‘Very Different Butterflies’: The Scope for Deep Complementarity Between
Western and Native American Science
Sean Howard, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Cape Breton 1
Abstract: 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.
“…the same chrysalis, according as it was submitted to cold or heat, gave rise to very different butterflies, which had long been regarded as independent species, Vanessa levana and Vanessa prorsa...”
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, 1907 2
“The world is already enchanted – really, here, now! Every tree, every rock, every star, and space itself has awareness and living energy. We have the ability to see this. And there are patterns of energy that can be clearly felt but usually not seen. Call them gods, diamons, fairies, angels, dralas, even meaningful coincidence; call them what you will. And that story of unceasing awareness could have been told to us as we grew up along with the tiny, narrow story of the Dead World. And it too could have been told in the name of science.”
Jeremy Hayward, Letters to Vanessa, 1997 3
Complementarity & Western Science: The Incomplete Revolution
In 1927, the Danish physicist and Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr proposed the simple yet profound principle of ‘complementarity’ to guide description of physical reality at the atomic level. Complementarity was a conceptual and philosophical response to the technical and mathematical proof – afforded a few months earlier by Werner Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ – that the velocity and position of a subatomic particle can never be simultaneously determined. Necessarily relinquishing the search for a single coherent picture – a self-contained, exhaustive description – of the atom, Bohr suggested the virtue of an inclusive overview, encompassing the mutually exclusive descriptions of atomic activity (e.g. electron as particle, electron as wave) derived from experiments. Hitherto, the objective of atomic physicists had been to integrate conflicting signals from the atomic realm into a definitive interpretation. Henceforth, the objective was integrative: to deepen what Bohr called the “harmonious comprehension” of that realm through critical appreciation of its necessarily distinctive manifestations. 4
This shift, radical though it is, does not imply a rejection of natural reality, but rather a recognition of its uncapturable essence, its irreducibility to anything other than a partial representation; valuable, complementary to other partial descriptions, but necessarily incomplete. As Bohr insisted: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out about nature. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” 5 From this perspective, the ‘curse’ of contradictory descriptions becomes a blessing – precisely because such descriptions are contra-dictions, different ways of speaking about nature.
Crucial in shaping this new approach was Bohr’s recognition of the decisive role and radical implications of wholeness at the atomic level: not only the indivisible pulses (quanta) of energy exchanged within and between atoms, but also the whole situation created to investigate atomic ‘objects’ of inquiry in the laboratory. As the uncertainty principle demonstrated, at the atomic level the activity inseparable from any act of observation necessarily changes the nature of the activity observed. A microscope can only observe electrons, for example, interactively: by emitting particles of light (photons) which radically alter – becomepart of – the energy and trajectory of the particles they strike. It was this basic “observational problem,” in Bohr’s words – the potentially impassable “circumstance that the interaction between atomic objects and measuring instruments forms an integral part of quantum phenomena” – that necessitated “the complementary mode of description”, with its explicit acknowledgement of the “necessity of taking into account the conditions under which experience is obtained.” 6
Bohr’s immediate goal in developing complementarity was, thus, twofold: to save physics from a false objectivity – discovering “how nature is” – while opening the path to a meaningful interactivity – discovering what “we can say about” those aspects of the natural world we engage.
Together with Heisenberg and other close colleagues, however, Bohr gradually came to see complementarity as a principle with a far wider field of application than atomic physics. With regard to biology, for example, Bohr saw a parallel between “the essential non-analyzability of atomic stability in mechanical terms” – that is, the irreducible unity of atomic phenomena – and the “existence of life itself”. “Life,” he concluded, “should be considered, both as regards its definition and observation, as a basic postulate of biology, not susceptible of further analysis, in the same way as the existence of the quantum of action, together with the ultimate atomicity of matter, forms the elementary basis of atomic physics.” 7 The task of biology, in other words, is not to define what life is, but to explore the different patterns streaming from that untraceable Source.
The presumed “ultimate” nature of this “atomicity” – the decisive but indefinable role of wholeness in natural phenomena – extends for Bohr into the heart of ‘human nature’ itself, forming the “elementary basis” of all our “modes of expression”, including the scientific. 8 Bohr “felt,” as the physicist F. David Peat puts it, that complementarity “was basic to human consciousness and to the way the mind works”:
“Until the twentieth century, science had dealt in the certainties of Aristotelian logic: ‘A thing is either A or not-A.’ Now it was entering a world in which something can be ‘both A and not-A.’ Rather than…drawing a single map that corresponds in all its features to the external world, science was having to produce a series of maps showing different features, maps that never quite overlap.” 9
But, crucially for Bohr, science is also part of the territory it seeks to chart. While it may now produce a plurality of representations, that plurality itself can be seen as one dimension of the illimitable, ever-unfolding ‘meta map’ of the human journey. Seen in this inclusive, integrative light, science enjoys not a superior or hierarchical but a complementary relationship with art, music, poetry, philosophy, religion, mysticism, etc. A poem is insusceptible to scientific analysis; mathematical formalism is irreducible to poetic metaphor. 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
Ironically enough, almost all the scientists pursuing this Holy Grail, while unquestioningly accepting the technical and interpretative parameters established by complementarity and the uncertainty principle, either ridicule or ignore Einstein’s rejection of quantum theory. The result, as Peat and physicist David Bohm note, is that they simultaneously “decry” and “actually think like” Einstein while both praising Bohr’s science and “tacitly ignoring” his “teaching.” 15
This unresolved tension – a distinctly uncomplementary contra-diction within modern physics – is related, I believe, to the broader failure of the Western scientific worldview to acknowledge the legitimacy, or even the existence, of other scientific worldviews. Perhaps surprisingly, this failure was common across the spectrum of debate over complementarity: for Bohr and Heisenberg as much as Einstein and Dirac, science meant the language and methods of rational, enlightened inquiry into physical reality bequeathed to the world by the European Age of Reason. While complementarity, from the perspective of its ‘founding fathers,’ implied the need for a significant revision of that tradition, requiring that science set itself on an equal footing with other modes of inquiry, it did not imply or require the expansion of scientific self-awareness from the Western to the global, i.e. the inclusion of non-Enlightenment traditions. The ‘other modes’ of inquiry in question were, by definition, non-scientific: science was, precisely, a mode of inquiry incapable of entering into a complementary relationship with itself. While modern physics had now to accommodate complementary descriptions of natural phenomena, it could never entertain complementary approaches to physics.
This view is seen most clearly in Bohr’s assumptions about the central role of ‘language’ – how we have to speak of nature – in the scientific representation of reality. “During the development of quantum physics,” he wrote, “entailing so many surprises, we have time and again been reminded of the difficulties of orienting ourselves in a domain of experience far from that to the description of which our means of expression are adapted.” 16 But the “problems of language here are really serious,” as Heisenberg commented, because not only are “the concepts of ordinary language” inadequate (“inaccurate and only vaguely defined” 17) to the task of a scientific description of the atom: they are also indispensable to any such account. Not only is exploration of the quantum microworld only possible using macroscale equipment based on the principles and processes of classical physics; interpretation of experimental evidence from the quantum realm is only possible using classical concepts of time, space, matter, energy, etc. The extraordinary and unfamiliar (quantum) is only rendered explicable in terms of the ordinary and everyday (classical); the translation is as incomplete as it is unavoidable.
Thus, the most contentious issues raised by the quantum theory, Heisenberg wrote, “concern the language rather than the facts, since it belongs to the concept ‘fact’ that it can be described in ordinary language.” 18 These ‘problems’ are ‘solved’ by complementarity not through provision of a new language but acceptance of the provisional nature of all explanation: by seeking to increase what we can say about nature in terms ultimately inapplicable to its extraordinary, unanalyzable and – from the viewpoint of classical theory – entirely unanticipated wholeness of action.
