Scientific Knowledge vs. Mystery

This post was written by guest blogger Wyatt Galusky.*

A Mouse, a Bird, a Cat and a Girl Hold Forth. A Provocation, with Digressions.

"An object never goes into its concept without leaving a remainder."

Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

So, this quote by Adorno, ever since I encountered it several years ago, has almost ceaselessly rattled around in my brain. The meaning of the quote itself can be parsed quite finely. But I am more interested here in the implications. What of the remainder? That is, if we assume that scientific knowledge seeks to articulate a clear understanding of the world, by creating conceptual frameworks into which we can place said world, what happens to what gets left out?

Is that a wobbly premise? What of it? I provoke thee thusly.

I wanted to start more quaintly historical, but I should prostrate myself to the medium and invoke something much more current: In the 23 July issue of The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks discusses the case of Tony Cicoria, a doctor who was struck by lightning, had a near death experience, and then developed an insatiable thirst for all things musical - listening, playing, composing. Called, apparently, musicophilia. The article explores the interaction of Sacks' exploration of a neurological cause for a condition, and Cicoria's more spiritual and emotional attribution of his own experience.

Perhaps few would credit a mystical explanation over a more antiseptic scientific one, especially if one had designs on reproducing or controlling such a phenomenon. But, still, don't we stand to gain with the retention of mystery? Or, rather, don't we lose when we forget that, no matter how powerful our conceptual schemes and how finely parsed our analysis, mystery remains? Let me point to some coalescence of thought on the subject.


Someone who thought that long ago was Fyodor Dostoevsky (that's him, above), in "Notes from Underground," circa 1864. (Digression 1: the mouse in the above title refers to a comment made by Vladimir Nabakov who, in a rather acerbic analysis of the Dostoevsky oeuvre, suggested that a more proper translation of "Notes from Underground" would have been "Notes from a Mousehole.") (Digression 2: Nabakov is nothing if not assertive and strong-willed about his opinions. A lifelong devotee of Dostoevsky, I found myself questioning my own experience of Dostoevsky's work in the face of such certainty and bombast. An opinion can becoming convincing just because its speaker is so convinced.) The narrator of the tale, self-loathing and perhaps a bit nutty, decries the ascendance of a rational explanation of everything, including human consciousness and motivation.

The pinnacle of such rationality back in Dostoevsky's time was mathematics, thus he invokes the maxim of twice-two-makes-four to represent this rational conquest and the promise of turning all of life into a formula. Allow me to excerpt some of the relevant passages below:

You say that science itself will then teach man... that as a matter of fact he possesses neither will not uncontrollable desires, and never has done, and that he himself is nothing more than a sort of piano-key or organ-stop, and that, in addition, there are the laws of nature in the world; so that whatever he does is not done of his own will at all, but of itself, according to the law of nature. ...All human actions will then, no doubt, be computed according to these laws, mathematically, something like the tables of logarithms, up to 108,000, and indexed accordingly. Or, better still, certain well-intentioned words will be published, something like our present encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be calculated and specified with such an exactness that there will be no more independent actions or adventures in the world. (282-3)

What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in getting to know (certain things, I suppose, it will never know; this may be poor comfort, but why not admit it frankly?), whereas human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously, and unconsciously, and though it may commit all sorts of absurdities, it persists. go on telling me over and over again that an enlightened and mentally developed man, sucha a man, in short, as the future man can be expected to be, cannot possibly desire deliberately something which is not a real "good," and that, you say, is mathematics. I quite agree. It is mathematics. But I repeat for the hundredth time that there is one case, one case only, when man can deliberately and consciously desire something that is injurious, stupid, even outrageously stupid, just because he wants to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible. For this outrageously stupid thing, gentlemen, this whim of ours, may really be more accounted by us than anything else on earth... (286)

...twice-two-makes-four is not life, gentlemen. It is the beginning of death. (290)

Mind you, I quite agree that twice-two-makes-four is a most excellent thing; but if we are to give everything its due, then twice-two-makes-five is sometimes a most charming little thing, too. (291)

