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Appealing to mystery

It is sometimes tempting to appeal to mystery to get oneself out of intellectual hot water. Suppose a scientist offers a science-based criticism of Mary’s paranormal beliefs. In response Mary might say something like this: ‘Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide. You, Dr Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question.’ Mary might follow this response up with a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. 
Of course, most scientists admit they can’t explain everything. There probably are questions science cannot answer. Mary attempts to protect her beliefs by placing them in this category of beliefs science can’t touch. She draws a veil across reality and says, ‘You scientists can apply your methods this far, but no further.’ Behind the veil Mary might place angels, psychic powers, fairies, dead relatives, and so on. She might also insist that, while such phenomena lie beyond the bounds of scientific investigation, there are special people – mediums, mystics, gurus, and so on – who can see, if only dimly, through the veil and so inform us about what lies beyond.

However, many of the claims made about things supposedly behind Mary’s veil do in fact have empirically observable consequences and that does make them scientifically testable.

Take the claim the crystals have a beneficial effect on our mental states. Psychologist Christopher French at Goldsmiths, University of London, ran an experiment into the effects of crystals to explore claims that holding real crystals from a New Age shop while meditating has a powerful effect on the psyche, more so than just holding fake ones. French found no difference in participants using real and fake crystals. This was good evidence that the effects people report is down to the power of suggestion, not the crystals.

Of course, this study provoked comments such as: ‘Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered.’ This was just a smokescreen. Still, so familiar is the mantra, ‘This is beyond the ability of science to decide’ that it can be effective at lulling people back to sleep - even when they have been stung into entertaining a doubt for a moment or two.

Some things may be beyond our understanding, and sometimes it's reasonable to appeal to mystery. If you have excellent evidence that water boils at 100 °C (at one atmosphere), but on one occasion it appeared it didn't, it's reasonable to attribute that to some mysterious, unknown factor. It's also reasonable, when we have a theory that works but we don't know how it works, to say that this is currently a mystery. But the more we rely on mystery to get us out of intellectual trouble, or the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts, the more vulnerable we are to deceit, by others and by ourselves.


Richard Baron said…
Another tactic that I have heard used is this: "The crystals have their special energy, but if they are used in a scientific experiment, that environment interferes with the energy". That is, it works so long as you don't try to find out whether it works.

There is also outright ignorance of basic physics. I once heard a very intelligent and educated person argue that there must be something very special going on when people walk over hot coals, otherwise they would get badly burnt. (Warning - you can get badly burnt, so don't try it.) Her (correct) claim was that the coals were at a very high temperature - hundreds or a couple of thousand degrees. It was impossible to get her to grasp that the coals also had very low thermal capacity, so that there was not much energy to pump into the soles of your feet and damage the skin, flesh and blood vessels. If people paid more attention in school physics lessons, they would be less likely to be taken in.
Philip Rand said…
Actually Richard...the truth of the matter is that one does have to do "something special" to successfully walk over hot coals...there is a particular walking technique that is required when one walks on hot coals...

One must walk over the coals in such a manner that the coals do not get on top of your feet (if they do you will get burnt) you walk over the coals and pivot your toes as high as possible as you walk (I have done this)...walking as flatly as possible.

It is a matter of "behaviour" not physics as you would find out if nobody told you how to walk over the coals before hand...



"Technique to walk over hot coals! Nonsense!...I don't need to be taught anything about walking on hot coals...I paid attention in a physics course that said that it is impossible for me to get my feet burnt because there is not enough energy in the coals to pump into my, thanks but no thanks's basic physics."

Huge difference reading about physics and doing physics...
Philip Rand said…
Maybe Mary does have a point...
Anonymous said…
Actually waling on hot coals is a matter of both physics and technique. It's true that the coals have a very low thermal capacity but if any pieces are in contact with your skin for long enough then you will get badly burnt.

Trying not to get any of the coals on the top of your feet makes sense, especially if you are sweating a lot, as the skin is thinner there and the the coals are more likely to stick. The cases of severe burns I have heard of either involve a small piece of hot coal sticking to the sole of the feet or to a piece lodging between the toes.
Richard Baron said…
I think (and certainly hope) that our apparent disagreement on the coals is merely apparent, and reflects unclarity in my phrase "something special". I meant something beyond the realms of natural science. Walking in a particular way is not sufficient to explain how people (sometimes) avoid burns. The low thermal capacity is not sufficient either. But betweeen them, these two are sufficient. If people miss the point about thermal capacity, they think it must be walking in a particular way plus something mysterious.
Philip Rand said…
I think Richard that my point fundamentally concerns "perception".

I mean, what exactly does "something beyond the realms of natural science" mean?

Does it mean that we simply don't have the vocabulary to express it?

And if this is the case...why don't we invent vocabulary to do this?

I mean, what is wrong with the "mystery card"...isn't this simply an admission that one doesn't have the vocabulary?

For example, scientism is simply a physical realism representation of the world...

Essentially it is saying that immediate objects of awareness are mind-independent physical objects.

