The Four Perplexities

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October 5, 2009
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Richard S. Cohen

I have been thinking about mystery for a while now. Not the literary genre. Not the esoteric cults of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Not the Christian mystery of divine grace. These are apocalyptic mysteries. They harbor an implicit promise: Hidden behind the dark veil lies a deep reservoir of truth. If one is privy to a secret initiation or receives an uncanny revelation then all will be brought to light. Mystery, here, is the ultimate solution to the profound risks of being human.

For me, mystery is not so dark and not so light. It is, rather, a perplexity on a continuum of perplexities. Mystery is one of four species of cognitive events that has the potential to command our attention and entangle our minds in an open process of wonderment. In addition to mystery, the other perplexities are the problem, the dilemma, and the paradox.

A problem is any matter that, at least theoretically, is susceptible to being resolved through the accumulation and processing of data. Every mystery that Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe solved is a problem in my terms. When the Discovery Channel proclaims that dark energy is one of the greatest mysteries in science today, it is talking about a problem. For if scientists do not yet understand dark energy, it is because they do not yet know how to gather the necessary data — not because they conceive dark energy as essentially unknowable.

The second form of perplexity is the dilemma. Dilemmas occur when perplexities arise that require some form of lived response before all appropriate data can be collected. Dilemmas are time sensitive. They are resolved not through the accumulation of information but through decisive action in the face of true uncertainty. While in a state of subjective indeterminism, you must make an objective determination that may have irrevocable existential consequences.

Paradox is the third species of perplexity. Take the Christian Trinity. In normal mathematics: One equals one; three equals three. Yet, Trinitarian dogma demands that Father, Son, and Spirit be accepted as unitary, one God, while simultaneously remaining divided as three separate persons. The word “paradox” translates as “against belief.” Contradiction is the heart of the paradox.

A paradox is neither a problem nor a dilemma. The perplexities implicit in the Trinitarian dogma cannot be resolved through the deliberate accumulation of further knowledge. All the research is done; the data is all there. Likewise, the paradox does not entail choice or time-sensitive action. The Trinity is a matter of one and three, not one or three. Paradox entails an internal contradiction within a functionally complete data set for which all data points possess equal value.

So, at an emotional and cognitive level, the paradox has the potential to be received as anomalous and disruptive, an epistemic break, a trauma, radically incommensurate with an individual’s previous experience or normal phenomenology of belief. In this way, paradox shares salient characteristics with mystery. Still, the two are different, for paradoxes may be resolved.

Mystery proper begins when we question: Is it truly necessary to resolve the unknown? Why not be willing, on occasion, to remain on this side of mystery? This intellectual gesture requires a thoroughgoing rejection of transcendentalist assumptions: a willingness to accept that the hidden cannot be revealed; the veil cannot be pulled away. Perhaps nothing is hidden and the “veil” does not veil. What if there is no transcendental power abiding, as it were, on the other side of mystery, poised to open our eyes to the full truth? What if mystery always remains . . . mysterious? What if, in short, all we might know of mystery exists on this side of mystery?

As a perplexity, mystery begins in a subjective experience of perplexity, astonishment, enchantment, or rapture; a state of cognitive or emotional jeopardy. Perhaps long-time presuppositions about the way the world works have proven false. Perhaps one has suffered unaccountable trauma. Perhaps one has experienced a moment of time out of time. But rather than treating this destabilized state as a state of risk, to be analyzed and resolved as appropriate — controlled through mechanisms appropriate to a problem, dilemma, or paradox — one responds to the state of affairs as one might to an uncaused effect — puzzled, entangled, attentive.

Many, if not most, of our lives’ mysteries can be reduced to problems and clarified through naturalistic means. I am not questioning our general ability to identify and solve problems. Nor do I dispute the relative value of such intellectual practices. But the mere fact that we have the tools, methods, and skills to be critical at every turn does not mean that we must be critical at every turn. There are those times and experiences when the answer, however correct, just does not feel adequate to the question. To engage with mystery one must accept that certain cognitive events short circuit one’s regular problem-solving mentality, but not view this short circuit as itself pathological . . . as a sickness of perception, reason, or faith.

It makes sense that physical, natural, and social scientists ignore what I call mystery. The sciences have diverse means for resolving the other three perplexities, but they have no way to deal with that which is nothing, except by turning it into something; reducing it to a matter of data and the critical analysis of data. They have no way to see mystery, no way to value mystery, and no way to make it an element of their professional practice.

This limitation does not hold true for the humanities. The humanities is the only sphere within the academy that has the potential to be openly receptive to that which is unknown and uncertain without the normative requirement to transform it into the known and the certain. If one is going to talk about the perplexities of mystery in the strange, uncomfortable language appropriate to those perplexities, that person is going to be a humanist. If we understand our role as humanists as being something beyond solving problems, calculating dilemmas, or clarifying paradoxes, then I offer the category of mystery as a category all our own.

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Richard S. Cohen is the director of the Program for the Study of Religion and associate professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego.

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