Embracing the Mystery

Science is the grand narrative we construct to make meaning out of the mystery of existence. Its power resides in its methodology, which aims, albeit imperfectly, at a universality across tribal divides, be they political, religious, or cultural.

Visit a place like CERN, the high energy particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and you will see hundreds of people from different countries working together toward a common objective: figuring out how Nature works in the best possible way.

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There is, however, much more to science than the pursuit of knowledge about the material world. True, this is its main identity, the one we learn about when we study physics or chemistry or biology in school. But as it confronts some of the deepest questions of existence—the origin of the Universe, of matter, of life, of mind—science joins hands with traditions that go much deeper in time, religious and philosophical musings about the nature of reality. Seen this way, science joins religion and philosophy as one of the three pillars of human existential questioning.

There are, obviously, essential distinctions of methodology and goals. When I write a mathematical paper on the stability of a neutron star using information theory, I am not directly reporting on the spiritual quest of humanity. However, the very act of wondering about the behavior of the world, and how our minds can make sense of what we are able to see, is, as Einstein once remarked, an act of veneration, inspired by what he called the “cosmic religious feeling.”

Why is it important to bring this out? Because science is often seen as a cold, detached endeavor, that cares little about the human condition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists engage in their research for a variety of reasons, as diverse as their research interests are. But at its core, we see the same sense of awe and wonder that inspires spiritual ways to look at the world. “Spiritual,” here, must be understood as a driver of wonder, a visceral intuition that there is more to the world than we can capture, that we are part of something much bigger than we can comprehend.

To be spiritual is to embrace a sense of mystery at the heart of existence.

A secret world beyond

Science is a flirt with the unknown, a recognition that we know little of the world around us, which we can perceive only imperfectly. Yet, as it embraces the quest for knowledge, it lifts the human spirit and brings, through the joy of discovery, a touch of the magical in our lives.

Any scientist that has been fortunate enough to have made an unexpected discovery can relate to this fleeting moment of amazement, a cold feeling in the stomach, when you know you’ve grasped something new and special, as if allowed to peer, ever so briefly, into a secret world beyond.

If reason is the tool we use in science, it is not its motivation. We don’t attempt to understand the world as an end on itself. Our search defines us, imprinted as it is with what makes us human: the passion and the drama, the challenges, the experience of elation and defeat, the perennial itch to move on, the disturbing but teasing sense that we know so little—that wonders await, hidden from view, cloaked in a veil, yet tantalizingly close.

We’ll never know it all

Not all questions have answers. To hope that science will answer all questions is to want to shrink the human spirit, clip its wings, rob it from its multifaceted existence. It is one thing to search for answers to questions of origins and endings, of meaning and purpose within the scientific framework; that we must do, always. It is another to actually believe that the search has an end, that the ocean of the unknown is bounded, and that science alone can chart its expanse. How arrogant it is to claim that we can know it all, that we will be able to pry open all of Nature’s secrets one after another like Russian dolls until we decipher the very last one!

To accept the incompleteness of knowledge is not a defeat of the human intellect; it doesn’t mean we are throwing the towel, surrendering. It means that we are placing science within the human realm, fallible yet powerful, incomplete even if the best tool we have for describing the world. Science is not a reflection of a God-given truth, made of discoveries plucked from a perfect Platonic realm; science is a reflection of our very human disquietude, of our longing for order and control, of our awe and fear at the immensity of the cosmos.

Our view of the world changes as we discover more about physical reality. The cosmos, at least as we have understood it, has been finite, static, infinite, created, uncreated, expanding, open, closed, bouncing. It will, as we advance in our quest to probe into the nature of the early Universe and the smallest constituents of matter, undoubtedly change again. So is the nature of science, that turns reality into an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.

As the great sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe once wrote, we are the blind watchers of the skies. We strive for light and perfection, but our maps are as we are, incomplete and imperfect.

What can we do but keep on drawing better and better maps, that peer deeper and deeper into reality? And as we do so, with every new discovery, we engage ever more meaningfully with the mystery that we are.

Templeton Prize winner Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.