But is it true that all language is restricted in the same way; that there is one basic set of concepts, and thus one broad linguistic organization of conceptual thought? If so, then the ‘fact’ that ‘science’ arose in a certain place at a certain time cannot be fundamentally related to the internal nature of a particular, culturally-specific kind of speech: the same way of thinking would be natural, allowing for differences of degree, wherever people enjoyed a developed investigative vocabulary. If, however, different modes of scientific inquiry, based on distinct conceptual and linguistic terms of engagement with the natural world, were possible, then the advocates of complementarity, in fidelity to their own inclusive principles, would be obliged to reject the hypothesis of an integrated scientific approach as decisively as they aborted the search, within their approach, for a single, final-word description of reality.
What, for example, if a language of scientific inquiry existed in which the wholeness of action exhibited at the quantum level was entirely anticipated, regarded not as shattering but confirmatory of an existing set of assumptions and beliefs, around which key concepts and methods had long been structured?
In the decades since the ‘quantum revolution’, there have been numerous attempts to argue that such complementary worldviews do exist, offering insights and experiences far too valuable and relevant for Western science to either ignore or relegate to a sub-scientific (and exploitable) realm of ‘knowledge’.
Perhaps the most influential of these attempts emerged from modern physics itself: Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1976). As the books’ subtitle – An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism – suggests, Capra was at pains to stress the resonance between, rather than the reconcilability of, Western and Eastern approaches to nature and knowledge. New connections can only be created, new relationships established, in the space between different lines of inquiry – in the same way that the fundamental creative Unity of the Tao, the Universal Way, is a balance maintained by what Capra calls the “dynamic interplay” of opposites. 19 As symbolized perfectly by the yin-and-yang circle of Chinese philosophy, the wheel of being – whether in the cosmic macrocosm or the individual microcosm – is kept in motion by the creative tension within it: and this motion is itself the basic energy or spirit in-forming (and irreducible to) its partial manifestations. To assume the constant, decisive influence of such interactivity at all levels of natural reality – to look for these oppositional indicators (and generators) of a unified field – is to take as your starting point the line marking the break between modern and classical Western physics. As Capra writes:
“For a better understanding of this relationship between pairs of classical concepts, Niels Bohr has introduced the notion of complementarity… [Bohr] has often suggested that it might be a useful concept also outside the field of physics; in fact, the notion of complementarity proved to be extremely useful 2,500 years ago. It played an essential role in ancient Chinese thought which was based on the insight that opposite concepts stand in a polar – or complementary – relationship to each other.” 20
Capra notes that Bohr “was well aware of the parallel between his concept of complementarity and Chinese thought” and was “deeply impressed by the ancient Chinese notion of polar opposites.” In 1947, for example, awarded a knighthood by his native Denmark, Bohr chose as the design of his coat-of-arms “the Chinese symbol of t’ai-chi representing the complementary relationship of the archetypal opposites yin and yang”, which, “together with the inscription Contraria sunt complementa (‘Opposites are complementary’),” reflected his grateful acknowledgement of “the profound harmony between ancient eastern wisdom and modern Western science.” 21
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.
It is, thus, legitimate to draw parallels between the Chinese and Western ‘complexes’ – while remembering that the parallelism is possible only because the lines do not meet. 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. The ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ traditions, in Capra’s broad-brush terms, are both sciences precisely because they are different sciences. Merely because the Western tradition is currently undergoing dramatic change, however, does not entitle it to either subsume or appropriate other approaches. 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.
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?
The remainder of this paper defends the position that complementary scientific descriptions can indeed be derived – mutually-instructive parallels drawn – by examining natural reality through the different lenses afforded by the two (Native and Western) worldviews. By ‘scientific’, I mean that each ‘lens’ brings a clear, organized, self-consistent theory into focus via a set of recognized and dependable methods of observation, replication, verification and interpretation. Because of the profound conceptual differences shaping those physical investigations, the modes of inquiry and means of expression deployed cannot be combined into a single, synthetic (i.e. artificial, unnatural) approach. Taken in combination, however – as a syncretic totality, a resonance sustained by different frequencies – the comprehensiveness of perspective on natural phenomena is enriched.
If the merits of such a harmonic approach were to find acceptance in Western science, the path would stand open to an expansion of complementarity, a deepening of the concept to include not just a plurality of modes of human engagement with nature, of which ‘science’ is one, but a plurality of scientific modes of inquiry.
After a general introduction to both the frame-of-reference of Native American science and the picture of reality therein presented, an example of such ‘deep complementarity’ will be considered – ‘chaos theory’, or ‘creative energy’, the dynamic interplay of flux, field and form in natural systems.
II. Going Deeper: Complementarity & Native American Science
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 This general view is expressed with particular vigor by the biologist Edward O. Wilson:
“I mean no disrespect when I say that pre-scientific people, regardless of their innate genius, could never guess the nature of physical reality beyond the tiny sphere attainable by unaided common sense. Nothing else ever worked, no exercise from myth, revelation, art, trance, or any other conceivable means; and notwithstanding the emotional satisfaction it gives, mysticism, the strongest pre-scientific probe into the unknown, has yielded zero. No shaman’s spell or fast upon a sacred mountain can summon the electromagnetic spectrum. Prophets of the great religions were kept unaware of its existence, not because of a secretive god but because they lacked the hard-won knowledge of physics.” 24
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?
Interestingly, this latter view – the acceptance of the inherent partiality of scientific ‘truth’ – would not only describe Bohr’s position but a basic, guiding tenet of the Native American worldview: the irreducibility of the Great Spirit to any of Its manifestations, of Flux (dynamic wholeness) to the forms It engenders. Set against this modesty, Wilson’s supremacism strikes a doubly-harsh, and ironic, tone: in its assertion of the reducibility of natural reality to scientific law, harkening back to a classical, pre-complementarity Western view; in its championing of modern physics, blind to the major philosophical insight of that essentially disillusioning breakthrough. Yet this irony is further compounded by Bohr’s own anachronistic identification of Western science – a language of investigation – with that very classical phantom ‘science itself’, the only language of inquiry on offer – from the West, to the world.
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. Peat recalls being asked by Native American scientist Sa’ke’j Henderson, during a discussion of the qualities of medicinal plants, “what I thought a molecule was”:
“I offered him an explanation from modern science, that a molecule is a geometrical arrangement of atoms. Of course, he knew this kind of answer, but replied that a molecule was an alliance of spirits, and that when taken up into the body this alliance dissolves and takes up new configurations.” 26
To which Wilson would answer, wrong, you cannot possibly have obtained such an insight other than by the methods of my tradition, which has produced no evidence of any such ‘alliances.’ Note, however, that not only was Henderson familiar with Peat’s explanation, he made no effort to refute its relative validity, i.e. its internal self-consistency. Peat reacted initially by attempting to “bridge the gap between our two ways of thinking by calling on concepts from modern quantum physics”: “A molecule is an arrangement of atoms but it can also be represented by a wave function, which is, in a way, a sort of vibration of matter and energy. Maybe it is possible to think of the molecules that make up medicines as patterns of vibrations or more subtle forms of matter energy.” 27 It is indeed possible, he concluded, but to whose way of thinking would such a ‘bridging’ do justice?
