Student Chapters

Embracing Mystery in the Search for Truth

Natalie Pax

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion” –-Albert Einstein

The evolution of the human brain over the course of history has permitted the mind to achieve consciousness—an awareness of ourselves and the universe that prompts humanity to question the mystery of our own experiences. The complex nature of the brain, according to author Diane Ackerman is “to liken and learn, never resist a mystery, and question everything, even itself” (Ackerman, 2004). All forms of knowledge and discovery are ultimately based on unverifiable presuppositions, and an element of uncertainty is present whether it be in the field of scientific research, theological beliefs, or artistic expression. Perhaps then, just as multiple instruments and notes are woven together to form a complete sonata, multiple disciplines, perspectives, and ideas can provide a more holistic understanding of the world. There are certain mysterious qualities of the human experience that cannot be reduced to a single concrete understanding of truth. However, this does not imply that truth and morality are purely relative. One can appreciate multiple lenses when understanding the phenomena of our own existence, yet still recognize that truth and understanding are not purely subjective and some ideas hold more merit than others. There is beauty in the never-ending journey towards understanding ourselves and the world we live in—after all, the very process of science induces new discoveries and understandings that then lead to even bigger questions and mysteries.

As the human brain evolved and began contemplating the origin of life, spiritual experiences and religious beliefs about creation provided understanding and guidance for various cultures around the globe. Every human society and culture has myths, creation stories, or religious ideals that bond members together and foster a sense of community and understanding. Despite differing myths and creation accounts between various cultures, Theodore Ludwig claims in his book The Sacred Paths that there is a “common experience of many people past and present that there is a sacred realm of reality with ultimate significance, and, further, that the ultimate good in human life has to do with relating to the sacred.” The ‘sacred’ is expressed in various ways throughout cultural histories and is “felt to be the universal foundation of all truth, reality, goodness, and value.” Rudolph Otto describes the manifestation of the sacred experience as “numinous”—the ultimate mystery of human connection to the sacred that often accompanies reverence and awe and “cannot be completely held by humans, either with their hands or with their reason.” According to Ludwig, the universal experience of the “sacred” forms the foundation for the human search for truth, regardless of its mysterious and undefinable qualities (Ludwig, 1996). The mystery of human existence and our role in the universe has prompted people to find solace and guidance in religion, and led people to speak a language of common truth.[1]

Just as religion and myth can be a search for truth and guidance in human existence, so too can science and experimentation. In his presidential address to the Royal Society of South Africa, A.W. Sloan (1979) stated that science is a “search for truth” and that science depends on certain pre-suppositions, including a belief in order and harmony even though science itself is never static and constantly undergoing transformation (Livingstone, 2013). In an essay titled “Religion and Science” that was written for the New York Times Magazine in 1930, Einstein described a ‘cosmic religious feeling’ as a phenomenon when the “individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order that reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison, and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.” Einstein believed that there was an order to the universe, which he experienced in a sense of awe and veneration before nature. He held a strong conviction that there is a cosmic order, which he felt was essential to the scientific outlook (Gamwell, 2002). There may be a certain natural harmony to the world and human experience, but it is the mystery in this harmony that prompts us toward inquiry and discovery.

In early 1921, when Albert Einstein was becoming a famous world figure, a poet and playwright wrote to him, asking him if modern poetry and painting might have been an “intuitive anticipation” of his scientific discoveries. Einstein responded some time later with a handwritten query of his own: “What do scientific and artistic experience have in common?” Both, he postulated, offer the opportunity for humans to extract themselves from the commotion of everyday life, and the only difference between the two pursuits is to be found in their mode of expression. Einstein stated, “We perform science when we reconstruct in the language of logic what we have seen and experienced; but when we communicate through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, yet we intuitively recognize them as something meaningful—then we are making art” (Kentridge et al, 2012).

Einstein, famous for his contributions to our understanding of the universe, believed that intuition and expression [2] were intertwined with discovery and science, and in a sense, were inseparable. In an excerpt of Albert Einstein’s “Science, Philosophy, and Religion: A Symposium,” he stated that “science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” (Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, 1941). Religion—the awe, mystery, and reverence of the cosmos as Einstein perceived it—along with music and art was inextricably related to the act of discovery and scientific understanding, and motivated him in much of his work.

