Mysterianism Revisited

True Mystery



The view now known as “mysterianism”, associated with Chomsky and me (though with many antecedents), has been called by other names. That label has (or once had) a rather pejorative connotation, as if the people who espoused the view so named were mystics enamored of spooky mysteries inaccessible to science and rationality. That was never the intention of Chomsky or me, as even the most cursory inspection of our writings would reveal. Still, it caught on. But it is worth reminding ourselves of alternative labels for the position. I called the view “transcendental naturalism” in Problems in Philosophy (which should have been titled by its subtitle The Limits of Enquiry, but I gave in to the marketing people at the publisher and made my original subtitle into the title). I also earlier introduced the phrase “cognitive closure”, though this does not easily admit of conversion into a suitable “ism”. Fodor had already spoken of “epistemic boundedness”, which also resists an “ism”. Various other terms suggest themselves: cognitive confinement, bounded cognition, epistemic blindness or blankness, explanatory gappiness, ignorancism, limitationism, epistemic modesty or humility, intellectual black-holism. None of these are very good, mainly for purely linguistic reasons—though they are accurate enough descriptively. I have toyed with neologisms, such as “anti-knowism”. Just as we are used to “realism” and “anti-realism”, so we might get used to “knowism” and “anti-knowism”. Knowism is the doctrine that everything about a certain subject matter can be known; anti-knowism is the view that not everything about a subject matter can be known. Thus we might speak of global and local knowists, and similarly for anti-knowists, depending on how broadly the thesis is taken. And we might also speak of partial and total versions of these doctrines—corresponding to the theses that something can be known about a given subject matter or everything can be known about it; or not known, as the case may be. This terminology has the virtue of linguistic adaptability and descriptive accuracy, as well as brevity and lack of misleading connotations. But it is rather arch and unnatural, and unlikely to catch on.

On balance I think the best approach is to retain “mysterianism”, keeping its defects in mind, but qualifying it so as to cancel its potential to mislead. Thus I favor “scientific mysterianism”—or “sci-my” if we want something pithier. Variants of this label would be: secular mysterianism, naturalistic mysterianism, tough-minded mysterianism, hard-nosed mysterianism, hard mysterianism, reductive mysterianism, or (my personal favorite) badass mysterianism. The idea is to flag the mysteries as “mysteries of nature”, not “mysteries of the supernatural”. So I propose using these new labels from now on, in the interests of clarity and philosophical ideology.

I shall now list the main tenets of scientific mysterianism (or for informal occasions, badass mysterianism). The aim is not to defend these propositions (they have been defended elsewhere) but merely to summarize the basic outlook in compact form.


  1. Unknowability does not imply non-existence.


  1. Degree of intelligibility is not degree of reality.


  1. Intelligibility is a matter of cognitive endowment.


  1. There is no such thing as “unintelligible reality” tout court.


  1. Mechanism provides the base standard for human intelligibility.


  1. Mind is as limited as body, and has an anatomy too.


  1. How-possible questions might have answers beyond our cognitive reach; philosophical problems can be solved by pointing this out.


  1. Knowledge is a matter of biological luck, not divine guarantee.


  1. Science is the name we give to what lies within our cognitive scope.


  1. We can speak of what we cannot know.


  1. The bounds of truth are not the bounds of human reason.


  1. It may be that nothing in nature is fully intelligible to us.


  1. It is remarkable that we understand anything about the deep principles of nature, not a matter of course.


  1. Mysteries of nature are facts of human psychology.


  1. The brain is an evolved organ, not a miracle worker.


  1. We can grow accustomed to mysteries, but they do not go away.


  1. Newton’s Principia is the ultimate text in mysterious Western science.


  1. Understanding a theory is not the same as understanding what that theory is about.


  1. Locke, Hume, and Kant all understood the limits of human knowledge.


  1. Positivism is a failed attempt to deny natural mysteries.


  1. Idealism is the only alternative to mysterious realism.


  1. Science is not the rejection of mystery but its studied recognition.


  1. Knowledge and mystery go together.


  1. Reality does not contain a mysterious part, though it is mysterious in part.


(The numbering is off for some reason, so correct accordingly.)






Clive James, reviewing a biography of Philip Larkin in last week’s NY Times, says the following: “Larkin spoke and wrote the allusive, indirect and ironic tongue of the British literary world. In a time that grows more literal-minded almost as fast as it grows less literary, a tongue in the cheek will always need translating, especially to Americans, who expect honesty.” Ouch! This is in regard to Larkin calling subscribers to his first collection “the sucker list”.

I make no comment.



Amidst all the triviality and madness, I just want to say that the death of Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire, and what led up to it,  was the most beautiful piece of acting I’ve seen all year. Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays (played) Chalky, acted the man’s final hour with such restraint, depth of feeling, and intelligence that you felt lifted out of your seat. His facial expression as he closed his eyes and faced the firing squad, hearing the voice of his beloved singing in his head, was so subtle and yet so powerful, seeming to contain all the goodness and evil of the world. He made being shot in a back alley in Harlem into a moment of supreme human transcendence. Chalky, I will miss you.



