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Philosophy, science, and chaos, part 2: Conflict and skepticism

August 24, 2011

Looking through some of Frederick Martin’s other essays at Whitecrow Borderland , I ran across some extremely relevant quotes which look difficult to work into where I was thinking of taking the second part without (more) serious bloat. Not that the first part went where I was planning, but hey. 😉

Actually, his “NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURAL PHILOSOPHY: THE MYTH OF EDEN” series there got me thinking more down the path that led to this series, anyway. Some very interesting stuff there, if sometimes (rather understandably) scathing toward Christianity-based philosophy. (Which, given the situation of Christian hegemony, includes even most anti-religious Western stuff, to the level of transparency to the writers.) I can’t argue with his description: “Everything here, in spite of its title, expresses a native American perception of Eurocentric philosophy, sometimes a pointed response to it, but always an honest assessment of its shortcomings.” A lot of philosophical themes are making very little sense to us in very similar ways, and sometimes there is serious potential for destruction and harm.

I am planning to go more into the perceived conflict between science and religion–which has never made a bloody bit of sense to me, coming from a background where I was amazed to find out what other people were doing with Christianity. Even my relatives who do identify as Christian kinda fit the pattern described as “it may be that the form of Christianity embodied by [them] is as much as the adaptation of Christianity to [them] as it is the adaptation of [them] to Christianity.”# I just did not grow up with the idea that there must be some kind of contradiction between, erm, investigating the nature of physical reality and one’s religious beliefs–but more that you can learn more about and develop a closer relationship with God by, say, strolling through the woods and paying attention.

This has led to the kind of frustration one might expect, dealing with some “movement atheists” and skeptics who are working off the same set of assumptions about how things must inevitably work. Nontheism and atheism? Not the same at some very basic levels of understanding and assumption. Atheism, per se, kind of requires theism as an opposing position, and I’m just not playing the same game. (Don’t even get me started on the absurdities of “pantheism” and “panentheism” used to describe explicitly nontheistic approaches. You can see how caught up in the ideas of theism and universalism some people were and are.)

And I find myself skeptical of a number of things many people identifying with the Greek tradition of skepticism seem not to think about much.

More linguistic dysphoria, when what I am doing really cannot be properly described as “philosophy”, “skepticism”, “pragmatism”, etc.–when the only terms readily available in English come from–with built-up associations which refer heavily back to–the Greek traditions. This was made really, really obvious when reading an article in one of Mr. U’s Skeptical Inquirer back issues on the roots of skepticism (assumed to be Western by default and definition), which made me think of all the crediting of the “discovery” of philosophy itself by the ancient Greeks that this is based on. It brought home to me that I just don’t have other words to use for things. And that there is not necessarily a totally analogous description in, say, Tsalagi, for applications of critical thinking that, AFAICT, any person is assumed to be doing in the first place. There is not a lot of call for specialists there, either. (More on that kind of hierarchy later.)

But, indeed, it is not reasonable to interpret that in such a way that I am not doing analogous things at all.

On to the quotes. From Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, and Native American Perceptions of Reality. (02/22/2001) (bit of bolding added):

In contrast to this Eurocentric view of human history, tribal people have always held to a complete different perception of reality, one that has never included the notion that individual people are somehow flawed by their inherent and inescapable “creatureliness,” and that they have to be saved from that status by the chthonic-cosmic magic of a sacrificial “lamb” of God. Even if such a thing were possible in the real world, it would be rejected, even overruled, on the ground of simple necessity. Such excessive, supra-dramatic, and supernatural events are not necessary as a cure for tribal society because native people do not begin by defining themselves as anything more or less than the indigenous inhabitants of a purely physical and material universe.

What seems most true to us is that the world can exist in only one of two possible modes: either it is material and composed of matter; or it is immaterial and composed of nothing at all. [One of the few binary constructions that actually makes sense to me–and which does not at all rule out strange, but still natural, emergent properties we might have trouble understanding! — U.]  Since it is obvious that the universe has a material existence, something that Christian ideology acknowledges, even if it insists that the world’s physical and material reality is something that flawed creatures must contemn, and since people are material entities as well, we have always accepted the evidence before us, have always resisted the impulse of longing to be other than we are, and have always endeavored instead, intellectually and spiritually, to find the best and most efficient way to live out our lives in the world that we inhabit. Christian thinkers have always searched for ways to make both people and the world they inhabit more than it and they can possibly be or become. They claim, for instance, that the desire they experience to have more than they actually do is a good thing, that longing for more than a material reality elevates the human spirit out of its “creatureliness” and into a realm where matter becomes infused with soul, whatever that is, which makes them over into a material entity that also possesses as its most significant feature that which is immaterial and hence composed of nothing at all. Desire and longing for that which you do not have is greed. Greed does not elevate the human spirit. Greed debases it.