Albert Einstein playing violin during the charity concert in the New Synagogue, Berlin, 29 January 1930. Photo sourced from the public domain.

The perception of time is both intuitive and scientific, similar to the human understanding of ourselves and the world we exist in. Time has always proved an elusive and mysterious concept, and philosophers, artists, historians, theologians, and scientists alike have questioned and theorized how to understand the existence or non-existence of time and the implications it has for human experience. However one theorizes time, all things alive are subjected to the ebb and flow of temporal passage. Everything alive on earth is born and eventually dies, encompassing the circle of life and the constant evolution of history. It was the elusive nature of time, space, and light that prompted Einstein’s discoveries in physics.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, theory of time, and his discovery of the formula E=mc^2 were scientific advancements that contributed to the human understanding of the universe and altered the course of societal development. In the discovery of the formula E=mc^2, Einstein produced one of the most profound conclusions in the history of human thought and understanding of the world—that energy, mass, and the speed of light can no longer be considered as independent concepts because they are unified in one, shared process of nature. With this conceptual leap, his discovery encodes the underlying relationships that stem from the nature of time and space. In trying to understand the interconnected nature of energy, mass, and light, Einstein profoundly explained that the speed of light is always constant while time is not. He formed a new conceptual framework that offered a theory of time different from any form of previous human understanding (Gtazek and Sarason, 2007). Einstein’s experiments revealed that time is relative and dependent upon the observer’s frame of reference, affecting the properties that were being measured. This revelation transformed how we interpret the world around us, for the passage of time that affects us all is not as constant as we may perceive (Arora, 2008). Perhaps the objective “reality” sought by many is not as constant and concrete as they may perceive, either.

In his 1905 paper on the theory of relativity, Einstein begins with a metaphor, asking the reader to imagine a train that comes into a station in which you are standing. If the hour hand of your watch just touches 7:00 as the train pulls in front of you, then you would say that the train’s arrival and your watch showing 7:00 were simultaneous. However, is it still simultaneous if the train pulled up at a different station? In his experiments, Einstein demonstrated that two observers can consider the time it would take for light to get from one point on a train to another and measure it according to the exact same procedure. He concluded that they obtain different measurements of time because two separate events that are simultaneous for one of the observers are not simultaneous for the other, and it depends on the viewers’ frame of reference.Einstein goes on to say that to coordinate clocks would be the true meaning of simultaneity. This somewhat operational definition of simultaneity eventually became the foundation of relativity theory, and led to the understanding that simultaneity and synchronization depend on one’s frame of reference.

As it turns out, Einstein wasn’t the only person concerned with simultaneity at the beginning of the 20thcentury. The French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Henri Poincaré had similar ideas about relativity and was concerned about map making and how the understanding of simultaneity could prevent trains from smashing into each other in the railway system. This was an extraordinary moment in history when philosophy, physics, and technology intersected in various forms of reasoning and speculation. It was imperative for railroad engineers and mapmakers to understand simultaneity, and it was imperative for physicists and philosophers to understand how to define time and the clock system that measures it. Einstein and Poincaré were two people at the center of the intersection between the various ways of thinking about the world (physics, mathematics, philosophy, and religion) as it relates to simultaneity, and their ability to explore the topic through various disciplines led to numerous revelations that changed the course of society forever (Galison, 2003). Understanding the world through multiple different perspectives in this way may be somewhat like hearing a piece of music as it is composed together holistically, allowing for a harmonious stream of sound instead of just individual notes or chords at a time.

