Adverse Effects of the Scientific Revolution:
Perspectives From Contemporary
Nature Philosophers and Native Americans
“…the idols we create are built into the souls of our children;
who learn more and more to think of themselves as objects
among objects; who grow hollower and hollower.”
Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances
A genre of writers called “Nature Philosophers” has developed in the last few decades. These writers include David Abram, Morris Berman, Fritjof Capra, Derrick Jensen, Jerry Mander, Carolyn Merchant, and Rupert Sheldrake. They are generally concerned with showing us that if engaging in meaningful lives is a primary goal of human existence, then the mechanical model of the universe that has developed since circa 1600 will not work. In fact they often show that the mechanical model, which is at the foundation of modern science, which seeks to give us the final understanding of our world, actually ends up suppressing meaning in our lives. This relatively new genre is attempting to demonstrate that if science, with its handmaiden, industrial technology, is allowed to go where it seems to be going, then we are looking at a grim picture. Aldus Huxley and George Orwell have given us popular pictures of what it might be like if human beings become mere objects of science. But hope lies in the fact that prior to the scientific revolution human beings lived for thousands and thousands of years with other kinds of science, other means of encountering our world, which didn’t seem to involve the wanton destruction of nature. The Nature Philosophers’ call for a renewed understanding of our relationship to the natural world will bring us to a brief review of contemporary Native American perspectives on the issue. These writers include Wallace Black Elk, Frank Black Elk, Vine Deloria, John Fire Lame Deer, Russell Means, and N. Scott Momaday. These latter perspectives are important because the technological, industrial machine that the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment engendered largely destroyed the cultures that these people represent. The height of this intellectual period in Europe coincided with the conquest of the “New World,” and the subsequent annihilation of countless distinct cultures that resided there since time immemorial. The scientific world was one of order, sterility, predictability, and resource exploitation. The Indigenous people that the founding fathers of America encountered were understood as the antithesis to this worldview.
About four hundred years ago a development began to take shape within western civilization that marks the beginning of what we now call modern science and modern philosophy. Folks like Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Galileo, and Newton have become the founding fathers of the Scientific Revolution. They discovered a world that seemed to offer secrets of itself that were never before seen. These secrets showed themselves chiefly through quantifiable statements. This led them to believe that the natural world was put together in a rationally ordered way and it was the job of human beings (men, that is) to discern the layout of that order. Figuring out the way that the world worked gave us the “blueprint” of God’s design. Early scientists then believed they were in a way seeing God’s mind, seeing the most real. Historian Herbert Butterfield puts it in perspective for us:
“Since that revolution overturned the authority in science not only of the Middle Ages but of the ancient world – since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics – it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom. Since it changed the character of men’s habitual mental operations even in the conduct of the non-material sciences, while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself, it looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality…”(Butterfield vii).
As the natural world came to be defined more and more in mechanistic, quantifiable terms, there followed certain negative effects of our understanding of our place in the world. As the dominant scientific model progressed it came to see the world as: (1) matter in motion; that is, there is no spirit in nature, there are only inert objects that are moved by outside forces, mechanical laws; (2) reductionistic, atomistic, mechanistic; a thing or process is fully known when all of its parts can be broken down and mechanically explained – the whole is the sum of its parts; (3) rationally ordered; reason alone, with its language of math and logic, can tell us ultimate truths about the world; what cannot be reasonably explained is not valid; (4) objectively existent; that a single, unique, physical world exists independently of our observation of it. The natural world then has no spirit, no life of its own; it is defined by its mechanical processes; it is able to be completely figured out by rational analysis; and it exists separately, independently from our participation in it.
The major negative effect that this development has had on western civilization is the severe disjunct it created between human consciousness and the natural world. Coinciding with this was the subordination of mythopoetic language to mere entertainment value, and the mass loss of subjective, yet often communal, spiritual experiences which communicate the personally felt and known sacred relationship that humans can have with their surroundings. The Nature Philosophers show us that isolation, alienation, and loss of personal meaning are drawbacks that too easily come out of the dominant scientific model and its role as supreme unveiler of truth. A further problem arises when we see that the dominant scientific model is itself a development of human consciousness. The scientific model subordinates myth and metaphor while purporting itself to be the only means to objective truth, but the scientific model itself is not necessarily objectively true, but yet only another myth, another structure by which the world may be experienced.
This essay looks at ways in which contemporary thinkers have understood this scientific model as it suppresses meaning in our lives, makes everyday living into an intellectual abstraction instead of a lived experience within a living world, and how it is therefore responsible for creating existential, religious crises within large portions of the population. Our world seems to be fragmenting at a disturbingly rapid rate as a result of the pursuits of modern science.
Impulses of Modern Science
“Matter and force were enough. There was as yet no thought of an unrepresented base; for if the particles kept growing smaller and smaller, there would always be bigger and better glasses to see them through. The collapse of the mechanical model was not yet in sight…” (Barfield 62).
