The Age of Mystery
Intellectual historians like to divide up the history of human thought into distinct periods and give them descriptive names: Antiquity, the Middle (Dark) Ages, the Early Modern Period, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, the Romantic Period, the Age of Analysis (I invented that one). But what is the right label for our current age? Does it have an identity of its own? What central idea defines it, if any? We should note immediately that the labels chosen don’t reflect the self-conception of the people falling under them. The ancient Greeks (pre-Socratic and post-Socratic) didn’t think of themselves as “antiquated” or defined by their temporal relation to Socrates; nor did thinkers of the Middle Ages conceptualize themselves as in the middle of anything, still less as “dark”. These labels were chosen by scholars in retrospect to characterize trends of thought that emerged in the fullness of time. No doubt they have some reference to what went through the minds of the individuals they describe, but they aren’t offered as avowed autobiographies (they might be rejected as such). The period I am interested in encompasses the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries: it includes Freud, Marx, Darwin, Mill, Bentham, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Austin, Chomsky, Quine, the positivists, the analytical philosophers, and a lot of scientists (natural and social). I think many practitioners from this period would call themselves “naturalists”—especially those following Darwin and opposed to supernatural tendencies. They are secular, scientific, sane, and self-consciously savvy. They are down-to-earth, level-headed, and no-nonsense—not romantic, mystical, or religious. Some describe themselves as philosophers without the historical baggage of irresponsible speculation, obscure language, and dubious moral uplift. There is nothing priestly about them, or New Age, or Alternative. But from a more elevated perspective a pattern has emerged that is troubling to troubadours of the natural: the varying success of science in the last four hundred years has exposed areas of intractable difficulty. Science (including scientific philosophy) has now had a chance to prove its problem-solving power and has enjoyed notable successes, but it has fallen short of its earlier ambitions (starting with Newton’s “occult” theory of gravitation). Programs that once seemed promising have petered out, hit obstacles, or run aground. Here is a partial list: logicism and formalism in mathematics (Russell’s paradox, Godel’s theorem); behaviorism in psychology (Chomsky, cognitive science); generalized materialism (consciousness, intentionality); causal theories of perception, meaning, knowledge, and reference (sundry counterexamples); the puzzles of quantum physics; the limits of the computer model of mind; the origin of life. These areas are still much in dispute, but it is generally agreed that things have proved harder to crack than was anticipated; the old optimism is now under strain. Not surprisingly, voices have been raised to draw the appropriate lesson: all is not well in the onward rush to solve the “mysteries of nature” (Hume’s phrase). And the reason for this failure of naturalism is naturalism itself—the view of the human mind that has emerged in our post-Darwinian age. It isn’t so much the hold of the supernatural, a recrudescence of religion; it is rooted in the sciences of man. The voices in question include Chomsky, Nagel, McGinn, Pinker, Fodor, Kripke, and others. The old mysteries have not succumbed to the Age of Naturalism, and this has become increasingly evident as time has gone by—though it is not yet generally recognized. Nor should it be: we are still in the throes of the Age of Naturalism ushered in by Darwin and others. We are still trying to come to terms with the change of world-view these thinkers initiated. The old religious conception of ourselves and the universe still haunts and shapes our intellectual outlook (what we might call the “mini-gods” model). It will take some time before the lesson sinks in, but my prediction is that it will eventually sink in. When it does this age will be appropriately designated the Age of Mystery—the age in which the mysteries of nature became recognized for what they are. This age may go on indefinitely or it may come to an end with some new infusion of intellectual firepower: a fundamental mutation of the human brain, the arrival of advanced aliens, the development of artificial intelligence, or some blend of all three. In any case, my point here is that the current phase of intellectual history needs a suitable label and the Age of Mystery strikes me as fitting the bill. It had to come sooner or later—the time at which the limits of human intelligence became evident. Earlier ages did not make it evident (except to the very far-sighted), but glimmerings started to appear during the Renaissance (Locke, Hume, Kant, Newton), and later successes and failures made it increasingly evident. It was only a matter of time before the course of history revealed what should have been clear from the start—we are not gods but unusually brainy primates with an exaggerated opinion of ourselves. We are not only the naked ape; we are also the big-headed (literally) and big-talking (language-using) ape. We are (let’s congratulate ourselves) the cleverest of all the apes, with the highest IQ of any creature evolved upon this (probably dying) planet, but how impressive is that really? It is discouragingly relative. I sometimes think the most impressive thing about us is our art not our science, and certainly not our philosophy; intelligent aliens may marvel at what we have achieved musically and pictorially and poetically, but regard our intellectual efforts as distinctly B+. And it’s hard to imagine encountering an alien civilization whose music, painting, and literature strike us as markedly superior to our own; but it isn’t hard to imagine greatly superior science in an alien civilization (science fiction is full of it). After all, what can you expect of a two-pound brain made of spam that evolved in trees only a few short millennia ago? It took us a long time even to discover science and rational thought (why the delay?), so it isn’t surprising that our form of science should have its weak points and limitations. The miracle is that we know as much as we do (this itself is a mystery in the light of evolutionary science).
 If we think of the gods (and God) as projections of the human mind, we find an interesting combination of qualities: they are conceived both as godlike and humanlike. They are seen as just like us in some respects but also markedly superior in other respects. So, we understand ourselves as having conceivable superiors while standing above all other animals. We don’t see ourselves as the pinnacle of perfection—in particular, we acknowledge the possibility of greater intellectual capacity. We are not completely deluded about our intellectual limitations, though we see ourselves as approximating to gods (unlike other animals). In that regard there is much truth in religion. Religion is (among other things) a tacit admission of (non-trivial) intellectual limitation, and hence of the permanent possibility of mystery—despite its attachment to the idea of a supernatural soul.