Huh - twice-two-makes-five is a charming little thing. How much, then, is the idea of consciousness and self preserved or eradicated by a sense of mystery? (Digression 3: and I assume Ben knew this was coming. Hannah Arendt made the following observation about Behavioural Psychology: "The problem is not that it's false, but that it's becoming true." Humans are not things in the same way that atoms might be. Rather, we can adapt ourselves to the dominant frames we are presented with. Ian Hacking labeled us "interactive kinds" in an attempt to capture this phenomenon. But doesn't this mean that there is real danger in too readily submitting our selves to certainty?)

For a more modern comment on this triumph of quantification and rationality, let's turn to the musician Andrew Bird, from his album Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs.

i-9c2df8bc5dbbb8db6976800115b4b3a4-Andrew Bird.jpg

The following sample of lyrics are from the song "Masterfade":

well you sure didn't look like you were having any fun
with that heavy-metal gaze they'll have to measure in tons
and when you look up at the sky
all you see are zeros
all you see are zeros and ones
...does it matter?
if we're all matter
what's it matter does it matter
if we're all matter when we're done?
when the sky is full of zeros and ones
I saw you standing all alone in the electrostatic rain
I thought at last I'd found a situation you can't explain
with GPS you know it's all just a matter of degrees
your happiness won't find you underneath that canopy of trees
if the green grass is 6 the soybeans are 7
the junebugs are 8 the weeds and thistles are 11
and if the 1s just hold their place the 0s make a smiley face
when they come floating down from the heavens...
and who the hell can remember
which way the east wind blows
when you're lying on the ground
staring up at an inverted compass
I mean Christ who knows?

And the last one is from blog favorite Cat & Girl, by Dorothy Gambrell:

i-56997bc0bdd0e882bb31ea0a211dd943-Cat and Girl Octopus Glove sm.jpg

So there you have it. Comments on mystery and rationality. About what we stand to lose when, in our efforts to know (ourselves and the world as things), we forget about the persistence of the remainder. The disorder in the order. (Digression 4: Speaking of a kind of order. Like Girl above, I give in to desires for conceptual placement and symmetry. There are lots more voices I could add here, including Wordsworth's Prelude about Mont Blanc, a book by Jose Saramago, All the Names, and even Cristo's work in covering islands with sheets, among others. Maybe later. But there's something nice about the harmony of the simple creatures asserted in the title.)

In Sacks' article, he notes that, when offered the chance to have neurological tests done on his brain to suss out a neurological basis for his musicophilia, Cicoria (an orthopedic surgeon by training) demurred, preferring to see his new found musical love as a mystery, and an act of grace.

To mystery. More to come.

*WG's bio can be found at the end of his first guest post on the "Sam's Club Model of Environmentalism," here.


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Wow. That was fascinating.

By Allen Peters (not verified) on 23 Jul 2007 #permalink

One thing that I find extremely mysterious is how so many who sing the praises of mystery seem to think they've arrived at some sort of "deep" understanding. Makes me think they aren't talking about mystery at all; only nonsense.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 23 Jul 2007 #permalink

i think there's a category left untouched here betwixt the "math" and the "mystery" -- namely "emergence."

and it's what is so key about the interlacing, complex systems that underly the biological world! just hit up the phil. of biology journals and you'll see what i'm gettin' at.

i'll try to summarize (beware): the more complexly constructed these systems get, the harder it is to say you can account for anything in a sense that even resembles "mathematically" or "algorithmically." there are just systems with certain in the moment capacities, material requirements (nutrition, e.g.), and events that happen to these systems in different sequences through time. time as in "life-span."

i think the very not-exactly-mathematical remainders you're pointing toward are the very bread and butter of the developmental-systems-biology community. i should shove a stack of susan oyama your way. (oh, and our pal Burian had a great book of essays on this in 2005, fwiw).

