Monday, December 11, 2006

Ancient mother of the world

posted by Chet at 12:17 PM UTC

Nature Unveiling Herself To Science, created by Louis Barrias in 1899, stands on a pedestal in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The sculpture gives expression to one of the oldest themes in philosophy -- and one of the most enduring.

Sometime in the early 5th century B.C., Heraclitus famously said "Nature loves to hide." Forget for the moment that this three-word fragment of Greek text (phusis kruptesthai philei) lends itself to various translations. "Nature loves to hide" is how it has come down to us. From the time of the Socratics "nature" has been allegorically identified with the goddess Isis/Artemis, and the entire history of Western philosophy can be taken as a debate about the goddess and her veil.

Is nature ultimately unknowable?

Does nature reveal herself as esoteric knowledge to the initiated?

Can nature be known by reason? By experiment? By intuition?

That is to say: Is the veil of Isis/Artemis impenetrable, does she remove the veil herself for the chosen few, or can her veil be stripped away by human cunning?

And what is "nature" anyway?

As I write these words, I am sitting in a comfy chair in the stacks of the college library. All about me are thousands of volumes that in one way or another represent attempts to answer these questions. It is a measure of the profundity of those three words of Heraclitus that thousands of years later we are still trying to figure out what they mean.

Many of us believe that natural science is as close as we'll get to lifting the veil. We are convinced that the dazzlingly successful applications of scientific knowledge are a sure sign we are doing something right. But a sizable part of the academic community nevertheless believes that nature cannot be known as she is, and that science is just one more stab at what lays beneath the veil, no more or less "true" than any other social construction of supposed reality. And, quite aside from the academic debates, the great majority of people believe that the only knowledge of the world that really matters has been revealed to them by God.

So there she stands, in the Musee d'Orsay, having revealed a teasing glimpse -- coy smile, bared breasts, peekaboo toes -- but still mostly wrapped in mystery. I suspect that another two-and-a-half millennia from now we'll still be wondering what the lovely goddess has yet to reveal.