know, provides a framework for a world view that doesn’t have so many mysteries. And I am confident that many of the true remaining mysteries will eventually be solved by science. I don’t consider the “meaning of life” to be a mystery.

  15. To me one of the profoundest mysteries of life is why some people love Beethoven’s later music(esp the 4th movement of the ninth) when there was WA Mozart or why some rave about Coltrane when there was Getz or Gillespie when there was Baker or french fries when there are sweet potato fries…IOW not just the existence of life but the pure amazing individuality of that life (as anyone who has shared life with animals knows)…all very mysterious

  16. Ah, sweet mystery of life. To me, a “profound mystery” is something to which I feel there must be an answer, but no one seems to know what it is. Where the heck is that electron when we are not looking at it?

  17. OTOH the “meaning of life” may be nothing whatever. The mystery there would be why some people insist that life should have “meaning”

  18. I think it worth noting here that Ms. Tippett’s guest Stephen Batchelor is oft cited as THE guy who broke the taboo against the word “atheist” in Buddhist circles.

    Prior to him, Buddhists had a strong preference to say their religion is “non-theist” to avoid offending Christians and Jews interested in Buddhism.

    But Batchelor went on to publish a memoir called “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist” and the line was crossed.

    That memoir is generally credited with having helped launch the movement now known as “secular Buddhism”.

  19. Haven’t you ever had a “WTF?” moment where you were simply overwhelmed by the experience of being alive just now, clinging to a spinning pebble in a vast abyss? This is an aesthetic experience, the stuff of poetry. I think this is what we can call the “mysteriousness” of life. The existential awe and wonder of being alive.

    Never felt that?

    1. Frequently. It is amazing! I also contemplate the staggering odds of my parents meeting, and of a certain sperm cell and egg cell joining. What would have happened if the woman driving a car was a tiny bit more distracted when my very stupid 8 year old body was jaywalking across a busy highway?
      But all of these are instances of a present that was made by what happened in the immediate past. These are contingencies.

    2. Yes, I HAVE felt that, more than once, and it was/is amazing.

      What I didn’t feel the need for, though, was to create a fairy tale to explain it. L

      1. But we are all continuously telling ourselves a tale, contextualizing it, rearranging it, nipping and tucking it. Most of us simply do this unconsciously. Artists are the ones who do it consciously. The sciences allow us to incorporate our tale into the tale told by the universe as revealed by our observations.

        It does no good to criticize the ancients because their tales were fantastical. What is sad is to cling to these ancient tales because the prospect of absorbing the tale told by the universe if too daunting. But it is we who have awe and wonder on our side. The tale told by the universe makes those ancient fancies seem like children’s stories. We simply have to be big enough to embrace it.

        1. “We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can’t scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me.”(Jack Handey)

  20. I like the definition that a “mystery” is our lack of understanding of some phenomenon. If we look at profound mysteries, the same way we look at a murder mystery, we considered them solved when we understand both how the crime was carried out, but we also understand a why, or the motive, for the crime.

    The problem comes from those who are not satisfied and who insist there must be a “why”, or the deepity that each profound mystery must have a profound motive. Some people insist so much on knowing a motive they pretend to know things they do not know.

    It does not seem like scienticsm at all in stating the true fact that science has reasonably responded to a good deal of the “how” of these profound mysteries justifying a confident attitude that it will continue to do so putting down superstitions all the while.

  21. (Tippett, whose words are what cotton candy would sound like if it could speak, has never met a brand of religion or “spirituality” she doesn’t love),

    That sounds like a challenge.

    1. “No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.” — Robert G. Ingersoll

  22. I find myself becoming angry when I listen to her show, not just irritated but angry. It’s so vapid.

    Once, while deployed south of the equator, the skipper called swim call and as I dove into the water I realized that I was a thousand miles from any habitation and suspended thousands of feet above the bottom of the ocean. The water was warm and transparent and I felt that I could see into infinity when I peered downwards. I felt small and insignificant and I also felt some fear of the inky depths beyond my perception. Sometimes, those feelings wash over me but I realize they are feelings, a mood. And then I recall F. Herbert’s Gurney Halleck, “Not in the mood?! Mood’s a thing for cattle and love play, not fighting.” And then I turn to what is in front of me.

  23. Well, there’s something in me that still wants to defend the idea of mystery and amazement at LIFE in the first place, the wonder of being alive — even from a secular point of view. I’m reading Nick Lane’s “The Vital Question” — by the way, I had no idea Nick worked with Matthew Cobb! I know Matthew from HERE! small world 🙂 — and the origin of life, the evolution of proteins, the mitochondria stripping food of electrons for energy production! — it’s so much more AMAZING (awe-inspiring) than that cobbled-together vague little story in Genesis (which people BASE THEIR LIVES ON!)

