Philosophy, science, and chaos, part 1
I’ve hesitated in past to do much in the way of philosophical posts, rather than tying bits of philosophy into writing about other topics, frequently to make where I’m coming from talking about various things easier to understand. I don’t want to bore people, or come across sounding somehow preachy–though, indeed, I suspect this would be less of a concern were I wanting to write about these things from a more familiar (to the point of transparency) Western philosophical perspective. Concerns about sounding goofy also keep passing through my mind, and I stay half-concerned about someone jumping on me over what I’m saying from past experience. And that is an indication of some of the perceived conflicts discussed here.
Therein lies a good bit of the reason I need to address some philosophical topics more directly, for some of the posts I have been wanting to write to make much sense to the probable majority of readers much more firmly grounded in Western philosophy. (And to have something I can link back to, rather than keep feeling like I’m repeating myself and maybe overexplaining.) The base assumptions are just that different. And I have had rather extensive experience of that kind of mismatch, down to the level of basic worldview, making some other people have a hard time understanding what I am talking about at all.
While I suspect my personal neurological setup makes it harder for me to even emulate oppositional binary thinking as a thought experiment, this is also a huge philosophical difference, which leads to so much more room for misunderstanding and miscommunication. See also Quotes: universalism and binaries:
The so-called “metanarratives” of patriarchy, racism, monotheism, and Manicheanism waging eternal war against matriarchy, integration, poly/a/theism and relativism are not nearly as “universal” as Eurocentrics would have it. Quite the contrary, in the European/Iroquoian instance, none of the metanarratives of the two cultures coincide.
Understanding this intellectually and working with it practically are two distinct propositions.
And, fundamental as that is, it’s far from the only philosophical difference which has made communication frustrating at times, from elementary school on. So, I thought I would go ahead and risk coming across as tedious, since I really do suspect that some of the things I want to write about just won’t make sense without some explanation.
Watching The Secret Life of Chaos last night on BBC Four prompted me to try to wrap words around one set of philosophical differences which seem to strongly affect the way people think about so many things. I had been considering going into different ways of looking at complexity anyway, with the wildly varying frameworks around “order” and “chaos” (hint: I don’t see a dichotomy there, either), but that program gave me a push.
Actually, in spite of the tendencies to chatter anyway and to comment on whatever we’re watching, I mostly just kept my mouth shut so as not to come across as rude and maybe cast a pall over Mr. U’s enjoyment of the program. While I recognized that it was a good intro for the general public–with some stunning visuals, as usual–I just kept getting darkly amused. To me, it sounded overall like a five-year-old with a limited understanding of the subject trying to explain it to a three-year-old with no previous knowledge whatsoever.
I was struck again by the huge difference in base assumptions about how the world/universe/etc. works, besides by the (far from unusual) framing of this set of ideas as a very new, exclusively (male-dominated) Western area of knowledge/inquiry that turned so many assumed-true ideas on their heads while meeting some resistance because it is so different. And I kept wanting to laugh and make rude comments, yeah, because this was a good program of its type while also being such a good demonstration of certain repetitive themes, in an absurdly recursive way. Actually, I don’t want to sound disrespectful here at all–there’s way too much disrespect going around already–but it did tickle me. Including their starting off with Alan Turing–described as having such an unusual mind–who would not have been prosecuted and most likely not committed suicide had he not been given mood-altering hormones to “cure” his same-sex attractions, without some of the ways these differences in worldview have played out on a societal level in a rather fractal way. (Better to laugh sometimes, yeah. :-|)
BTW, I was slightly surprised that they did not start off with Jacques Hadamard, usually credited with getting that Western complexity ball rolling. An excellent point from Shelley Garrett Smith’s Ancient Native Americans, Modern Technology: Who Were The Founders of The Technological Era? which does mention him in this context (bolding added):
I was taught in grade school that Native Americans were hopelessly stupid and typically alcoholic yet my Native American father had a college degree and rarely touched alcoholic beverages. Thirty years later my children were taught that Native Americans were simple but noble savages with nothing to offer the modern world but mystical spirituality and pretty beadwork. Something was wrong with the information teachers were getting, but over the years I assumed they would correct that.
