The Mystery Of Existence Remains Unexplained

1. Let us begin with the problem of the mystery of all existence, and see

whether it remains unaffected, or whether it disappears in face of

naturalistic interpretation, with its discovery and formulation of law and

order, with its methods of measuring and computing. More primary even than

faith and heartfelt trust in everlasting wisdom and purposeful Providence

there is piety; there is devout sense of awe before the marvellous and
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mysterious, before the depth and the hidden nature of all things and all

being, before unspeakable mysteries over which we hover, and abysmal

depths over which we are borne. In a world which had not these, and could

not be first felt in this way, religion could not live at all. It could

not sail on its too shallow waters, or breathe its too thin air. It is

indeed a fact that what alone we can fitly speak of and love as

religion--the sense of mystery and the gentle shuddering of piety before

the depth of phenomena and their everlasting divine abysses,--has its true

place and kingdom in the world of mind and history, with its experiences,

riddles, and depths. But mystery is to be found in the world of nature as

well. It is only to a very superficial study that it could appear as

though nature were, or ever could become, plain and obvious, as if the

veil of Isis which shrouds its depths from all investigation could ever be

torn away. From this point of view it would make no difference even though

the attempt to range the whole realm of nature under the sway of

inviolable laws were to be immediately successful. This is expressed in

the first of our main propositions (p. 35).

In order to realise this it is necessary to reflect for a little on the

relation of "explanation" and "description" to one another, and on what is

meant by "establishing laws" and "understanding" in general. The aim of

all investigation is to understand the world. To understand it obviously

means something more than merely to know it. It is not enough for us to

know things, that is, to know what, how many, and what different kinds of

things there are. On the contrary, we want to understand them, to know how

they came to be as they are, and why they are precisely as they are. The

first step towards this understanding is merely to know, that is, we must

rightly apprehend and disentangle the things and processes of the world,

grouping them, and describing them adequately and exhaustively.

But what I have merely described I have not yet understood; I am only

preparing to try to understand it. It stands before me enveloped in all

its mystery, and I must now begin to attempt to solve it, for describing

is not explaining; it is only challenging explanation. The next step is to

discover and formulate the laws. For when man sifts out things and

processes and follows them out into their changes and stages he discovers

the iron regularity of sequences, the strictly defined lines and paths,

the inviolable order and connection in things and occurrences, and he

formulates these into laws, ascribing to them the idea of necessity which

he finds in himself. In so doing he makes distinct progress, for he can

now go beyond what is actually seen, he can draw inferences with certainty

as to effects and work back to causes. And thus order, breadth of view,

and uniformity are brought into his acquaintance with facts, and his

science begins. For science does not merely mean acquaintance with

phenomena in their contingent or isolated occurrence, manifold and varied

as that may be; it is the discovery and establishment of the laws and

general modes of occurrence. Without this we might collect curiosities,

but we should not have science. And to discover this network of

uniformities throughout all phenomena, in the movements of the heavenly

bodies and in the living substance of the cell alike, is the primary aim

of all investigation. We are still far away from this goal, and it is more

than questionable whether we shall ever reach it.

But if the goal should ever be reached, if, in other words, we should ever

be able to say with certainty what must result if occurrences a and b

are given, or what a and b must have been when c occurs, would

explanation then have taken the place of description? Or would

understanding have replaced mystery? Obviously not at all. It has indeed

often been supposed that this would be the case. People have imagined they

have understood, when they have seen that "that is always so, and that it

always happens in this particular way." But this is a naive idea. The

region of the described has merely become larger, and the riddle has

become more complex. For now we have before us not only the things

themselves, but the more marvellous laws which "govern" them. But laws are

not forces or impelling causes. They do not cause anything to happen, and

they do not explain anything. And as in the case of things so in that of

laws, we want to know how they are, whence they come, and why they are as

they are and not quite different. The fact that we have described them

simply excites still more strongly the desire to explain them. To explain

is to be able to answer the question "Why?"

Natural science is very well aware of this. It calls its previous

descriptions "merely historical," and it desires to supplement these with

aetiology, causal explanation, a deeper interpretation, that in its turn

will make laws superfluous, because it will penetrate so deeply into the

nature of things that it will see precisely why these, and not other laws

of variation, of development, of becoming, hold sway. This is just the

meaning of the "reductions" of which we have already spoken. For instance,

in regard to crystal formation, "explanation" will have replaced

description only when, instead of demonstrating the forms and laws

according to which a particular crystal always and necessarily arises out

of a particular solution, we are able to show why, from a particular

mixture and because of certain co-operating molecular forces, and of other

more primary, more remote, but also intelligible conditions, these forms

and processes of crystallisation should always and of necessity occur. If

this explanation were possible, the "law" would also be explained, and

would therefore become superfluous. From this and similar examples we can

learn at what point "explanation" begins to replace description, namely,

when processes resolve themselves into simpler processes from the

concurrence of which they arise. This is exactly what natural science

desires to bring about, and what naturalism hopes ultimately to succeed

in, thereby solving the riddle of existence.

