Friday, October 23, 2009

Are You a Secret Mystic?

Many of us would like to believe we are rational individuals living in an increasingly rational world in which mysticism is being correspondingly marginalized. Even though you may regard yourself as a fundamentally rational person, you could in fact be a mystic with a predisposition to hinder the advancement of rationality.

To understand how this could be, let me first provide some background. Mystics are essentially people inclined to believe there are mysteries that can never be solved. Whether the mystery is religious (“why did God create evil?”), philosophical (“why is there something instead of nothing?”) scientific (“how did life originally emerge from non-living matter?”) or personal (“why can’t I catch a break?”), if you accept that it can never be rationally explained you are a mystic. It is a disposition towards harboring such beliefs that fundamentally defines mystics, not the supernatural powers, arcane knowledge, meditative trances and various magical artifacts that are typically attributed to them.

If that is all there is to being a mystic you may wonder what is the harm in it? It might be kind of cool to be able to walk up to strangers at a party and introduce yourself as a mystic; thus implicitly claiming membership in a club that is often characterized as a exclusive, mysterious, powerful and perhaps even a little dangerous.

The problem with being a mystic is that it is an inherently self-limiting perspective. The critical factor in being a mystic is a fundamental belief that there are unyielding constraints on what we can rationally comprehend. This means that to be a mystic is to believe there is an absolute limit on the power of rational thought.

In accepting this premise mystics typically assert the existence of entities that transcend the boundary of rationality. These mystics recognize that they can never rationally understand these great, yet inherently mysterious beings. This situation eventually leads them to personify and worship, the Primal Mystery underlying everything that resides beyond what they perceive to be the absolute limit of rationality. This perspective characterizes virtually all of today’s religions. The fact that they are founded on the Primal Mystery is why all of our major religions are fundamentally mystical.

Ironically, there are people who think that religions have outlived their usefulness and at the same time accept that there are limits to the power of rational thought. Some of these individuals are not merely irreligious, they express open hostility towards religions, yet their mystical disposition is sympathetic to the idea underlying those ‘intolerable’ institutions. This situation is analogous to gay people who speak out against homosexuality.

No matter how rationally antireligious you claim to be, if you are inclined to believe we can never objectively explain what triggered the Big Bang, how consciousness manifests in the brain, why the uncertainty principle works or any other important mystery, then at your core you are a rationality-limiting, religion-sympathizing mystic.


Major Generalist said...

Loved your last sentence, “then at your core you are a rationality-limiting, religion-sympathizing mystic.” Sounds like fighting words for some! I generally agree with what you’re saying in this post.

I think there is a middle ground that I personally like to occupy—where you believe that all questions can be answered, but accept that you personally may not find all of those answers. BUT that doesn’t mean one should stop trying, either collectively or individually.

I believe I said this in an email to you a while ago. Imagine if, after cells were discovered, people hung up their science hats and said, “That’s it! We found the tiniest building blocks of life!” That’s analogous to being a mystic. It was only continued scrutiny that revealed DNA. There is always more to find, more dots to connect. There may well be one or more entities that have more knowledge than we do, or exist in a form of what people think of as “god.” But since we don’t have access to that information, we must continue to ask questions and move forward.

Mystic mentality is a kind of stopping point, and maybe it’s easier to be a mystic when we have to put food on the table and the kids to bed and there are other practical considerations to tend to. You can still do those practical things and be a non-mystic, but I suspect not everyone has the interest or drive to go beyond a certain point.

Captain Rational said...

The critical factor in being a rationalist is believing that there are rational answers to our important questions, not actually providing those answers. By contrast, mystics insist that there are mysteries whose solutions reside beyond the power of rationality. In this context the people in your example who stopped digging because they thought they were done represent misguided rationalists rather than mystics.

Major Generalist said...

Ah, interesting clarification between misguided rationalists and mystics.

Saw this quote on a subway ad this morning:

"Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world." --Arthur Schopenhauer

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