Just recently (2007) there was a discussion on a forum in which it was assumed that Europeans invented the modern world and all its technology and that Native American technology had been stone age primitive and 4 thousand years behind that of the European invaders. People were still misinformed about Native Americans, so I set about here to correct some of those misconceptions.
Modern technology developed from scientific discoveries all over the world and continues to advance as communication between people everywhere improves. Author and college instructor Kay Porterfield said, “A case can be made that contact with American Indians actually served as one of the catalysts for the Scientific Revolution in Europe.” It was certainly more a meeting of equals than has long been taught in American schools, and much of Native American technology was superior to that of Europe in the 1400s and 1500s.
These are some of the contributions, accomplishments, and inventions of Native America.
This does tie back in, very soon. As does the commonly-drawn division between “pure” science and “applied” technology, for that matter. To get one, you have to have the “other”. (“Understanding this intellectually and working with it practically are two distinct propositions.”–you betcha.)
Working from different models of how the world and universe are organized and behave in the first place will influence what kinds of technologies you develop and use for what applications, to be sure. A one sentence takedown of Jared Diamond’s philosophical house of cards (and all the very similar ones), come to think of it. Besides the should-be-obvious point, from a materialistic perspective, that you are just not going to bother with knocking people over the heads and taking their stuff if you don’t think they’ve got some pretty good stuff to begin with. See also Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Indians and English Meet on the James (which does rely on the old standard ‘”Powhatan” as emperor’ misunderstanding/propaganda, when his real job would have pretty much consisted of catherding):
Both Americans and English thus came to the founding of Jamestown with some knowledge and some assumptions about the other. The English had been taught to think of the Americans as accomplished people living in highly developed societies. It was the Indians’ accomplishments that made colonization feasible in English eyes. They knew they would rely on native crops for their food and they hoped for native products to be obtained in trade to pay their costs. Moreover, the advanced nature of Indian societies was the best indicator of the land’s potential. Had the people on it been very primitive, that would have meant the land was poor.
Based on the English/Western understandings of “advanced”/”primitive” and “Resources Worth Grabbing”, that is. At the time, there was pretty wild propaganda about the lavish lifestyles of the Americans with riches just waiting to be claimed. Very different from how this kind of thing gets ‘splained now, eh? (Besides a related bit of should-be-obvious: if there were really about fifty people wandering around an “untamed” terra nullius after bison/deer/what-have-you using “primitive” technology, would there really be as much need for conflict over such a long period of time, even with incomers who assume that this is the way group interactions inevitably must go?) This pattern, too, is very relevant.
Back more directly to the subject at hand, trying to track down some material last night (which ate up both time and energy to start writing then), I ran across a pretty good paper by Sean Howard, Ph.D.: ‘Very Different Butterflies’: The Scope for Deep Complementarity Between Western and Native American Science.* Not surprisingly, from the title, this primarily deals with the philosophy of science. But, it also brings up a lot of excellent points which apply to so many areas of life other than the sciences. Since Dr. Howard has wrapped words around some ideas better than I feel able to, I am going to do a lot of quote-and-comment. When not otherwise noted, quotes here are from that. And this is liable to turn very long, unusual as that is here. 😉
Now, to ‘Very Different Butterflies’. The abstract, with bolding added:
The paper argues for an expansion of the concept of complementarity in Western science to encompass a plurality of scientific worldviews. In quantum theory, complementarity provides a framework for accommodating mutually exclusive descriptions of physical reality at the atomic level. Bohr believed the concept established a general principle capable of illuminating relationships between opposite modes of expression: intellect and intuition, logic and poetry, etc. In his view, ‘science’ was one such mode, a method of inquiry emergent from the Enlightenment but definitive of all rational investigation of nature. This view is contested first through a brief examination of the alternative worldview shaping such investigation in China, then via an extended consideration of ‘Indigenous Science’ in North America. In all three cases, I suggest, a comprehensive range of rational methods is employed to generate a substantial body of reliable and useful knowledge. Western science fails to acknowledge the comparison, primarily because of the different pictures of natural reality obtained. From the Native American perspective, however, science inevitably reflects a broader view of the world you expect to find, a set of assumptions about the nature of physical reality. In the Indigenous (and Chinese) tradition, physics is still grounded in metaphysics; the Western tradition has long regarded metaphysics as ‘anti-scientific.’ During the ascent of reductionism this stance appeared vindicated. The subsequent intrusion of radical uncertainties (quantum theory, chaos theory) have spurred efforts to revise the paradigm without concession to deep philosophic review. This effort has included limited recognition of the conceptual, though not scientific, merit of other traditions. Complementarity probably cannot be deepened in this direction without an abandonment of anti-metaphysical prejudice. Movement across this threshold, however – beyond the artificial confines of ‘science itself’ – may prove crucial in healing the internal Western split between science and philosophy.
