The best argument for mysterianism....

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by Magical Realist, Jun 12, 2018.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    I guess I'm somewhat of a mysterian. There are limits to what we can understand..

    "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 full story 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 understand 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 anatomy 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 observed, “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. 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."
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  3. Musika Last in Space Valued Senior Member

    This is what happens when people try to be deeply philosophical without studying philosophy.

    I suggest you google "epistemology".
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  5. Gawdzilla Sama Valued Senior Member

  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Contrary to the thread title, I don't think this is the best argument for mysterianism.

    The writer isn't a scientist or a philosopher. His credentials seem to be in business and IT (though he does have an MA).

    It strikes me as a bit strange to label Steven Pinker a mysterian, particularly as his interest lies directly in working out how the brain works, including trying to solve the so-called "hard problem of consciousness". If he really thought it was an ultimately worthless pursuit, why would he dedicate his career to it?

    The evolutionary argument given by the author is weak. I would argue that dogs can do arithmetic to a limited extent (studies have shown), and I'm fairly confident that owls have some idea of the anatomy of a mouse, even if it is rudimentary. It would be evolutionarily surprising if they couldn't tell the head from the tail, for instance.

    The argument for mysterianism is, to some extent, a failure of imagination. The tendency is to assume that problems that haven't been solved yet will never be solved. It's a pessimistic kind of view, in my opinion.

    Having said that, I think it's probably uncontroversial to say that we might never understand all of nature's laws and workings. There will always be things we don't know, for all kinds of reasons, including the limits on what can be known, and what it is within our ability to find out.

    If the ultimate message of "mysterianism" is "Don't be too cocky. Don't assume that you know more than you do." then it's advice well taken, but I don't think the term "mysterianism" adds much to the sensible cautionary note. I think the term itself is probably a magnet for people just like Magical Realist, who like to imagine that science has not adequately answered existing fringe claims about things such as ESP and UFOs.

Share This Page