Photograph of participants of the first Solvay Conference, in 1911, Brussels, Belgium. Founded by Ernest Solvay, the conferences were devoted to preeminent open problems in both physics and chemistry. Both Einstein and Poincaré were present here.
Seated (L-R): Walther NernstMarcel BrillouinErnest Solvay (he wasn’t present when the above group photo was taken; his portrait was crudely pasted on before the picture was released), Hendrik LorentzEmil WarburgJean Baptiste PerrinWilhelm WienMarie Skłodowska-Curie, and Henri Poincaré.
Standing (L-R): Robert GoldschmidtMax PlanckHeinrich RubensArnold SommerfeldFrederick LindemannMaurice de BroglieMartin KnudsenFriedrich HasenöhrlGeorges HosteletEdouard HerzenJames Hopwood JeansErnest RutherfordHeike Kamerlingh OnnesAlbert Einstein, and Paul Langevin.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The standardization of clocks and the expansion of the railway system led to the mass transportation of people, resources, and ideas across the United States. In the west, railroads helped open new territory to economic expansion and settlement, and required much higher levels of trade, production and resource consumption to supply the impending growth. The changes initiated by the railway system would expand economic production in the face of what Karl Marx called “the annihilation of space by time,” the tendencies of capitalism’s technologies and growth to expand “beyond every spatial barrier.” Not only could the railroads be seen as a force of nature, but there is no doubt that the railroads acted as a powerful force upon nature, encouraging the development of land and the exploitation of natural resources throughout the country. In his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, author William Cronon proposed that “railroads were more than just natural; their power to transform landscapes partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy that was beyond human influence or knowledge.”  The magic of the railroad was that is left almost nothing unchanged—from the natural landscape to the structure of society (Cronon, 1992). The synchronization of time and the rapid expansion of the railway system across the United States led to a certain order in American culture, where production and transportation could be controlled with the hours, minutes, and seconds of the modern clock.

Rene Magritte’s painting, “Time Transfixed (1938). The painting juxtaposes the timeless and the hasty, the private and the industrial, and the everyday and the surreal. Time Transfixed is a translation of the painting’s French name ‘La Durée poignardé.’ This literally translates as ‘ongoing time stabbed by a dagger,’ a translation that Magritte much preferred. Magritte’s use of Surrealism as a medium encourages viewers to consider the paradoxes and underlying messages in the work. Time Transfixed is not simply about making the absurd seem possible, but rather it’s about unveiling the unseen.

[3]

In her novel Timescapes of Modernity, author Barbara Adam proposes that “if our physical being is marked by finitude bounded by birth and death and by rhythmically organized transience, then the creation of clock time has acted as a counter to those characteristics: it goes on indefinitely, day after day, year after year. The time of the clock is quantified and standardized, unaffected by context and seasons. In its technological form, therefore, the ultimate threat to human control is tamed.” If human life was previously synced with biological time and the natural cycles of life and death, then the standardization of clocks allowed for humans to exercise a control over the natural world and their own limitations. Embedded in the quest for the control over time and the movement of people, resources, and ideas is the “desire for control of the earthly conditions of existence, for unboundedness and permanence, for cheating entropy and death, for future security and certainty” (Adam, 1998). The perception of a harmonious symphony, it seems, can be reduced by smaller human agendas, as the mysteries and uncertainties of life give way to modern paradigms of anthropocentrism.

In the search for security and certainty, humans have used the discoveries and technological advancements of scientists to promote a control over their own finitude and the natural environment. Much like the influence of the railroad, the effects of environmental degradation are often unbound in space and time. Industrially produced and induced environmental hazards, such as the detonation of nuclear bombs or global climate change, tend to be characterized by invisibility and long-term contamination, and the rapid exploitation of resources on the planet far exceeds their regeneration and regrowth. Adam argues that the successes as well as hazards of industrialization “have their roots in a particular way of understanding and relating to the human and natural environment” (Adam, 1998).

The rise of urbanization, industrialization, and technology have placed barriers between modern humanity and nature, and this lack of experience with nature causes some to exploit it (McGrath, 2002). These phenomena beg the question of how we can foster a harmonized relationship between culture and nature as society continues to advance and modernize. In his book, The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis, author Alister McGrath posits that “a right attitude to nature rests on the revival of our capacity for wonder, resting on our appreciation of the nature of reality itself.” We need not invent some distinctive quality about nature to view it as ‘sacred’—indeed, it is already special but awaits our appreciation of this fact (McGrath, 2002). Perhaps scientific discovery and revelation in the pursuit of knowledge holds the ability to connect humanity to the sacred quality of the natural world.