The subtitle to Barfield’s book is “A Study In Idolatry.” An idol, he writes, is a representation (subjective perception) that is collectively mistaken for an ultimate, (Barfield 62). A shift happened during the Scientific Revolution where the meaning of phenomena became subsumed under an interest in the phenomena themselves. This means that phenomena were understood to exist independently of human consciousness. Independent existence made exact, quantitative detail possible. Before this shift, Barfield explains that humans had a participation consciousness – we didn’t understand ourselves to be fundamentally different or separate from the natural world. We didn’t see the world as happening somewhere outside of us, remotely graspable only through our physical senses; rather the world happened in us and through us, through our bodies and our spirit. In Barfield’s evolution of consciousness, this participation consciousness progressively declines with our preoccupation with thinking about things, about the nature of the existence of things. This presupposes that we can ever be at a place where completely objective, non-bias observation can occur. This is largely what early modern scientists believed they were doing. But the findings of 20th century physicists like Heisenberg, Neils Bohr, Einstein, John Bell and David Bohm have shown us that the way we approach any particular observation at least partly determines what we see. That is, it is impossible to ever have direct observation of the world. Our minds, being molded by culture, tradition, expectations etc., and the images that our technical instruments bring forth, in part create what we believe is objectively “there.” Therefore, the world that the scientific thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries dreamed up, one where natural processes would be completely understood and easily manipulated by sets of mathematical formulas, is itself based on erroneous assumptions.
The “Laplacian Dream,” where all physical processes are understood, has been slow going. And because of the damage being done to the natural world as a consequence of this obsessive impulse to quantify reality, we must consider altering this worldview that the Scientific Revolution has engendered. Chomsky, possibly the world’s most respected intellectual, has put it well: “Science has nothing to say about what we are doing right now – only about the mechanisms that are involved in it, not about how we do it. About that there’s nothing to say, except you can write poems,” (Chomsky 220, italics his). He goes on to talk about how in neurophysiology, people are studying a simple organism, a worm called the nematode. They know its entire neuron system and its entire gestation period is known, in short they have a complete physical map of the creature, “but still, nobody can figure out why the stupid worm does whatever it does – I don’t know, turn left or something…it’s just too complicated, too many things going on, too many chemical interactions,”(Chomsky 220). And this mystery is from a three hundred neuron-based system. We each have 10 to the 11th power number of neurons in our head. It seems clear that a scientific system based solely on physical causes will not work.
Contemporary Nature Philosophy
Carolyn Merchant has shown us that up to the Enlightenment, the earth was understood as a living being, possessing female qualities, and having mysterious, awe-inspiring life forces of its own. But new values being engendered in the 16th and 17th centuries came to view the earth as a non-living thing, as a set of abstract mechanical processes, able to be predicted and controlled. “Rational men” of the Enlightenment (and hence) wanted power over nature. According to Merchant, nature represented the grand, mysterious, unpredictable, female beast that must be tamed if humankind was too enjoy a clean, safe, affluent life. Hobbes’ mantra that the life of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” perhaps best describes this psychological preoccupation of “civilized men.” The new science emerging in this period, with its mechanical explanations and technological advances, sought to mold the natural world and transform it from its unpredictable harshness into nice, manageable, streamlined categories.
Francis Bacon, the “father” of the inductive method – gathering and categorizing data from observations from which to draw conclusions about the world – was perhaps most fundamental to this shift. According to Bacon, the goal of “natural philosophy” (this is what science was called before it was called science) was to “enlarge knowledge by observation and experiment…so that nature being known, may be mastered, managed, and used in the services of humane life,”(Merchant 188). Nature had to be “bounded in her wanderings,” “bound into service,” made a “slave,” to be “put into constraint,” so that we may “torture nature’s secrets from her,”(Capra 56). Bacon sought to “endeavor to establish the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe,”(Sheldrake 40). Nature then could no longer be understood as a loving home, a place to have trust in. The products of science and technology would provide such things from now on. And the value of the natural world, the value of Mother Nature was solely in her use, her ability to be molded by and for the intrusive hands of man.
Descartes’ thinking had similar devastating effects upon how we think of the natural world. In his Discourse on Method, he systematically severed human consciousness from the natural world. His famous “I think, therefore I am” mantra made it so that the one and only thing that made humans unique was our rational, intellectual, disembodied minds. In his solipsistic search for absolute certainty he found that the only thing that he could not doubt the existence of was his own thoughts. He finally concluded that the ultimate secrets of the universe could be known by using the language of mathematics, the ultimate expression of rationality (Merchant 204). His strict dualism seated the existence of two distinct, opposite kinds of things: mind and body. Mind is thinking, non-extended, and non-divisible. Body is non-thinking, extended, and divisible. Here, “thinking” means possessing of soul, spirit, and self-consciousness. “Extended” means material, physicality, corporeality. And “divisible” means able to be broken down to a finite number of parts. This last concept is fundamental to Descartes’ model because he pressed for the deductive approach of reductionist thinking. For Descartes, a thing is known when all of its parts are seen and understood separately, in isolation from each other, and we can know how they mechanically fit together. The goal of this knowledge is prediction and manipulation by the application of mathematical formulas (Merchant 203).
