“The Mysterious” Versus “The Unknown”

“The Mysterious” Versus “The Unknown”

We all have some gaps in our knowledge. For example, I know that the moon causes tides, but I don’t know how or why it happens. In this case, my belief that the moon causes tides remains strong in the face of my ignorance about how and why this happens. This is partly because I’m sure expert scientists have figure out the how and why through a rigorous process of inquiry, testing, and verification. But what if I was told that experts also don’t know when asked about the how and why of some scientific processes like the moon causing tides? What about our religious beliefs? For someone who believes that God answers prayer, do they need to know how and why this happens? Do they think that perhaps religious experts have the answer, and does this “outsourcing” of knowledge affect their belief that God answers prayer?

In a recent study, Tania Lombrozo, professor of psychology at Princeton University, and I investigated these questions. In one experiment, we asked U.S. adults (predominantly Christian, if religious) to tell us about religious and scientific beliefs that they hold, but of which they don’t know much about the “how” and “why.” After participants identified and told us about one such belief (from either the domain of religion or science), we asked them what expression would be most appropriate for conveying their ignorance about the how and why. They were presented with a distinction between “unknown” and “mystery”, as well as a distinction between “personal” ignorance (“it’s unknown/a mystery to me”) and “universal” ignorance (“it’s unknown/a mystery”). We found that in the case of their scientific beliefs, people think that what they don’t know should be expressed in terms of personal unknowns (“it’s unknown to me [how and why the moon causes tides]”), whereas in the case of religious beliefs, people think that what they don’t know should be expressed in terms of universal mysteries (“it’s a mystery [how God answers prayer]”).

In a second experiment, we asked about the implications of experts expressing ignorance about scientific and religious processes in terms of unknowns and mysteries. Specifically, we wanted to find out, first, whether experts’ expression of ignorance about scientific matters in terms of “mysteries” would be judged as threatening to science and scientific belief. We expected that it would be because based on results from the first experiment, we knew that people don’t believe “mysteries” to be appropriate for science. From prior work, we also knew that U.S. adults accept “it’s a mystery” as an answer to religious questions, but not to scientific questions (Liquin, Metz, & Lombrozo, 2020), and that people associate science with knowing and figuring things out, but religion with comfort and peace of mind (Davoodi & Lombrozo, 2021). Together, these results led us to believe that people will deem ignorance generally as threatening to science, and ignorance in the form of “mysteries” as particularly threatening. To our surprise, however, people did not find ignorance in either the form of “unknowns” or “mysteries” as very threatening to science or scientific beliefs, although they judged “mystery” to be more threatening to science and scientific beliefs than to religion and religious belief.

This is a crucial finding with important implications for science communication. As has been shown in recent years, scientists and public officials in the U.S. have had to grapple with life-changing decisions about how to communicate the science behind the COVID-19 virus in the face of the uncertainty and knowledge gaps that are inherent to scientific progress and research. The good news is that people don’t see expression of scientific ignorance as a threat to science, although they probably do not want to hear that, for example, how and why COVID-19 spreads is a “mystery.” We also found that people judge an expert who expresses ignorance in terms of “unknowns” as more curious and knowledgeable compared to an expert who expresses ignorance in terms of “mysteries.” This suggests that expressions of knowledge gaps in terms of “mysteries,” whether we are talking about religious phenomena or scientific processes, may be perceived as a signal to strop inquiry, whereas expressions of knowledge gaps in terms of “unknowns” may be the beginning of inquiry and exploration.

Although people don’t see ignorance as very threatening to science, in a third study, we showed that when people imagine experts not knowing the how and why about a scientific process (e.g., how and why the big bang created the universe) their confidence in their scientific belief (that the big created the universe) slightly decreases; in the case of religious beliefs, however, imagining experts’ ignorance about how and why (e.g., how and why God created the universe) does not affect confidence (that God created the universe). This confirms a finding from prior work that people don’t think of religion as a means to figure things out, but as a means to feel good, to be socially connected, and to live with a moral code. Science, on the other hand, is a tool to figure things out, test and verify (Davoodi & Lombrozo, 2021). Thus, in their respective ways, both religion and science can serve crucial functions in people’s lives, which explains the intergenerational transmission and success of beliefs and practices from both domains.

This post summarizes the following journal article:

Davoodi, T., & Lombrozo, T. (2022). Varieties of Ignorance: Mystery and the Unknown in Science and Religion. Cognitive Science. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cogs.13129


Liquin, E. G., Metz, S. E., & Lombrozo, T. (2020). Science demands explanation, religion tolerates mystery. Cognition204, 104398. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027720302171

Davoodi, T., & Lombrozo, T. (2021). Explaining the existential: Scientific and religious explanations play different functional roles. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2022-13487-001.html


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