And isn't this simply the result of an intuitive priority, i.e. simply based on the psychological power of realism, so the standard of grounding the scientific realism has no standard! (Dr Law's insects in the garage thought experiment suffers from this problem).

Doesn't the standared interpretation of scientific realism suffer itself from a "mystery card"?

I mean, if objects are mind-independent then the intuitions that make scientific realism compelling are a "mystery card" because to get to the scientific realistic model one has to discount as false the substance of that intuition...which was that immediate objects of awareness are mind-independent.

Now, I am not saying that this is an insoluable problem for science because it is solvable in truth...

However, the solution fundamentally changes how one looks at science...and by definition "perception".
r said…
There are certainly some interesting, and difficult, questions about the boundaries and the metaphysics of the sciences. But I don't think that stops us from recognizing that Stephen's hypothetical Mary, with her talk of psychic powers and crystals, is simply talking twaddle. And if she makes an appeal to mystery, she only digs herself into a deeper hole.
Richard Baron said…
Whoops, the last comment was me again. I typed "r" in the name box, the full names appeared as an option, and I failed to click on it.
L.Long said…
ALL psychic whether mystical or religious are at best Extremely delusional Con men and at worse full blown con men after your money.
Want to be impressive?? When the cops ask for help you say 'the victim is in a cage in the basement of 443 West Main. That would be helpful anything else is BS and a waste.
A psychic car will on run if you don't look into how it works and will take to somewhere near water with some form of flower growing near by. But that is about as close to work as you will get.
Philip Rand said…
Actually Richard...your walking on hot coals model is a very good model to explain science.

Your first explanation (in your example) was a purely theoretical proposition,i.e. a scientific law

"It was impossible to get her to grasp that the coals also had very low thermal capacity, so that there was not much energy to pump into the soles of your feet and damage the skin, flesh and blood vessels."

So let's look at this proposition closely:

x=There is a woman walking on hot coals

CT=such that the soles of her feet obey Clausius thermodynamics

B=so the soles of her feet will not get burnt.

And for every y, y obeys CT only if y is identical to x.

The propositions is thus:

(for all x)(CT(x) & B(x) & (y)(CT(y)->(y=x)))

The problem with the proposition is that it simply says that CT is a good ground, for it makes the occurrence of not getting burnt probable. But the standard of the ground doesn't exist!

The fact that one has to also use a walking technique to not get burnt feet is also required. And it is this walking technique that makes the proposition a good ground only because it makes the occurence of not burning ones feet really probable...mainly because it has an influence on the event, i.e. experiential.

So what does this say then? Essentially a proposition (be it philosophical or scientific)...but let's use your science example, says that the actual occurrence of any event even if correctly predicted by a theory [CT], always depends on one or more contingent factors in our calculations, that is to say, factors that cannot be found in the theory [CT].

Conventional interpretation of science says that randomness in nature is intrinsic to the phenomenon and independent of experience (i.e. measurement).

My view (as shown in your model) says that yes, randomness is intrinsic to the phenomena AND ARISE OUT OF measurement, i.e. the experiential.

Finally, I think the point of what Mary is pointing out to the scientist (which is a mystery to the scientist) is this:

"Reason can go beyond whatever reason can formalise."
John Robinson said…
Science can’t explain everything, but from that it doesn’t follow that a non-scientific explanation is an acceptable response where a causal explanation is called for.

If we apply this to the case of water not boiling at 100 C, one response is to say that this happened because of the intervention of supernatural phenomena, another is to say that it arose from physical causes which we don’t currently understand.

Neither response to the phenomena of water not boiling is an explanation in any acceptable sense of the word, but one answer holds out the prospect of finding an explanation. The former is an appeal to mystery, the latter is an appeal for more research.

One falls back on the argument from mystery when one’s view on the limits of science have been reached.
Philip Rand said…

I think what is really going on in Dr Law's blurb is not what it seems.

Mary's appeal to the paranormal and guru's etc. is in fact an acceptence of the "mental", i.e. intentionality in the world.

His blurb is really about "How does a scientific realist protect himself from intentionality?", i.e. an approach/avoidance conflict (something mental).

In your example you have picked out a single phenomena from diverse phenomena we have in the world. But, the method that appeals to you is the scientific method for explanation (which is intentionality).

Which is interesting...because what you are essentially saying is that whenever we have diverse phenomena gathered together under a single name, i.e. the scientific-method...there MUST be something they all have in common...which means that for all these diverse phenomena a SINGLE phenomena exists...which boils down to intentionality (that you do not seem to be aware of in yourself).

And this is the problem with scientific realism...this is what it avoids, i.e. psychological states.

It tries to be sneaky and incorporate propositional attitudes such as "justified true belief" (this is a psychological state) avoid the huge gulf that exists between the ontological and the epistemaic in the model.

The problem with this definition of truth is that this is an equivocation for the scientific realist. Because the scientific realist model depends on real objective truth and not "justifed true belief"

The use of the latter definition undermines scientific realism...which means that in reality science not only cannot explain everything (as you suggested)...BUT all its explanations are an illusion because they depend on judgement, i.e. to be judged...which means that an audience is required to judge the truth of any statement...another word for audience could be ideology.
Philip Rand said…
I do have to admit Dr Law that I do enjoy reading your blog...this "Mystery Card" thingy is quite interesting.