Christian ideology also claims that the universe, which they see as composed of both material and immaterial elements, having it both ways as it were, and mostly because that description of the world is so profoundly illogical, if not ridiculous, demonstrates in some irrefutable way that God, as its creator, must surely exist. What this says, of course, is that, if you define the world as a thing that cannot possibly exist because it is composed of contradictory elements that cannot possibly adhere to one another in any conceivable way, it proves the existence of a Creator who was unable to conceive of a universe composed of elements that fit logically and coherently together in the first place. God, then, as a kind of idiot-engineer, incapable of comprehending how material elements go together in logical and coherent structures, created a universe instead that cannot possibly exist so that His equally flawed and mangled human creatures would be able to tell that He exists by virtue of the chthonic-cosmic magic necessary to hold it and them together in the same flawed construct. While it might be inappropriate to call this view of the world insane, it is true that such descriptions of it refuse to accept even the most obvious evidence to the contrary…

An important distinction between European and native American people is that we do not suspend our thought processes for 2000 years out of fear we might see or hear something that contradicts our view of reality. Instead we listen carefully to the ideas of the other in case they stumble across a possibility that might enhance our comprehension of the universe. Science, for instance, has told us that matter has always existed, that, in fact, matter cannot cease to exist but can only be converted into energy. We also know, of course, by the same principle, that energy cannot cease to exist either but can only be converted into matter. This formula was expressed by Albert Einstein as E = MC2. This idea, which has never been refuted, but is routinely ignored by people who do not like what it implies, suggests that we have always been correct in assuming that the world has always been “here,” that the world was not created before we came to populate it…

Something that may not be quite so obvious in the scientific view of the universe is that its basic premises do not contradict the native American view of reality in any way whatsoever. Put as simply and directly as possible, the two spirits credited with creating the world by sending Turtle down to the bottom of the ocean for mud were called “gravity” and “electro-magnetic energy.” Spirit in tribal belief refers to any natural force (wind, lightening, rain, etc.) that has any effect whatsoever on the processes of life in the material universe. The world is a material reality, everything in it is composed of matter, matter behaves in a certain way, the natural forces that determine that behavior are called spirits by native Americans and most other tribal people. Science, therefore, has not “despiritualized” the world; rather, it has simply provided a secondary vocabulary with which to identify and comprehend the way in which all living things are related to each other. Unlike creationist ideologies, unlike Christianity, which is threatened to the very core of its belief system by scientific knowledge, primarily because it is fundamentally irrational, native belief systems have only benefited from our expanding knowledge of the universe by gaining an additional language with which to describe and understand the physical processes that determine how best and most effectively people live in the real world. We do not shun and deny our physical natures, believing that “soul” makes us better than every other entity on the face of the earth; instead, we embrace our inescapable material reality, “soul-less” as it were, but fully animated by spirit, in a never-ending effort to live better than we have done before. A first step in that journey is accepting the gift of our individual mortality by not wasting a single moment of its opportunity in a quest for what can never be. It is our nature to be here and then to be gone. Since there is no exception to that rule, the only thing that can be said to last forever is that which never existed in the first place.

Another thing not totally explicitly stated there: if your philosophy is just not adequately describing reality for you in some respect, what do you do? Filter reality through it so that it almost seems to match if squinted at in a certain light–and get very angry if someone points out that no, it really doesn’t–or adjust your philosophy so that it actually works for you?

I can’t help but think of one articulation of the very different approach, Poe’s Sonnet – To Science:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Frankly, this made no sense to me until I found out that this division really is a popular Western philosophical theme–and note the ostentatious Neoclassical references so popular when he was writing. The idea that anyone might have ever thought there were literal dryads, et al. which were maybe somehow classifiable as “supernatural” (at least when viewed through a later monotheistic lens) is weird enough to me, as much as my ancestors are still assumed to have been doing that kind of thing through projection. And, indeed, whether one considers the “demystification” a Good or Bad Thing, it’s all based in the same set of assumptions.