Author John Vucetich suggests a reconsideration of the paradigm of science by questioning what purpose science and knowledge actually serve. Vucetich argues that science should be for communicating wonder and beauty, rather than a means for controlling and exploiting nature. Scientific discovery can be valued for “revealing astonishing and intricate ecological connections” where the “value of connections like these lies in their ability to generate wonderment and care for nature.” In this sense, science and ethics can integrate and sustain a healthy human relationship to nature through collaboration among scientists, ethicists, artists, and others (Vucetich, 2010).

Henri Poincaré held similar ideas to Vucetich, claiming that “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living…I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.” This argument suggests that the perception of the beauty of nature makes science possible—namely, in that it motivates the scientific quest and the ultimate search for truth.  McGrath suggests that the fundamental resonance between the human sense of beauty and the beauty that is actually embodied in the natural world is grounded in the structures of creation itself. He suggests that for some, nature is an end in itself, “demanding to be explained and then exploited. Yet the doctrine of creation introduces a new dimension to nature—as a means by which the glory and radiance of God can be reflected toward humanity .” Indeed, beauty can possess the ability to draw humanity to a still greater beauty: a sense of the divine (McGrath, 2002). In this sense, one may be motivated to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature as God’s creation and thus forge sustainable human relationships to the natural world. While many may not ascribe to a religious doctrine that endorses a God as the creator, it is nevertheless important to recognize the spiritual beliefs that may enhance understanding about beauty and the natural world, and thus inform the human relationship to the environment.

The form in which the human search for truth manifests itself—whether it be art, science, religion, etc.—ultimately has its origin in human experience. In Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity and the formula E=mc^2,he described that time and motion are relative—that is, there is no such thing as an absolute frame of reference in our universe. Therefore, measurements of space, mass, and light interactions are all dependent on the observer and his or her frame of reference (Gtazek and Sarason, 2007). In The Modern Theme (1923), the Spanish humanist philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset wrote, “The theory of Einstein is a marvelous proof of the harmonious multiplicity of all points of view. If the idea is extended to morals and aesthetics, we shall come to experience history and life in a new way” (Perkowitz, 2017). However, the interpersonal relationship between human minds is much more complex than Einstein’s relationship between frames of reference of observers in physics. It is difficult to form a holistic understanding of the world because everything we apprehend is “deliberately or inadvertently a cropping—sciences cultivate their limited fields and their frames of reference; music and sculpture comes in pieces; art is framed, and so are houses; craftsmen have specialties; farmers cultivate their limited fields. We have references and frames of mind,” stated D. H. McNeil and R. I. Flett in Science and Art, the Red book of Einstein Meets Magritte (Aerts, Mathijs, and Mosselmans, 1999). With these differing frames of reference comes a certain strength, as the diverse ideas, abilities, and skills of the human race allow for various perspectives when understanding the world we inhabit. Despite having a certain profession or skill, an individual is not limited to one form of discovery and expression, just as Einstein was simultaneously a physicist, musician, philosopher, mathematician, and mystic. However, as the human brain continues to evolve and cognitive abilities expand in the contemporary world, how do we shape the evolution of society in a way where we are in harmony with our differences and the environment? Perhaps it is recognizing that similar to certain chords that are not harmonious in a musical composition, certain ideas of truth and reality held by humans may not be harmonious, either. One can still appreciate diverse or even divergent ideas, while simultaneously acknowledging that certain ideas hold more merit as the understanding of truth continues to evolve.

Through the course of history, humanity has come to embrace many cross-cultural and diverse understandings of the evolution of the earth and life itself. However, in many ways, modern society has progressed in such a way that threatens the future stability of the environment.  In his article The Epic of Evolution: A Course Developmental Project, author Russell Genet argues that if humanity is to come to terms with a finite planet, solve our common problems, and guide our story’s unfolding, we must “understand, in the deep and human way that only story can convey, both our evolutionary past and our future options.” The advocate of science and the pursuit of knowledge could also retain an understanding of the world that is evolving, uncertain, and even spiritual. It would allow humanity to form a “covenant with mystery” as Ursula Goodenough describes it in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature (Goodenough, 1998),and connect ourselves back to the “sacred” that is the universal foundation of truth and goodness in the human experience.