Mary is attending a Science Festival and after a talk given by a Scientist asks a question:

MARY: Your talk was very interesting (to the scientist)...but one thing though...What I want to know is why does the first person across the line in a 100 m race always win? I find this a complete mystery....

SCIENTIST; Well, the first thing is that what you say concerning the race is a fact. Now, the reason is that winning the race is a matter of training, nutrition and technique. Also, you must remember that genetics plays a very important part...some runners are stronger and faster than others...this is a consequence of evolution. There are two main components in winning the race...the first is the start...normally the start of a race is commenced with the sound of a scientific terms it causes a startle response in the competitors to start running...whoever has the best startle response will get out of the blocks the quickest and so will have an initial advantage...but that's not all...secondly you have to remember that the runners must accelerate to their maximum this is where the science is subtle...because in fact the winner of the race will inevitably be the runner who can keep accelerating for the longest is the combination of these two components which decide the winner of the race. But, even here it can get complicated...because after the race the winner will be tested for whether he has used performance enhancing drugs...if it is found that he has used such drugs...he will be disqualified...which means that the first person to cross the line hasn't won the race...but rather the second person to cross the line has won...again if this person passes drug testing...if he hasn't then the next person to cross the line wins...and so in fact it is possible that nobody wins the race because they have all used performance enhancing then you have no winners...obviously, this possiblity is so small that it should be discounted...therefore one is always assured of a winner.

MARY: Hmmmm....but why does the first person across the line always win?


Mary has married the scientist. They are relaxing in their sitting room. The phone rings and the scientist answers it.

SCIENTIST: Hullo....Excuse me?...No, I think you have the wrong number...No, you really do have the wrong number...You should phone the Admiralty...(hangs up).

MARY: Who was that on the phone?

SCIENTIST: Some fool asking whether the coast was clear...


Mary and the scientist are in a pub having drinks (he still doesn't know that Mary is having an affair).

MARY: You know I have learned alot about science since we have been married...but some things I still find very mysterious....I mean why is it that when I put hot water in a thermos flask the water stays hot...and when I put cold water in the flask it stays cold? I mean, how does the thermos flask know?

Isn't the mystery card simply a form of aspect blindness...some people like Mary are aware of it...and some people like her cuckold husband are not!
Philip Rand said…
I suppose the greatest mystery card would be God. But even here I believe one could explore what this "mystery" amounts least in giving one a hint of what it is...

I mean, if I examine the statement:

"The standard model exists because the electron exists."

I simply examine the mimium interpretation of the "standard model":

1. The use of operators to represent physical quantities.

2. The eigenvector equations.

3. The representation of a micro phycical system by linear combination of eigenvectors.

4/ The existence of "interference" in the state vectors.

5/ The calculation of probabilities from averages taken over ensembles.

6/ The existence of Hamiltonian, time-displacement operator for the ensemble.

Then, if I examine the statement:

"The God of Israel exists because the state of Israel exists.

I can similarily use the Old Testament, i.e. the Book as the theoretical model that is used to determine the empirical fact that the state of Israel exists.

What I mean here, is that instead of using an object in the Old Testament as an historical figure, i.e. like Moses.

I treat Moses as a variable instead, i.e. this variable as an operator...

Once one has this idea in one's could use Craig's Theorem to build up a Bible model...and see where this leads...Now, this would be a good research project.

If Dr Law you want to experience something "paranormal" I suggest you visit the Roll Right Stones in Oxfordshire...if one uses dosing rods one finds that when one is within the stone circle the rods will meet each other (one feels a magnetic force at the tip of the rods)...but, when one leaves the stone circle this effect disappears...

It is quite puzzling...I have spent hours trying to figure it out...the effect has caused much disscussion at my work (we all nuclear physicts)...and no one has been able to come up with an idea that of the ideas was bio-feedback...but this doesn't make sense as it doesn't explain the magnetic force one feels...and when I first tried it I had absolutely no idea what was supposed to happen...

But, I do suggest you visit the place sometime, take your family and bring a picnic...the area in this part of Oxfordshire is very pretty...
Philip Rand said…
Actually, God isn't the greatest mystery card...

In fact the greatest mystery card is the illusion most people have that a private language exists...

It doesn't...and funny enough science has shown this to be true.

I suppose the continued belief in a private language is because belief in this illusion offers people a psychological crutch to hinge their beliefs on...

I mean, Humanism requires the reification of a private language, i.e. group morality has been privatised.

I think this is a question that has never been addressed philosophically concerning Humanism, i.e. the modern type...not the Rennaisance type.

This again, would be a good research topic...
Paul Hayes said…
“However, many of the claims made about things supposedly behind Mary’s veil do in fact have empirically observable consequences and that does make them scientifically testable.”

Ironically, such claims often aren't (meaningfully) scientifically testable. To see why read this and this.

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