Compare that to the attitudes and assumptions brought in by Engels in another passage from Note 4: Frederick Engels: On the Iroquois. 4/12/99. After he went on about the “unformulated” freedom and egalitarianism, he threw in some really contorted universalist, projectionist thinking. This is a very long quote, but smaller excerpts just don’t do the multiple levels of contempt based on lack of understanding justice (all bolding original):

Engels eventually turns his attention to elements of religious practice among the Iroquois and notes correctly, of course, that it was centered on a belief in the spirit world. He says that “They already embodied their religious ideas–spirits of every kind–in human form; but the lower stage of barbarism, which they had reached, still knows no plastic representations, so-called idols. Their religion is a cult of nature and of elemental forces, in process of development to polytheism.” Saying simply what is wrong with this statement requires more eloquence than I possess so I will simply have to muddle my way through the muddle Engels has made of native American spiritual concepts. In the first place, of course, the word “religion,”whether or not one can call it a “cult,” does not apply in the context of native American culture because religion implies the existence of a worshipful attitude on the part of a subjugated inferior toward a supernatural, and therefore superior, entity who holds absolute power over the life and well-being of the worshiper. Engels commits this error of fact when he suggests that native American spiritualism is “in process of development to polytheism.” He also argues, incorrectly, that native American concepts of spirit are “embodied” in some“human form.” I hate to be the one to tell Engels so, but Europeans are the only people on the face of the earth, as well as those unfortunate enough to have fallen under their influence, who have the habit of making God over into a “human form”–the Word made Flesh, for instance–in the embodiment of Jesus Christ. Native people don’t do that. Coyote has no “human” shape whatsoever. Coyote is coyote: he may sometimes be depicted as pretending to be human but no native American, except the ones coyote fools, ever mistake him for what he is not. The same can be said for every other spirit with the single exception of the clans of ancestral entities that occupy their place in the spirit world. For the most part, ancestral spirits, who are human, do not generally manifest themselves in any form whatsoever. Spirit is essentially formless.

Before going on to the contradiction inherent in Engels’ account, I want to comment on the notion of the so-called “process of development to polytheism” that he mentions in this context. This concept, of course, is directly related to the Marxian perception of historical determinism in their theory that human society and culture exists over time in “stages” that are reached and surpassed in an inevitable progress toward a teleological goal, an end result, that is predictable in retrospect from the end backward to the beginning. Since native America is defined as being at the lowest stage of development toward becoming the ideal of Eurocentric consciousness, we are trapped, necessarily, in a primitve, barbaric, savage state that has not yet reached a level of sophistication which allows us to comprehend first many gods and then finally one God. The problem with this view is that the indigenous people of the Americas have been here for a longer period of time than anyone named Engels has been anywhere near Europe. Judaism has existed as such for little more than 5000 years. Christianity for only 2000 years. Marxism only since the middle of the last century. Native American animistic conceptualizations have been in place and “developing” for at least 20,000 years in the Western hemisphere alone. What laggers-behind we are. Look at us: here we are, 15,000 years ahead of Jewish development, and we still haven’t managed to become natural monotheists–hell, we’re barely on an approach run to becoming polytheists. We’ve even had the benefit of European master-race training for the past 500 years and still we lag behind. We must be incredibly stupid, even mentally deficient, to fail over and over to elevate ourselves to the level of another version of the master-race. Go figure.

The contradiction in Engels’ position concerns his statement that all native Americans honor, though don’t formulate, perceptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In all this freedom, however, there is a monumental catch, which Engels expresses in these terms: “[m]an’s attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, as is reflected in his childish religious conceptions.” How can we be considered free if we are, at the same time, suffering from an “almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power”? Maybe this is a Marxian dialectic. We are totally free in our social relations but totally enslaved by our relationship to nature because it is “a strange incomprehensible power.” Europeans are the only people on the face of the earth who hate nature enough to advocate its total destruction. Native Americans don’t do that. The point of dealing with nature at the level of spirit-power is to formulate a proper conceptualization of its being the world in which we live. Native Americans have spent thousands of years doing what Engels claims we have not done and cannot do. Spirit is a sophisticated methodology for classifying types and kinds of spirit-power, not because we are in thrall to its incomprehensibility, but because we cannot live properly and effectively in its house if we do not understand the power relations that define its course and our place in it. Anyone who believes that our perceptions of nature are“childish” has little or no knowledge of native American culture and virtually no experience whatsoever of natural force. Native Americans, unlike their European neighbors, don’t build houses in the flood-plain of a river and then complain that God has betrayed us when the river carries it off to the ocean.

This further quote may give a better idea of why I thought I was going to die laughing when I ran across his essays. 🙂

It is still considered totally reasonable, based on the assumptions that come bundled along with Christian Hegemony, to go into “exclusionary reflex” conniptions at anything that could translate as “spirit”–from a specifically religious or “non”-religious perspective. Instead of trying to understand what people are talking about that translates (usually poorly) as “spirit”. Again, if people are using unexpected terms and/or phrasing to describe what are actually very similar concepts, this is too often considered to indicate that they know nothing. I have personally run into this kind of conflict both on the basis of philosophical differences, and because my own personal mind seems to handle language in a way a lot of people are not expecting.

