What Is Mystery?

This word “mystery” is itself somewhat mysterious, isn’t it? It seems to invite examination of the division one makes between “stuff I know” and “stuff I don’t know” – with the latter called “mystery.”

“Stuff I know” doesn’t imply certainty. Some of what is in my “stuff I know” folder might actually belong in “false beliefs.” For now, I have it in “stuff I know” if (a) I believe it is true, and (b) I have some reason or evidence for believing it true (though the evidence might not be conclusive), and (c) it matters, in some way, to my life and my understanding of the world.

“Stuff I don’t know” comes in a variety of flavors:
  1. Stuff I temporarily don’t know, but some people do, and I could find out. This would include more-or-less agreed-upon facts of history (Who was the English monarch just prior to the King Harold who died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?) and science (What is the chemical composition of benzene?)
  2. Stuff that is known, by someone, but that I can never know: government or corporate secrets, for example.
  3. Stuff that is known, by someone, and isn’t a secret, but I lack the aptitude or the will to learn to comprehend – such as how to solve certain very complicated problems in theoretical mathematics or quantum physics.
  4. Stuff that no one knows now but that will, or conceivably could, become known. This includes future events: Who wins the 2017 World Series? It also includes possible discoveries: What other planets have life? What is “dark matter”? Is cold fusion electrical generation possible?
  5. Stuff I don’t know because I’ve adopted an agnostic stance on the subject. I do this when I’m aware of strong arguments on both sides and I don’t need to have an opinion on the matter. Did the boxer Hurricane Carter commit the 1966 murders of which he was convicted? I don’t know. Is Renoir or Monet the greater painter? Should the US build more nuclear power plants? Some people have opinions on these questions. I do not.
  6. Stuff that no one knows or ever will know because the question is nonsense. Is the Earth upside-down? This is a nonsense question because the concept “up” only has meaning within the context of Earth (or whatever planet or body the speaker is standing on). Standing on Earth, “up” means “away from the center of the Earth.” The Earth itself floats in space, and that’s not a context in which “up” has any meaning. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether a question is really a nonsense question or not. Is “What is the meaning of life?” a nonsense question? One might argue that “meaning” occurs only within the context of a life, just as “up” occurs only within the context of Earth. Various things move up and down within the Earth context, but “up” doesn’t and can’t apply to the Earth as a whole. “Up relative to what?” one would ask. Likewise, various things have meaning within the context of a life, but “meaning” doesn’t and can’t apply to life as a whole. “Meaning relative to what?” one would ask.
  7. Stuff that no one knows or ever will know because . . . well, just because it’s unknowable. Ah, this is the interesting one. Now we’re talking proper mystery. These questions hover on the border of nonsense – but we cannot quite dismiss them that way. Why is there something rather than nothing? The agnostic stance might seem attractive, but the question is too compelling to dismiss that way either. What is mine to do in this world? What is love?
These questions are not to be answered, but lived into. True mystery is not to be dispelled and isn’t dispellable. Rather, we live in and with the mystery.

There is always something beyond what we know. One way to say this is: There is always more to learn about anything. Another way to say it is: Existence is shot through everywhere with mystery.
Every experience, every moment, presents itself, and we bring to it our “stuff I know” folder. This is an oak tree, we say. Or, Here is my office. We know these things, these places. But in each moment and experience there is also the presence of the unknown -- something about it that will never go in the "stuff I know" folder, can never be encapsulated, articulated, filed, and cross-referenced. Every moment offers us the chance to ask: What is ineffable here? This is an unanswerable question (because any answer would be effing it, and then it wouldn't be ineffable) – but is it unanswerable because it is nonsense? I’d say, rather, that there is an unspeakable quality in everything. We cannot speak it, but we can nevertheless be present to it.

It is possible to go through life doing no more than responding to every situation with the knowledge we have, as best we can – bringing our concepts and purposes to bear on everything we encounter. This is a grave mistake. In addition to the “stuff I know” – and in addition to the first 6 categories of “stuff I don’t know” – there is something else present in everything you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. It is the unspeakable – the silence inside the sound, the darkness inside the light, the stillness inside the motion. It is the mystery. It holds us always.

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