Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mystery & Mysticism

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery - even if mixed with fear - that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
Albert Einstein, "The World as I See It"
I was reminded of this quote by a recent opinion article in the Los Angeles Times on the "sweet mystery" of science. The author, university professor David Barash, writes that "It's not what science knows, but what it doesn't, that really matters," for "it's only by pursuing the unknown that we obtain knowledge." Unfortunately, his understanding of mystery is not quite as grand as Einstein's.
We are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. But don't get the wrong idea, Horatio: Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and I'm not referring to some sort of ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap beyond the reach of natural law and human understanding. Just as "weeds" are plants that haven't yet been assigned a value, scientific mysteries are simply good questions waiting for answers.
... "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious," writes Richard Dawkins. "Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: It gives them something to do."
There is something sad and utilitarian about Barash's description of mystery. And his dismissal of mysticism seems rather petty. I doubt Einstein saw himself as a mystic, but I cannot think of a better term for someone with his religious sensibility. He exulted in mystery, not because it gave him "something to do," but because he recognized a sacred beauty within it. And clearly he was not someone who wanted the mysterious to stay that way, yet he was also willing to acknowledge "the existence of something we cannot penetrate." Are Einstein's words just "ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap," or was he identifying the true "sweet mystery" of life?