An important consequence of Cartesian dualism is that the physical world is understood as being mindless material. Physical material fills all space in the natural world, leaving no room for unknown forces or spirits. “He laid the foundations for the mechanistic worldview in both physics and biology…all nature was inanimate, soulless, dead rather than alive,”(Sheldrake 49). Descartes’ final vision fits in well with Bacon’s. Descartes saw men as “lords and possessors of nature,”(Sheldrake 52). He encouraged vivisection, “believing that animals do not suffer and asserting that their cries meant nothing more than the creaking of a wheel,”(Capra 115). The frightening treatment of animals and the natural world in general that our society now supports can be traced directly back to these respected geniuses of the modern world. Derrick Jensen and David Abram are two contemporary nature philosophers who deal with this and many other related problems.
The relationship between humans and nature is an ethical relationship that we choose. With our habits, our traditions, our values, within our varied cultural mindsets, we can decide how we want to treat the natural world. By looking at history it appears that throughout the majority of human culture the earth was thought of as a living entity, possessing of spirit and a volition of its own. Further, it was often understood as a female being, a giver a life, representing the earthen womb from which we come and where we will all go after this life. Artwork and religious shrines across the globe depict a worship of this kind of great, all-encompassing, feminine Being. But with the scientific revolution, the natural world came to be understood as a machine – cold, unforgiving, and hostile to those who do not know how to manipulate it.
In A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen reflects on this shift of understanding. His book is unique in that is at once a memoir and a philosophy of nature. This represents an interesting way in which to approach the subject. His prose moves easily from personal history, to events and people in the history of western civilization, to philosophical wanderings on how we are currently living as a culture. This suggests that when contemplating particular issues in our lives, it is perhaps beneficial, even necessary to interweave personal, traditional, historical, and philosophical issues all at once. This approach, in itself, is a comment on how the reductionistic tendencies of our modern scientific model is often inadequate because it treats perspectives, worldviews, objects as isolated entities, instead of dimensions of an obscure reality.
As Jensen reminds us, we who live through the eyes of the dominant scientific model do not want an obscure reality. We want finely demarcated lines of what is and what isn’t; we want concise definitions of how things are, and how they work; and we want people to show us all of this in repeatable, predictable displays – experiments, that is. And if we don’t get what we want, we create what we want. We create nice, perfectly complex categories; no matter how abstract or far away from everyday experience these categories may lie. Jensen’s ultimate model for this impulsive need is Descartes:
Searching for certainty, Rene Descartes became the father of modern science and philosophy. Even if his philosophy were not such an easy justification for exploitation, his search was fatally flawed before it began. Because life is uncertain, and because we die, the only way Descartes could gain the certainty he sought was in the world of abstraction. By substituting the illusion of disembodied thought for experience (disembodied thought being of course not possible for anyone with a body), by substituting mathematical equations for living relations, and most importantly by substituting control, or the attempt to control, for the full participation in the wild and unpredictable process of living, Descartes became the prototypical modern man. He also established the single most important rule of western philosophy: if it doesn’t fit the model, then it doesn’t exist. Welcome to industrial civilization. (Jensen 10).
Abstraction is a fundamental concept in Jensen’s writing. He writes of how in order to manipulate something, which often means destroying it, one must transform that something into an abstract, soulless, inanimate entity, having no inherent meaning or life of its own. To show this, he narrates moving and highly personal events from his childhood days with an abusive father. He then quickly moves to accounts of biologists torturing dogs and cats for the sake of learning about isolation (cooped up in dark rooms) and the effects of electric shocks. Then he moves to a retelling of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 in Colorado, when hundreds of people were killed in the dawn of a winter morning, where the head commanding officer of the US Army said just prior to the attack, “I long to be wading in gore.” All of this is in the context of the stated intentions of our ideological founding fathers. Bacon writes “the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations,”(Jensen 20). And Jensen intentionally repeats Descartes’ rather disturbing impulse to be “lord and possessors of nature.” It seems that the purpose for Jensen’s varied examples is to point out that it is not lunatics who are desiring and performing such disturbing deeds; rather, it seems to be the norm in western society and that this is the real problem. Our lives must be lived in an abstract fashion so that we can abuse children, torture animals, commit genocide. Euro-Americans (males mostly) represent reason and order; and disobedient children, dogs and cats, savage Indians all represent chaotic nature, to be subdued, conquered, forced into proper place. To do this, the leaders of western civilization must portray the world as a mechanical process, able to be molded according to our wishes. The world then becomes sets of mathematical and logical formulas that all experience must be able to fit into if it is to be counted as true experience, true reality. The memories of abused children are repressed, the torture of animals is kept hidden from the public, the genocide of the people who used to live on this very same land is simply not written into the history books. It’s better to create a world, an abstract world, where these things didn’t and do not happen. As Vine Deloria has written, “abstract theories create abstract action,” (Deloria 86, 1998). In modern western society, the death of nature is simply not happening. Therefore, there is obviously nothing we should do about it. According to Jensen, we have had a dangerous, hypnotic, violent fixation with our rational-mechanical-technological capabilities, which we demonstrate through technical, mathematical knowledge, and we have forgotten “a language older than words,” in which animals, plants, and the living world really does communicate with us. He relates how western thinkers still believe that this kind of communication, this “listening to the land” is metaphorical, but “it’s not a metaphor, it’s how the world is,”(Jensen 24).