“The more I thought about it the more I realized that ‘spirit’ cannot really be reduced to our words energy or matter as they are currently understood in Western science. The idea of using plants and herbs to cure sickness may at first sight appear close to our scientific idea of ‘medicines,’ suggesting that the powers of animal and vegetable substances lie in their biologically active molecules. But this cannot be the whole of the story. For example, the way these plants are collected is important, and before the medicine bag is used, the bag must be smudged with the purifying smoke of sage, sweet grass, tobacco, or cedar. Medicine itself has a life of its own. It is the tangible manifestation of alignments with the world of powers, energies, and spirits. Trying to understand how and why a particular plant is ‘medicine’ stretches our Western paradigm to the limit.” 28
Henderson’s approach, Peat suggests, is indicative of a general disposition within the Native American tradition to explore rather than judge, juxtapose rather than integrate, alternative interpretations:
“This [Western] desire to compare, to measure, and to categorize in terms of doing better and worse does not seem to be the natural way of doing things within the Indigenous world. … [I]n Labrador, there was a traditional Indigenous way to hunt beaver and one that the European trappers used. Today both methods are used by Native people, and there is no sense that one method is ‘better’ than the other, or that one should replace the other. Rather, both methods are used, side by side.” 29
Such an approach is, however, philosophic as well as pragmatic. Just as there are different ways of hunting animals, so there are different methods for obtaining reliable and useful knowledge of the natural world. But the source of being, the basis of both the knowledge derived and the methods employed, remains irreducible to formulation, opaque to the forms of perception it creates. You can capture the beaver, skin and dissect it, but you can never explain what you describe, reduce the whole to the parts (material and analytic) at your disposal. And, in fact, even this descriptive capacity is severely circumscribed. To examine any entity (animal, atom) in isolation is to dis-locate it from the flux that gave it form, the dynamic integrity it reflects: animal as manifestation of forest, forest of seasons, seasons of Earth, Earth of Cosmos, Cosmos of Creator, etc. To dissect is to reduce this integral reality to a separable display, divisible in space as ‘parts’ and time as cause-and-effect. The embedded, vital entity becomes a dead thing, a machine; an object of consuming interest. But whereas the actual consumption of meat for food in Native traditions is invariably located within a broader, non-reductionist context – an exchange or circling of energies within an interdependent Whole – the danger of unqualified reductionism is that it mistakes its own limits, the determining context of its model of inquiry, for those of the world it thus ‘comes out on top’ of every time.
For Bohr, such a view is blindness, a delusion of interpretative grandeur shattered by the profound evidence of dynamic wholeness at the atomic base of existence. The irreducible ‘mysteriousness’ of life, in short, is not some superstitious, pre-scientific obstacle in the way of Enlightenment, but a scientific premise from which rational, qualified conclusions can be drawn:
“[W]e should doubtless kill an animal if we tried to carry the investigation of its organs so far that we could tell the part played by the single atoms in vital functions. In every experiment on living organisms there must remain some uncertainty as regards the physical conditions to which they are subjected, and the idea suggests itself that the minimal freedom we must allow the organism will be just large enough to permit it, so to say, to hide its ultimate secrets from us. On this view, the very existence of life must in biology be regarded as an elementary fact that cannot be derived from ordinary mechanical physics. Indeed, the essential non-analyzability of atomic physics in mechanical terms presents a close analogy to the impossibility of a physical or chemical explanation of the peculiar functions characteristic of life.” 30
A science that sets out to ‘get to the bottom’ of life, or the lifeless mechanisms somehow ‘causing’ the ‘effect’ of existence, will necessarily differ, qualitatively, from a science seeking to explore the holistic, relational diversity of being and becoming. Western science is, of course, capable of developing in this direction, of reconfiguring itself to take full, consistent account of the holistic implications of complementarity. To achieve and sustain this conceptual resonance with other traditions, however, it will need to overcome not only deep-seated cultural prejudices and assumptions of superiority, but its own isolation, its compartmentalized dis-location in modern society. For Bohr, ‘science’ was naturally complementary to other dimensions of inquiry and experience – art, religion, politics, justice, economics, etc. From the Native American perspective, however, however, these categorical distinctions are unnatural and insupportable. Peat makes the point well:
“I believe that Indigenous science…is a disciplined approach to understanding and knowing, or rather, to the processes of coming to understanding and knowing. It has supporting metaphysics about the nature of reality, deals in systems of relationship, is concerned with the energies and processes within the universe, and provides a coherent scheme and basis for action. On the other hand, it is not possible to separate Indigenous science from other areas of life such as ethics, spirituality, metaphysics, social order, ceremony, and a variety of other aspects of daily existence. Thus it can never be a ‘branch’ or ‘department’ of knowledge, but rather remains separable from the cohesive whole, from a way of being and of coming-to-being.” 31
Perhaps it was this integral quality of Indigenous science, rather than any methodological or epistemological considerations, that blinded Bohr (and blinds Wilson) to its legitimacy; to, precisely, its separate existence, with its own institutions, bureaucracies, practices, hierarchies, terminology, specializations, etc. Taken together, as Peat stresses, these ‘indicators’ of ‘progress’ in science form the yardstick by which the ‘authenticity’ of other traditions are judged – as a rule, the stick with which they are beaten. The significance of Peat’s contribution, as a modern physicist seeking to change Western perceptions of science, is thus not primarily in demonstrating that the two approaches have important elements in common – important though it is to challenge the monopolization of key concepts such as ‘empiricism’, ‘observation,’ ‘experimentation,’ and ‘verification’ – but in recognizing the existence of complementary gauges of success. “Until now,” he writes toward the end of Blackfoot Physics, “I have been asking if Indigenous science is truly a science, and in doing so I assumed that only one yardstick exists that provides a standard set of definitions – Western science.” Answering ‘yes’ to the question thus phrased, however, is “not to question whether Indigenous science exists in its own right”:
“As far as Indigenous people are concerned, there is no need for them to justify their spirituality, their traditions, or their science by reference to anything external to their society. Indigenous science does not need to explain itself to anyone. It has no need to compare or authenticate itself against the standard of Western science.” 32
In a concise introductory summation of what he calls the ‘Native American paradigm’, Leroy Little Bear comments:
“Science has been and can be defined many different ways depending on who is doing the defining. But the one thing that is certain is that ‘science’ is culturally relative. … Scientific facts…are as much a product of the observer’s human nature as they are of an underlying reality. … If science is a search for reality and if science is a search for knowledge at the leading edge of the humanly knowable, then there are ‘sciences’ other than the Western... One of these other sciences is Native American science.” 33
The need for validation is one thing, however, and the desire for constructive dialogue another. “The Native American paradigm,” Little Bear writes, “is comprised of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with spirit.” This basic framework is described by the same author as “incomprehensible to most Westerners”, principally because of its non-reductionist framework in which “measurement is only one of many factors to be considered.” 34
Most , perhaps, but not all; and not inevitably. Complementarity is based on a recognition of the radical limits of measurement, an admission of the partial validity of quantitative analysis of natural processes; and in this contraction of the concept, new models and ideas, more resonant with Native American understandings, are opening up. In quantum physics, for example, measurement no longer describes the deterministic, cause-and-effect relationships and processes central to classical theory; rather, quantitative indicators are obtained of the non-deterministic, probabilistic quality of atomic phenomena. On the macroscale – as we’ll note in our consideration of chaos theory – similarly non-deterministic qualities of flux and form are the focus of intense study, with the role of measurement again changing from validation of a predictive reductionist hypothesis to the modeling of the role of unpredictability, spontaneity and randomness in systematic change and evolution. Such measurement, in fact, exists on the border of quantity and quality, posing enormous technical and conceptual challenges. As the mathematician Ian Stewart writes:
“One of the most striking features of recent mathematics has been its emphasis on general principles and abstract structures – on the qualitative rather than the quantitative. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford once remarked that ‘qualitative is just poor quantitative,’ but that attitude no longer makes sense. To turn Rutherford’s dictum on its head, quantitative is just poor qualitative. … We will never understand the growth of a tree or the dunes in the desert if we try to reduce of all nature’s freedom to restrictive mathematical schemes. The time is ripe for the development of a new kind of mathematics, one that possesses the kind of intellectual rigor that was the real point of Rutherford’s criticism of sloppy qualitative reasoning, but has far more conceptual flexibility. We need an effective mathematical theory of form, which is why I call my dream [of a new math] ‘morphomatics.’” 35
In classical Western science, measurement was important not in itself but because of its assumed reflection of the immutable, eternal laws underlying, and ultimately determining, natural phenomena. As Leroy Little Bear observes, this assumption is alien to the Native American paradigm: “For Einstein and Western science, creation and existence were made in a certain way by God and will always remain the same; everything and anything in creation just needs to be discovered by humans. Nothing is certain unless it can be referred to as a regular pattern after long-term observation. But, for the Native American, even regularities are subject to change. Native Americans never claim regularities as laws, or as finalities. The only constant is change.” 36 This, of course, was precisely why Einstein was philosophically repulsed by the ‘new physics’; the acausality, randomness and unpredictability it perceived in the quantum realm seemed to him lawless, anarchic, sacrilegious. But as the iron grip of physical law was relaxed, new, more organic conceptions of the relationship between law and reality became possible. A striking recent example is The Life of the Cosmos by the physicist Lee Smolin:
