What We Don’t Know

Mysticism quite often reinforces itself by delimiting the bounds of reason. It thrives on absolving itself of rational justification. This complacent evasion of intellectual responsibility, which the mystical realm so often enjoys, allows it to suspend the very thing that holds it into account. The scientific process is accused of being dogmatically reductionist and biasedly limited to the mechanistic processes of mindless matter.

But, such accusations of dogma that are often hurled at the scientific practice are quite oxymoron given the fact that the purveyors of mysticism are often the ones who assert the outer limits of reason. They follow reason to “outer limits” that they profess and inject their worldview. To them, this is where reason fails and reality dissolves not into the unknown but into the unknowable. Their claims are constructed such that we cannot test them and their entities are placed where we cannot find them. Why should the imponderable be pondered, their reasoning, or more aptly lack thereof, would dictate. Why should the impalpable be observed?

Indeed, the problem with such statements is that our abilities to foreknow the mysterious are dictated in a preconceived fashion. The moment that science falls short of giving an adequate explanation, superstition creeps in and fills the surmised gap. However, as the reach of science grows even further, superstition recedes all the more and is forced to retire to any leftover scraps of human ignorance, whereupon it can thrive anew. The more appropriate judgement of scientific epistemology, thus, is not that science does not know but that science does not know yet.

The famous Greek physician Hippocrates is a quintessential case-in-point when it comes to demonstrating the follies of delineating the bounds of our knowledge of the natural world. In Hippocrates’ time, epilepsy was bracketed with the divine. The prevailing notion of folk medicine was that epilepsy was a malediction cast by vengeful gods. Hippocrates, however, was keen on adopting a naturalistic explanation for the disease. He was persuaded that epilepsy had natural and not supernatural causes. He is said to have famously remarked: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.” Hippocrates was a defining point in the embrace of empirical medicine and reasoned explanations of infectious disease. However, notwithstanding Hippocrates’ philosophical insight, the false ideas about epilepsy still persisted up until the Middle Ages and even caused great persecution. Seizures were misinterpreted as signs of witchcraft and some 200,000 women thought be witches were tortured, burned, and hanged across Western Europe from the 1500s to the 1700s.

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Manuscript featuring the writings of the Hippocratic Corpus, On the Sacred Disease. A critical point in transposing the phenomena of disease from the supernatural to the natural. Credit: US National Library of Medicine

But, epilepsy was never a supernatural phenomenon. It was never “outside the bounds of the natural” such that reason could not have accounted for it. It was only waiting to emerge outside the nonexistent realm of the paranormal to which it was mistakenly ascribed and into the domain of the normal as our understanding of the natural world grew. The concept of a “paranormal phenomenon” in this case thus becomes non-sensical, seeing as it required the unattested assertion that there are specific limits to what we could have ever understood, when in reality, our understanding of nature was only just limited and waiting to subsume this phenomenon into the natural.

The tendency to draw far-reaching false conclusions from our current state of knowledge still mars much of our understanding of nature and continues to open the doors for mysticism. The paranormalists will take the example of the human mind and assert that it could not possibly work on mechanistic principles. They have already decided that reducing our subjective experiences to a bundle of chemicals and neural networks is an impossible task and must therefore resort to obscurantist mysticism which defers an explanation altogether and presents the phenomenon in question as one that is not meant to be understood. It is unknowable. But, a phenomenon that is outside existing science is just that, outside existing science. The mere fact that it is outside existing science does not amount to the notion that it is not meant to be known or not meant to be understood by any entity or thing at any given time.

Science does not aim to dispel any claim outright. It systematically interrogates testable claims with the aim of falsifying them. Unlike science, mysticism has no basis of winnowing out truths and non-truths. The more mysterious something becomes, the more its explanation should be evaded. The scientist tries to understand. The mystic enjoys not understanding and must continue not understanding.

But, it only takes understanding to show mankind the way out of the superstitious realm of magical lore.

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