Monday, January 08, 2007

"Mystery in broad daylight" -- Part 1

Nature loves to hide, said Heraclitus, giving expression to an intuition that has been at the heart of the human condition since, presumably, long before Heraclitus. No one, that I know of, has satisfactorily explained why we have so long assumed that behind the world of immediate sense perceptions there is another ideal world, less various, more unitary, and able to be controlled by some appropriate exercise of prayer, magic, or -- in the modern scientific manifestation -- experiment.

Religion, magic, science: All assume a reality behind the commonplace that gives meaning and structure to the world. And thus we have offered incense and sacrifice to the gods, cast spells and incantations, or built, for example, giant magnetically-confined, super-hot plasmas to wrest from hydrogen here on Earth the energy source that nature hides at the Sun's core.

The gods have been dramatically nonforthcoming, given the vast amount of attention and resources that we have proffered on their behalf; they smite us with the same afflictions whether we attend their altars or not, and not a shred of non-anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Magic was a preferred way of reaching behind nature's veil for countless generations, but it is now universally recognized as a sham, confined with a wink and a nod to the likes of David Copperfield. But the experimental method goes from success to success. We may not yet have cracked -- in a controlled way -- the energy source of the Sun's core, but we will.

There was a time when the world was universally thought to be full of spirits, auras, stellar influences, and intrusions of divine will. All of that sounds superstitious to modern ears, but is it any less astonishing that we believe (know!) that the very space in which we live our lives is resonant with thousands of immaterial vibrations bearing in their various frequencies music, news, telephone conversations, internet access. Who will deny that with the experimental discovery and manipulation of electromagnetic radiation science has tapped into and controlled something fundamental that nature was wont to hide.

But the experimental method has not gone unchallenged. We should pay particular attention to the critique that has gone by the name "romantic reaction," as represented, for example, by the poet Goethe, lest the hubris that comes with experimental success blinds us to the blessings of the commonplace, on the one hand, and attentiveness to mystery, on the other.

More tomorrow.