Respecting the mysterious

[Copying here a comment I just posted to a piece by Mark Lawson on the Guardian website, which seems to me a perfect example — as the first commenter testily notes — of the borderline ignorance of the scientific model among even the best and brightest of those whose intellectual centres of gravity are in the humanities.]

Echoing a couple of other commenters: this is a really woolly-headed mangling of a number of issues.

…it has always seemed vital to me that those who reject the sacred continue to respect the mysteries of how and why we are here.

The idea of ‘respecting’ a mystery can mean several things, just as the very idea of a ‘mystery’ means different things to different people. If ‘respecting’ a mystery means blindly assuming that there is a mystery in the first place, then even this can be a serious mistake. For example, a believer in homeopathy might profess to respect the ‘mystery’ of how it works, since no plausible scientific explanation exists. The problem with that is that homeopathy very clearly doesn’t work. Properly controlled double-blind studies show nothing other than the placebo effect. But if one took as axiomatic that it does work, and then retained sufficient ‘respect’ for the ‘mystery’ of how it works, one might resist — or even suppress — the truth that it doesn’t work. ‘Respect’ for a mystery can very easily obscure the fact that there’s nothing mysterious at all going on. This has clearly been true of the ‘mystery’ of the origin of species. Evolution by natural selection removes any such mystery. Nevertheless, the simple-minded, aesthetic, emotional or dogmatic appeal of the ‘mystery’ is the foundation for anti-scientific nonsense such as ‘intelligent design’.

If, on the other hand, something genuinely is a mystery — ‘first cause’, for example — it’s reasonable to propose that the most ‘respectful’ position to take is the most conservative one: that is, to fill the gap with nothing which isn’t consistent with what we do know, and otherwise to claim nothing. In that respect, it seems to me that good science is entirely consistent with the idea of respecting such mysteries. Rather than a self-satisfied pleasure in the gap that a ‘mystery’ represents — a kind of aesthetic which values ignorance — science approaches such gaps in knowledge as challenges to be overcome. But until and unless they are overcome, its claims are appropriately modest, and gaps aren’t in the meantime filled with wishful thinking.

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