Mystery 101

An Introduction to the Big Questions and the Limits of Human Knowledge

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Richard H. Jones
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , February
     2018.
     216 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438468211.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mystery 101 takes on the important task of highlighting the limits of our knowledge and the role of mystery in our lives today. In an age where information abounds and worldviews of certainty appear to vastly outnumber those of humility, the role of mystery in our lives is alien and unclear. Through engaging with what he calls “the Big Questions” of philosophy and science—including “Who am I?”; “What is the meaning of life?”; and “Does God exist?”—Richard H. Jones argues that mystery does indeed play a critical role for humanity, and for discovering our place in our world and in our universe. Using a general analytic philosophical approach, he engages with the attempts of philosophy, science, and religion to address the “Big Questions,” and reveals the limits of each for providing any certainty when it comes to the basic realities of existence.

In Mystery 101, Jones aims “to expose the limits to human knowledge in the area of the big questions, thereby revealing that we should be more perplexed concerning the basic nature of reality that we normally suppose” (vii). To encourage us to question our deeply held certainties regarding the nature of ourselves and of the world, Jones guides the reader through a series of introductory essays, which break down various positions on the big questions and suggest that mystery is at the core of each. These mysteries largely consist of what Jones calls “philosophical mystery”: that which “is unknowable in principle about reality” (1), rather than something that is merely unknown at the moment, but can be known at some later time. When seeking explanations for such things as the nature of knowledge, reality, and consciousness, we often come up against brute facts, “something that simply must be accepted without further justification or explanation and thus whose existence is itself a mystery” (23).

Jones points out an unwillingness among many—scientists, philosophers, and theologians alike—to accept the mysteries and brute facts that they encounter as they run up against the limits of their knowledge. Instead of accepting the limitations of human reason, they succumb to what Jones calls “the philosopher’s disease,” a compulsive desire to find reasons where there are none and to dispel mystery entirely (17). Rather than seeking certainty where certainty cannot be had, Jones advocates for the position of agnosticism—which, he notes, is both unpopular and poorly understood. The agnostic, according to Jones, denies “that we have enough knowledge on a particular subject to commit one way or the other to its existence,” though they may still take a position on the matter according to the available evidence while acknowledging that their position is not epistemically superior to any other (32). In an excellent summary of the stance of agnosticism, Jones says that it “is a matter of seeing that we are not in a position, due to limitations resulting from our evolution and our situation in the world, to resolve certain fundamental questions that we can formulate” (184). After each analysis of a big question, Jones argues for agnosticism as the most intellectually honest and well-reasoned position to take in light of our limitations.

In the service of his argument for agnosticism, Jones uses a number of categories to represent the various positions on each of the big questions. These include reductionists, antireductionists, theists, naturalists, eliminationists, and others. Although these distinctions serve as well as any for Jones to make his point—to demonstrate that they all run into issues of mystery and human limitation in the course of inquiry—they also present some issues. As with any generalizations, Jones’s broad claims involving these groups lack nuance and sometimes fall into oversimplification, such as when he states that “the point of theology today is to close off mystery, not to face the fact that it is a mystery or to increase our sense of mystery or to generate religious experiences” (158). Theists and religion, more so than the other categories, tend to be overgeneralized in this way, and to receive some of the more antagonistic of Jones’s critiques, such as when he likens theists’ arguments to “gobbledygook” (148). In an introductory text, I would have liked to see a more balanced presentation of religious viewpoints, but to his credit, Jones makes it clear from very early in the book that he situates himself more firmly with the explanatory powers of evidence-based science.

With Mystery 101, Jones has provided us with an important work that questions our very ability to know the basic reasons for our existence or the existence of our universe. The format and accessibility of the book make it useful for a number of contexts. It is helpful as an introduction to epistemology; for discussing the relationship between science, philosophy, and religion; and for studying the challenges associated with philosophical inquiry into the big questions of life. Because of its structure as a collection of introductory essays, the book’s chapters can be read separately or in discreet groups. Jones writes in an accessible style, and makes a convincing argument for an agnosticism of openness and tolerance. Rather than falling into pessimism or depression because of the limits of our ability to know, Jones encourages us instead to embrace our limits and live more fully with a more accurate appreciation of the reality that surrounds us and comprises us, with all its mystery intact. His is a refreshing call to humility in a time when certainty only seems to lead to greater conflict for humanity

About the Reviewer(s): 

Casey Flynn is a doctoral student in Apophatic Philosophies at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard H. Jones is the author of several books, including Mysticism Examined: Philosophical Inquiries into Mysticism and Philosophy of Mysticism: Raids on the Ineffable, both also published by SUNY Press.

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