    This is another sense of that wonder I mean (actually, I’m sure it’s the same sense you too mean, Jerry). I grabbed my “Hitch 22”. Sentence underlined some years ago in the last chapter:

    “In better moments I prefer the lyrical stoicism of my friend and ally Richard Dawkins, who never loses his sense of wonder at the sheer unlikelihood of having briefly ‘made it’ on a planet where crude extinction has held such sway, and where the chance of being conceived, let alone safely delivered, is so infinitesimal.”

    You know, at heart, Hitch (and Dawkins) are trying to express the same sense of awe at being alive as Tippett (I am NOT defending her!), in he own woo-y, meager way.

  24. What is the “profound mystery of existence”?

    Why eople waste time on questions like “What is the “profound mystery of existence.”

  25. Mystery: the sensation experienced when reality and your assumptions about reality seem to conflict.

    Profound Mystery: The experience of having difficulty incorporating new understandings of reality into your assumptions about reality and/or the experience of assuming that noticing a conflict between reality and your assumptions about reality _means_ more than ‘Oh, I don’t understand how that works’.

  26. I think that the beloved Philomena Cunk, in ‘character’ for her Moments of Wonder series, would have fun interviewing C. Tippett. It is fun to consider how Ms. Tippett would be utterly baffled, but still strive to find profundity with whatever Philomena would say.

  27. Something is profoundly unprofound about the “profound mysteries of life.”

    Are there any unprofound or nonprofound mysteries?

    I was taught in high school that profoundness is the realization of Dao, which is still a mystery to me.

    1. In that I am reminded of the book The Tao of Pooh, in which the author points out that Winnie the Pooh is really pretty deep, in an Eastern philosophy sense:
      “Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
      “Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
      “And he has Brain.”
      “Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
      There was a long silence.
      “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

  28. If you ask that question it likely means that you are too much in your head and have lost the joy of just being. Eckhart Tolle talks about that in his book The Power of Now, how we have become possessed by uninterrupted repetitive and often unproductive thinking and lost our connection with the power of the present moment.

  29. I’m reading ‘Life on the Edge’ by Jim Al- Kalili and Johnjoe McFadden on quantum biology. An attempt to cast new light on the profound mystery of life.

  30. Despite your own justification, the deepest mystery of all is why, in the early 21st century, they have any listeners at all.

  31. About Batchelor’s book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Christopher Hitchens praise on the back cover goes: “The human thirst for the transcendent, the numinous-even the ecstatic- is too universal and too important to be entrusted to the cultish and the archaic and the superstitious. In this honest and serious book of self-examination and critical scrutiny, Batchelor adds the universe of Buddhism to the many fields in which received truth and blind faith are now giving way to ethical and scientific humanism, in which lies our only real hope.”

  32. It has been said that more than 100 billion people (depending on how you define people) have lived, or are living today. Of these 100 billion people how many have identified a ‘mystery of life’ that everybody else recognised and agreed with?

    Which suggests to me that there are 100 billion reasons to doubt that a ‘mystery of life’ exists.

  33. Amazement that a woodpecker doesn’t beat its brains out when it hammers a tree…

    This was touched on in Concussion. (Today’s an excellent day to go see it!)

  34. As a teen I had a strong sense of the mysterious numinous and often felt all spiritual when wondering what’s it all about, but 50 years later, though the material world remains as fascinating as ever, the mysterious seems largely humdrum.

    Why are my car keys not where I left them?(Eventually solved by always putting them on the desk when I come home.) Where and why does the garden shed leak? (Solved by closely examining it after heavy rain, followed by plenty of silicone and plastic damp coursing.) Most mysterious of all, and rather more important – why does my wife still love me when I’m often unreasonably grumpy?

    Oh well, enough bloviating; I need to go and look after my garden.

  35. The general problem, at least from my part, is when the basic questions about human life are asked, they are generally put in an intractable form. “Why are we here?”, “What’s life all about?”, “Is God really real?”, etc. But when the problems are made tractable by asking better questions, those initial questions just dissolve.

    The other problem from my perspective is that we are a psychological species with cognition centred around psychological drives. We create and find meaning in our existence and its activities. Explanations that don’t fit psychologically aren’t going to be very satisfying, and I think that’s partly why they are not only rejected but reviled by many people. The understanding of reality that’s been accomplished through the last 2500 years of formal inquiry isn’t one that fits the kinds of expectations we have.

    I think there are plenty of mysteries, still, but the ones that inevitably revolve around religious and “spiritual” expressions are largely illusions of bad questions and psychologically-unsatisfying answers.

  36. I think the “profound mysteries” are simply questions which have mundane answers that the askers refuse to accept.

  37. Oh, I don’t think Tippett’s position is such a mystery. Both PBS and NPR suffered, when rethuglicans threatened to wipe out any and all financial support for them. NPR noticeably changed, adding more fluff to its various news programs and dipping a toe, then a foot, and then more in the murky “mysteries” of religious “respect.” The NewsHour carries more fluff, these days, too, though it’s not quite as watered down.

