GABRIEL MARCEL’S THE MYSTERY OF BEING

One long strand of philosophical reflection attempts to empty the universe of mystery. Many philosophers have aimed to dispel superstitions, magical thoughts, irrational beliefs and uncanny appearances. Loving truth and knowledge, they have tried to understand the universe and themselves without calling for supernatural help. On this approach, philosophy ends with the disappearance of mystery. An omniscient intelligence would find nothing mysterious, but would have no need of philosophy, either.

Still, philosophy has never totally effaced the idea of mystery, and we can ask about its nature and try to explain why we have it. A mystery is something we do not understand, something that puzzles our senses, imagination or understanding. Some mysteries are solved. Some await a solution. Others remain unsolved for purely contingent reasons. Still others remain mysteries because we lack the intellectual ability to solve them, or because trying to think of a ‘solution’ is already wrong-headed.

Let us distinguish natural from supernatural mysteries. Natural mysteries are things we do not understand, but which, if we finally dispel them, we will understand by thought, observation and experience without appeal to supernatural intelligence or agency. Natural mysteries can be little or big. A little mystery is the random disappearance of my socks, or why it rained living fish in the desert. Big natural mysteries are puzzles like the nature of gravity, dark matter, the Big Bang, the ultimate composition of the universe, and so on.

Believing that natural mysteries have natural explanations, we have sought for these explanations and have been very successful in dispelling some of them. For example, the role of the heart was a mystery for a long time, and there were many ideas about its function. However, when Harvey proved that the heart is a pump for pushing blood through the body, he solved the mystery. This does not mean that we will always be successful in dispelling natural mysteries, but our efforts to understand are not pointless. Magic tricks, too, are mysterious to those who do not know how the magician does them.

Supernatural mysteries also come in small and large sizes. Small ones include sightings of ghosts, the operations of poltergeists, communication with dead loved ones, astral projection, near-death experiences, and so on. We do not know how to take any of this, but even if we believe in the afterlife and immaterial spirits, such things are still mysterious to us.

These are the ‘sacred mysteries’ of the church. and gives us a sense of living in an immeasurable vastness. Even if we answer all our scientific questions about the universe and no longer find anything mysterious in it. . there is a pitfall trap when examining the unsolvable mysterious. at least in principle. And he didn’t say it exactly in those words. particular beliefs about mysteries. credulity. superstition. and. I would add another sort of mystery. liturgies. It is certainly fun to challenge mystery. Keeping a sense of metaphysical mystery alive is one way to preserve this sense of wonder in a philosophically comprehensible way. and so on. this path leads to the quest for arcane knowledge and the assertion of the wildest superstitions as profound mysteries. if only for a short time. However. but Plato. Each of us confronts this mystery in one way or another. or become a man. Trying to dispel all mystery is a forgetful response to our being in the world and the amazing universe we inhabit. too. One way is to deny that there are any mysteries that we cannot solve. However. and I suggest that it ends in wonder. it is a mystery how God created the universe from nothing. The second approach is liable to fall prey to irrationality. how did RNA first form. in the Catholic tradition. When I go to sleep and haven’t anything else to think about. These type of questions and thinking about them are comforting to me. sacrifices. It’s like trying to sense what a non-mathematical idea of infinity is. and “keeping a sense of mystery alive” is temporarily fine. In the extreme. That is: “Be where you are. keeps open the wide horizon of existence. We might call it the ‘mystery of being’. I like the “big” natural mysteries. but metaphysical. to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. I don’t really have a sense of it. out comes The Big Bang Theory or how did DNA or even the easier impossible problem. ultimately.We find the big supernatural mysteries in religion. It is hard to put into words. experiencing the metaphysical mystery of being in a world at all. It closes our horizons and is too rigid. In Christianity. one that is neither natural nor supernatural. otherwise you will miss your life (Zen proverb). bread and wine turn into the blood and body of Christ in the sacrament of communion. Another is to embrace and elaborate mysteries through rites. Besides these. rather than what is mysterious. Even though I realize and believe I’m living in an immeasurable vastness. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder.” It wasn’t Aristotle who said that philosophy begins in wonder. that there is a universe at all is still a mystery. and they will remain mysteries forever because God is beyond our comprehension. It is also important to be aware of what is there. for example. dress and dietary codes. thinking about either usually gracefully takes me off to a happy sleep. The first approach has a major flaw. or how.

