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.)




9 replies
  1. carlklemaier
    carlklemaier says:

    the move from mysterianism to mysticism for some is just logical. It offers the only way to explore consciousness in a disciplined 1st person way via meditation and other practices. See Donald Davidson From States to Traits. It seem the only way to find the what McGinn calls the “depth” of consciousness

  2. carlklemaier
    carlklemaier says:

    correction Richard Davidson “Altered Traits” He talks about the difference in neuro science between states of mind and longer term traits and how meditation is involved in this transition..

  3. E. Andrew Boyd
    E. Andrew Boyd says:

    What a great blog post. I enjoyed the update on names for transcendental naturalism — both serious and humorous. I must confess to a fondness for epistemic humility. I also enjoyed the bullet point summary.
    I’m curious as to where the world of philosophy stands on scientific mysterianism these days. I can see why doesn’t receive as much attention as other topics (see: intellectual black-holism), but today is there a sense of great intellectual disdain, acceptance, or simply an attitude of who cares?

  4. Andrew Boyd
    Andrew Boyd says:

    Okay, thank you. I’m sorry you feel apart from the philosophical community in America. A person’s work speaks for itself, and you’ve contributed much to the conversation.


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