Ignorance, Error, and Mystery
The extent of our ignorance is stupendous. We know next to nothing about vast tracts of reality. If the world is the totality of facts, then our knowledge is confined to a tiny proportion of these facts. Just think of the distant past and remote future: all those individual facts about which we know nothing. We know hardly anything of what happened in the universe during the last five seconds. The universe is huge, populous, and mostly far away—nearly all of what happens is unknown to us. Nearer home we have the microscopic and invisible world: we certainly don’t know what is going on atomically in particular objects at particular times. Nor are we aware of the individual lives of bacteria and the like. We are almost entirely ignorant of what is going on the minds of sentient organisms, even the people we know quite well. We get glimpses, but most of it is quite hidden from us. The spotlight of knowledge falls on a minute section of reality; the rest is ignorance. And this is something we know perfectly well: we are not in the dark about the extent of our ignorance. Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we do know that reality contains dimensions and scales that guarantee human ignorance—the expanses of space and time, in particular. Ignorance is only to be expected, and nothing to feel ashamed about: reality is intrinsically unknown to us in its full extent. Realism implies ignorance: being real does not imply being known.
The skeptic thinks that ignorance extends even further than this: we are ignorant about what we think we know. We think we know about the local external world, but the skeptic says we are ignorant about it—as ignorant as we are about the remote external world. We think we sometimes know about the minds of others, but the skeptic says we are ignorant about this too: not only do we not know about the minds of bats, we don’t know about the minds of our nearest and dearest. Nor do we know the recent past, or the laws of nature, or what will happen next. All is blind ignorance. We might be making constant errors as well as simply not knowing various things. But even if the skeptic could be rebutted, it would still be true that we are massively ignorant. No one would think that your average animal knows very much of the universe—why should they?—and we are no different. Ignorance is simply a fact of nature, a biological necessity. Nature is sublimely indifferent to how much of it is known, and very little is.
In the light of this vast ocean of the unknown, it is hardly surprising that some things are mysteries—things that cannot be known. Things have explanations, but not all explanations are known by us, or even could be known to us. It all depends on the available evidence and our powers of intellectual ingenuity. Many crimes remain mysteries: no one knows who committed them (apart from the criminal). Historical events in general may be quite mysterious, even the origins of large-scale wars (see Tolstoy’s War and Peace). Take a typical murder mystery, real or fictional: there may be a range of suspects but no way to decide among them, or there may be no such range—just total mystery. Detectives try to remedy such ignorance, but there is no guarantee that they ever will. Thus we are perfectly familiar with the type of ignorance we call mystery: the type in which we don’t know the correct explanation for a certain event and never will. Here is a mystery that I recently came up against. I have a pond in my garden in which I keep several fish: one day several new fish appeared in it as if from nowhere. The new fish were clearly not of the same species as the old fish—green and yellow with a red tail not red and white. Where did they come from? I didn’t put them there, and they couldn’t have arisen by natural reproduction. Could someone else have put them there? But who would do that, and for what reason? Did they somehow find their way there from some other pond? But fish can’t walk on land. Did they fall with the rain? But how can fully-grown fish fall with the rain? It was a complete mystery, and I never solved it. Several months later the four new fish died of natural causes, remaining mysterious till the end. The mysterian was faced with a real-life mystery! Such things happen. I didn’t suppose that God did it, or that the fish spontaneously arose from nothing, or that I must have put them there in my sleep: I ruled out these possible explanations. But nothing else occurred to me—the mystery fish remain a mystery to this day. I am completely ignorant as to the correct explanation of their appearance. If only I could have asked them!
I mean these pedestrian remarks to bear on the question of mysteries in philosophy and in science–for example, the mystery of consciousness. Given the prevalence of mystery, it should not be surprising that certain natural phenomena present deep mysteries. Mystery is a form of ignorance (ignorance of explanation) and ignorance is everywhere: we are ignorant of far more things than we are knowledgeable about. Nor should it surprise us if the mystery is terminal: it is surely obvious that we will never completely remove all ignorance—there is just too much in reality for our brains to take in. Our faculties are limited and the world is broad and deep. True, science has made an impressive assault on our natural state of ignorance, but even science will never remove all ignorance. There will always be things that no human knows, often quite boring things. Some of these things may concern phenomena that are quite close to home—including our own consciousness. Does anyone think that a human mind could know the entire state of a person’s brain at a given moment? No, there is just too much going on in those billions of neurons. Human knowledge has its limits, so we shouldn’t dismiss suspicions of mystery out of hand. It would be strange if there were no mysteries given the amount of ignorance there is. I am not trying to prove mystery here, merely to put the claim of mystery in its proper epistemic context. The existence of mystery is the existence of one kind of ignorance, but ignorance is the natural condition of the human cognitive system—as all other cognitive systems. There are very few things that we are not ignorant about in the wide sweep of things. It is easy to focus on what we know, given that by definition it comes within our cognitive reach, but the area of what we don’t know is incomparably vaster, notwithstanding its rather hazy presence to our minds. We do better to think of reality as what we don’t know about rather than what we do. From nature’s point of view, most of it is secret, offering only glimpses to curious minds.