possibly because it would be very difficult in a blog such as this. TesserId March 23. (of course Plato). Those experiences such as premonition. Perhaps we (I) are too much entrenched in the notion of the path of science to see any mystery apart from that we do not want to be investigated. or . whatever sense he wishes to give the term (to either Aristotle. 2010 at 8:13 am This is a favorite subject of mine. (though Plato demanded a decade of. God falls for me in that category. . for I do not know what it is to have experienced him( or her). The rest is a matter of how the impression of the Universe is perceived and summarized within the mind. but not mystery I also wonder at those bits of experience which do not fit into the path of structure/function.” I would be interested to know exactly a what a pitfall trap would be in this connection. While I can romanticize the gift of wonder as well as the next person. My sense of wonder is at the organisation and seeming order that constitutes life. These seem to be mysterious and hence unlikely as they stand. I’m often trying to bring this down to practical terms. It might not be so interesting to engage in detailed exegesis of Greek texts to answer that. Can you also define what you mean by an unsolvable mystery and give some examples? michael reidy March 23. hence cannot begin to place that in any path of wonder. my thinking is often along these lines: the contents of the mind. Don Bird March 23. can be no more than a subset of the Universe.) It was. For this. It might be interesting to speculate how either Aristotle (or Plato) might respond in our oh so different world from that of the Greek City state.natural or supernatural. it is something that is less and less of a mystery as knowledge increases. awareness of someone else’s state of mind without communicating with them in any five senses sense. 2010 at 8:29 am . feelings about places. Stopping a journey to gaze at the clear starlight night gives me a sense of awe and wonder. I guess however that Aristotle with his penchant for the sciences of his day would subscribe to a natural sense. but its conjoined complexity and purpose/function leave me with that sense of wonder. or Plato). 2010 at 8:14 am Re Dennis Sceviour “there is a pitfall trap when examining the unsolvable mysterious. who said the words( in Greek of course): “wonder is the feeling of philosophy and philosophy begins in wonder”. These are mysteries which once can wonder at.From our commentator D R Khashaba I do not get any sense of the sense of mystery. but not ones in which wonder provides any path. which is contained within the Universe. and perhaps Plato to his supernatural sense.

And. as you point out. so there is an adulteration of what might be the case without the mind. that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher. the wonder remains. and philosophy begins in wonder. TesserId March 23.” Whitehead demurs. Jeff Mason March 23.The famous passage from the Metaphysics Book 1. Thanks for the great quote.2: 982b is an echo of Plato’s from Theaeteus : I see. as does Jeff Mason: Philosophy begins in wonder. Metaphysics I am also glad than I am in the good company of Whitehead. And. as we said. I cannot remember without checking. according to the proverb. ~Alfred North Whitehead Thomas Aquinas of course agrees with the man he called ‘the Philosopher’. . by wondering that the matter is so…. About the sacred mysteries he would have said that the revealed truths about them are more sure than the truths arrived at by discursive reason.But we must end in the contrary and. Though we begin in wonder: “Yet the acquisition of it (science of first principles) must in a sense end in something which is the opposite of our original inquiries. when philosophic thought has done its best. the better state. for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher.” — Aristotle. The quote I found was “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at the first began to philosophize. Aristotle also said it. Berkeley certainly comes to mind when probing these kinds of boundaries. Jeff Mason Don Bird March 23. Aristotle is talking about the science of first principles or metaphysics which is a disinterested study as there is no practical use for it. 2010 at 4:03 pm Don. like set theory.. I think it was George Berkeley who maintained that all we ever contemplate are our own ideas. 2010 at 2:28 pm Re Tesserid March 23rd. Science is always in a corrigible state which is what makes it to be science. at the end. my dear Theaetetus. and is often accompanied by thoughts of Zen. it is a knowledge for its own sake. 2010 at 11:52 am Thanks for the Plato quote about wonder. This perception and summary is of course constrained by the fact that it occurs against the background of a need for the mind’s own survival. this is why I try to ground myself (as much as I like those flights of fancy) in something mathematical. I think you may well have become close to hitting the nail on the head here. However it seems to me that the perception and summary you mention is in itself making the universe in some sense a subset of the mind. For all men begin. if those were his actual words.

this is where I agree on your point: “making the universe in some sense a subset of the mind”. (And. I’m a bit too cautious to claim these ideas are bullet proof. pressed into a piece of clay. I’m also heavily influenced by theories employed in technology. I do have questions though which are mine. I love to imagine a walnut shell. that concept of summary is certainly along the lines of the distance between the mind and reality (ala. We seem to consider our ability to have some concept of the Universe a key aspect of wisdom. mostly information theory in this case. things get even more interesting when considering limits on logical systems. we are still confronted with issues of size and capacity. I can always imagine a larger Universe (at least a summarized concept of one). Has it been established that thoughts.) Ultimately. What you’ve built here can’t be right since as . What you refer to as a subset of the universe are the thoughts. like Georg Cantor (who Wikipedia states is “best known as the creator of set theory”). That impression might be used to create a copy of the walnut shell. Berkeley). I can’t agree with Berkeley or whoever it was that said “all we ever contemplate are our own ideas” because for the last half hour I’ve been mulling over Tesserid’s statement “the contents of the mind. If we try to take this into the digital realm. we would be very limited in our capacity to anticipate the realms beyond our immediate environment and place in time. However. which is contained within the Universe. This might hint at an inductive proof. And. but I still end up being reminded of Zeno’s paradoxes–only in the space of knowledge and ideas. And. but is that picture a thing that “is?” I also have a question about the rest of the universe (the complement of the contents of our mind. can be no more than a subset of the Universe. which to me appears similar in form to a brain.And. but that copy cannot be exact. as with Kurt Gödel. If we did not have some way to summarize and encapsulate the key characteristics of the Universe. it always seems that for each idea along these lines (and I can’t think of an example at this moment). 2010 at 5:39 pm Don and Tesserid. But. Still. be it the granularity of resolution or some degradation of signal quality. we might as well throw in the brain-in-a-vat problem. occupying the mind. what is held in the mind is both smaller than what exists outside and also a less-than-precise impression of what is outside. there is always some some inefficiency that results in some loss of information. are entities? I know bits of energy are needed to come up with them in the same way as energy is needed to get a picture in my mind of the screen I’m looking at.) which is perceived and summarized in the mind. or those that have challenged infinity. etc. etc. which is why we have lossy compression formats. And. Ralph Sabella March 23. The rest is a matter of how the impression of the Universe is perceived and summarized within the mind” which I could only wish was my idea. and I try to imagine how it might be that what we know would not be a subset or a summary.

