Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ancient mother of the world -- Part 3

A few last thoughts on the aphorism of Heraclitus: Nature loves to hide.

As I have said, there are several common responses to the hiddenness of nature:

One tradition assumes that nature's truth is revealed to initiates. The source of revelation might be the gods, God, or some mystic essence of nature itself. Fine for the chosen few, but of little relevance to the rest of us.

For those of us who rely on our own wit and cunning, two attitudes prevail.

The first is that of the scientist, who is interested first of all in what is under the veil of Isis, the naked essence of the goddess -- the atoms, the DNA, the fundamental laws of nature -- that accounts for the world of our senses. Francis Bacon, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein are exemplars.

Then there's the romantic -- Wordsworth, Goethe, or Nietzsche, for example -- who feels no need to strip the goddess. The only nature the romantic cares to know is the one that presents itself to our immediate perception, to be encountered with awe and reverence. All else is mystery.

Is there a sexual subtext to our two-and-a-half-thousand-year-long preoccupation with the goddess and her veil? Perhaps a sexist subtext, too, since until relatively recently the debate has been framed mainly by men.

It comes down to this: Is the goddess more desirable naked or clothed?

According to the romantic, science is a kind of porn that strips nature of its individuality. At the level of the DNA we are all just reams of indistinguishable code. Every atom is interchangeable with every other atom of the same element. So the debate becomes: The universal vs. the particular. All women vs. this woman. For the scientist, the universal is the ultimate pursuit. For the romantic, individuality is everything.

And what of us who are caught somewhere between the reductionist and the romantic? We are not so keen on having Isis stripped bare. The physicist's "theory of everything" or the mystic's Beatific Vision has little appeal to us. On the other hand, we like those teasing glimpses of flesh that are the eternal beauty of universals. For us a more attractive allegorical figure is Salome of the seven veils -- or seven thousand, or seven times seven thousand -- and nature is one long seductive dance.