I could leave it there, since this is a pretty good summary of some differences in approach–but, when have I ever been able to do that? 😉
But though all these partial ways of speaking about nature are contra-dictions – employing incommensurate terms of engagement with reality – each stems from the same unity, the indivisible root of living diversity itself. What other way, Bohr asks, except diversely, can natural diversity be represented and explored?
In the wake of World War II and the dawn of the atomic age, Bohr and his supporters saw in complementarity the vital clue – unity-in-diversity – to the new human order necessitated by the destructive applications of modern science. Although, in Heisenberg’s words, “scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality,” it is precisely this recognition, or newfound humility, that is of value in the search for “a calmer kind of evolution,” a very different history: “through its openness to all kinds of concepts…[modern physics] raises the hope that…many cultural traditions may live together and may combine different human endeavors into a new kind of balance between thought and deed, between activity and meditation.” 10
For many Western scientists, however, complementarity remains a strange and all-too-subtle – almost an unscientific – concept. The British physicist Paul Dirac, for example, commented in 1963 that he “didn’t altogether like it” because “it doesn’t provide you with any equations which you didn’t have before.” 11 According to the historian of science Helge Krage, the bulk of practicing physicists – particularly in North America, with its traditionally pragmatic emphasis on the results of scientific inquiry – agreed with Dirac and simply “ignored Bohr’s philosophy.” 12 The assessment is echoed by the American writer Robert Pirsig: “most physicists use the mathematics of the quantum theory with complete confidence and completely ignore the philosophy.” 13
From the opposite direction, Albert Einstein led the philosophical charge against complementarity, insisting that science remain committed to producing a single, self-sufficient map of physical reality – the elusive ‘grand unified field theory,’ or ‘theory of everything,’ which would, in the words of Stephen Hawking, “be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” 14
You can click through to see more about some of Bohr’s ideas about compartmentalizing things less, and some other scientists’ reactions to this type of change; at the moment, I’m more interested in some of the passages directly contrasting ideas and approaches.
So, even though I couldn’t think of much lead-in for that big chunk of text, we’re seeing indications that some people did/do have very firm ideas about what constitutes “real” science, and do not cope well with ideas of uncertainty which run contrary to how they have believed things work up to that point. I would go so far as to tie this in with the perceived divide between–and ways of looking at–the binary of “order” and “chaos”.
With regards to Fritjof Capra’s and Bohr’s attempts to look at the “new” physics in terms of Chinese philosophical concepts of complementary–not oppositional–duality:
This very formulation, however, encodes an opposition requiring closer analysis: ancient wisdom versus modern science. Why not reformulate the polarity as Chinese versus Western science? All scientific approaches to physical reality are rooted in essentially philosophical assumptions, beliefs and convictions. The ‘wisdom’ shaping physical inquiry, its meta-physical form, is necessarily broader than its content, the body of knowledge thus derived. The frame, as Einstein once remarked to Heisenberg, shortly before complementarity reshaped modern physics, is always bigger than the picture: “It is the theory which decides what we can observe.” 22
The objective of complementarity is to expose and thus prevent false choices between aspects of reality – and dimensions of inquiry – better considered as parts of a larger whole. Knowledge and wisdom within a scientific tradition, however, are not complementary but integral to each other. The complementary relationship exists, instead, between different lines and languages of inquiry, distinct knowledge-wisdom complexes reflecting different historical, social and cultural experience…
To polarize these traditions into false opposites – the modern (scientific rationality) versus the ancient (traditional knowledge) – is dangerous, however, because, from a modern Western perspective, the comparison ultimately denigrates the Other it creates: ‘ancient’ equals pre-scientific, non-scientific, even anti-scientific. Instead of a parallel – legitimate distance, rooted in difference – we have a prejudice, an illegitimate distortion obscuring underlying similarities… What is needed is not a merging but a meeting of minds: a recognition of the difference always implied by similarity, the common ground which can only be established between camps.
