Friday, July 8, 2011

Secularising the mystical

I am in New York City for a few days before going to a conference in Boston. I am here visiting my sister and some friends. It is not difficult to see here the investment that humans have made in taming nature, providing themselves with a tempered climate in which to work and spend their lives, in which fluctuations are averaged out, in which the ebb and flow of nature is beyond the daily experience. At the same time, we've done a tremendous job at secularising nature, by reducing it down to numbers, algorithms, cells, and DNA. This secularised knowledge we are always compelled to use, no matter what the outcome.

While I agree with Richard Feynman in that a knowledge of the world only adds to its beauty, it seems to me that science and its resultant technology have secularised the world that allows us to to not view it mystically, but many times only through the lenses of our science, our technology. Maybe it is safe to say that even with a few hundred years of industrialisation and secularisation under our belts, we are no where nearer to understanding the meanings and complexities of life and nature, so much so that people continue to flock towards organised anthropomorphic religion to find "answers" to life's "questions." Of course, while there are positives to such religion, the negatives are plain to see. In a sense, it seems that anthropomorphic religion also tries to secularise the world in trying to provide universal answers, just like science - of right and wrong based on some conceptualisation of a human-looking god.

The only thing that seems universal to me then in nature is the uniqueness of each place, each species, each river, such that they cannot be binned or secularised or dammed, but can only be well cared for and protected if we recognise graciously what they give us - a ground to stand on, water to drink, and food to eat. Therefore, the uniqueness of environment and place resists secularisation. While we can appreciate the understanding that science gives us of the world, it gives us only a partial understanding. The rest will not be known, and cannot be known. Altogether, the powers of nature are as mystical as ever, and it would be prudent for us to recognise and behave with such understanding.


  1. Is it an environmental conference you are attending in Boston? I live here, so am interesting in knowing. :)

  2. The motivation to make anything secular is ultimately human. I think science in this case is a means to an end (that is, an answer to a question). We use it to understand portions of nature in context, while not necessarily caring about its larger unfathomable existence.

  3. Tanny,

    It is a chemical kinetics conference at MIT. =)