Are there “mysteries” that will forever baffle us?

My colleague Michael Vlerick and I just published a paper in the journal Dialectica, dissecting the arguments of the so-called “New Mysterians”. This group of thinkers, among whom luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor and Steven Pinker, claim that some problems will always remain ineffable “mysteries” to us, because our brains are just not equipped to understand them. Just as a dog will never understand prime numbers or polyphonic music, there are bound to be some “mysteries” for humans too, which lie beyond our cognitive ken. To think otherwise, or so claim the New Mysterians, is to be guilty of “hubris” or epistemic arrogance.

In this paper, we take issue with the most systematic and careful argument for New Mysterianism, developed by the philosopher Colin McGinn. McGinn uses the term “cognitive closure” to describe our predicament with respect to these mysterious mysteries, which he thinks include the traditional philosophical chestnuts of consciousness, free will, and meaning. According to him, we will forever be “cognitively closed” to these aspects of reality, because of intrinsic cognitive limitations stemming from the architecture of our brains. McGinn’s argument, we claim, rests on a fallacy of equivocation. Sometimes he seems to be saying that some parts of reality will always be inaccessible to us, meaning that we will never be able to represent them in a scientific theory. But sometimes he seems to be talking merely about a feeling of intuitive comprehension. By doing so, McGinn is conflating two very different things.

To see the difference, consider quantum physics. Physicists have succeeded in representing elementary particles and their quantum properties — and even to derive impressively accurate predictions about them – but they still find quantum phenomena intuitively baffling. Even the renowned quantum physicist Richard Feynman once said: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”. But still, we have extremely successful theories! So we “understand” the quantum world, but we don’t “understand” it.

In short, our thesis is the following;: just because some phenomenon strikes us as bewildering or baffling or bizarre (to us), does not mean that we can’t gather any accurate knowledge about it. And what holds for the quirky world of quantum mechanics, also applies to consciousness and other philosophical conundrums.

If you would like to get the PDF of our publication, just send me an e-mail!