More on the theme of Othering with regards to science:
The same principles apply, and the same dangers arise, with regard to the parallels between the Western and Native American traditions. Are we dealing with a complementarity between different sciences, or the complementarity of modern science and traditional knowledge? Can Native American understandings of the natural world – its frame of physical reference – be regarded as a distinct line of scientific development, the expression of a different language of scientific inquiry? Or is ‘Native knowledge’ simply another legitimate object of scientific inquiry, a pre-scientific language ripe not just for translation but modernization?…
In his 1994 book Lighting the Seventh Fire – recently reissued as Blackfoot Physics – David Peat argued that Native American understandings of the natural world should indeed be considered scientific. All the topics to be covered in his study, he writes – “metaphysics and philosophy; the nature of space and time; the connection between language, thought, and perception; mathematics and its relationship to time; the ultimate nature of reality; causality and interconnection; astronomy and the movement of time; healing; the inner nature of animals, rocks, and plants; powers of animation; the importance of maintaining a balanced exchange of energy; of agriculture; of genetics; of considerations of ecology; the connection of the human being to the cosmos; and of the nature of processes of knowing” – can best be “gathered together under the general rubric of Indigenous science, a term I have used following the lead of Pam Colorado, Leroy Little Bear, and others.”
Having staked out his position, Peat immediately acknowledges its lonely quality: “While I am comfortable with this term,’ he adds, “I am also a part of the Western science tribe and I can already sense the kind of objections that its members would make: ‘Why do you use the term science? Native Americans don’t have any science in the real sense of the word. They don’t have an ordered system of investigation or rational theories of the universe as we do. Science is a specific and disciplined approach that was developed in the West. Indigenous people have traditions, folklore and mythology.’” 23
Then follows a quote from the biologist Edward O. Wilson, referring to entire groups of non-Westerners as “pre-scientific”. (And I keep wondering how this is even possible without serious cognitive dissonance and suspension of disbelief, when people are systematically trying to find out how the world around them works?!)
Throughout his survey, Peat answers this objection on two levels: by demonstrating the central importance in the Native American tradition of the main attributes, as conventionally defined in the West, of a scientific approach – observation, experimentation, prediction, verification, replication, modeling, etc; and by showing that the radical differences in the conclusions drawn in the two traditions derive not from the application of superior or inferior techniques of inquiry but rather from the radically different philosophical premises involved. What, for example, really is the electromagnetic spectrum ‘summoned’ by Western physics: a complete and natural explanation of the whole phenomenon, or a way of describing aspects of it natural to, and selected by, a particular approach?…
An extended explanation for Bohr’s failure to cross this threshold is offered in the conclusion. Peat contrasts the exclusionary reflex, the either/or ‘nature’ of Western cultural perception, with the inclusive capacity characteristic of the Native American tradition:
“Our Western concept of nature is based on an evolutionary model. Left to the natural forces around them, things will ‘progress,’ getting better and better. Going along with this worldview is the need, when faced with alternatives, to decide which one is ‘better’ than the others. It goes without saying that when it comes to other people’s cultures we are generally the ones doing the measuring, and are supplying the yardstick as well! If two systems exist, both of which claim to be sciences, our natural tendency is to compare them, like the latest model autos, and see which one comes out on top.” 25
Thus, despite complementarity and the uncertainty principle, confronted with two radically different interpretations of the same phenomenon the predominant Western tendency is still to choose between them: judgment – ‘true’ or ‘false’, scientific or not – is passed in the case of sacred energy versus electromagnetism, natural selection or creative evolution, etc.