2010 at 12:07 pm Re Tesserid March 23rd. or if one includes optical illusions etc. The concepts of granularity and degradation of signal quality could I think be used as analogies when speaking of the system we call human perception.“Ultimately. what is held in the mind is both smaller than what exists outside and also a lessthan-precise impression of what is outside. not the finger. certain. I also agree that there are still some unanswered questions about what these things in the mind are. is smaller than what exists outside. I’m afraid you passed me by. You say:. What I’ve describe here is really just my way of trying to identify a starting point. it gets a little stickier when the references are a subset of the things they reference (not even touching on the idea that references can point to other references). wriggled out of that one by claiming it was in the final analysis all contained in the mind in God.” I agree that is seems likely. I’m no better off then the scientists when it comes to identifying a seat for consciousness. Admittedly. Indeed. the subject is the moon. Ralph Sabella March 23. Thanks for the reply. This assumes that one is not a strict Idealist holding that it is all in the mind. an attempt to describe and establish some boundaries that might help quantify these things and give them a sense of proportion. that the mind does contain an imprecise impression of what lies without. To throw in a bit of Zen culture. which is no help at all as the onus is than to explain what God is. However. I am basically in agreement with what you say here. I can distinguish between things and references to things. when a finger points at the moon. I can easily fall back on Science to suggest that physical items in reality affect their impressions on the mind by way of chemical reactions and electrical impulses across synapses.products of the mind they belong to the original subset you defined. it is important to see the references as independent from the things to which they point (especially since some of those things referred to may be fictional). This might be a variation of the Russell paradox. But. I can even throw in a bit of information and coding theory to describe how new memories can be encoded without requiring any growth in the amount of chemical matter contained within the skull. a subset cannot contain its compliment. 2010 at 6:48 pm Ralph. So your subset contains it’s complement. How would we measure/quantify this? Are we not dealing with two differing entities that is to say mental content . So. But. Even Bishop Berkeley as I recollect. but I did like the Zen quote. TesserId March 23. what is held in the mind. Don Bird March 24. 2010 at 9:32 pm Tesserid.e. which will work as independent sets. I am somewhat puzzled by your claim that mental content i.

I. Even if there were such an authority I doubt we would be able understand or or grasp such an explanation in the light of human cognition as it presently stands. the pitfall trap when examining the unsolvable mysterious is the psychological abyss from which there is no return. seems to have an application here. 2010 at 7:09 am Colin McGinn reckons that consciousness is a problem that is not soluble in our present state even though he thinks that it is undeniable that there is a link between the brain and mind but as to what that link is we cannot say. taking an abstract characteristic and dealing with it as if it were what reality is like in its concrete form. I think that what he is saying is that human beings are only able to examine reality in bits. Not an easy person to read but his Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness i.e.and matter. we would be very limited in our capacity to anticipate the realms beyond our immediate environment and place in time. The feeling of an unbridgable gulf between consciousness and brain-processes: how does it come about that this does not come into the consideration of our ordinary life? (from Wittgenstein. Dennis Sceviour March 24. P.“If we did not have some way to summarize and encapsulate the key characteristics of the Universe. or Robert Pirsig’s pursuit of the meaning of “quality” which drove him to a mental hospital (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). or a mathematicians effort to calculate the infinite value of pi to the last decimal place. an example being A causes B. I think Ralph has made similar comment on this point too.“ reminds me of Alfred North Whitehead who already has had a mention here. 2010 at 2:48 pm Don. For this he has been dubbed a mysterian by those inclined to muscular scientism. To say that neuronal traffic just is mental activity does not mean that we have thereby solved how it can be. #129 : . as doers his Fallacy of simple location. Even if we accept monism. There seems to be no ultimate authority to say what outside of a human mind reality is like. For some people. michael reidy March 25. Examples of an “unsolvable mysterious” might be Socrates continual pursuit for an ultimate definition of the meaning of the word “good”. and these bits are only abstractions from reality and not truly representative of it. the belief that reality consists of bits of matter isolated from each other at give locations in space and time.I. #412 And again at P. Your statement. which presumably has some part to play in generating mental content. can we understand monism or a dual aspect theory.

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