“The laws of nature themselves, like the biological species, may not be eternal categories, but rather the creations of natural processes occurring in time. There will be reasons why the laws of physics are what they are, but these reasons may be partly historical and contingent, as in the case of biology. … [T]he desire to understand the world in terms of a naïve and radical atomism in which elementary particles carry forever fixed properties, independent of the history or shape of the universe, perpetuates a now archaic view of the world. It suggests a kind of nostalgia for the absolute point of view, a way of seeing the world that was lost when the Newtonian conception of space and time was overthrown.” 37
Now, can a recognition of, and dialogue with, other paradigms help Western science meet these challenges? The Pueblo science writer and educator Gregory Cajete suggests that, “with the creative influence of chaos theory and quantum physics, a new scientific cultural metaphor has begin to take hold” in the West. “The insights of this new science,” he continues, “parallel the vision of the world long held in Indigenous spiritual traditions”:
“Because of this undeniable parallel, Indigenous thought has the potential to inform a contemporary understanding of chaos. Such understanding allows modern consciousness to encompass the primal wisdom of Indigenous thought and with this to understand the fallacy of scientific and societal control. The modern obsession of being in control and the dream of eliminating uncertainty through control of nature, which is the underlying philosophical premise of Western science, must give way to the reality of moving creatively with the flow of events, which is the true reality of the universe.” 38
As we have seen, however, Western scientists are deeply divided in their response to such claims. Some, such as David Bohm, strongly echo Cajete’s viewpoint:
“Understanding is now valued as the means to predict, control, and manipulate things. Of course, beginning with Francis Bacon, this has always been important but never so dominant as today. … This leads us to focus on particular problems, even when they are significantly related to a broader context. As a result, we fail to notice the unforeseen consequences, which cannot always be dealt with in terms of a fragmentary mode of thought. … For example, by exploring natural resources in a fragmentary manner, society has brought about the destruction of forests and agricultural lands, created deserts, and even threatens the melting of the ice caps. … Of course, many people think that solving these sorts of problems is only a matter of studying ecology or some other specialty. Certainly ecology does begin to acknowledge the complex dependence of each activity on the whole context. But really the problem is as much one of economics as it is of ecology, and this leads on to politics, and to the structure of society and the nature of human beings in general. The key issue is this: How is it possible to subject all these factors to prediction and control in order to manipulate the system and bring about good order? Clearly this is an impossible demand. … [H]ow can science lead human beings to control themselves? How do scientists propose to control hatred between nations, religions, and ideologies when science itself is fundamentally limited and controlled by these very things?” 39
Many others, though, enthusiastically endorse E. O. Wilson’s triumphalist vision of reductionism, his conviction that, far from having been rendered ‘naïve’ or ‘archaic’, it now stands on the threshold of a glorious culmination:
“The legacy of the Enlightenment is the belief that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely. This self-confidence has risen with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, which is being woven into an increasingly full explanatory web of cause-and-effect. … We now understand where humanity came from, and what it is. Homo sapiens, like the rest of life, was self-assembled. … Human autonomy having thus been recognized, we should now feel more disposed to reflect on where we wish to go. In such an endeavor it is not enough to say that history unfolds by processes too complex for reductionist analysis. That is the white flag of the secular intellectual, the lazy modernist equivalent of the Will of God. … We have begun to probe the foundations of human nature, revealing what people most need, and why.” 40
While Bohm and Wilson apparently stand worlds apart, Bohm here makes exactly the same mistake, hesitates on the same threshold, as Bohr: ‘science,’ he claims, has been interested in the control and domination of nature “beginning with Francis Bacon.” From the millennia-long perspective of Chinese or Native American science, this is an odd ‘beginning’ indeed. How, he asks, do “scientists” plan to “control” social tensions when “science itself” is socially “limited and controlled”. Cajete and Leroy Little Bear might agree with this last claim: science is indeed of, not above, society, just as society is of, not above, the natural world. But, precisely because the science they are practicing is integrally related to a far greater, interdependent Whole, Native American scientists do not seek manipulative control over others: the whole philosophical and experiential basis of their methods and language of inquiry mitigates profoundly against such delusions of grandeur.
In the last years of his life, under the direct influence of the Native American paradigm, Bohm finally made this move into ‘deep complementary’: the leap from the ‘world of science’ to a world of sciences. The decisive factor seems to have been the radical difference in the language of inquiry in the two traditions.
For Bohr, as we have seen, the language of science, however esoteric or abstract, was ultimately rooted in the concepts and scales of everyday, commonplace communication; and that language, he assumed, was essentially the same in every cultural complex. In his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, however, Bohm came to the drastic conclusion that ‘science’ could never evolve beyond a simplistic reductionism unless ‘language’ evolved beyond its own internal reductionism: the artificial grammatical separation of the world into ‘subject’ and ‘object’, ‘verb’ and ‘noun.’ Asking “whether there are any features of the commonly used language which tend to sustain and propagate” the endemic fragmentation of reality, Bohm comments:
“A cursory examination shows that a very important feature of this kind is the subject-verb-object structure of sentences… This structure implies that all action arises in a separate entity, the subject, and that, in cases described by a transitive verb, this action crosses over the space between them to another separate entity, the object. … This is a pervasive structure, leading in the whole of life to a function of thought tending to divide things into separate entities, such entities being conceived of as essentially fixed and static in their nature. When this view is carried to its limit, one arrives at the prevailing scientific world view, in which everything is regarded as ultimately constituted out of a set of basic particles of fixed nature.” 41
In order to ‘unfix’ nature from this perspective – to ‘unpin’ the ‘butterfly’ – language itself would have to acquire free movement. This revolution, which Bohm proposed moving towards through an alternative language model he called the ‘rheomode’ (from the Greek verb rheo, ‘to flow’), would change “the syntax and grammatical form of language…so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than the noun.” Why was this so important? Because “the verb describes actions and movements which flow into each other and merge, without sharp separations or breaks. Moreover, since movements are in general ways always themselves changing, they have in themselves no permanent pattern of fixed form with which separately existent things could be identified.” Such a language, Bohm added, was needed to adequately express the “overall world view” he was struggling towards, “in which movement is, in effect, taken as a primary notion, while apparently static and separately existent things are seen as relatively invariant states of continuing movement”. 42
Following the release of Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm and a small group of colleagues and supporters worked hard to develop the scheme beyond these broad, ambitious outlines. After a while, however, as David Peat remembers, “Bohm no longer pursued the rheomode”: his “ideas…were intriguing, yet the response he got from most professional linguists…was discouraging; they found his ideas naïve and unconvincing.” In addition to this cool reception, the rheomode group “began to use…verbs as stand-ins for nouns, defeating the very purpose for which the language [model] had been created. Transforming language was a project more difficult than Bohm had anticipated.” 43
Fortunately for the frustrated Western physicist, however, he soon encountered something else he hadn’t anticipated – a set of living languages brilliantly reflecting and expressing the undivided flow of natural movement:
“In the last year of his life…Bohm met with a group of Native Americans who were all speakers of the strongly verb-based Algonquian family languages. (The participants included Blackfoot, MicMaq, Cheyenne, Ojibwa, and Soto.) Bohm was struck by their process-based vision of the world and by the way they themselves viewed the role played by their language. Here was a society, it seemed to him, that practiced what he had envisioned for his rheomode.” 44
If scientific concepts are necessarily, integrally connected to a broader language and deeper worldview, then radically different languages and worldviews will necessarily generate complementary sciences. The revelation both exhilarated and depressed Bohm and his wife:
“As the discussions continued, Bohm learned [more] about the process-based worldview… Everything is said to be in flux, and this constant change is reflected in their…language… Both Bohm and Saral were moved by the deeply spiritual outlook of the participants. Speaking about the arrival of the first Europeans, Bohm remarked, ‘It would have been better if we had never come.’” 45
The participants themselves, however, seemed glad that this newcomer had moved so humbly across the border of scientific imperialism: “Bohm died a few weeks before the second of these circles, held in Banff, Alberta. When the…[group convened] on the first evening, it was discovered that, by chance, one chair had been left vacant. This was Bohm’s chair, and several of the speakers addressed him directly as if his spirit were present.” 46
However impressed Bohm was by the Algonquin perspective, his next step would not have been to simply adopt the language, to somehow leap over his own tradition into a brave new worldview. He stood not on the brink of a conversion but rather a dialogue bound deeply to affect – in a creative, non-formulaic manner – his own approach.