In other words, if this “exclusionary reflex” oppositional binary worldview is deeply enough ingrained, it can keep people from being able to see what is right in front of them if this does not fit into the “available” categories. This is not good for scientific inquiry, much less things like human rights and coming up with certain applications of “true” science. To put it baldly, that is not how you do science, at all, and it causes problems (for pretty much everyone involved) in so many other areas of life.
My own mind just will not do this at all–and I have been judged to be crazy and stupid and just making no sense because of that. This kind of thing also gets applied, as mentioned, to entire groups of people, and can turn very destructive indeed. It is a kneejerk reaction after this basic filter for reality is thoroughly enough programmed, but people can learn other ways of looking at things. (I still plan to expand on this general theme with a post on some of the patterns I’ve noticed around xenophobia, but that will have to wait. And it was one of those that really needed more philosophical background!)
Also built in here is a series of false dichotomies: people who do science vs. people who do not, and the same goes for philosophy or pretty much any other intellectual endeavor. (Which, in turn, ties in with the “brains vs. brawn” and “physical vs. mental”…) I will also eventually go into how this kind of pattern ties in with a certain authoritarian social programming, but yeah. So, you get the idea of specialists who are also authorities, who have both right and responsibility to judge what constitutes “Real” X and whose ideas should be taken seriously–set up in opposition to the masses who come to believe that things like maths, sciences, and philosophy aren’t useful in their daily lives, and are best left to experts. And, indeed, anyone who does not take that view is suspect. It sets up some really nasty societal feedback loops. (But hey, what would I know about that recent Western discovery? *snort*)
All of that is even before you get to the willingness/eagerness to believe that certain entire groups of people are different enough in some way (currently popular is neurononsense as an explanation) that they might actually be inherently | unsuited to the “rigors” of certain considered-intellectual pursuits. Which, indeed, interacts in nasty ways with (and issues from) the abovementioned tendency to decide based on how well what you’re hearing/reading fits with your existing ideas developed through certain filters, how much value to place on other people’s ideas and accomplishments. Once people have been declared “primitive” (frequently controlled by their bodies) enough, they are also seen as far less capable of learning, much less articulating, Western-acceptable “intellectual” things–no matter what the reality of what they are doing and saying looks like not viewed through certain filters.
This also leaves some people in a position to decide that other people’s ideas are not nearly as good, if they have not been formulated in exactly the same ways as expected based on their own assumptions. Or, as one writer points out, in an essay that made me go into half hysterical fits of laughter at Whitecrow Borderland, regarding some of the same kinds of biased thinking expressed by Engels, maybe not what you could call “formulated” at all:
Engels begins his discussion of the Iroquois federation (Chapter III, “The Iroquois Gens” in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State) by inscribing a basic and fundamental contradiction at the ground of his departure. He states that all members of the tribe were “personally free, and they were bound to defend each other’s freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by the ties of kin.” The fact that even the “highest” ranking members of the society did not claim “superiority” over anyone else in the tribe suggests, as I have argued elsewhere, that the notion of hierarchy, which is always already connected to the logocentric ideal of creationism, is absent from native American perceptions of reality. Engels goes on to note that “[l]iberty, equality, and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles” of native society. The reservation expressed here in the phrase, “though never formulated,” seems to suggest that, while it might be true that the culture of the Iroquois did indeed embrace and practice these “cardinal principles” in the reality of everyday life, they were somehow illegitimate because they were not “formulated.”What I assume Engels means by that withdrawal of credibility for the veracity of his claim is that because the Iroquois did not have a written language until the missionaries of Jesus Christ supplied them with one they were prevented from “formulating” any concept capable of rising to the level of Eurocentric validity as long as they did not formally inscribe their beliefs and practices into a legalistic document of some kind or another. Freedom and equality in Europe have always been legalistic concepts that demanded inscription in documents like the Magna Carta before they were granted common validity, a kind of validity that always seems more susceptible to violation than to compliance.
