FOR A MOMENT, THE CHICKEN TURNS
"You see an upright bottle, say – or rain, or a peasant in a cart. But what are they for: that bottle, that rain, that peasant? What sense do they make? That you couldn't say . . ."
- Olga, in Chekov’s “Angel”
It is not possible to reduce the mystery, or turn it back. This position is sometimes known as Anti-Constructive Naturalism, though I prefer Cognitive Nugacity. When Crick says “What we lose in mystery we gain in awe,” he proposes once again the old model of human brilliance pushing back against the veil of Isis. But an explanation is nothing. When people casually mention mystery in connection with consciousness or the universe, they often turn to the context of science for orientation; this is far too civilized a place to be talking about mystery, and it begs the question. I could be called a “mysterian” (one who believes there are things humans cannot understand) but in a more radical sense: I believe that we understand nothing, not even this bit of self-expression.
This does not mean we cannot utter sensible observations, make new things, solve problems (Chomsky), or say things progressively until we come to the point we have called “understanding.” It means that I find everything absolutely and utterly mysterious (which removes me from the camp of the “New Mysterians”). Although its shape has evolved, this mood has never changed, ever since childhood.
All the talk in neurocognitive or philosophical circles about the hard problem of consciousness are mere walks on the verandah with cigars, the reaching of interpersonal compacts on the definition of the newest categorical wall. This mystery of which I speak has nothing to do with the capacity of our brains, which we have already defined as the workspace for stalking the mystery of our discernment. Brains are cool enough. But the mystery of which I speak is not a consequence of our flaws or limitations. How convenient. Philosophers of consciousness are like chickens looking in a mirror, seeing nothing much, and turning back to their texts. (Also see my essay “What is it like to never be able to tell the truth?”)
Here’s a phrase: “although we know that the conscious mind is nothing more than the brain...”
By uttering the very first word of this phrase—and no more—we have already left the chicken out of the barn.
Wittgenstein makes a related case when he says “what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense.” It looks like what this great thinker attempted, too, was to create a highly articulated story of reality that made a logical ruling on all talk of mystery, perhaps to solve some of his own personal problems.
Selecting science as the arena for pursuing explanations is not choosing the place in which one can “keep an open mind”