  38. Profound mystery really comes down to ignorance in many of these cases. For example when they say death is mysterious they mean they don’t know what happens to individual consciousness/personality when the clock stops ticking for someone. I think we can make a good case that absolutely nothing happens (ie consciousness doesn’t survive death of the brain), but that’s beside the point. By framing it in terms of mystery they’re admitting they haven’t really thought much about it.

  39. This is what happens, I think, when evolution produces an animal whose recently-added advanced cognitive function is not fully integrated with the limbic system it inherited from earlier life forms. The cognitive function is prone to misinterpreting the limbic signals as coming from the great “out there,” in an unseen spirit world.

  40. To me the phrase “mystery of existence” invokes something closer to “the mind bogglingness of existence”. Even the parts of existence that I understand, like evolution, are often mind boggling nonetheless. And even though I regard questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” as muddle headed (how is nothing even an option?) emotionally I still find it startling that I exist, that there is a universe, that it is ordered just so and so reliably. The raw existential fact that things are just the way they are, and not some other way (I can imagine other ways, after all) makes me kind of swoon.

  41. CBC Radio has something similar called Tapestry, hosted by Mary Hynes. The web site describes the program thusly:

    “Tapestry exists to go deep. We investigate the messy, complicated, and sometimes absurd nature of life, through the lenses of psychology, philosophy, religion and spirituality”.

    “Tapestry is your radio/audio home for all the big questions: Why are we here? What does it mean to live a good life? Will the Leafs make the playoffs in your lifetime”?

    It is a Canadian program, after all!

    For those who would like to ‘go deeper’, here is the url: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/tapestry

    1. Why is it that to the average person, “deep” means “philosophy, religion, and spirituality”, while scientific inquiry, which actually has the capability of going deep, is regarded as a shallow way of dealing with a question?

      People are messed up.

  42. One big mystery is ‘where are we going’ and hidden in there is ‘how are we going to do it’
    As for Tippett and why she won’t go away. Numinous dollars speak like voices of delusion.

  43. I can only imagine that Tippett feels cheated that actual explanations of why the sky is blue, what causes rainbows, or why snowflakes have six-sided symmetry replace her internal fantasy explanations (perhaps revolving around magic, or a universe created just to please her senses) with icky sterile boring maths, formulas, and clunky nerdy words like ‘wavelength’ and ‘refraction’.

  44. The most profound mystery I know… hmmm…. is why the wife’s RAV4 put two rods through the side of the block one day when I was driving it. Yes, seriously.

    The motor, when I took it apart, was in perfect condition (other than the bits immediately involved, of course). As to how it happened, I can only conjecture that a big-end bolt broke and the big-end (or its rod – we never found one rod) got trapped between the adjacent big-end and block and knocked that off too. Sounds unlikely but it’s the only credible sequence of events. As to _why_ a bolt broke just then, I can think of no technical reason whatever. That is a complete mystery.

    That example may sound facetious but it’s the only mystery I know that can’t be explained by coincidence, factors outside my knowledge, or just random chance.

    That’s not to say I don’t feel a sense of awe; deep forests, and sunsets, and the fact that the millionth value of the logistic equation is precisely determined by the starting conditions but can never be predicted except by going through all million steps, all give me a shivery feeling down my spine.


  45. When I see someone talking about “mysteries of life”, I can’t help thinking that the origin of it is the difficulty of meeting the needs of survival: gathering food, protecting a stable water supply, having a safe place to sleep, etc. If you could wish these things into being, it would be so much better than having to spend the required hours (much of it fruitless). So admitting to yourself that there are no such mysteries is admitting that magic mumbo-jumbo won’t bring the rains, which means that you are not only subject to the vagaries of the climate, your only way around it is hard, dangerous work with unpredictable results. Tippet’s mysteries strike me as just the remnant of this attitude.

  46. Without intending any denigration of science, I submit the following:

    When Grandpa dies, we bury him, build a monument, come by periodically with flowers, and sometimes even talk to Grandpa even though he is dead (and we do this even if we are not theists or spiritualists, etc., even if we believe Grandpa is truly and inexorably gone).

    We don’t do this with road-kill, but we sometimes do similar things for beloved pets.

    This comes down, I believe, to the human phenomenon of the Name. All people have names, and our names give us a portion of our humanity.

    The concepts of language describe generalities, tree, bush, stone, etc., but each tree, each bush, each stone is unique, but that uniqueness cannot be put into words. Language is based on both similarity and difference, or dissimilar similarity. Because the highest unity of things permits no difference, it cannot be put into words (and so all versions of philosophical monism fail), and at the greatest level of differentiation, the quality of what makes a thing unique, cannot be put into words. But the uniqueness can be expressed in a Name.