I hope you can see how this exact same dynamic applies in a lot of contexts, “intellectual” or no. And also at least part of why I keep using a lot of scare quotes so I don’t get (as bad) a headache trying to write about some things. It all starts looking the same after a while, because at a certain level it is. And a lot of it doesn’t even make any internal sense–and people who are invested enough in this kind of philosophical approach will get very angry indeed if you point that out.
This is running long enough that I’m going to divide it up into a second post.
* On the surface, this seems to lump some, but it’s not as bad as it could be in that respect. To quote the first endnote from Stephen M. Sachs’ “The Cutting Edge of Physics: Western Science Is Finally Catching Up With American Indian Tradition” (emphasis added):
1.Reflecting indigenous views more broadly, it can be said that contemporary physics is coming closer to traditional views from culturally outside the west, as exemplified by the relationship of the developing western physics and traditional eastern thought set forth in Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1984). As to American Indian views, themselves – as indicated in the discussion of place below – they are in principle, and in fact, quite varied. But there is an underlying, generally agreed on set of values, way of seeing and doing. This is indicted, for example, in A. Timas and R. Reedy, “Implementation of cultural-specific intervention for a Native American Community,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1998, pp. 382-393; James A. Moran, “Preventing Alcohol Use Among Urban American Youth: The Seventh Generation Program” in Hillary and Weaver, Voices of First Nation People: Human Service Considerations (New York: Haworth Press, 1999), pp. 51-68; and Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, “Oyate Ptayela: Rebuilding the Lakota Nation Through Addressing Historical Trauma Among Lakota Parents” in Weaver Ed., Voices of First Nations People, pp. 106-126. That there is generally a set of common values in indigenous world views around the world, referred to in relation to Capra’s writing, above, showed specifically in the collaboration of Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) of the United States with Advancement for Maori Opportunity (founded with collaboration from AIO) of New Zealand, based on a common set of principles, as can be seen by looking at the AMO web site (http://www.amo.co.nz/), and by frequent statements made to that effect by members of both organizations, witnessed frequently by this author.
Here, I am limiting the discussion to my understanding of North American views, mostly north of Mexico, and more specifically (as usual) the Eastern Woodlands. So I’m not just totally talking out my ass, based on barely-informed assumptions of what other people are actually thinking.
Though, I did think I was going to choke myself to death laughing at one thing I ran across a while back, while looking for more information on Diné ideas about, in English translation, “strong” and “weak” foods (hopefully from Diné sources in English, and not finding much useful): Black Mesa Indigenous Support’s Cultural Sensitivity & Preparedness Guidebook. Which includes such gems as “Do not come to their community and impose your ideas of the right way to do things, even if they have been successful for other purposes”, “Have respect for everybody in the family, the elders, the middle-aged and the children. Treat everyone with kindness. Respect everyone and yourself by not yelling, arguing, or fighting with people”, and “You should ask a resident how you should help and what kind of work you can do. Many times, and especially with the elders, they won’t come right out and tell you what to do. Don’t stand around and wait for someone to tell you what to do. Self motivation is a must! It is GOOD to ask how to help and then do the job well and completely.” Then there’s the personal hygiene thing, and the expecting hard physical work thing (who wouldn’t, in that setting?!), and asking how to use things if you don’t know before you go and break somebody’s only ax…
Not only have I dealt with many of the same kinds of misunderstandings and unintentionally disrespectful behavior–and some of the very practical stuff the Diné person writing this had to explicitly mention, apparently based on past incidents, was unintentionally hilarious!–I couldn’t help but get the idea that once I figured out some surface-different things like the apparently very different approaches to “modesty” and dealing with animals, as someone from a less obviously traditional background on the other side of the continent I would have a much easier time understanding and getting along with traditional Diné elders than most of the (young White activist) people going and trying to help the holdouts there. (And, yeah, coming from a background of stubborn holdouts myself, I can easily see Granny or Old Aunt Mabel deciding she needs to stay up on the mountain somebody is trying to clear her off of, in that climate more with a large garden and some chickens than a herd of sheep. And she’s going to need some help!) But, then, I have noticed the similarities before between duyukta and hózhó as basic organizing principles, with basic attitudes and behavior hopefully unfolding from that.