Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mystery Lessen

From Hans Jenny. The Soil Resource (1980, Reprinted 2012)
Rainwater falls randomly from the sky into a tree where the rain becomes organized into drip patterns defined by the shape of the leaves, branches, and bark of the tree until, dripping into the soil, the water becomes randomly organized once again. Wendell Berry, in a letter to Wes Jackson (reprinted in Home Economics, 3-5), critiques this description from a scientific book on soil by arguing that randomness is not “a verifiable condition,” but is “a limit of perception.” He asserts that “random” is a misleading word that assumes there is no possible pattern in what is observed; the more proper term is “mystery.” “Random” assumes that there is not possible pattern; “mystery” assumes we just can’t see it.

While Berry emphasizes practicality, he associates mystery with religion and there is danger in letting mystery come trailing that umbilical cord. The earliest uses are theological and often were associated with secret religious rites. The most common and comprehensive theological use of “mystery” today is probably based on this Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving.” Defined this way, “mystery” becomes as much of a dead end as “random,” shutting down further exploration with certainty. If we posit a god capable of creating unsolvable mysteries, in a sense the mysteries disappear into God, who embodies the solutions. Why do we die? God does not die. Why are there evil people? God is perfect and entirely good. Why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? It will all work out because God is perfectly just. God resolves all mysteries, but if we take God out of the picture, what remains are the mysteries for which there are no facile answers.

The most expansive non-theological use of the term “mystery” is related to the OED definition, “A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma.” Despite the use of the word “inexplicable” in the definition, a Google search on “solve a mystery” or “solve the mystery” yields 8.6 M hits, so that for many of us a mystery is something to be solved; it is open-ended, and in that sense calling something a mystery in the non-theological sense is a beginning.

The popular genre of the murder mystery turns on the axis of logical analysis. A satisfying ending generally involves explaining motivations and events with proof that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, though such stories also allow for the operation of “justice” outside the law. Such an extra-legal conclusion would be unsatisfying, would become a crime in need of solution.

I have argued earlier that not all conflicting dualities can be resolved and that perhaps our best understanding is to accept both and see the world in 3-D. Maybe the better way to describe our response should be to say we can’t ignore dualities. They suggest enigmas, mysteries, in need of deeper exploration, though I suspect that we will discover deeper mysteries that allow us to understand our state more clearly; it will likely be mysteries all the way down.

Science should be done surrounded by mystery. Religion and science could both use more respect for mystery. Perhaps if religions treated God as more mysterious and thought twice before claiming to know what God wants and to speak in God’s behalf, the world might be a more peaceful place.

Friday, May 13, 2016


If we are condemned/blessed to see always double with our two, separated eyes, this biological fact may point to a philosophical assumption: we cannot know the one, unquestionable truth about anything. What we know should be built on a foundation of uncertainty, but that does not mean we can build in a shoddy manner.
Wright's Imperial Hotel in the 1930's (Wikipedia)

On September 1, 1923, Frank Lloyd Wright's new Imperial Hotel opened in Tokyo. That same day a 7.9 scale earthquake struck Tokyo causing widespread destruction. Wright received a telegram from Tokyo: "Hotel stands undamaged as a monument of your genius hundreds of homeless provided by perfectly maintained service congratulations[.] Congratulations[.]" The building was designed to sit on alluvial mud so it was not anchored to the heaving and twisting earth but built to ride on that uncertain foundation.

The story of the hotel’s response to the earthquake, an episode in the legend of Frank Lloyd Wright, has a heroic ring to it, and we depend on such heroes who stand as shining mountains among the lowly hills and valleys to give us a sense of security about our value as a species.
A photo taken shortly after the 1923 earthquake. The hotel is 
on the left, and a burning bank is on the right. (Wikipedia)
However, not all accounts of the events are so unambiguous. Robert Reitherman, speaking at a world conference on earthquake engineering in 1980, concluded that while Wright’s Imperial Hotel was an impressive building, the success of its response to the 1923 earthquake has been overstated. The building did suffer some damage, while other large buildings in areas as or more severely affected by the earthquake suffered less or no damage. The “floating” foundation was probably of dubious value in the earthquake, and in 1968, when the building was torn down, it had been and was continuing to sink into the mud. What did help, however, were the separation joints between sections of the building, which allowed the building to flex with the undulations of the earth. The story of its unique and exceptional success persists, however, because we love such stories.

The best heroes, of course are fictional, with no existence outside their heroic stories, because no troublesome facts will emerge later like impurities in metal to pollute and weaken the hero’s stature. We climb into the willing suspension of disbelief, and we are swept along with those heroes on their great adventures. We feel as if the events happened, and when they conclude, the afterglow of triumph persists in the memory. No reality will undercut the heroics, because supported by our experiencing of them, they need no reality to support them.

Sometimes, some of us who hear the stories, want them to be real so badly, want so much to recreate that feeling of triumph in the real world, that we create organizations and gather with other Trekkies or Jedi Knights. Even though the believers know the stories did not actually happen, for them the stories embody truths that can be applied to real life, when the Force is with them. The worlds created by such untrue, true stories and floating on foundations of belief will remain intact only if they flex with the pushback from the forces outside their enclaves, for if they remain rigid those beliefs will collapse into a formless and fiery heap.

But even the most reasonable conclusions of the most reasonable of us float on a thin layer we construct atop reality. When we think our knowledge is firmly anchored in the material world, we must remember that earthquakes shake the ground, and some separation joints, allowing flexibility in our thinking, might help our ideas survive.