    The biological fact of Grandpa’s life can be explained by science (which uses generalities) and the biological fact of Grandpa’s death can be explained by science. But who Grandpa was, why his life has importance or significance, these are not factual or scientific questions.

    There is the fact of a life, and there is a larger question of the meaning of a life (in the sense of significance or importance).

    The question of the meaning of a life is really driven by human nature–we could imagine a species without names, that simply and crudely disposed of the dead and never mentioned the deceased again. But we are not that kind of species, and it would be hard to eliminate this from the species. [Even though it is integral to the emergence of human religion anthropologically IMHO.]

    Second, part of these rites of remembering the Dead give rise to a sense of who we are as particular human beings, who our ancestors were, what they stood for, and for most simple humans, the legacy of the past gives the man or woman of the present as sense of who they are, in continuity (or discontinuity) with the past. We are defined principally by our memories, and human communion is based largely on shared memories.

    While we don’t have to be “spiritualist”, a lot of shamanic medicine is about dealing with angry ancestors, which is believed to cause sickness. We would not conceptualize it this way, but part of our challenge is to work with the impact of our past and our family (dead and living) and our greater cultural group’s past, and try to find some resolution that works individually. Without postulating “angry ancestors”, certainly an unrepaired breach between an individual and his or her family or community can result in behavioral problems, and even suicide.

    I think this does not exhaust the mystery of Life, but touches on an aspect anyway. I hope I am clear enough, but I don’t see anything in what I wrote that compels anyone to reject secularism or evolution or anything else.

    There is also the First Person experience, which is not the subject of science (which is not to say there is not Third Person correlates to sensation), which is the world of lived experience. This is beyond the view of science, in the sense that even if when my brain displays phenomenon X, I feel pleasure, what I feel cannot be explained, whereas what my brain does can be explained. [Note there are conceptual as well as empirical problems with reducing brain states to subjective reports, but I am assuming a reductive materialist ontology.]

    But this all comes down to the say/show distinction, what can be said cannot be shown, and what can be shown cannot be said. Science, in constructing descriptions in the third person of an “intersubjective reality” really exhausts this dimension of being. But what a child shows to a father, and a father to a child is beyond words, what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “interbeing”, that which unifies all through differentiating all into uniqueness.

    1. I don’t know. I think that neuroscience and psychology may have something to say about first person experiences.

      As far as naming goes, “the Name” doesn’t seem to have the profound meaning you claim. My local cemeteries are filled with stones with names on them. Few have any particular interest to me, or anyone else for that matter. What matters is if the stone/name has some other connection to me… perhaps it is an ancestor, or perhaps someone who used to live in my house. But the interest isn’t inherent in names. I have a friend who has a bird with a name which I know. But I’ll not be grieving in some special way when he dies just because he had a name.

      1. It doesn’t strike you as significant that all humans everywhere name their off-spring?

        Or that a traditional marriage ritual includes the changing of the bride’s name?

        Or that the Nazi’s sought to re-name certain streets?

        Or that one of the ways to de-humanize people is to issue identification numbers and refuse to use people’s real names?

        1. They name their offspring because the offspring are important to them. It doesn’t work the other was around. It is their names that make my kids important to me.

  47. The law of noncontradiction expresses the principal of identity, A or ~A. For something to have identity, it must be differentiated from other things. [There may be contexts in which the law of noncontradiction may not be applicable, but in those cases you don’t have a fully differentiated identity.]

    In so far as the world is intelligible, there is identity and the principal of noncontradiction holds. Because the principal of noncontradiction is universal, it can have no differentiated identity, ergo, it is not itself intelligible to reason. At the state of maximum differentiation, at uniqueness, where there is no similarity (which would render something non-unique), there is also no intelligibility, se we have both names as well as concepts, as well as something which must remain nameless. These are the limits of language (whereas science can only exist within language).

  48. Speaking of peoples’ love of mysteries, I’m just reading ‘The Field Guide’, one of only two non-wooish books I know on crop circles.
    (The other is ‘Round in Circles’ by Jim Schnabel. There are all too many books that attribute them to all manner of weird phenomena, from ley lines to aliens to strange electromagnetic fields, but never to a couple of middle-aged guys called Doug and Dave 😉

    I love the inventiveness shown by the various circlemakers, many of their designs are elaborate and quite beautiful. (See http://www.circlemakers.org – Exhibit A – Top of the Crops for many striking examples)

    The interesting point is how attached the ‘investigators’ were to their pet theories. No matter how the ‘circle’ designs transmuted, the ‘investigators’ theories adapted to accommodate them. This was a matter of bemusement to Doug and Dave, who kept trying to think of some new design that the theorists could not account for, in vain. The question became just what would be required for the penny to drop.


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