How, more specifically, might such a dialogue proceed?
III. Complementary Healing? Chaos Theory and the Split Between ‘Worlds’
The situation of many Native Americans in a world made ‘modern’ by the ‘triumph’ of the West is often described in terms of ‘schizophrenia,’ a limbo-identity suspended between the irrevocable certainties of the past and the alien uncertainties of the future. Cajete, for instance, takes as the starting-point of his search for a renaissance of Indigenous science (and science education) the tragic premise that “American Indian people today live a dual existence. … They are constantly faced with living in a larger society that does not really understand nor respect their traditional life symbols, ecological perspectives, understanding of relationship to the land, and traditional ways of remembering to remember who they are. … The results for many Indian communities are ‘existential’ problems such as high rates of alcoholism, suicide, abuse of self and others, depression, and other social and spiritual ills.” 47 As Cajete adds, however, such symptoms of profound dis-ease, and the unthinkable dislocations they reflect, are not limited to one, albeit acutely affected, section of the population:
“Tewa people call this state of schizophrenic-like existence pingeh heh (split thought or thinking, or doing things with only half of one’s mind). As an Indian educator, I believe that modern Indian education ultimately has to be about healing this split. Healing the split is not a task for Indian people only. It is also the task of others who consider themselves people of place, and thereby experience alienation from mainstream society as do many Indian people.” 48
For David Bohm, prior to his transforming encounter with Native America, the scientific obsession with the control and domination of nature – a compulsion normalized, both reaffirmed and disguised, by the basic structures of language – exemplified a broader ‘fragmentation of thought’ artificially separating humanity from nature. Given both the scale of the resultant crisis, and the growing failure of the reductionist paradigm to provide a coherent conceptual framework for inquiry, Bohm argued that we “need to change what we mean by ‘science’. The moment has come for a creative surge along new lines.” 49
For Bohm, emerging Western ideas about change and transformation in natural systems – popularly referred to as ‘chaos theory’ – provided an ideal opportunity to open the scientific mind to the possibilities of such a redirection. For Cajete, these new shoots lent themselves naturally to comparison, mutually-affirmative rather than judgmental, with deep-rooted Native American perspectives:
“Chaos theory, derived from the cutting edge of Western scientific research itself, implies that systems are beyond the ability of scientists to predict or control except at the most superficial levels, and that all of nature is a chaotic system. Rather than seeking to control natural reality, Native science focuses its attention upon subtle, inner natures wherein lie the rich textures and nuances of life. This is exactly what chaos theory shows us: small, apparently insignificant things play major roles in the way a process unfolds. Indeed, Native science may be said to be the ‘science of the subtle.’” 50
Interestingly, the subtitle of the classic popular presentation of the new Western ideas – Order Out of Chaos, by Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, and his colleague Isabelle Stengers – is Man’s New Dialogue With Nature. Why is such a dialogue necessary? To heal what the great scholar of Chinese science Joseph Needham described as the “characteristic European schizophrenia” 51, the false split between the human and the natural worlds which has proved so damaging, and may yet prove fatal, to ‘both’:
“In classical science the emphasis was on time-independent laws. … It is natural that this quest for an eternal truth behind changing phenomena aroused enthusiasm. But it also came as a shock that nature described in this way was in fact debased: by the very success of science, nature was shown to be an automaton, a robot. … Modern science transmuted this…stance into what seemed to be an established truth; and this truth, the reduction of nature to atoms and void, in turn gave rise to what Lenoble has called the ‘anxiety of modern men.’ How can we recognize ourselves in the random world of the atoms? Must science be defined in terms of rupture between man and nature?” 52
Yes , the authors answer, if this scientific worldview, however tragic, is based on an accurate reading and representation of fundamental natural processes. The basic, twofold conviction of pre-complementarity Western science was that: 1) immutable, eternal laws exist behind the phenomenal veil; and 2) that the quantitative, reductionist approach – analytically dissecting (purposefully rupturing) the non-living ‘machinery of life’ – was capable of piercing the veil, reading the secret thoughts of that ‘godlike mind’. From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, faith in Western science (understood, of course, as synonymous with ‘science itself’) meant faith in the revelatory quality of this basic procedure.
Reductionism, in this sense, played the part of resurrection in Christian faith. As St. Paul observed (1 Corinthians, 13: 19), “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” An ‘Age of Reason’ version of the text might read: “if reductionism does not reveal, lift us above nature, then our experiments and theories are in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting nature, because we prophesied that it would reveal its secrets at our hands… If we are learning only how to speak about nature, our delusion is surely most to be pitied.”
