The insights of Dan Buxhoeveden (J.D from Loyola University, PhD from the University of Chicago) into the relation between natural sciences and the mystery of nature are no mere armchair speculation. He is an Orthodox Christian who teaches at the University of South Carolina and has conducted extensive research into the micro-organization of the cortex and how this this can be applied to comparative neuroscience, medicine and brain evolution. In this seemingly simple essay, the author offers us deep insights into what science can know and what it cannot, along with helping us discern the dangers of a purely materialist cosmology.
By Daniel P. Buxhoeveden
Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is. . . “Is That All There Is?” recorded by Peggy Lee (1969)1
This famous song speaks to a life stripped bare of mystery as well as hope, and represents an honest reaction to a world that some have chosen for themselves where mystery is nothing more than a fabrication of the human mind. If we pull the veneer aside, mystery dissipates because it does not exist as such. If there is No-thing behind Any-thing, then mystery is surely a fabrication. People who have dedicated themselves to demystifying the universe should not be surprised if they have made it a glass house.
Naturalism seems incapable of remaining a tool in science without transforming into a perception of reality that seeks to eliminate mystery wherever it can, providing simplistic answers to existence by use of the same method over and over again. Reductive naturalism is applied with equal vigor to why we believe in God, the self, consciousness, altruism, music, geology, how bees fly, time, sex, art, love, meaning, medicine, the stars, how we vote, the history of warthogs and dung beetles, the purpose of life, why there is something rather than nothing, and everything in between, above, and below. In short, Everything. So naturally we must ask, where is the mystery? More so, what does the materialist mean by mystery?
There seem to be several responses possible. One is that awe and mystery are generated by features within nature. Typically this takes the form of attributes associated with qualities such as size or speed, which are used as a replacement for substantive mystery. A universe that is immense seems to contain all the mystery we need. But what lies behind the vastness of space is a lot of unconscious, meaningless stuff. These things elicit awe but not mystery. A billion miles of desert would be awesome but it remains desert.
Some years ago there was a very good series of lectures relating to the biology of the self. In the last lecture the neurobiologist, a reductive materialist, acknowledged the concern that many people fear that scientists are going to explain everything and therefore remove all mystery from the world. To this concern he replied that we should not worry, and cited two reasons. The first is that there is so much to know that we will never answer everything. Every time science answers something, it raises a half-dozen new questions. However, this implies that science could answer all things if only given enough time, and so defers the question. It also suggests that scientific descriptions are indeed the final ones, and this does nothing to address the underlying issue.
Seeming to recognize this, he offered the second argument which was this: even if we know the mechanics of flight, or the motion of sound waves that lie behind the music of Bach, this does not prevent us from having a sense of mystery about it. The problem with this answer is that it is deceptive. If one delves too far into this kind of ‘mystery,’ it threatens to dissipate like the morning mist. The spell breaks in the analysis of it. This is because in the reductive world there is no mystery behind anything, not really. The proposed mystery is an emotional response to something which our ‘higher’ intellectual capacities can fully explain if called upon. It is a choice superimposed upon reality. The reductive world is the real one. If this is not so, then there is the danger of slipping into delusion where we imagine things about bird flight or the music of Bach that are not really there. Mystery in the world of the materialist is not grounded in the essence of what a thing is—it is, in fact, a consent to delusion.
Either the universe is so much boot-strapped, unintelligent bits of matter with nothing behind any of it, or it really is something more. And if there is something more where does that something more come from? We have dissected the bird, understand the mechanics of flight, and claim to know the evolutionary process by which the animal came to be. There is presumably nothing more to the bird than that. To see mystery is to bask in emotion. It is a mystical sentiment that is not in accordance with the hard-nosed constraints of materialism. The physical components of bird flight as well as the air in which it travels are ‘real’—it is the mystery that is superfluous. The former is reproducible, testable, and public knowledge, whereas the latter is none of these.
It is well enough to have our mystery in the reductive world, but at the end of the day, bird flight is about biology and aerodynamics. There is another important qualification about this kind of mystery and it is this: those who do not see mystery in a flight of birds are just as correct as the ones who do. If this were not the case, if mystery were an inherent part of the system, then a failure to recognize it would represent a failure of observation, a failure to recognize reality.?No one fails a science exam because they do not see the mystery in a flock of sea gulls. They fail if they do not know the mechanistic data —the ‘true’ information —whereas mystery is a matter of opinion, an optional perspective added on for poets and artists.
In his book Death of the Soul, the philosopher William Barrett describes a scene where he is out walking with some friends when they stop to enjoy a particularly beautiful sunset, and for just one moment they forget about their materialism and enjoy the poetic majesty of the sight as if it were expressive of something more. But then, ‘reality’ sets in and they are unable to continue since it re-emerges into their consciousness that all this is factually nothing more than refractions of light off the atmosphere. We know this now because of science. The sense of mystery placed on such events is simply emotion, or worse, reducible to neurochemistry. Interestingly, I had gone through a very similar thing myself when I was living the life of an agnostic. It was not a sunset but it was the morning sun on my shoulder, and I did the same thing. After a momentary feeling of warmth and ‘mystery,’ I quickly reminded myself that the warmth of the sun was after all just a physical property, impersonal and impervious to whether I liked it or not. The moment of much needed comfort was destroyed as quickly as it arose—a triumph of rationalism and scientific materialism. There exists more mystery in the skies of the ancients and world of the indigenous people, than in the lifeless gases and rocks of the modern cosmologist.
In the case of real mystery, the ‘thing’ and the mystery are one and the same. It is not an extraneous property. Mystery is not imagination, but objective reality. It is not the absence of knowledge nor an unanswered question. Mystery is participation in the transcendent— inexhaustible, immeasurable, infinite, wonderful, loving, and yes, awesome too. This mystery does not dissipate in the knowing of it—but only grows deeper. All other mysteries are something less than this—guideposts, pointers, insights.
There is a reason why no elder, saint, or anyone who had an experiential encounter with the Spirit of God, ever had to utter the devastating commentary on modernity: “Is that all there is?”
sup>1 Writer(s): Mike Stoller, Jerry Leiber.Copyright: Sony/ATV Tunes LLC, Jerry Leiber Music, Mike Stoller Music
About the Author
- Dr. Daniel Buxhoeveden from the University of South Carolina is the founder and director of the Religion and Science Initiative at the University of South Carolina. He has a JD from Loyola University and a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Chicago. He is interested in the micro-organization of the cortex and how this can be applied to comparative neuroscience, medicine and brain evolution.