This article is equal parts summer nostalgia and rumination on mystery. But let’s start with the summer nostalgia.
I grew up in the 1980s when land prices were sufficiently low that it made sense to devote a large tract of land to a summertime waterslide. (Sadly, those days are long gone and that land is now occupied by — ugh — a cadre of condos.)
Back when Pac Man dominated the arcade and Star Wars and Rocky dominated the box office, we spent many long summer days at Wild ‘n’ Wet in Kelowna, BC, running up the concrete steps and hurtling down the fiberglass twists and straightaways.
It’s funny to look back now and laugh at the side of a dirt hill which somehow passed for landscaping in the 1980s. But we didn’t know any better. To us, this was but one step away from Disneyland.
I have a lot of great memories from Wild ‘n’ Wet. But I also have one existentially poignant memory, one that knocked on the door of mystery itself. That memory concerned the mysterious faucet that stood in the center of the park and blasted a torrent of water all day, every day, and all with no discernable source. Even more incredibly, the entire time, the faucet levitated in mid-air, unsupported by any apparatus. How was this possible?
I remember as a young kid — perhaps six or seven years old (hopefully not much older!) — staring in wonder and puzzlement at that faucet. For the life of me, I could not grasp the mystery of it all. How could it blast forth a stream of water seemingly from nothing hour after hour, day after day? Even more incredibly, how could it do this all while levitating day after day in mid-air?!
Eventually, I learned the truth. One day, I lingered a little too long at Wild ‘n’ Wet and I was still around when the faucet was turned off. In a moment, the torrent of water disappeared, and with it, the mystery. In that moment, summer became a bit less magical as a rusty white pipe was revealed to the world.
It’s at this point that I switch seamlessly from summer nostalgia to a rumination on mystery. (Though it is admittedly not so seamless that it lacks the seam of the previous sentence.)
If my six-year-old mind represents the limited perspective of the human mind, the mystical faucet represents the transcendent mysteries of our world. And I’m not simply thinking about God here. As atheist philosopher Colin McGinn has pointed out, all manner of fundamentally intractable puzzles — e.g. the nature of rational intuition; the puzzle of property exemplification; the curious mind/brain relationship — may remain beyond the cognitive grasp of our “six-year-old” minds. (See McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry (Wiley-Blackwell, 1993). It takes a certain all-too-human hubris to think the world as it is should be rationally apprehensible by finite human minds.
Who says the human mind, in its present state, should be able to understand the mystery of consciousness and brains or, for that matter, a God who is one-and-three? To be sure, the water could get turned off at some point and we might discover a rusty white pipe. But it could equally be that the water never stop running and we remain forever puzzled by the mystery. Reality doesn’t guarantee us another outcome. And for that reason, if no other, epistemic humility is the wise course, not only at the summer water park, but all year long.