Prigogine and Stengers’ point, of course, is that this pity can often be extended to those who believe reductionism does fulfil a revelatory function: the revelation, for many devotees, is of a meaningless, alien Universe, and thus ironically unsalvational in nature. As one of the major new testaments to such despair, Chance and Necessity by Jacques Monod (1972), reads: “Man must at last…awake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes”. Prigogine and Stengers’ respond: “This is a paradox. A brilliant breakthrough in molecular biology, the deciphering of the genetic code, in which Monod actively participated, ends upon a tragic note. This very progress, we are told, makes us the gypsies of the universe. How can we explain this situation? Is not science a way of communication, a dialogue with nature?” 53
Chaos theory, they then argue, suggests that the “tragic choice” 54 posed by Monod – to accept the reality of the disenchanted cosmos or believe in the fairytales of humanity’s childhood – is an entirely false construction. A fresh channel of communication with nature is indeed in the process of being opened in the West by, as Cajete put it, “the cutting edge” of research exposing the Enlightenment paradigm as “an excessive simplification” compared by Prigogine and Stengers to “reducing buildings to piles of bricks”:
“Yet out of the same bricks we may construct a factory, a palace, or a cathedral. It is on the level of the building as a whole that we apprehend it as a creature of time, as a product of culture, a society, a style. But there is the additional and obvious problem that, since there is no one to build nature, we must give to its very ‘bricks’ – that is, to its microscopic activity – a description that accounts for this building process.” 55
What account, then, does chaos theory give of this process, and to what extent is its ‘new dialogue’ resonant with the frequencies of human-natural communication long open in the Native American tradition? Let us juxtapose our two main sources:
“Chaos is both movement and evolution. It is the process through which everything in the universe becomes manifest and then returns to the chaos field. The flux, or ebb and flow, of chaos appears in everything and envelops us at all times and in all places. From the evolving universe to the mountain to the human brain, chaos is the field from which all things come into being. No wonder Native science envisions the spirit of the natural world alive with disorder becoming order and all the mystery of mirrored relationships. … Self-organization or ‘creativity’ out of chaos occurs everywhere in nature. Random interstellar gases and electromagnetic fields of radiation self-organize to form galaxies and star systems. The interaction of rain with the earth’s geological landscape leads to the vast patterns of rivers and streams that form drainage systems. Birds or insects fly in perfect unison.” 56
“Our universe has a pluralistic, complex character. Structures may disappear, but also they may appear. … Today we see everywhere the role of irreversible processes, of fluctuations. The models considered by classical physics seem to us to occur only in limiting situations such as we can create artificially by putting matter into a box and then waiting till it reaches equilibrium. The artificial may be deterministic and reversible. The natural contains essential elements of randomness and irreversibility. This leads to a new view…in which matter is no longer the passive substance described in the mechanistic world view but is associated with spontaneous activity. This change is so profound that… we can really speak about a new dialogue of man with nature.” 57
“Then there is the notion of subtle influences, or the ‘butterfly effect’ in chaos theory. In chaotic systems, even small things turn out to have large-scale effects over a period of time. For example, if we look at weather we see a recurring climatic pattern over a long period of time. However, if we examine details we see that weather is in constant flux due to the bifurcating and amplifying activity of a host of subtle effects. In a weather system, everything is interconnected. Positive and negative feedback loops are in constant motion, and somewhere in the system, a ‘butterfly’ loop may cause slight changes. Sooner or later, one of these loops is amplified, and we see a dramatic and unpredictable shift in the pattern. The butterfly effect may be called chance, but it is really the cumulative influence of a small change in a system. It may be an increase or decrease of temperature in a weather pattern, an individual such as Gandhi taking a stand against oppression, or a Native prayer, song, dance, or ritual to bring rain to a parched land. In the world of chaos, anything is possible.” 58
“…from this perspective life no longer appears to oppose the ‘normal’ laws of physics, struggling against them to avoid its normal fate – its destruction. On the contrary, life seems to express in a specific way the very conditions in which our biosphere is embedded, incorporating the nonlinearities of chemical reactions and far-from-equilibrium conditions imposed on the biosphere by solar radiation. We have discussed the concepts that allow us to describe the formation of dissipative structures, such as the theory of bifurcations. It is remarkable that near-bifurcations systems present large fluctuations. Such systems seem to ‘hesitate’ among various possible directions of evolutions... A small fluctuation may start an entirely new evolution that will drastically change the whole behavior of the macroscopic system. The analogy with social phenomena, even with history, is inescapable. Far from opposing ‘chance’ and ‘necessity,’ we now see both aspects as essential in the description of non-linear systems far from equilibrium.” 59
Cajete would certainly agree with Prigogine and Stengers that “this perspective” – that the “universe has a pluralistic…character” – creates a reputable scientific basis for dialogue with nature. Would Prigogine and Stengers, however, agree with Cajete that such a dialogue should also open channels of communication between different traditions, perspectives reflecting the pluralistic character of the scientific universe? Order Out of Chaos suggests that they stand alongside Bohr on the brink of such deep complementarity:
“We believe that we are heading toward a new synthesis, a new naturalism. Perhaps we will be able to eventually combine the Western tradition, with its emphasis on experimentation and quantitative formulations, with a tradition such as the Chinese one, with its view of a spontaneous, self-organizing world. Toward the beginning of this Introduction, we cited Jacques Monod. His conclusion was: ‘The ancient alliance has been destroyed; man knows at last he is alone in the universe’s indifferent immensity out of which he emerged only by chance.’ Perhaps [in one sense] Monod is right. The ancient alliance has been shattered. Our role is not to lament the past. It is to try to discover in the midst of the extraordinary diversity of the sciences some unifying thread.” 60
By the ‘ancient alliance,’ Monod designated the profound, participatory connection between humanity and nature: Life as Sacred, Earth as Mother, Cosmos as Home. A belief in that natural order, however, is still the “unifying thread” of traditions “such as the Chinese,” and most definitively including the Native American. But note that Prigogine and Stengers do not seek such a thread in the midst of a plurality of sciences but rather in the diversity of the sciences: that is, the modern Western triad of physics, chemistry and biology. That tradition, they believe, is capable of evolving, developing a more natural view of nature, by incorporating new conceptual elements from outside. But outside what: the West, or science? If only one truly scientific framework is assumed – the triad as the retort in which this ‘synthesis’ occurs – is not the process actually assimilative, an artificial transmutation of integral, wholly different traditions, ‘entities’ rather than ‘elements’, separate rather than separable? And if there is more than one framework – a plurality of receptacles shaping knowledge of nature – why is synthesis rather than dialogue, integration rather than collaboration, desirable or necessary?
If Prigogine and Stengers are right, then the Western tradition clearly stands in need of a major conceptual and philosophical overhaul, a process it may well have to look outside of its own worldview to complete. But does it follow from this that traditions already possessing a strong and coherent conceptual framework have paid for it by neglecting the alleged strengths of the “Western tradition,” the “emphasis” on “experimentation” and “quantitative formulations”? As Peat seeks to demonstrate, it is a Western myth that the Native American tradition does not conduct an intense empirical experimental relationship with the natural world. The context and content, the regulation and organization, of that relationship is not inferior but complementary to the West’s, shaped by a different paradigm of inquiry. As Leroy Little Bear points out, from the perspective of his worldview, Western science seems burdened and distracted by an overemphasis on mechanistic and quantitative formulations, blinded to other, perhaps far more significant, organic and qualitative, factors of real change and transformation. Does this worldview, or the Chinese, require synthesis with the West’s? Or is it, on the contrary, sufficiently self-assured and independent to welcome an exchange of information and opinion?
The discussion leads back to the insight at the heart of complementarity: the inherent partiality – the essential ‘unsynthesizability’ – of the ‘truths’ disclosed by science. As Peat stresses, the issue is not which scientific tradition is right or better; and the objective should not be to combine the best of all paradigms into a mega- or super-paradigm. The results of any such ‘grand unified theory’ will necessarily be synthetic: artificial and, by a supreme irony, unnatural. No science can hope to grasp, i.e. demystify, the wholeness manifested in the objects of its inquiry; no science can hope to rise above the cultural environment both shaping and shaped by its activity: the existence in diverse environments of distinct understandings of natural phenomena is itselfa natural phenomenon. For Prigogine and Stengers to acknowledge the limits, even the unnaturalness, of the traditional Western framework is certainly to take a step away from the exclusionary supremacism voiced by Wilson. To seek to overcome this weakness, however, through pursuit of a synthetic Grail, is to step back from the brink of genuine pluralism: to redraw, albeit more expansively, the line separating the circle of science from other scientific worlds.
For the Western circle to really open, a very different step will have to be taken, one far more modest and reasonable than any “new synthesis”, yet requiring the rehabilitation, within the Enlightenment tradition, of a demon long thought exorcised: metaphysics.
