Science has historically promoted the perspective that discovering the mysteries of the universe are attainable only through the application of logic and the scientific method. It has not included other forms of knowledge (non-Western) that are mystical, spiritual, or experiential and has tended to discouraged attempts to integrate them into its scientific framework. It has also not always included ethical considerations and ramifications in the context of human employment of its findings. It is self-evident that science is a vital component of civilizations’ ability to adapt, advance and mature in order to ensure its evolutionary process. It must, however, do this in a manner that is conducive to the interests of both humanity and the Earth, without sacrificing one for the other.
J. Baird Callicott’s Earth Insights
J. Baird Callicott is one of the leading authors in the field of environmental ethics. He has examined both what he calls postmodern science that is based on relativity, physics and ecology and non-western attitudes towards nature held by many eastern and indigenous cultures and concludes that we could synthesize these various worldviews into one expanded scientific paradigm. The inclusion of symbols, images, metaphors, similes, analogies, stories and myths would contribute a wealth of understanding to our current scientific model and help it embrace a more comprehensive environmental ethic. This multi-cultural approach is based on the conception that humanity is unified as a species and diversified in relation to culture.
An application of the above conceptualization could start with an appeal to cosmological narratives that could help unify the diversity of belief systems without involving science. Given that science is simply the extrapolation of local knowledge and belief systems to universal applications, we could incorporate a storied existence in conjunction with science. Some stories are better than others when examined for their validity to be conducive to adaptive living. We can then ask whether particular human-nature relationships produce favorable outcomes for humanity and the environment and which ones we should choose to live by.
Expanding the Focus and Methods of Scientific Inquiry
Expanding the focus of science towards a holistic framework depends on the ability of philosophers and scientists to look beyond the current categories of arranging and interpreting information to including new forms of experience and knowledge. But first, we must re-evaluate the goals of science and ask ourselves important questions regarding how we go about acquiring and interpreting the data we seek. Is our focus on describing or predicting and at what level of this do we intend to do? Does acquired scientific knowledge have to be organized in a specific manner? What methods are useful in exploring new data and theories? How is scientifically derived information to be integrated with non-scientific observations and intuitions?
The notion of absolutism in science is beginning to dissolve in light of the current questioning of the doctrines of Western science. Science must look at and re-invent itself regarding many of its basic assumptions. The prejudice it has conferred on non-scientific information and experiences must be re-evaluated for its inclusion in scientific investigation. It must admit that there are vast areas of knowledge that are beyond the grasp of our current scientific methods and practices and that new approaches are needed to advance our current science beyond its restricted boundaries of logic, reductionism and the accumulation of verifiable data.
Western science has more recently begun to recognize and include knowledge and insights from non-Western cultures realizing that our current science cannot provide all the answers we seek and that looking outside the box could be a viable means of increasing and expanding scientific progress. However, for many steeped in traditional scientific ideology, this change in perspective may not be embraced with open arms. Giving up the notion that science and technology are the primary, if not the only means to scientific progress and absolute knowledge, might need to be tempered with the idea of science becoming more inclusive. Instead of restricting theories to the explanation of pre-selected phenomena, they could be oriented towards more general explanations and data that are less specific and more diverse in application.
Tribal knowledge is now being included as a valid contribution to previously held objective facts and theories. The reason this is occurring now is because the reductionist methods of science have become limited in scope and practice and new avenues of investigation are desperately being sought.
The reason science has taken so long to consider more holistic views as being valid is because the ideologies of indigenous cultures have been considered primitive in their explanation of the mysteries of the universe coupled with the fact that they have not attempted to control nature as our industrial societies have done. This has also been interpreted as an inability to perceive abstract concepts and principles, think in terms of objective thought and an overall inherent lack of intelligence.
Tribal peoples are not in fact ignorant or inferior intellectually. They tend to employ data that is derived from different sources that is not typically directed towards determining the mechanical nature and functioning of things.
The Western Sioux Indians believed that ethics was the most important aspect of life and that all knowledge should be directed toward leading a moral existence. They did not feel that knowledge was separate from human endeavors and should be sought exclusively. Abstract constructs were not thought to reveal the mysteries of the world. It was apparent to them that knowledge was arrived at from individual and social experiences, through observation of their surroundings and from interpretive messages that they were able to obtain from visions, dreams, and spirits during ceremonies and rituals.
The Indians’ worldview was compiled from the culmination of all life experiences and from tradition. They also believed that what they didn’t understand and hadn’t experienced yet would be revealed to them during their lifetime.