This also ties together with the observation from ‘Very Different Butterflies’:

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?

This “Split-and-Judge” approach gets applied in very similar ways to contexts which are then themselves subjected to the same “Split-and-Judge”. The splitting is considered a sign of mental illness if done to certain extremes and in certain contexts, while being a mostly transparent Way Things Inevitably Work in most other contexts. To put it mildly, I do not find that kind of reductionism pretty much ad infinitum conducive to developing a better understanding of how things actually work.

To reuse a quote from an earlier post (which, in some other ways, does not totally reflect my understanding of things a couple of years later–not surprisingly!):

As Barbara Mann put it, in Iroquoian Women:

First, ongoing western scholarship portrays Iroquoian (and all Native) medicine as magical thinking. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the sanctioned western view of Native spirituality pares it down into officially manageable chunks of “psychological” urges, which western observers are then free to analyze and dismiss.110. . . Although colonialism may have lost its cachet among the intelligentsia, its impulse to define, hence control, all stories remains strong. Western thought first debunks what it seeks to control. Ridicule is not a value-free assessment, but an act of cultural rivalry masquerading as objective scholarship. Such terms as myth, superstition, wish fulfillment, magical thinking, ambiguity, irrationality–all so freely applied to Native spirituality–must be understood as the arsenal of a western power play, not as impartial evaluation. As Arthur Parker so rightly observed in 1908, “the term ‘medicine’ means a mystic potence” and is not equivalent to the western concept of magic. In fact, there “is no English equivalent.”112 Medicine must be grasped on its own terms.

That does not only apply to Native spirituality. Totally dismissing an idea because you don’t understand it–and have made no reasonable effort to do so, nor to understand other concepts required to make sense of the initial one–is not true skepticism, it’s defensive snottiness. A lot of people confuse them.

So, yeah, when too often people’s cultural bias (itself based in philosophy) makes them think that they have a right/responsibility to define rationality itself–and split both ways of thinking and actual people into “irrational” and “rational” categories, frequently based on their philosophical approaches and ways of describing things–it’s no wonder that some people/groups are assumed incapable of doing Real Science or Real Philosophy/Religion. That not everybody is considering these incompatible things to begin with is pretty much unthinkable, and therefore “irrational”.

Long as some of these quotes have run, I can’t resist throwing in another from Jack Forbes cited in a previous post:

Religion is, in reality, living. Our religion is not what we profess, or what we say, or what we proclaim; our religion is what we do, what we desire, what we seek, what we dream about, what we fantasize, what we think–all of these things–twenty-four hours a day. One’s religion, then, is one’s life, not merely the ideal life but the life as it is actually lived.

Religion is not prayer, it is not a church, it is not theistic, it is not atheistic, it has little to do with what white people call “religion.” It is our every act. If we tromp on a bug, that is our religion; if we cheat at cards, that is our religion; if we dream of being famous, that is our religion; if we gossip maliciously, that is our religion; if we are rude and aggressive, that is our religion. All that we do, and are, is our religion. . .

Thus New York City, with its dirt, its slums, its crime, its violence, its greed, its wealthy elite, its tall buildings, its Mafia, its cooked leadership, and its art galleries–all of New York City–is the white society’s “church”…Many people often pretend that they can escape from the consequences of their own acts, but Native philosophy teaches differently. We create our own reality. Perhaps the acts of creation are our “religion” and the concrete creations are our “churches”.

That is closer to the perspective I have come to take. And there is no way of really getting it wrong unless you turn disrespectful and destructive.

ETA: This is also the basic problem I have with cultural relativism taken to extremes, in direct reaction to the “Split-and-Judge” approach. Frequently formulated more as “Split-and-Ostentatiously Not Judge”, unfortunately. If your culture is telling you that it’s OK and even desirable to treat other people and the world around you in disrespectful and destructive ways, I am not going to pretend that it’s right. Where right implies “something that actually works for everyone involved in a respectful and nondestructive way”. If your culture depends on abusing/exploiting various of its own members, setting up outgroups (including nonhuman ones) to abuse/exploit, and/or tearing up the world around itself–that’s just not good or sustainable. No matter who you are.

NOTE: As came up in another post, I am not suggesting that the whole of Western philosophy is like this. Even though an awful lot of it builds off sources incorporating these ways of looking at things. And I am also simplifying to some extent to show up some too-common patterns, with an emphasis on ones that can turn harmful. As usual, if you don’t apply this kind of inflexible thinking, I am not criticizing you at all. 😉 This is more to do with overarching worldviews anyway, but having been on the end of a lot of the kind of dismissal/willful misunderstanding mentioned in this series, I can totally understand why it might sometimes feel personal.

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