Is there a universal need for mystery?

March 30, 2010

Is there an apparently universal human need for mystery?
Incoherence of a text does not discourage true believers.

A friend of mine, Professor Dominique Urvoy, a distinguished scholar and world authority on Islamic Philosophy and Averroes, was invited to a conference in Morocco a few years ago. At a coffee break, an Arab colleague rushed up to Urvoy and showed him several passages from the Koran (in Arabic, of course) which made no sense syntactically and semantically. Professor Urvoy agreed, whereupon, his Arab colleague exclaimed excitedly, "this shows it is from God".

Another friend, an American Arab scholar, now teaching at an Ivy League University, returned home to the Middle East recently. He met a professor of Koranic Studies to whom he showed a passage from the Koran which was rather incoherent. The renowned professor, clearly irritated, replied, "Why on earth should the Holy Text, the very word of God, be coherent, consistent, or comprehensible?"

Just in case you are in haste to condemn these reactions as another example of the obscurantist mind-set of the religious, I should like to point to similar attitudes in and to philosophers. Many find the very incoherence of Heidegger proof of his profundity. The obscurer the philosopher's text the greater the excitement on the part of the acolyte. I remember attending classes at the University of London in the 1970s on Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus given by Hide Ishiguro, who later went on to teach at Columbia University. I can only describe her lectures as "religious sermons", with the Tractatus as the Holy Text. The reverence for each obscure or banal statement was profound, and one did not contradict or interrupt the religious ecstasy. We were warned against taking seemingly simple sentences at face value: they all hid profound insights, and truths that no other human being had hitherto glimpsed. Significantly, Ms Ishiguro despised Bertrand Russell, a philosopher renowned for his clarity.

Let us stick with Wittgenstein. It appears he had great charisma, and his students were over-awed in his presence. They attended his lectures and religiously wrote down and later published [almost] every word he uttered: does this sound familiar? Disciples of Christ, the Companions of the Prophet? In the Wittgenstein case, the earliest converts were staunch Catholics: Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe. However that does not prove anything since Russell and A.J.Ayer were also early admirers. And I should point out that, so far, I have only pointed out the uncritical attitude of his admirers, and have not said anything about the validity or importance of Wittgenstein's philosophy.

One of the earliest to criticise the adulation of Wittgenstein was Anthony Quinton, later Lord Quinton. Frank Cioffi in Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 183ff, chapter 7, "Wittgenstein and obscurantism", goes further and takes Wittgenstein to task for willful obscurantism, and even classifies his obscurantism as "limits obscurantism", "method obscurantism", and "sensibility obscurantism".

There is evidently a need for mystery, but I wonder if there is a common psychological phenomenon which links the passion for murder mysteries to the need for the comfort of religious and philosophical obscurities. Has any psychologist ever conducted a study on these lines?