Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"Mystery in broad daylight" -- Part 3

Science has proved amazing adept at lifting the veil of Isis, the covered goddess who represents metaphorically the Heraclitean aphorism, Nature loves to hide. But should we try to lift the veil? Some ancient representations of the partially disrobed goddess show a monstrous apparition -- a female creature with multiple breasts. Goethe and other German Romantics, especially, cautioned against seeking Nature's naked truth, as Pierre Hadot has shown in his seminal book The Veil of Isis. "Is it wise to raise the veil/ Where terror, threatening, dwells?" asks Schiller in a poem. To tear away Nature's veil, especially by the crude violence of experiment, is to put poetry, beauty and happiness at risk.

The theme goes back to the Garden of Eden: Knowledge can be catastrophic. Pandora's box is best left unopened. The dream of reason brings forth monsters.

There can be no doubt that knowledge imposes responsibilities. Einstein's beautiful work on relativity revealed almost preternaturally the secret of starlight in that extraordinary equation E=mc2, but it also made possible the nightmare of nuclear weapons. "Enough!" cry our modern Cassandras, such as environmentalist Bill McKibben. Like the German Romantics, they foresee "the end of nature," and in its place a mechanized and terrifying monster.

The only first-rank scientist I know of who has urged restraint in lifting the goddess's veil was the grand old man of DNA research, Erwin Chargaff, who shortly before his death in an essay in Nature (May 21, 1987) warned his colleagues to back away from human embryo experimentation. In words shuddering with indignation, he lashed out at fellow scientists who "stick their clumsy fingers into the incredibly fine web of human fate." "Scientific curiosity is not an unbounded good," he thundered. "Restraint in asking necessary questions is one of the sacrifices that even the scientist ought to be willing to make to human dignity."

Curiosity or restraint? Lift the veil, or shy away from the temple of Isis? Learn the secrets of the gods and share their power, or be content as humble acolytes? Has natural selection spent billions of years contriving human intelligence to say "Enough!," or is it our destiny to transform nature in ways we can't yet imagine?

That the myths of Promethean hubris and humble restraint are so ancient and enduring speaks of their profundity. Each of us approaches the goddess. She lifts her veil, revealing a glimpse of (what we suppose to be) her hidden beauty. Do we blush and turn away? Or do we accept the invitation to a grande passion, an amour fou that promises excitements of literary proportions but risks all that we hold near and dear?