IV. Conclusion: Escaping the Vice
Prigogine and Stengers ask: “Must we choose between a science that leads to alienation and an anti-scientific metaphysical view of nature?” Not so, they insist: “We think such a choice is no longer necessary, since the changes that science is undergoing today leads to a radically new situation. … Modern science originated in the specific context of the European seventeenth century. We are now approaching the end of the twentieth century, and it seems that some more universal message is carried by science, a message that concerns the interaction of man and nature as well as of man with man.” 61 Such a message, they add, will reflect “the emergence of new conceptual structures that now appear as essential to our understanding of the physical world – the world that includes us.” 62
“Our vision of nature is undergoing a radical change” 63: but whose vision, exactly? Presumably, the ‘children’ of the Age of Reason, the inheritors of the picture of the world bequeathed, and framed, by the “specific context of the European seventeenth century”. But here, again, we both reach the threshold of a true breakthrough and fall back on false distinctions. For where other than Enlightenment Europe was the “metaphysical view of nature” first identified and denounced as “anti-scientific”? The self-image of modern Western science is created in the heroic empirical gaze of Galileo, refusing to view natural reality through the dogmatic prism of scholastic theology. The self-esteem of the entire Age of Reason is inseparable from the pride taken in this historic break of physics from metaphysics, science from superstition, chemistry from alchemy, etc. It was in this particular atmosphere – as the product of a “culture, a society, a style” – that metaphysics came to be regarded as synonymous with theology, an approach neither complementary nor supplementary but simply antithetical to the search for truth, incommensurate with an accurate and reliable understanding of nature.
Now, the phrase used by Prigogine and Stengers – “an anti-scientific metaphysical view of nature” – suggests the possibility of a legitimate metaphysics of scientific inquiry. But nowhere in Order Out of Chaos is such a possibility explored. In fact, the authors explicitly advocate a “third path” between the “positivistic” and the “metaphysical”, namely to “ask whether the simplicity” of the processes of change and transformation “traditionally considered in physics and chemistry” was “due to the fact that attention was paid mainly to some very simplified situations, to heaps of bricks in contrast with the cathedral to which we have alluded.” 64
This proposed solution is very much in the spirit of Bohr: to avoid conceptual confusion and theoretic delusions about nature, science needs to pay more attention to the ways in which it pays attention to nature, needs to appreciate the ways those ways radically limit the scope of the claims it can make. Indeed, it is only by means of such a retreat, the contraction of the applicability of classical concepts, that advances in understanding are made possible. “Curiously,” as Prigogine and Stengers say, “the unexpected complexity that has been discovered in nature has not led to a slowdown in the progress of science, but on the contrary” to a radically new picture of natural reality.
All of which may be true. But the question before us is this: can any picture of physical reality be drawn without a frame-of-reference – a set of assumptions about the nature of that reality – guiding the inquiring hand? In asking us to think about the way we think about nature, is not Bohr, is not Prigogine, asking us to examine just such a set of assumptions? And what other than meta-physical can such a scientific setting be?
Reviewing the legendary debate between Bohr and Einstein over quantum theory, Robert Pirsig notes it “was always” shaped “in terms of thought experiments”, logic-games potentially illuminative of, but in this case substituted for, deeper questions: “Although Bohr had said, ‘Reality is a term we must learn to use,’ the debate was never raised to the level of a discussion of what this ‘physical reality’ is whose description is either complete or incomplete.” “The reason” for this lacuna, or blindspot, Pirsig argues, was that “in those days a philosophic discussion of ‘reality’ was discouraged”:
“Discussions of reality were metaphysics and metaphysics was something associated with medieval religious mysticism. Yet as I read through the material…I could see that this was not primarily a quarrel about physics, it was about metaphysics. … There is no way one can possibly construct a scientific experiment to determine whether or not an external reality exists if there is a difference in metaphysical interpretation. Whatever results you come up with can still be explained differently in each metaphysical system.” 65
Pirsig’s conclusion? It “is necessary to get into a closer look at the metaphysical system of Complementarity itself” 66 – exactly the step Bohr’s (and Einstein’s) own modern scientific prejudice prevented him from taking. Both Bohr and Einstein believed desperately in the importance of a philosophical dimension to science, yet neither were able, or at least culturally disposed, to see the necessarily metaphysical dimensions of any such philosophical perspective.
As Prigogine and Stengers’ make clear, ‘those days’ are still with us. And this persistent prejudice, I believe, lies at the root of another, the obstacle blocking the transition from shallow to deep complementarity: the prejudice of Western science against other sciences. Different scientific ‘worlds’, complementary styles and modes of inquiry, are possible only because different metaphysical atmospheres exist to sustain them. But not only does the Western paradigm construct a ‘one-world’ model of science; it refuses to acknowledge that even that world, its own, is a reflection and expression of an underlying metaphysics. And when a metaphysics, instead of providing a natural conceptual atmosphere of inquiry, is ignored – pervasively present but invisibly dispersed in the ‘pure’ air of ‘science itself’ – then the ‘method’ that science supposedly just ‘is’ runs the risk of becoming a madness, the classic delusion Bohr was so keen to dispel: a failure to think straight, valorized and experienced as straightforward thinking.
Both quantum and chaos theory clearly pose awkward and deeply unsettling questions for the Western scientific paradigm. Bohr and Prigogine, however, seek to treat that dis-ease without recourse to metaphysical examination: without questioning the Enlightenment definition of ‘science’ as a set of rational methods of inquiry, a yardstick against which other approaches should be measured.
In the Chinese and Native American traditions, by contrast, scientific understandings of physical reality are explicitly located within a broader and deeper understanding of the reality – the Way, the Great Spirit – manifested in natural phenomena. Starting from the premise that a metaphysical frame-of-reference necessarily obscures a true picture of reality, what conclusion can you draw from such traditions other than Wilson’s – that they are unscientific – or Bohr’s – that they are complementary to science? Unless Western science acknowledges the metaphysical basis of its own endeavors, it will prove unable to resolve the essentially non-physical issues encoded in the Bohr-Einstein dispute. And until Western science takes that step, back across the metaphysical shadow it claims not to cast, it will remain blind to the validity of other sciences, other ways of partially knowing the true Way.