The desire for the "mysterious" seems on the face of it to be the notion that things are more valuable if we do not understand them. This seems to assume that understanding of nature is not valuable, and that understanding cannot, in itself, be beautiful. This I would disagree with.

It seems to me (as a non-psychologist) that the love of the "mysterious" stems more from a love of ones own personal preconceived beliefs about nature than a true love of nature itself.

The deification of a "mysterious" nature has long been used by people to justify fear or disinterest towards science. Indeed, it's hard to find a way to make this desire not destructive to science (if anyone can, I would like to hear it).

I think there is a better way to appreciate the remainders of our equations (which get fractionally smaller with each new scientific breakthrough, but which truly will never disappear). Though I must admit, that Andrew Bird album has been growing on me as of late.

thanks for the comments. I try to use the notion of remainder and mystery not to disparage science, but rather as a check against too much faith in what science can offer us. I agree, as two posters above suggest, that there is a danger in using the idea of mystery to promote a kind of untroubled faith in what one already presumes. Of course, the idea of knowledge can operate in a similar way. How I try to use the idea of mystery and remainder, consonant, I think, with how Adorno uses it, is just to remind ourselves of the costs of moving forward with conceptual schemes (something we must do) - each move leaves out what was not accounted for. As we become more dependent on those schemes (either as knowledge systems or technological systems), the more we require those exclusions. For Adorno, then, following his ideas of negative dialectics, we need to be willing to interrogate our systems at the most basic level. And we must do so perpetually. All systems are incomplete, and some acknowledgement of irreducible mystery is one small way of calling attention to that. I think.

This is the old "learned astronomer" issue over again 100 some years later. The people who really do actually live with mystery are scientists and people who measure things, they always must live on the edge of the unknown. They know best what can't be measured, be it awe or complexity. The people who declaim about mystery and how science doesn't get it are in my own experience almost always disparaging of science. It always comes across as a copout. Now I know that there may be some not like that, but when 4 out of 5, at least, are like that, well, that is how I take it...

Look at the examples all given, none seriously engage science. FD? Hannah Arendt?, totally anti-empirical with axes to grind. Not that those axes weren't important and sometimes beautiful. But, for example, Arendt using St. Augustine as a model of the mind and will is not engaging with mystery to me - it is turning away from it.

Ah well, what can you do? You put up a commentary that asks readers to think about the things we don't know, to ponder how humanity could know the world wholly, to go beyond pre-existing beliefs about such a topic, and you get replies that suggest asking about areas unknown is akin to promoting pre-existing beliefs. That space, the parts we can't comprehend, or the parts we have yet to comprehend -- to put it in the frame of scientific inquiry -- has a kind of grace to it, but it seems to scare people. I thought the point of the commentary was to ask readers about the space which drives scientific inquiry, the things that remain unasked or even unacknowledged. How strange, then, to find that even when you explicitly say, directly, straightforwardly, "I am not disparaging science," you are accused of disparaging science. It's as if readers already believed, before the fact (let's call it pre-existing belief), that if you ask about the remainder, you disparage science.

I gotta say, you guys have the record for the reader with the swiftest, least informed dismissal of two of modern humanity's significant thinkers -- Dostoevsky and Arendt have axes to grind? And there you have it? And Whitman's learned astronomer is cast off as an aside? Comments that rise (?) to the intellectual level of a cable pundit.

I hope my comments were not misinterpreted as arguing against "asking about areas of unknown." It is precisely the opposite that I worry about.

And Dostoevsky's piano-key analogy in the Notes is one of my favorite in all existential writings. It is an amazing explanation of the desire for individuality and free-will and an almost comically spiteful irrationality that is part of all humanity when faced with the deterministic world that seems to be growing clearer (though with quite a few remainders).

I do sincerely appreciate any attempt to reconcile appreciation of the remainders, or the parts unknown, with the desire to inquire and to make the unknown more known--rather than simply drawing up camps where one tries to "destroy mystery" by learning about it, and the other tries to deify mystery by refusing to ask any questions about it.