If we compare the Sioux method of obtaining knowledge with Western science, we find that what the Sioux sought was that which science excludes, as it is not based on clearly stated constructs and the scientific method of observation and replication. Emotional experiences have never been accepted as valid within the scientific framework.
Science also works only with information that belongs to a specific context. That context is accepted as valid if it has data that can be evaluated and appears to be solvable. Other issues or problems that do not have appropriate data or means to inquire into them are often dismissed as unsolvable, appropriated to other disciplines for examination or simply rejected as not being worthy of inquiry.
Since the scientific framework appears to be so limited in scope, how can it be useful to us in solving the significant inquiries of our time. How can it give us a reliable understanding of the workings of our universe and why are its proponents so insistent in asserting its value and reluctant to embrace other known methods of obtaining knowledge?
Another concern is the issue of internal politics. Scientists can influence the acceptance or rejection of new theories based on their own preferences or to embellish their professional careers and status. The coveting of other’s theories has also been a frequent occurrence and continues to occur in the scientific community today. The ethical use of science and how it might benefit or harm society is also a significant and ongoing concern for the masses as they are often not informed adequately of long-range consequences or are unable to comprehend the presented theories and applications thoroughly enough to make well-informed decisions.
Since science has refuted the underpinnings of many indigenous cultures’ worldviews based on their perceived deficit in logic, practices and fundamental knowledge, how did the Indians, for example, come to formulate their knowledge base given they did not see the need to engage in the process of developing interpretive frames of reference, employing anomalies, creating theories and proposing explanations?
Indians believed that all human experiences were valuable and were instructive in certain aspects of life. They also thought that incidents could not be experienced inaccurately but only misinterpreted. New experiences were to be savored and contemplated before attaching labels and meaning. The world was thought to be constantly creating itself, given its state of being alive, and was also making choices that would determine the future. Thus, there could be no anomalies in this type of context. Some things needed to be accepted due to the value they represented in their inability to be explained and understood.
In the Indian system, all information should be considered; therefore, the objective would be to find the proper pattern of interpretation for the variety of ordinary and extraordinary experiences one would encounter. Also, it was thought that there were no coincidences in life and that all experiences mattered. The varied experiences would also need to be synthesized into one coherent and comprehensive account. This account would involve either human behavior or be related to behavior of a higher power, would have a purpose and would guide one towards future growth and development. As one aged with wisdom, a time for reflection would arise as well as the revelation of unknown relationships that would become conscious and thus understood.
In summary, the Sioux pursued a moral directive in life, searched for their role and function in nature, and sought a comprehension of the physical workings of all entities. The two viewpoints; Western scientific objectivity and Sioux subjectivity in obtaining knowledge represent extreme opposite positions that point towards a place where discrepancies could be worked out and a more inclusive method of inquiry could be achieved. Whatever conclusions might prevail from this process of integration would seem to lead to the consideration of ethical principles playing a vital role in the evolutionary process.
This conclusion is a nightmare for most scientists who fear that the admission of this perspective would result in a re-emergence of the church versus state dilemma and would significantly impede scientific endeavors and restrict the acquisition of scientific knowledge as has been the case in past history. Thus, giving credence to purpose and morality implies the existence of a higher power that can become a source of worship and a resultant precipitant of ongoing social conflict.
Interestingly, the Indians did not deify a specific anthropomorphic personality or figure who demanded worship as most religions have done. Instead, they perceived and experienced personality in all aspects of the cosmos and named this entity “Woniya” or spirit and used it as a guiding force in all human activity. Even as the elements and creatures of the Earth were honored, they were not assumed any elevated position over each other such as in Pantheistic religions. Most tribes tended to qualify their descriptions of these entities with a simple affirmation of the existence of Spirit.
In contrast to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that does consider the Earth as an organism in that it supports life by the regulation of its many systems such as its geography, climate and atmosphere; Indians would interpret the Earth as a living being in an all-encompassing way, attributing the mountains as her bones, the rivers as her veins, the water as her blood, the rain as her tears, the trees and grasses as her hair, the wind as her breath and the various species as her organs. These entities were considered a complete person or being but were also considered a functioning part of the collective whole as well. Therefore, organic and inorganic entities could be interrelated and interconnected creating a life support system such that the evolvement of dynamic organisms could occur. In regard to our ecological crisis, the Sioux would perceive pollution as a condition of human moral negligence.