Much of contemporary nature philosophy involves a recall of the primal power and meaning of our physical senses. This is especially the case with David Abram. In The Spell of the Sensuous, he begins his inquiry with a “personal introduction” in which he relates experiences he has had with “magicians” and “shamans” of Bali and the Himalayan region. This sparks the reader into an interest in ways of knowing that are not dominated by the western scientific model. Abram then moves to his “technical introduction” which involves a survey of the fundamentals of phenomenology. Phenomenology, a philosophical movement instigated by Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is the “study of direct experience”(Abram xi) and it is a starting point for Abram because it is “the western philosophical tradition that has most forcefully called into question the modern assumption of a single, wholly determinable, objective reality,”(Abram 31).
Along with Descartes, Galileo asserted that the “book of nature” is written in mathematics. And similar to much of Locke’s philosophy, Galileo claimed that only properties of matter that can be quantified by mathematics are real; i.e. size, shape, weight. Other qualities, that are more the product of our minds and imagination than properties of objective matter, include sound, taste, and color. Galileo maintained that without the language of mathematics to guide us, “one wanders about in a dark labyrinth,”(Abram 32). Abram points out that the need for such “hard” science has penetrated virtually all fields of study in the western academic world. For instance in psychology, “the everyday world – the world of our direct, spontaneous experience – is still assumed to derive from an impersonal, objective dimension of pure ‘facts’ that we glimpse only through our instruments and equations,”(Abram 35). But whether it is psychology, quantum physics, or physiology, what is forgotten is “that it takes living, sensing subjects, complete with their enigmatic emotions and unpredictable passions, to conceive of those subatomic fields, or to dissect and anatomize the body,”(Abram 34). To conceive, we should remember, is a creative act, not simply a passive reception. This is a fundamental point of Abram’s; that “reality” is a process of perceiver and perceived engaging in a dynamic interplay. And asserting that some final objective “substance” underlies the entire process may be a dangerous assumption.
Abram summarizes the gulf that the scientific-technological-industrial shift has created for us:
“We consciously encounter nonhuman nature only as it has been circumscribed by our civilization and its technologies: through our domesticated pets, on the television, or at the zoo. The plants and animals we consume are neither gathered nor hunted – they are bred and harvested in huge, mechanized farms. “Nature” has become simply a stock of “resources” for human civilization, and so we can hardly be surprised that our civilized eyes and ears are somewhat oblivious to the existence of perspectives that are not human at all, or that a person either entering into or returning to the West from a non-industrial culture would feel startled and confused by the absence of nonhuman powers,”(Abram 28).
This is to suggest that in these modern times, our very idea of “nature” is a dangerous one. Nature for the founders of modern science was always wild, dark, unpredictable, and inhospitable. And though many of us may like to think that we are not governed by such opinions, the fact still remains that we see though this same cultural lens. We are perhaps often not aware that because we participate in this cultural worldview, with its explicitly hostile and myopic intentions, that we implicitly help to perpetuate it.
Regarding nonhuman powers, nonhuman life and life-forces, those that are denied by the historically recent mechanistic model, those that are disregarded as being simply psychic projections, Abram asserts that their existence are not only real, but essential for meaningful lives. To non-industrial communities, the natural world is alive and able to be in direct communication with humans. That mountains might think or that birds might be the vocal chords of the rain forest are mostly silly, entertaining, slightly confused notions to “hard” scientists and we who follow their findings. But Abram suggests that it is we in modern civilization who are mistaken and we who cannot fully perceive:
“…it is civilization that has been confused, and not indigenous peoples…one perceives a world at all only by projecting oneself into that world, one makes contact with things and others only by actively participating in them, lending one’s sensory imagination to things in order to discover how they alter and transform that imagination, how they reflect us back, changed…perception is always participatory, and hence modern humanity’s denial of awareness in nonhuman nature is borne not by any conceptual or scientific rigor, but rather by an inability, or a refusal, to fully perceive other organisms,”(Abram 275-275, italics his).
Abram calls for a movement of re-awareness of ourselves being first, natural beings in a natural world, and only secondly, rational, technological beings in a rationally, technically ordered world. He suggests that the increase in western culture of addictions, epidemic illness, cancer, immune dysfunctions, psychological distress, depression, and domestic violence is a result of the “violence needlessly perpetrated by our civilization on the ecology of the planet,”(Abram 22). We are now “caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves,” where “it is all too easy to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities,”(Abram 22). We used to hear voices of birds, trees, the wind, mountains, insects, rivers, but now we hear only human-made voices of computers, automobiles, televisions, airplanes. Our eyes developed with other eyes, Abram maintains, but now they only stare blankly at our own inventions, hypnotized, transfixed by our own mechanical creations. We are the confused beings.
Morris Berman speaks of this separation of humans and world as a “psychic distance, the existence of a rigid barrier between observer and observed,”(Berman 111, 1989). In Renaissance art, for instance, we see the development of three-dimensional perspective, where the spectator is taken out of the painting, and the image within its borders is a complete, independent scene. Berman then summarizes, “alchemy gave way to chemistry, astrology to astronomy, mythology to psychoanalysis, and storytelling to professional academic history,” and this shift represents “a gain in what we call objectivity,”(Berman 111). Berman questions whether this gain in “objectivity” is worth the price of “psychic distance.”