But this kind of reduction to simpler terms only becomes "explanation"

when these simpler terms are themselves clear and intelligible and not

merely simple; that is to say, when we can immediately see why the simpler

process occurs, and by what means it is brought about, when the question

as to the "why" is no longer necessary, because, on becoming aware of the

process, we immediately and directly perceive that it is a matter of

course, indisputable, and requiring no proof. If this is not the case, the

reduction to simpler terms has been misleading. We have only replaced one

unintelligibility by another, one description by another, and so simply

pushed back the whole problem. Naturalism supposes that by this gradual

pushing back the task will at least become more and more simple, until at

last a point is reached where the riddle will solve itself, because

description becomes equivalent to explanation. This final stage is

supposed to be found in the forces of attraction and repulsion, with which

the smallest similar particles of matter are equipped. Out of the

endlessly varied correlations of these there arise all higher forms of

energy and all the combinations which make up more complex phenomena.

But in reality this does not help us at all. For now we are definitely

brought face to face with the quite unanswerable question, How, from all

this homogeneity and unity of the ultimate particles and forces, can we

account for the beginnings of the diversity which is so marked a

characteristic of this world? Whence came the causes of the syntheses to

higher unities, the reasons for the combination into higher resultants of


But even apart from that, it is quite obvious that we have not yet reached

the ultimate point. For can "attraction," influence at a distance, vis a

fronte, be considered as a fact which is in itself clear? Is it not

rather the most puzzling fundamental riddle we can be called upon to

explain? Assuredly. And therefore the attempt is made to penetrate still

deeper to the ultimate point, the last possible reduction to simpler

terms, by referring all actual "forces" and reducing all movement, and

therewith all "action," to terms of attraction and repulsion, which are

free from anything mysterious, whose mode of working can be unambiguously

and plainly set forth in the law of the parallelogram of forces. Law? Set

forth? Therefore still only description? Certainly only description, not

explanation in the least. Even assuming that it is true, instead of a mere

Utopia, that all the secrets and riddles of nature can be traced back to

matter moved by attraction and repulsion according to the simplest laws of

these, they would still only be summed up into a great general riddle,

which is only the more colossal because it is able to embrace all others

within itself. For attraction and repulsion, the transference of motion,

and the combination of motion according to the law of the parallelogram of

forces--all this is merely description of processes whose inner causes we

do not understand, which appear simple, and are so, but are nevertheless

not self-evident or to be taken as a matter of course; they are not in

themselves intelligible, but form an absolute "world-riddle." From the

very root of things there gazes at us the same Sphinx which we had

apparently driven from the foreground.

But furthermore, this reduction to simpler terms is an impossible and

never-ending task. There is fresh confusion at every step. In reducing to

simpler terms, it is often forgotten that the principle of combination is

not inherent in the more simple, and cannot be "reduced." Or else there is

an ignoring of the fact that a transition has been made, not from

resultants to components, but to quite a different kind of phenomena.

Innumerable as are the possible reductions to simpler terms, and mistaken

as it would be to remain prematurely at the level of description, it

cannot be denied that the fundamental facts of the world are pure facts

which must simply be accepted where they occur, indisputable,

inexplicable, impenetrable, the "whence" and the "how" of their existence

quite uncomprehended. And this is especially true of every new and

peculiar expression of what we call energy and energies. Gravitation

cannot be reduced to terms of attraction and repulsion, nor action at a

distance to action at close quarters; it might, indeed, be shown that

repulsion in its turn presupposes attraction before it can become

possible; the "energies" of ponderable matter cannot be reduced to the

"ether" and its processes of motion, nor the complex play of the chemical

affinities to the attraction of masses in general or to gravity. And thus

the series ascends throughout the spheres of nature up to the mysterious

directive energies in the crystal, and to the underivable phenomena of

movement in the living substance, perhaps even to the functions of

will-power. All these can be discovered, but not really understood. They

can be described, but not explained. And we are absolutely ignorant as to

why they should have emerged from the depth of nature, what that depth

really is, or what still remains hidden in her mysterious lap. Neither

what nature reveals to us nor what it conceals from us is in any true

sense "comprehended," and we flatter ourselves that we understand her

secrets when we have only become accustomed to them. If we try to break

the power of this accustomedness and to consider the actual relations of

things there dawns in us a feeling already awakened by direct impressions

and experience; the feeling of the mysterious and enigmatical, of the

abyssmal depths beneath, and of what lies far above our comprehension,

alike in regard to our own existence and every other. The world is at no

point self-explanatory, but at all points marvellous. Its laws are only

formulated riddles.