Mystery, Wonder and the Mystical

A few nights ago I received an encouraging e-mail from David Zinger saying that he had enjoyed reading my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along”. He went on to say that it reminded him of two sources, Phil Simmons who wrote “Learning to Fall” before he died and H. B. Gelatt’s “Positive Uncertainty”. I intended to follow up on the “Positive Uncertainty” lead because it does seem to have very strong links with my thinking about Purposive Drift. But what really struck me was the Phil Simmons piece, which, perhaps in deeper way, links with my concerns. What he has to say about “mystery” resonates very strongly with my sense of Purposive Drift:
“…I’m writing, I suppose, to say that life is not a problem to be solved. What do I mean by that? Surely life presents us with problems. When I have a toothache, I try to think rationally about its causes. I consider possible remedies, their costs and consequences. I might consult an expert, in this case a dentist, who is skilled in solving this particular sort of problem. And thus we get through much of life. As a culture we have accomplished a great deal by seeing life as a set of problems to be solved. We have invented new medicines, we have traveled to the moon, developed the computer on which I am writing this essay. We learned our method from the Greeks. From childhood on we are taught to be little Aristotles. We observe the world, we break down what we see into its component parts. We perceive problems and set about solving them, laying out our solutions in ordered sequences like the instructions for assembling a child’s bicycle. We have gotten so good at this method that we apply it to everything, and so we have magazine articles telling us the six ways to find a mate, the eight ways to bring greater joy into your life, the ten elements of a successful family, the twelve steps toward spiritual enlightenment. We choose to see life as a technical matter.
And here is where we go wrong. For at its deepest levels life is not a problem, but a mystery. The distinction, which I borrow from the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, is fundamental: problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not. Personally, I wish I could have learned this lesson more easily—without, perhaps, having to give up my tennis game. But each of us finds his or her own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a “problem” are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness or confusion, or leap forward into mystery. And what does mystery ask of us? Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all, and that is everything. We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions. This letting go is the first lesson of falling, and the hardest.”

Curiously, this reminded me of another passage that made a deep impression on me many, many years ago. It is from Melvin Konner’s “The Tangled Wing”, which has recently been re-published and is well worth reading for his subtle and humane discussion of the “biological constraints on the human spirit”:
“It seems to me that we are losing the sense of wonder, the hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit. Perhaps this is due to the depredations of science and technology against the arts and the humanities, but I doubt it—although this is certainly something to be concerned about. I suspect it is simply that the human spirit is insufficiently developed at this moment in evolution, much like the wing of archaeopteryx. Whether we can free it for further development will depend, I think, on the full reinstatement of the sense of wonder. It must be reinstated in relation not only to the natural world but to the human world as well. At the conclusion of all our studies we must try once again to experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bio-electricity; the human will as will, and not just as a surge of hormones; the human heart not just as a fibrous, sticky pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding. We need not believe in them as metaphysical entities—they are as real as the flesh and blood they are made of. But we must believe in them as entities; not as analyzed fragments but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them, by the words we use to talk of them, by the way we have transmuted them to speech. We must stand in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes.”

And finally, from Ludwig Wittgenstein:
“It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”

It seems to me that if we are to lead full lives as human beings a sense of mystery, wonder and even the mystical are an important part of that life. This does not mean positing supernatural entities, indeed I would go further and say that positing supernatural entities diminishes our sense of of mystery, wonder and the mystical and somehow makes them too mundane and in a curious way touches on the blasphemous.