In his most popular work, The Reenchantment of the World, Berman emphasizes the shift from classical philosophy and science to modern. Since the Ancient Greeks our uniqueness has been understood as being the “the rational animals,” but Berman points out a “crucial seventeenth-century departure from the Greeks: the conviction that the world lies before us to be acted upon, not merely contemplated,” (Berman 29). And “Bacon and Descartes were aware of the methodological changes taking place, and of the direction in which things would inevitably move. They saw themselves as leading the way…both made it clear that Aristotelianism had has its day,” (Berman 29). For instance, the title of one of Bacon’s works, New Organon, was a direct attack on Aristotle, whose work had been collected throughout the Middle Ages under the title Organon. Fundamental to Bacon’s thought was the implementation of technology, “the mechanical arts” as he puts it, into scientific methodology. Berman quotes Bacon in New Organon: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art [i.e., artisanry, technology] than when they go their own way,” (Berman 30, brackets his). Berman suggests that this is one of the first times Bacon offers the idea that “knowledge of nature comes about under artificial conditions,” therefore we must “vex nature, disturb it, alter it, anything – but do not leave it alone,” (Berman 31). Thus, the “experiment,” complete with its “control case” and “isolated variables” and strictly “objective observations” and so on, becomes the ultimate methodology for truth in the modern world. Technology is as old as stone tools and clay pots, but the elevation of this impulse to control the natural world to the level of a philosophical, ideological movement, “was an unprecedented step in the evolution of human thought,” (Berman 31).
In a lecture he gave at HSU, Berman offers an example of the ethical nature of modern scientific inquiry. Years after Einstein became famous for his theories of special and general relativity (1905 and 1916 respectively), he was persuaded by a colleague to write to president Franklin D. Roosevelt about the possibilities of atomic energy. Not too long after this communication bombs were dropped on Hiroshima, killing over 150,000 people, and Nagasaki, killing over 70,000. It is not always apparent, but sometimes it is quite clear that science cannot be separated from ethical considerations. Berman reviews the deconstructionist movement of the last four decades, which calls into question the epistemological status of western scientific methods, and quoting Foucault, he suggests that “there is no truth, only regimes of power and knowledge,” (Berman video).
Fritjof Capra, perhaps most popularly known from his book Tao of Physics, wrote an earlier book entitled Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture, in which he calls for a reconciliation of science and the human spirit. Capra quotes psychiatrist R.D. Laing when discussing Galileo’s insistence that science should only attend to the quantifiable properties of matter, “out go sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, along with them go aesthetics and ethical sensibility, values, quality, form; all feelings, motives, intentions, soul, consciousness, spirit. Experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse.” Capra agrees with Laing that “hardly anything has changed our world more during the past four hundred years than the obsession of scientists with measurement and quantification,” (Capra 55).
According to Capra, “The Cartesian view of the universe as a mechanical system provided a ‘scientific’ sanction for the manipulation and exploitation of nature that has become typical in western culture,” (Capra 61). He refers to the “Newtonian World-Machine” of which Descartes is the ideological founder. Descartes compared the behavior of nature to the workings of clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other man-made machines that “have nonetheless the power to move by themselves in several different ways…I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes,” (Capra 61). Descartes repeats that “I consider the human body as a machine…my thought…compares a sick man and an ill-made clock with my idea of a healthy man and a well-made clock,” (Capra 62). This approach has been largely successful for human beings, but Capra’s concern is that biologists, physicians, psychologists “tend to believe that they are nothing but machines,” (Capra 62, italics his). For if we truly do believe this then we as conscious beings (that is, at least partly non-physical, non-definable) are doomed to lives of alienation where we are not only convinced of the mind/body split, but also that our bodies and minds, our physical and mental lives, physical and mental needs cannot communicate with each other.
Capra offers an approach to life that he calls the “Systems View.” He states, “systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller units. Instead of concentrating on basic building blocks or basic substances, the systems approach emphasizes basic principles of organization,” (Capra 266). He offers some pertinent differences between machines and organisms: machines are constructed, organisms grow; activities of a machine are determined by its structure, while in organisms it’s the opposite, organic structure is determined by processes; machines are rigid and predictable, while organisms are flexible and willing to adapt to changing environments (Capra 268). These comparisons are somewhat obvious, but Capra’s point is that we need to stop thinking about the natural as world machine-like and begin re-seeing it as systems of inter-related living organisms. He offers many examples of why this shift is important, including, for instance, within the medical field.
“Because western medicine has adopted the reductionist approach of modern biology, adhering to the Cartesian division and neglecting to treat the patient as a whole person, physicians now find themselves unable to understand, or to cure, many of today’s major illnesses,” (Capra 104). A world of impersonal forces, where things other than humans have no inherent life force of their own, creates a fearful and anxiety-ridden life where in order for society to thrive, it must demonstrate power over nature.
