Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Shadow of Mystery: Limitations of Science in Therapy

Generalized scientific answers poorly address issues of meaning in our lives.

Key points

  • Uncertainty, grief, meaninglessness, and other disorienting experiences in life benefit from personal wisdom rather than generalized knowledge.
  • Figuring out what matters the most in life often requires developing a relationship to one's inner psychological life, and to mystery.
  • Mystery requires authentic openness, attention to personal experiences, and active grappling with the unconscious elements of human life.
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Modern science has revolutionized our world. Science frequently responds to health crises, develops new technologies which improve our standards of living, grants us novel insights about the world, and offers many valuable developments. Science also offers predictability, reliability, stability, factual understanding, mastery, and control.

Behind all science is the search for objective truth, and of course, who wouldn’t want this?

To have statistical certainty about something can be such a gift. Yet, it is also unrealistic to assume we can have objective truth about our personal lives. As a psychotherapist, I frequently witness shortcomings in the application of scientific methods firsthand within therapeutic environments.

The limits of scientific knowledge

Science has little value when a bereaved teenager comes to therapy to learn how to grieve their parent who has died. Searching for meaning in a time of devastating loss is simply not a factual matter, and there is nothing predictable or stable about people’s responses to traumatic loss. Supporting a person through such life events is entirely unique to the individual.

Others struggle with personal ethical dilemmas, such as whether to stay in or leave a dysfunctional relationship, or wrestle with supporting their adult child who chronically struggles with addiction. Generalized scientific answers poorly attend to ethical issues, as these issues require a contextual response that attends to the unique particularities of a situation.

When we engage with uncertainty, grief, trauma, relationship dissolution, loss, mortality, meaninglessness, and other painful events in life, we often are forced to acknowledge the limits of scientific knowledge. There is often no clear way forward through these disorienting experiences, and seismic life transitions often generate more questions than answers.

Suffering and the seeking of wisdom

The philosopher Thomas Attig argues that when all is called into question, we don’t seek scientific answers about the way the world is in general. Rather, we seek wisdom about how to live in particular life circumstances, and life asks us to live wisely rather than live more or less scientifically. Our deepest human need to grapple with suffering often prompts us to ask questions, such as:

  • How could God (or chosen deity) allow this to happen? Why am I in so much pain?
  • Why am I here? Am I making the most of my precious few footsteps in this life?
  • What is the meaning of my life? Am I happy?
  • Where is life leading me next? What do I need to do to be prepared for this?
  • What are my choices today? Will these choices diminish me or enlarge me?

These are not easy questions to ask, let alone answer. There is also no scientific or universal way to answer these questions, as they are profoundly personal. These inquiries prompt us to develop a deeper relationship with our inner reality and demand that we begin a conversation with our internal world rather than the external world.

Expressing personal authenticity

Many of us have become disconnected from our inner lives due to adverse experiences in childhood, the internalization of family dynamics, and over-identifying with other external pressures arising from societal expectations or norms. James Hollis, a Jungian Analyst, encourages individuals to ask themselves in times of suffering or meaninglessness: What is needing to find expression through me?

This question recognizes that within each of us, there is an autonomous psyche (also known by many other names, ranging from the soul, Self, inner authentic core, spirit, essence, spark, consciousness, etc.) that is a deep voice for us to listen to. Psyche can provide the energy and guidance to reclaim and express our personal authenticity and self-agency in life. Jungian, depth-oriented, and more integrative psychotherapies have long recognized how psyche communicates to us, not in rational dialogue, but through intimate experiences such as dreams, fantasies, gut instincts, feelings, spontaneous insights, and other embodied or mystical experiences.

By learning how to listen to ourselves, and all that dwells within us, we can begin to figure out a new way forward through the serpentine path of life. This often means we are required to become deeply curious about all aspects of ourselves and to engage with mystery. This is truly a heroic task, as most of us were not raised to have a sense of mystery in our hyper-scientific world that craves certainty and fears ambiguity.

Unfortunately, grappling with existential questions will also not make your life simple, and often they will not please the people in your life. Yet, these questions are fruitful when we realize we may be living another person’s life rather than our own, or when we brush up with life experiences that shatter our fundamental assumptions about other people or the world around us.

Photo by Gabriel Barletta on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Gabriel Barletta on Unsplash

Existing in partnership with mystery

Mysteries are consistently shaping and molding all aspects of our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Establishing a relationship with the hidden or unconscious aspects of our lives can help us learn how to live with our deepest emotional wounds, offering us the opportunity to discover vitality, freedom, and meaning once again. It is fully possible to exist in partnership with mystery, and often, it is a necessity if you want to figure out what matters most in your life.

Psychologically, we can choose to open ourselves to engage with the unknown, making the conscious choice to actively grapple with mystery every day. However, this requires us to recognize the limitations of generalized knowledge and scientific understanding when it comes to our personal lives. Only when we attune to our inner self, without the limitations of scientific dogmas, can we learn to live in the shadow of mystery.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Attig T. (2011). How we grieve: Relearning the world (Rev ed.). Oxford University Press.

2. Hollis, J. (2018). Living an examined life: Wisdom for the second half of journey. Sounds True.

More from Mark Shelvock RP(Q), CT, MACP, MA
More from Psychology Today