After some delay, my book on human evolution and the hand is in production at MIT, title Prehension: A Philosophical Anthropology. I expect it to be published in fall 2015. As it happens, the left hand has been on my mind a lot recently, mainly for musical reasons. For both guitar and drums you need a good left hand: you have to cultivate dexterity in the non-dominant hand, which takes time and effort. What this does is enhance bilateral symmetry, so that you are not so manually lopsided. This changes proprioception, among other things–you feel your left hand more, becoming more aware of it. Since I play a lot of racquet games, and so have a very developed right hand and arm, the change in my left hand restores a sense of balance. Recently I was watching Buddy Rich playing drum solos and was very struck by his left hand technique, which seems physically impossible (but there are techniques to develop it)–just amazingly fast, controlled, and musical. Then there are guitar shredders whose left hand achieves remarkable feats–like the guy who can play 27 notes in one second. I’d like to know how many drum rebounds per second Buddy got with his left hand–including bounces it could be as much as a hundred. I’m designating October Left Hand Month (or Right Hand Month if you are left handed). Let’s celebrate our non-dominant side, with all its locked-up potential. (This is part of the Cult.)


The Leiter Report

I may as well express my view on the question of the future of the Leiter Report. I think it should be abolished altogether, because of its unsound methodology, malign influence on the profession, governance structure, competitive mentality, and other reasons. Leiter should simply discontinue it, not hand it over to new management. If anyone wants to start something new, focused on providing objective information about philosophy departments, they should feel free to do so–but not in the form in which the Leiter Report now exists.

As to Professor Leiter himself, I wish to say as little as possible (we have had our run-ins, to put it mildly). But I think everyone should acknowledge that Brian Leiter is not solely responsible for Brian Leiter: he has been pandered to, encouraged, and enabled by large segments of the philosophy profession, especially in the United States. The reasons for this have been essentially corrupt. It is time for people to wake up to their own complicity. He has no more power than the power people have given him. I look forward to a post-Leiter age in philosophy.



I just watched an interesting program on the BBC about Nabokov. I cannot help feeling that he would be fired from, or not hired by, an American university these days for writing Lolita. The “feminists” would not stand for it. The fact that it is a deeply moral book, and a great work of art, would not make an ounce of difference. What do readers think?


Skepticism and a Kitten

A black and white kitten showed up in my garden a week or so ago. It was clearly wild and we started feeding it. I was thinking about skepticism at the time and certainly not connecting the two things. Yesterday I went out the front door to drive over to the Biltmore to play some tennis and saw the kitten under my car. I made a point of shooing it away before I drove off,  as I often do with my own cats. I made very sure it was no longer under the car. I drove over to the Biltmore and played for an hour. When I got back to my car I noticed a very similar stray kitten in the parking lot near my car. I formed two hypotheses: one, that the kitten from my house had somehow traveled over to the Biltmore (a mile and half away) for some unaccountable reason; the other, that this was another kitten from the litter from which “my” kitten had come. For a moment I had thought it was just another black and white kitten bearing no close relation to “mine”–but closer inspection convinced me otherwise. On reflection, I decided that it was impossible that it just walked over to the Biltmore as I was heading there; so I settled for the same-litter hypothesis. I expected to see the kitten in my garden when I got back, but it had been raining and that usually sends them into hiding for a while. I didn’t see it, even a couple of hours later. I had a conversation with my wife in which she mentioned on occasion on which a stray cat had climbed up into her father’s car engine. Then it struck me, but only as a wild hypothesis: this little animal had inserted itself in the bottom of the car engine and stayed there till I had driven to my destination. That meant lodging itself behind two hot pipes, close to the road, as I drove at fairly high speed. As I thought about it, I realized this had to be the correct explanation. I have been back twice to the Biltmore to look for it and seen nothing. Nor has it returned to my garden. The improbable had happened. But what struck me, epistemologically, is that, given the evidence I had, I formed the firm belief that, by coincidence, a kitten from the same litter was over at the Biltmore–I could see no alternative. But I was dead wrong; the correct explanation had not even occurred to me. This is the kind of thing that encourages radical types of skepticism. Not a brain in a vat in this case but a cat in an undercarriage. There is a good lesson here, too, about the perils of jumping to conclusions.



I just want to put in a good word for Neil de Grasse Tyson’s series on Fox on Sunday nights. Despite the fact that he pronounces it “Kuzmose” (rhymes with “dose”), the program is excellent in every way. The science is well explained, the graphics are terrific, the historical references helpful, the photography superb: this is not low-budget PBS stuff. What I particularly like is that it gives no quarter to the anti-science factions out there: creationism, young earth, etc. We get the science straight and pure. No politics. Admittedly, last Sunday’s episode dwelt on establishing the age of the earth and the politics of lead pollution, which were clearly aimed at current “controversies”; but the cases were instructive and the series could hardly just ignore current politics. I found Dr. Tyson enthralling on astrophysics (his speciality): his mind is clear, his voice is strong, he looks good but not too good. This may be the best thing for science education in America since Carl Sagan did the first Cosmos. I also happened to catch part of a three-part series by David Attenborough covering his life in natural history broadcasting. His cut-glass accent varied over his life, and his weight has fluctuated, but his charm and dedication are undimmed. No one talks about animals as well as  David Attenborough. And he even held up a copy of an original edition of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene to indicate how profoundly it has affected his own thinking. All is not lost!