With such violent and unhealthy foundations that Bacon and Descartes made explicit, Capra affirms that it is imperative for those of us who live in western civilization to question whether we want to continue this scientific program. It is only a few hundred years old. It is a very new system of knowledge for we humans to be using so recklessly. Indigenous societies have thrived for at least 50,000 years without the benefits of western scientific knowledge. And they thrived, it seems, in a world that was understood as a being, an ensouled aliveness.
Rupert Sheldrake, in his book, The Rebirth of Nature, refers to the Gaia (pronounced guy-ah) hypothesis as the term some scientists are now using to reflect the notion that the earth is a living being. Quoting James Lovelock, Gaia is “a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment,” (Sheldrake 154). “The atmosphere, the weathering of rocks, the chemistry of the oceans, and the geological structure of the earth have been so profoundly modified by biological activities that all these interlocking systems can be understood in relation to one another. Together they interact to maintain a remarkable and long lasting stability without which the evolution and continued existence of living organisms would not be possible,” (Sheldrake 154).
Jerry Mander, in In The Absence of the Sacred: the Failure of Technology and the Survival of Indian Nations, relates a similar notion. Prior to the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, “most cultures shared this belief…that the earth was a being, with skin, soul, and organs. The skin was the soil, the soul was contained in the rocks and bones of the dead, the organs included rivers (the bloodstream) and wind (the lungs). Such categories were not meant for metaphors. Earth was alive; we lived upon it as millions of tiny microorganisms live on human skin,”(Mander 211, italics his). He stresses that “the idea of the earth not being alive is a new idea,”(Mander 212).
Mander focuses on the role of technology in our modern societies. He states that “all new technologies are introduced in terms of their utopian possibilities,” (Mander 163). And in these modern times, the corporation is the structure that funds the explorations into such possibilities. It does this by being “engaged in commodity manufacturing, profit comes from transmogrifying raw materials into saleable forms,” (Mander 134). With techno-science based civilization “the tragedy is that in attempting to recover paradise we accelerate the murder of nature. It’s yet another repeat of the story of Cain and Abel, another acting out of the myth of Western history,” (Mander 149). After murdering Abel, the “keeper of the sheep” (representing a oneness with the earth and wild things), Cain was condemned to an alienated life “east of Eden,” in search of some lost paradise.
Mander awakens us to the fact that there isn’t even a language with which to assess the pros and cons of particular technological advances (Mander 23). Like the “scientific method” before it, any work, any change within the mad dash toward “progress” is considered good, regardless of, or unaware of, any possible detrimental effects it could later have upon our lives. Now he warns of a “technotopia” where our lives become a hegemonic display of a Disneyland-like existence where we will be forever trapped inside our technology and scientific explanations. (Mander 31, 152-156). He gives us, as he says, “the bad news” about this machine called civilization:
“The apparent purpose of this machine is to eliminate human ailments and human unhappiness, to expand the human potential, and to create a world of abundance for human enjoyment. But the unstated purpose is to fulfill the inherent drive of technological society to feed its own evolutionary cravings, to expand its dominance of both earth and space, and to complete the utter conversion of nature into commodity form,” (Mander 190).
Mander warns that while working with machines and computers, and being entertained by television, we learn “production without comprehension,” (Mander 62). That is, we learn action without meaning. With this, ways of thinking will disappear, and anxiety will increase, all at a level of acceleration that we may not be able to stop it. (Mander 62-64). And in order to keep us in line Mander tells us that “American corporations spend more than $100 billion yearly on advertising, which is far more than is spent on all secondary education in this country,” (Mander 122).
The second half of Mander’s book comprises what he calls the “native alternative.” The Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment were taking place the same time as the conquest of the “New World.” Mander suggests, “with the man-made technical machine spreading itself rapidly across the landscape, we had physical demonstrations of our power to alter nature, giving us ‘proof’ of our superiority,” (Mander 211). The values expressed by Descartes, Bacon and the entire European intellectual movement were violently displayed in the colonization of the “New World” (see note 1, pg 2).
All of this translates into what is called “social Darwinism” or “cultural Darwinism.” The power, which the findings if this new science afforded, to physically manipulate the natural world was an illustration to Euro-Americans that it was man’s destiny to develop “civilized,” “white” societies, especially at the expense of “non-civilized,” “savage” societies. Now, as less racist, less ethnocentric times develop, the effects of looking at our past – seeing the skewed ideology and brutal violence – causes some interesting psychological phenomena. Mander refers to the insights of Carl Jung and Aldus Huxley when stating that “western societies fear, hate, destroy, and also revere Indians, precisely because they express the parts of our personal and cultural psyches that we must suppress in order to function in the world as we do,”(Mander 214).
In light of the fact that the western, scientific, “civilized” world has historically assumed for itself a superior epistemological status, we must now briefly look at the kinds of perspectives that this worldview was attempting to suppress. Native Americans and Indigenous peoples in general have known since time immemorial what contemporary Nature Philosophers are now trying to tell us.
Native American Perspectives
N. Scott Momaday, one of America’s most celebrated Native American novelists, had just been in Europe, where he says people have a better idea of global environmental problems. In America, he suggests, we have become too comfortable:
“We have committed ourselves to a technological society in such a way that it is hard for us to see anything outside that context. So it’s very hard for us to understand that we are polluting the atmosphere. We know we are, but we have the tendency to think that we are so intelligent as a people and we have achieved such a high degree of civilization that the solutions will come about in the course of time. That’s a very dangerous attitude,” (Nabokov 437).