Is it possible to attain perfect truth in understanding ourselves and the universe? In his article Science and Truth, author Douglas Livingstone postulates that “truth seems to reserve for itself a quality of subtlety or evasiveness, which would infer that the pursuit of definitive proof of the truth, as opposed to truth itself, is reminiscent of trying to ‘prove’ the existence of God (or a Creative Principle) whereas, by all accounts, ‘awareness’ of God is essentially experiential” (Livingstone, 2013). Perhaps humans must reconcile the pursuit of religious or scientific truth with the fact that we may never fully attain it. Our understanding of humanity and the world is informed by our experience of it and the beliefs that guide our understanding in a constant evolution through time. The beauty lies in the journey towards truth, not in the destination of absolute and certain understanding. Perhaps the essence of life is the mystery of it all, and to embrace this mystery with an open mind would be to know the chords, notes, and keys of the beautiful music that surrounds us all.

“Man is inextricably enmeshed in the universe. It is the beginning of wisdom to understand this fact; it is the beginning of mysticism to enjoy it.” — Andrew Greeley


Sources:

  • Ackerman, D. (2018). An alchemy of mind. [Lapham’s Quarterly] 11(1), 23.
  • Adam, B. (1998). Timescapes of modernity: The environment and invisible hazards. London: Routledge.
  • Aerts, D., Mathijs, E., & Mosselmans, B. (1999). Science and art: The red book of ‘Einstein meets Magritte’. Belgium: VUB University Press.
  • Arora, H. (2008). Einstein’s theory of relativity: Implications beyond science? Retrieved 4/16, 2018, from https://helix.northwestern.edu/article/einsteins-theory-relativity-implications-beyond-science
  • Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life. (1941). Science, philosophy, and religion: A symposium. New York.
  • Cronon, W. (1992). Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Frost, A. (2014). William kentridge–the refusal of time: Interview. Retrieved 4/17, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/culture/australia-culture-blog/2014/feb/21/william-kentridge-the-refusal-of-time-interview
  • Galison, P. (2003). Einstein and poincare. Retrieved 4/13, 2018, from https://www.edge.org/conversation/peter_galison-einstein-and-poincare
  • Gamwell, L. (2002). Exploring the invisible: Art, science, and the spiritual. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
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  • Głazek, S. D., & Sarason, S. B. (2007). Productive learning: Science, art, and Einstein’s relativity in educational reform. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.
  • Goodenough, U. (1998). The sacred depths of nature. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kentridge, W., Galison, P., Miller, P., Meyburgh, C., Masilo, D., & Documenta (Exhibition). (2012). The refusal of time. Paris: Barral.
  • Lesikar, A. V. Einstein: Science and religion. Retrieved 4/17, 2018, from http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/irrec.html
  • Livingstone, D. (December 01, 2013). Science and truth. English in Africa, 40, 3, 95-104.
  • Ludwig, T. M. (1996). The sacred paths: Understanding the religions of the world. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Park, D. (2005). The grand contraption: The world as myth, number and chance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Perkowitz, S. (2017). Intellectual and cultural impacts of relativity. Retrieved 4/12, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/science/relativity/Intellectual-and-cultural-impact-of-relativity
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  1. The very same mystery, clearly, has led to a wide range of religious and cultural understandings, which include many differences in the details and stories used to describe what’s true about life; even so, intriguing parallels emerge out of this common sense of the realness of the divine or mysterious elements of life.
  2. These ideas connect with the concepts of ratio and intellectus discussed in chapter 4, highlighted by Dick Baer’s article about “Our Need to Control.” Einstein seems to be arguing for a balanced practice of both ratio and intellectus in our science and more generally in our thinking.
  3. This photo was taken and posted by an account titled “Terren in Virginia” on the website Flickr on February 19, 2008. The photo's license can be found here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode  

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