Puzzle or Mystery?

Puzzles are meant to be solved, whereas mysteries can only be contemplated. This, as much as anything, explains why scientists and theologians tend to talk past one another. Both may address cosmic questions. But if you are a scientist who regards the universe as a puzzle to be solved, you naturally look for missing pieces. For theologians who traffic in mysteries, there is no expectation that the puzzle pieces will ever yield a complete picture.

The distinction between puzzles and mysteries was first put forward by national security analyst Gregory Treverton to explain certain problems in the intelligence-gathering business. Spy agencies regard themselves as puzzle-solvers, so they are always looking for missing pieces. However, some of the most notable intelligence failures have resulted from having too much information rather than too little. The commission studying the 9/11 attacks quickly determined that the puzzle pieces were all in place beforehand; however, the intelligence agencies had failed to “connect the dots.” In other words, they were trying to solve a puzzle rather than frame a mystery. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell used the same distinction to explain why financial analysts failed to anticipate the Enron collapse, even though all the facts about Enron's fraudulent activities were hidden in plain sight in public documents.

Information overload is not the only problem that can create blind spots when we fail to distinguish between puzzles and mysteries. In the scientific realm, phenomena that cannot be addressed empirically tend to be ignored, which is why the mind is strangely absent from most accounts of physical reality, even though consciousness is clearly fundamental to any understanding of human existence. Conversely, some religious types run into trouble when they treat mysteries as puzzles; that is to say, when they confuse belief with fact. Galileo ran afoul of this tendency when he published astronomical findings that contradicted a literal reading of scripture about the earth’s place in the cosmos. More recently, Christian fundamentalists have tried to scuttle the teaching of evolution in public schools because Darwin’s theory appears to contradict the biblical account of creation.

To be fair, the boundary between puzzles and mysteries is not always clear-cut, and some confusion on that score is to be expected. The biggest problem, however, is the failure to recognize that boundaries exist at all; hence, the ludicrous efforts to put forward creationism as a science, which requires ignoring basic findings of geology, cosmology and biology. Meanwhile, although science would appear to rest on a firmer factual foundation than religion, many scientists succumb to the temptation to overreach. The day could conceivably come when every mystery is solved, but I think not. Not until we have an answer to such fundamental questions as this: Why is the universe not chaotic? Better yet, why is it governed by laws that are discoverable by creatures such as ourselves with a knack for solving puzzles? Albert Einstein, who was as adept with mysteries as with puzzles, put it this way: "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

Gregory F. Treverton, “Risks and Riddles,” in Smithsonian, (June 2007)
Malcolm Gladwell, “Open Secrets,” New Yorker (January 8, 2007)

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