In Custer Died For Your Sins, Vine Deloria outlines some of the differences between the “white man” and Indians, and some of the common misconceptions of the latter.
“The white man has the marvelous ability to conceptualize. He has also the marvelous inability to distinguish between sacred and profane. He therefore arbitrarily conceptualizes all things and understands none of them. His science creates gimmicks for his use. Little effort is made to relate the gimmicks to the nature of life or to see them in a historical context…His conceptualizations merge into science and then emerge in his social life as problems, the solutions of which are the adjustments of his social machine. Slavery, prohibition, Civil Rights, and social services are all important adjustments of the white man’s social machine,” (Deloria 189, 1988).
He goes on to say that “the white man mythologizes racial minorities because of lack of knowledge of them…what the white man cannot understand he destroys lest it prove harmful,” (Deloria 195, 1988). This formula of misunderstand-mythologize-destroy applies first to the people, then to natural environment that they traditionally inhabit. Civilization proves its superiority by brute force; that is, by physically transforming what is thought to be wild, unpredictable, hostile, and dark into conceptually compartmentalized, technologically manageable fragments.
In his Metaphysics of Modern Existence he writes, “In the white man’s world knowledge is a matter of memorizing theories, dates, lists of kings and presidents, the table of chemical elements, and many other things not encountered in a day’s work. Knowledge seems to be divorced from experience,” (Deloria vii, 1979). After reviewing the Newtonian (mechanical) model of the universe and looking at what modern quantum physics has to say about it (highlighting some writings of Heisenberg), Deloria concludes that the basic structure of the scientific method, that isolated experiments can give us universal knowledge, is seriously flawed:
“We never experience things in isolation…rather we experience a conglomerate of things, and out of these things we remember with some degree of clarity those that have impressed themselves upon our emotions and personality. The vast majority of our experiences consist of infinitely complex situations that combine all elements of our environment. Common people, poets, and painters have always understood this aspect of human experience, but only recently have scientists and philosophers rediscovered it and begun to approach more closely the world in which we live… The reintroduction of the observer into the process of acquiring scientific knowledge implies, not simply the healing of an ancient breach, but the possibility of bringing theology and science together again,” (Deloria 38, 1979).
And he adds “As the primitive peoples believed that they were personally involved in the processes of nature, so modern scientists have concluded that they are personally involved and are an important factor in the processes of nature when they attempt to learn the secrets of the cosmos,” (Deloria 37, 1979). This is a comment on the findings of 20th century quantum physics (see note 3, pg 5).
Wallace Black Elk, a descendent of the famous Nick Black Elk from the book Black Elk Speaks, is regularly visited by westerners interested in his shamanistic powers. This typically involves communicating with animal spirits, using Chanunpa, the sacred pipe; it involves visions and prophecies, and many various other aspects, all of which constitute a traditional Sioux worldview. He refers to his knowledge as the “original science and technology – the fire, rock, water, and green,” (Lyon 67). In his amusing style, he recounts a typical experience with some anthropologists:
“So they kept asking what’s this and what’s that. So I tried to explain things to them real simple, like you would to a two-year old kid. ‘Well, what’s this?’ ‘Well, that is what you call fire.’ ‘Well, what’s that?’ ‘Well, that is a rock.’ ‘What kind of rock.’ ‘Well, it’s a lava rock. Lava comes down and cools off, and then we put the fire back into those rocks.’ He’d write all this stuff down. It seemed like they didn’t know anything, so it was really hard for me to educate them. It seemed like I would have to take them all over the mountains, across the rivers, and like that. These guys were from the high intelligence people, so they needed to write everything down. They probably came from Harvard University where John Harvard put together the science, psychology, legal, and religious languages. People who get educated speak one of those languages. But there was one thing that John Harvard left out, and that was spirit. So I had to explain everything in detail to those guys,” (Lyon 68).
Throughout his book, Wallace Black Elk recounts strange, what we might call paranormal, experiences that the dominant scientific view cannot account for. In this way he explains that the modern worldview is severely limited, and culture-dependent as to how “true” and useful certain knowledge can be.
In Marxism and Native Americans, various contemporary Native Americans are asked to comment on conditions of alienation and social unrest that our scientific, industrial, modern civilizations now face. Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1970s, and an actor and writer, writes:
“Newton ‘revolutionized’ physics and the so-called natural sciences by reducing the physical universe to a linear mathematical equation. Descartes did the same thing for culture. John Locke and Adam Smith did it with economics. Each of these ‘thinkers’ took a piece of the spirituality of human existence and converted it to a code, an abstraction…in doing this they made Europe more able and ready to act as an expansionist culture. Each of these intellectual revolutions served to abstract the European mentality even further, to remove the wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe and replace it with a ‘logical sequence’; a one-two-three ANSWER. This is what’s come to be termed as ‘efficiency’ in the European mind. Whatever is mechanical is perfect, whatever seems to work at the moment…this is why ‘truth’ changes so fast in the European mind; the answers which result from such a process are only stop-gaps, only temporary, and must be continuously discarded in favor of new stop-gaps which support the mathematical models; which keep the models alive,” (Churchill 21).
