The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. ~Oscar Wilde
There is more than one type of mystery. Some mysteries aren’t even mysterious. For example, how a diesel engine works is a mystery to many, but only those who haven’t taken the time to look at diesel engines. They are a marvel of complexity, yes. But there’s no mystery to how a diesel engine works. People design them. People build them. People repair them.
How planes fly; how battle ships float; how cereal stays fresh for months in cardboard boxes . . . none of these are mysteries to those who bother to look into them and figure out how they work.
Then there are those things that once were mysteries but aren’t any longer. How Ouija boards work, for example, isn’t a mystery. The motions are due to the “ideomotor effect.” That’s the term that a scientist, William Carpenter, coined in 1882 when he was researching how fortune-telling pendulums and dowsing rods work. He also studied the movements of tables at seances. No, the movers and shakers are not spirits. They are us, ourselves. We don’t even know it, Carpenter argued, but we unconsciously make the movements we expect spirits or magic magnetic forces to make.
How dowsing rods work is not a mystery.
But the reason that Ouija boards are not a mystery is that curiosity led someone to discover the truth. Fact is, the “ideomotor effect” is counter to the evidence of our own senses: we don’t know we are producing the movements that we think are coming from the spirit world. Our senses have fooled us.
Only a deep curiosity to solve a mystery can lead to this kind of discovery.
This is the distinction I’m searching for.
Mystery, it appears, can lead to complacence and even superstition, or it can lead to discovery.
That’s why the battle between science and religion has been so brutal for so long in the Western world. It has been twenty-five hundred years since Socrates was convicted for “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own.”
Can the gods make rain if there are no clouds? Socrates thought it’s not likely. His assertion threatened to kill a sacred cow.
Yet slowly, over time, more and more people looked at the mystery of rain and decided that perhaps the phenomenon occurred for some reason other than the actions of the gods.
It makes me wonder why the Abrahamic monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have been so resistant to scientific knowledge while Hinduism, Buddhism, Confuscism, Daoism, and earth-based religions have not.
Is that another one of those mysteries?
Is this resistance to science a product of these religions, or is it a product of the ways of thinking that led to these religions? After all, Socrates died four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
Could it be that democracy is the problem?
Or perhaps patriarchal rule?
Or perhaps the very oppression itself served to encourage curiosity?
Is it a mystery? I’m curious . . .
We human beings have a sense of awe and wonder that motivates us to ask questions, that motivates us to use our imaginations and our reason. At one time, a time before microscopes and telescopes and oscilloscopes and scoping in general, stories and reason were all we had. Then we began to build instruments. Eventually we figured out why it rains.
How do we answer some of those other mysteries, question such as,
What is the purpose of the universe?
What is the purpose of our lives?
Who’s in charge here?
For many people, even those living in the industrialized world, the answers to these questions remain steadfastly in the realm of superstition.
Who’s in charge here?
Vucub-Caquix? (a Mayan bird god)
Gods and gods in charge of this and that, gods in human form, gods in animal form. For human beings, at one time, stories were all we had. Eventually a curious Greek named Xenophanes came along and said,
“If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen would draw them to look like oxen, and each would make the gods bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.”
Xenophanes saw—he was roughly a contemporary of Socrates—Xenophanes saw that our stories concerning these ultimate questions depend upon anthropomorphism. We create gods in our own image. They do things that we understand. “Why would that be?” asked Xenophanes. It was a mystery.
Seriously: What is the purpose of the universe?
Xenophanes told us, 2500 years ago: even if there were a purpose, human beings would not understand it. Purpose is an anthropomorphism, a giving the universe human characteristics. We might as well ask, Does the universe yearn? Does the universe get hungry?
Xenophanes remains, whispering into our ears: the universe just isn’t human, even if we imagine a really, really big human.
Poet Dana Gioia expresses this in a poem called “Words:”
The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The purpose of the universe in relation to human beings is not a mystery: the universe does not need us and our endless words. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”
There. That is where the mystery is.
Because we need purpose, we project purpose upon the universe.
Our first job is to figure out that we do that. And then stop doing that.
Only then can we get down to a real mystery: Each of us can ask ourselves, “What is my purpose?” When each of us figures that out, we have pursued wisdom and caught up with it. Maybe even put a saddle on it for awhile.
Wisdom is knowing that me, you, all of us—nobody has a purpose . . . until we figure it out. And, even after we do manage to wrestle it to the ground and put a bridle on it once, our purpose is very likely to do a little Houdini on us. Purpose is a shape shifter, if you will. It’s a moving target in our lives.
Our own purpose is the greatest mystery. Yet, we know we’ve got it when we feel the excitement of living in this world. As Howard Thurman famously said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Seriously: who said we get to declare our own mysteries?
The age of the earth is not a mystery.
When dinosaurs existed is not a mystery.
That natural selection shaped life on this planet is not a mystery.
Just because I don’t know something—from ignorance, lack of will, or even adamant refusal to see the facts—does not make it a mystery.
As science fiction writer Philip K. Dick put it, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Our challenge in this world is not to create mysteries that are not there. Our challenge is to adjust to the real. And find our meaning and our purpose in the here and now.