Philosophers Dominik Klein and Matteo Colombo, in a paper for the journal Episteme, have come up with a working definition of “mystery.” Ready? Here it is:
“Something that cannot be explained.”
OK, it’s a little more complicated than that. Klein and Colombo say there are actually two kinds of mystery—symmetrical and asymmetrical. As Cal-Berkeley psychology professor Tania Lombrozo explains in her NPR article, “A mystery is symmetrical if its negation is just as unexplainable as the initial mystery itself. . . . Suppose you learn that there is more landmass on the northern hemisphere than on the southern hemisphere. And suppose you ask “why?” — only to learn, from a sincere and reliable expert, that it’s a mystery. It’s not just that we don’t know now, it’s that it’s in principle unexplainable. If this is all true, then it seems that the negation of the mystery—the claim that there is not more landmass on the northern hemisphere than on the southern hemisphere — would be equally mysterious. The mystery would be symmetrical.
“By contrast,” Lombrozo continues, “consider the mystery of how Jesus converted water into wine, or the mystery of how something could arise from nothing, or the mystery of how the physical mind could give rise to something that is (some might claim) non-physical. These mysteries are asymmetrical. Were it the case that Jesus did not convert water into wine, the mystery would vanish. Were it the case that something couldn’t arise from nothing, the mystery would vanish. Were it the case that the physical mind didn’t give rise to something non-physical, the mystery would vanish. It’s in this sense that the mysteries are asymmetrical.”