Means goes on to suggest that the gift of rationality and abstraction will be what causes our own destruction in the end. “Humans are the weakest of all creatures… humans are only able to survive through the exercise of rationality…but rationality is a curse since it can cause humans to forget the natural order of things in ways that other creatures do not,” (Churchill 29). Since we believe ourselves to be most superior, since we believe ourselves to be “godlike in our rationalism and science,” (Churchill 29) the amount of disharmony we may create is limitless.
In the same book, Frank Black Elk explains that in Lakota culture there was never any notion of “alienation.” “We as a people view ourselves only in direct relation to everything else at all times. Thus, we cannot feel the sort of distance indicated in the notion of alienation, either between each other as people, or between ourselves and any aspect of the universe,” (Churchill 152). Using Berman’s term “psychic distance,” it appears that such a phenomenon is not a feature of non-western, land-based communities. In these societies it appears that in general, there are no artificial demarcations between self, community, work, environment, and universe. These are, perhaps, pathological developments within civilization that began with the deliberate attempt some 400 years ago to severe human consciousness from the rest of creation.
John Fire Lame Deer expresses these same kinds of concerns. In the classic Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, he reveals how insane the modern life looks from a native perspective. He was born in 1903, putting him in the middle of a time of American techno-industrial optimism. Echoing Barfield’s thoughts on what role idols (or symbols) are to play in human communities, Lame Deer strikes a difference between “rationally ordered” modern society, which must operate separate from, and in opposition to, nature, and native, land-based societies:
“We Indians live in a world of symbols and images where the spiritual and commonplace are one. To you the symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book. To us they are a part of nature, part of ourselves – the earth, the sun, the wind, the rain, stones, trees, animals, even little insects like ants and grasshoppers. We try to understand them not with the head but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning,” (Erdoes 108, 1972).
Relating specifically to the “psychic distance” of Cartesian dualism and our subsequent separation from nature, Lame Deer continues:
“I think white people are so afraid of the world they created that they don’t want to see, feel, smell, or hear it. The feeling of rain and snow on your face, being numbed by an icy wind and thawing out before a smoking fire, coming out of a hot sweat bath and plunging into a cold stream, these things make you feel alive, but you don’t want them anymore. Living in boxes which shut out the heat of summer and the chill of winter, living inside a body that no longer has a scent, hearing the noise from the hi-fi instead of the sounds of nature, watching some actor on TV having a make believe experience when you no longer experience anything for yourself,” (Erdoes 121, 1972).
He finally gives us a sober warning, and informs us of the existential danger involved in this techno-industrial endeavor:
“Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist…they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, and their dreams. They don’t use the knowledge the spirit has put into every one of them; they are not even aware of this, and so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere – a paved highway which they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big, empty hole which they’ll find at the end, waiting to swallow them up. It’s a quick comfortable superhighway, but I know where it leads to. I have seen it. I’ve been there in my vision and it makes me shudder to think about it,” (Erdoes 157, 1972).
PBS recently ran a popular program entitled Frontier House. In this project three families abandoned their modern lifestyles, moved to a remote Montana valley, and lived for seven months as if it were 1883 again. No electricity, no motorized vehicles, no television and radio, no movies, no refrigerators, no highways, no computers or telephones, no nine to five schedules. Daily, they milked cows, cut acres of hay by hand, made bread from scratch, slaughtered chickens and pigs for dinner, chopped wood, hand washed clothes, constructed thousands of feet of fence line, and engaged in countless other physically demanding activities. All the adults in the program lost significant amounts of weight from the hard work.
Some of the participants often broke down, crying in desperation from the difficult way of life. But by the end of the series, in the final days of the project, many of those same people were crying from the intense meaning they got out of the whole experience. Many did not want to go back to modern life. Every family expressed heartfelt concern that they wanted to see if they could make it through the winter. And even though expert historians evaluated that none of the families would have made it (apparently only 1 in 3 families actually made it during frontier times), all firmly believed that they would have.
In the last few minutes of the last episode, all the families are shown back in their normal lives, recollecting their experiences. The Clune daughters are sitting in their hot tub in the hills of northern Los Angeles, talking about how “there’s nothing to do, except go to the mall.” Eight year old Logan Patton sits in a lazy boy, in a dark room, hypnotized by a Play Station video game and mentions, “you have so much stuff that you’re bored of it all.” All the families expressed deep concern, quiet feelings of wanting to go back and make it through the winter.
Mark Glenn, a 45 year old chairman of a medical and pharmacy department at a community college in Tennessee, “found himself,” but separated from his wife, and moved into an apartment by himself, as a result of the experience. He is shown meandering through the bright lights of downtown Nashville as his quiet, pained, over-dubbed voice shares his final thoughts:
“…it’s an unnatural life that the 21st century offers [pause] …there’s too much…there’s too much stimulus [pause] …the pace, the noise, the fluorescent lighting [pause] …your principles, your ideals, your morals, they’re all for sale [pause] …I think there’s a lot of problems that we’re just not admitting…”
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