Tuesday, August 24, 2010

the unopenable door

Thought experiment: you move into a house and discover there's a locked door in the basement. It's a super-strong, steel reenforced door -- like a bank vault. You try everything you can to open it but nothing works. You call in an engineer, and he tells you that the door must remain closed. If you try to bash it open somehow, you'll bring down the whole house on top of you. (I realize this is silly. There's ALWAYS a way to get a door open. But please accept this unopenenable door -- as magic if you must.) Question: once you realize you can't open the door, how would be feel about continuing to live in the house?

I ask this, because some people seem to be much better equipped to deal with mystery than others. This is far from the only thing that leads some people to become mystics and others to become skeptics/scientific thinkers/atheists, but I believe it's one key ingredient.

(There's a great TED talk by J.J. Abrams, the TV producer, in which he talks about how his grandfather gave him a box from a magic shop. It has big question marks painted on it. He's kept the box for decades without ever opening it. He feels it's vital that he has this mystery in his life. I told this story to my wife and she just about blew a gasket. She wants to kill J.J. for not opening that box. She wants to kill him even more for adding that mystery to her life without giving her any tools to solve it.)

I'm betting some people read my unopenable-door experiment and thought, "I could live with it." Others thought, "It would drive me BATSHIT INSANE! I would HAVE to move." Still others thought, "I'm sorry, but even in a story, I can't accept the idea of an unopenable door. So in spite of your request that I take that as a given, I simply can't. There IS a way to open it, and I will keep trying!" Others thought, "I'm going to assume that what's behind the door is _____," and you can fill in the blank with God or some other fantasy. (For a fun evening with friends, pose the door story to them and see how they react. You will learn a lot!)

Despite the name, mysticism tends to deny (or solve) mystery. Why does it rain? Because the rain God wants it to. Etc.

It's always fascinating to me when a theist asks me, "Well, if God didn't do it, how do you explain X?" Embedded in that question is the idea that "I don't know" is not tolerable. That it's better to make up an explanation (or accept one someone else made up) than live with mystery.

We tend to categorize people as theists and atheists, but I think this relationship to mystery transcends those categories. I've noticed that there are scientists who are very uncomfortable with mystery. They may have BECOME scientists because, though they can't just trust bullshit like so many theists do, they cling to the idea that, given time and work, all will be known. A mystery, to them, is just a question that doesn't YET have an answer.

But if you really confront the truth, we simply don't know if all questions can be answered or not. And it's a certainty that all questions (even most questions) won't get answered in your lifetime. You will die with mysteries. How does that make you feel? I think that's a KEY question. How do unsolved and UNSOLVABLE mysteries make you feel?

(Many animals are compelled to explore their environments. Presumably this helps them make sure there are not lurking dangers. An unexplored nook or cranny might contain a tiger. When we ask people to give up mysticism and theism, we need to understand the ramifications of our request: learn to live with some possible tigers that you'll never be sure about.)

I've also noticed that many scientists (and scientific types) are troubled by axioms. To me, the most challenging thing that theists say to us is "You take things on faith just like we do." The answers I hear most often are "Yes, but we do that as little as possible" and "Yes, but we're always willing to revise those axioms."

I agree with both those statements, but I also note how quickly scientists (many of them) tend to change the subject when their faith-based beliefs are even brought up. I suspect, again, this is because the existence of axioms implies mystery. Yes, we may one day understand the human brain and the nature of black holes. But will we understand what causation is? Maybe, but it it seems distinctly less likely. (Unless you're one of those people who cling to the "religious" belief that, given time, we'll understand everything. Now THAT is an article of faith!)

If I'm right about this, it all leads to a big question that, alas, I can't answer: why do different people have different tolerance levels for mystery? Is it a genetically encoded personality trait? Is it learned? I have no idea. I would love to see this tested in the lab. I would love to see if we can detect differing tolerances for mystery in infants and other primates.

1 comment:

Gowan Campbell said...

I suspect I would live with it, though I think I might amuse myself by occasionally consulting various warlocks to find out if any of them knows a way of opening it. An unopenable door is a Platonic concept. Where is the other side of that door? Are the people, or whatever, on the other side also incapable of opening it? You have possibly a door into some scary other world right there in your house, and though YOU don't know any way of opening it, and though this authority ASSURES you it's unopenable, is this authority's authority also UNASSAILABLE? According to whom? And is THEIR authority unassailable? Such a door in my house is something I would always be aware of, niggling at, and worrying about, at the back of my mind, even if most of my mind is capable of living a reasonably complacent life in spite of it. I've read too much science fiction and fantasy to either accept an unopenable door as an immutable fact of life, or to demand an explanation and a forced entry right this instant.