As stressed above, the ‘madness’ of anti-metaphysical science is symptomatic, even emblematic, of a wider disorder, the general fragmentation of modern life and thought; the dis-integrative, and doomed, attempt to control life through thought. In the introduction to Process and Reality, his momentous attempt to restore metaphysical vision to Western science, Alfred North Whitehead argued that the prime task of philosophy now lay in “the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists, and also into an enlargement of their imaginations. By providing the generic notions philosophy should make it easier to conceive the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature.” 67 Under the influence – in the expansive metaphysical atmosphere – of these ‘generic notions,’ the claims made on behalf of specialized inquiry contract, located in an overall appreciation of the Whole. If, however, specialization provides both picture and frame, the Whole is inevitably, systematically, obscured, reduced to partial, separable ‘components’, unnaturally torn from the ‘womb’:
“We habitually speak of stones, and planets, and animals, as though each individual thing could exist, even for a passing moment, in separation from an environment which is in truth a necessary factor in its own nature. Such an abstraction is a necessity of thought, and the requisite background of systematic environment can be presupposed. That is true. But it also follows that, in the absence of some understanding of the final nature of things, and thus of the sorts of backgrounds presupposed in such abstract statements, all science suffers from the vice that it may be combining various propositions that which tacitly presuppose inconsistent backgrounds. No science can be more secure that the unconscious metaphysics which tacitly it presupposes. The individual thing is necessarily a modification of its environment, and cannot be understood in disjunction. All reasoning, apart from some metaphysical reference, is vicious.” 68
Whitehead was writing shortly before the ‘birth’ of the atomic age, yet his sense of the possible consequences of unrestrained fragmentation in the human view of nature seemed already to encompass the apocalyptic. “Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go,” he argued, with the “transitions” from “exhausted” methods of “limited understanding” to “new fruitfulness” of insight achieved “by recurrence to the utmost depths of intuition for the refreshment of imagination.” But, precisely because such transitions are creative, unpredictable in essence, their success can never be guaranteed: “opportunity” for change “leads upwards or downwards.” Clarity, for example, is required on the purpose of the transition: what does it provide an opportunity for? In Whitehead’s view, the reestablishment of dynamic relations between physics and metaphysics. In the modern age of mass destruction, already glimpsed in the trenches and poison clouds of World War I, failure to achieve this rapprochement could prove catastrophic. “Philosophy,” he urged, “should now perform its final service” to humanity, no less than to “seek the insight, dim though it be, to escape the wide wreckage” of “race” and planet. 69
Decades after the likely form of this ‘wreckage’ appeared in the mushroom cloud, the physicist-turned-philosopher Carl-Friedrich von Weiszäcker wrote:
“Physics, as it is practiced in modern times, characteristically does not really ask what matter is, biology does not ask what life is, and psychology does not ask what the soul is; instead, these terms just vaguely circumscribe the area one intends to investigate. … As a result, science, which leaves the fundamental questions aside, has progressed incredibly fast in comparison with the very slow…process of philosophical reflection, which truly confronts these difficult questions. On the other hand, we must not deceive ourselves: the methodological procedure of science just characterized has something murderous in it if it no longer knows how questionable it is. Those questions are difficult, but they are not unimportant. Heidegger’s formula ‘Science does not think’ can hardly be quoted to any scientist without provoking anger. In Heidegger’s sense of the word ‘think,’ however, the formula is literally correct. For Heidegger takes ‘to think’ as meaning ‘to put oneself in question once more,’ and precisely this science will not do in its normal practice. But it must be done if science should someday be able to relate to the living human being, who is a partner in life and not merely an object.” 70
For both Whitehead and von Weiszäcker, this ‘viciousness’ – the more than somewhat ‘murderous’ quality and potential of ‘unthinking’ modern science – should be considered not as a tendency inherent to ‘science itself’ but rather a consequence of the artificial impoverishment of scientific identity, a contraction compensated by an overinflation of ambition and claim. As Whitehead concludes, “the Certainties of Science are a delusion. They are hedged around with unexplored limitations. Our handling of scientific doctrines is controlled by the diffused metaphysical concepts of our epoch.” 71
The point was made in full awareness of the then freshly-minted ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’ of quantum physics, built around the uncertainty principle and complementarity; his critique is not directed at the outmoded certainties of the classical, Newtonian age. But Western science, he maintained, remained classically deluded in its certainty that metaphysics was outmoded, superceded by its rational mode of inquiry – a view of the world, however provisional, obtained without aid of a worldview.
After so long, can this ‘diffusion’ still be reversed, metaphysical clarity lent to the incipient Western quest for a holistic perspective? The answer, I believe, is that the potential for such a transition exists, the path laid open by the ‘cutting-edge’ of Western research, and that its pursuit would clear the way for resonant, complementary relations with other scientific traditions. Indeed, establishing this dialogue is likely to accompany rather than follow the transition, helping guide it ‘upward’ to ‘new fruitfulness’.
For the opportunity to be taken, however, Western science – and society more generally – has first to revise its opinion of these other traditions as less than scientific. Only by embracing such ‘deep complementarity’, relinquishing its monopolistic hold on ‘science’, can it hope to recognize itself as more than scientific: part of a far greater cultural, natural, human whole.
A butterfly that saw itself as of, not above, the forest, would be a very different creature.
1. This paper was inspired and deeply informed by my experience in leading an interdisciplinary seminar group on ‘Integrative Science and Philosophy’ at Cape Breton University. I wish to record my indebtedness to all members of the group, both student and faculty, for their participation and insights. Special thanks, for support and funding, are due to Canada Research Chair in Integrative Science, Dr. Cheryl Bartlett, Director of the University’s Integrative Science Program (Toqwa’tu’kl Kjiijitaqnn).
2. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2005, p. 59.
3. Jeremy W. Hayward, Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World, Shambhala, Boston, 1997, viii.
4. Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, John Wiley & sons, New York, 1957, p. 2.
5. Quoted in Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1985, p. 259.
6. Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, p. 2.
7. Bohr, op.cit.., p. 20.
8. Bohr, op. cit., p. 79.
9. F. David Peat, From Certainty to Uncertainty, Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C., 2002, p. 8.
10. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, 1990, p. 194; first published by Harper & Row, New York, 1962.
11. Quoted in Helge Krage, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, p. 172.
12. Krage, op. cit., p. 172.
13. Robert M. Pirsig, ‘Subjects, Objects, Data and Values,’ in Einstein Meets Magritte: an Interdisciplinary Reflection on Science, Nature, Art, Human Action and Society, Volume 1 (The White Book), VUB University Press, Brussels, 1999, p. 79-98.
14. Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London, 1988, p. 175.
15. David Bohm & F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Routledge, London, 1987, p. 81.
16. Bohr, op. cit., p. 84.
17. Heisenberg, op. cit., p. 166.
18. Op. cit., p. 166.
19. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Third Edition, Flamingo, London, 1992, p. 175.
20. Capra, op. cit., pp. 174-175.
21. Op. cit., p. 175.
22. Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, Harper Torchbooks, San Francisco, 1972, p. 63.
23. F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physics: A Journey Into the Native American Universe, Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002, pp. xi-xii.
24. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Little, Brown and Company, London, 1988, p.
25. F. David Peat, op. cit., p. xiv.
26. Peat, op. cit., p. 130.
27. Op. cit., p. 130.
28. Op. cit., p. 131.
29. Op. cit., p. xiv.
30. Bohr, op. cit., p. 9.
31. Peat, op. cit., p. 241.
32. Op. cit., p. 241.
33. Leroy Little Bear, Foreword to Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, NM, 2000, p. ?
34. Leroy Little Bear, op. cit., p. ?
35. Ian Stewart, Nature’s Numbers: the Unreal Reality of Mathematics, BasicBooks, New York, 1995, p. 147.
36. Leroy Little Bear, op. cit., p. ?
37. Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997, p. 18.
38. Gregory Cajete, Native Science, op. cit., p. ?
39. David Bohm & F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Routledge, London, 1987, pp. 11-13.
40. Wilson, Consilience, op. cit, pp. 331-332.
41. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark Paperbacks, London, pp. 28-29.
42. Bohm, op. cit., pp. 29-30.
43. F. David Peat, Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm, Addison Wesley, Reading, MS, 1997, p. 251.
44. Peat, op. cit., pp.251-252.
45. Op. cit., p. 315-316.
46. Op. cit., p. 316.
47. Gregory Cajete, ‘“Look to the Mountain: Reflections on Indigenous Ecology,’ in Cajete, Ed., A People’s Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living, , Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, NM, 1999, pp. 16-17.
48. Cajete, op. cit., p. 17.
49. David Bohm & F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Routledge, London, 1987, pp. 11.
50. Cajete, Native Science, op. cit., p. ?
51. Quoted in Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue With Nature, Bantam Books, New York, 1984, p. 7.
52. Prigogine & Stengers, op. cit., p. 3.
53. Op. cit., p. 3.
54. Op. cit., p. 7.
55. Op. cit., p. 7. Emphasis added.
56. Cajete, Native Science, op. cit., p. ?
57. Prigogine & Stengers, op. cit., p. 9.
58. Cajete, op. cit., p. ?
59. Prigogine & Stengers, op. cit., p. 14.
60. Op. cit., p. 22.
61. Op. cit., p. 7.
62. Op. cit., p. 2.
63. Op. cit., p. 2.
64. Op. cit., pp. 10-11.
65. Robert M. Pirsig, ‘Subjects, Objects, Data and values,’ op. cit., p. 84.
66. Pirsig, op. cit., p. 85.
67. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, originally published 1928; Corrected Edition, The Free Press, New York, 1978, p. 17.
68. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, originally published 1933; The Free Press, New York, 1967, p. 154.
69. Whitehead, op. cit., p. 159.
70. Carl Friedrich von Weiszäcker, The Unity of Nature, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1980, p. 233. Emphasis added.
71. Whitehead, op. cit., p. 154.