‘Going With the Flow’: A Western Physicist’s Odyssey into Indigenous Language and Science

[block_title title=”‘Going With the Flow’: A Western Physicist’s Odyssey into Indigenous Language and Science”][/block_title]

Sean Howard
Adjunct Professor of Political Science

Presentation to Undergraduate Course on Confronting Canadian Colonialism
Cape Breton University, March 2020When CBU initially offered courses in ‘Integrative Science,’ it deployed the concept of ‘Two-Eyed Seeing,’ urging us to ‘learn to see with our one eye…in the Indigenous ways of knowing; to learn to see with our other eye…in the mainstream (or Western) ways of knowing; and to learn to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all peoples.’ The phrase ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ was coined in 2004 by Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall. It is, to quote Albert, a concept ‘hard to convey to academics as it does not fit into any particular subject area or discipline. Rather, it is…a guiding principle that covers all aspects of our lives: social, economic, environmental, etc. The advantage of Two-Eyed Seeing is that you are always fine-tuning your mind into different places at once…’

Lee-Anne and I see one potential weakness in the otherwise admirable ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ approach: the danger of accepting Eurocentric science too uncritically, without using the Indigenous ‘eye’ to closely examine its sometimes severe shortcomings. This danger, I think, has been heightened by the frankly anti-scientific, climate-change denying, ‘no-eyed seeing’ of the Trump Administration. On April 22, 2018—Earth Day—tens of thousands of people took part in the ‘March for Science’ in Washington, D.C. (with solidarity events in many cities, across America and beyond). While the protest understandably focused on denouncing Trump’s aversion to ‘facts’ and ‘evidence,’ broader questions still (always) need to be asked about the methods and morals of scientific inquiry—what facts are chosen; how evidence is gathered; whatcounts as proof, indeed as science, with special attention paid to the harm done, in the name of ‘progress,’ and ‘enlightenment,’ to humanity and the environment. There has been a march of science, too—of western science, I mean—leaving a swathe of natural and cultural destruction in its wake. To quote the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: ‘The history of science is science’—and we can’t close our eyes (either of them) to the actual record, and the ongoing writing of that ‘history’ today.

Goethe spent much of his long life (1749-1832) practicing and refining a science very different in its guiding principles to the ascendant, roughshod reductionism of his day. What he sought was ‘a delicate empiricism,’ a poetics of creative, participatory perception ‘that makes itself utterly identical with the object’ under investigation—or, rather, with which the investigator is seeking to enter into deeper relationship. The establishment of such alliance with—rather than domination of—the natural world, Goethe believed, would require an ‘enhancement of our mental powers’ only attainable in some ‘highly evolved age’ of the probably distant future.

‘Someday,’ he wrote, ‘someone will write a pathology of experimental physics and bring to light all those swindles which subvert our reason [and] beguile our judgment… The phenomena must be freed once and for all from their grim torture chamber of empiricism, mechanism, and dogmatism…’

Someone who at least began to write such a ‘pathology’ was the American scientist David Bohm, born 100 years ago. In a 1979 interview, Bohm described the darkness at the heart of the modern physics he was seeking to radically reform: ‘It was discovered by E. Rutherford,’ he said, ‘that if you bombard atoms with alpha-particles, you can learn quite a bit about them. But that depends upon the idea that there is something stable about the atom, which remains while you are bombarding it. Now we are using such high energies that we literally disrupt everything and create all sorts of new things. We could compare this to trying to study the structure of cities by bombarding them with higher and higher explosives and studying the fragments.’ It is sobering to compare this quote to a remark by the Nobel Prize winning physicist I.I. Rabi, in a 1970 book modestly entitled Science: The Center of Culture, concerning the penetrative power of the neutron, the electrically-neutral particle whose discovery in 1932 paved the way to the atom bomb (which Rabi helped design at Los Alamos): ‘When the neutron enters the nucleus, the effects are about as catastrophic as if the moon struck the earth. The nucleus is violently shaken up by the blow… A large increase in energy occurs and must be dissipated, and this may happen in a variety of ways, all of them interesting.’

Bohm died in 1992, a few months after a friendly but shattering encounter with a group of Indigenous scientists and thinkers demonstrating the kind of ‘enhanced’ mental powers dreamt of by Goethe; a prowess, Bohm realized, rooted in the power of indigenous languages and the ‘highly evolved’ worldviews those languages encoded. Bohm had long been a dissident figure in Western physics: first of all a political exile, barred from working in the United States during the McCarthy era due to his left-wing leanings and connections—he worked in Brazil and Israel, before settling in Britain—then a philosophical outcast, convinced the profoundest implications of quantum theory had been missed in the post-World War II ‘big science’ goldrush to smash atoms to ever-smaller pieces in ever-larger particle accelerators. ‘I think,’ Bohm said in that 1979 interview, ‘that most physicists believe that they are getting the ultimate constituent substances of the universe by discovering particles, although these particles behave in a way which would suggest that they are not that at all,’ but rather part of what he would later call the holomovement, an ‘unknown reality which can only be described as eternal flux or flow’ which generates the appearance of ‘forms’ with ‘a certain persistence and stability,’ in the same way that a ‘vortex has a certain stability in water but…is not an independent substance.’ And the danger, he warned, of physicists calling those relatively predictable, easily identifiable, but actually not ‘elemental’ patterns ‘particles’ was that ‘you dispose your mind to think of them that way, in contradiction to some of the other properties that you’re ascribing to them.’

This basic mistake, Bohm believed—privileging what he called the explicate order (products and forms) over the implicate order (process and flux)—was not limited to science but rather hardwired into the structures and suppositions—the mechanisms and dogmatisms—of language and thought, a predisposition to fragmentation blind to the nature or even existence of wholeness (or what his last, posthumously-published book called The Undivided Universe). Again in that 1979 interview, he claimed that ‘the nature of language is even more unknown than the language of particles,’ and in a grandly sweeping statement, making no allowance for cultural or linguistic differences, he argued that ‘man’s thinking tried to be different from nature and approached it in a fragmentary way, trying to treat it as pieces. But nature refuses to be treated as pieces. Man thinks these illusions, and his mind being disposed by the illusions, he creates real action which is out of harmony with reality.’

In his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm described his efforts to create what he called a ‘rheomode’—rheo meaning ‘to flow’ in Greek—a revolutionary, verb-based language which ‘describes actions and movements, which flow into each other, without sharp separations or breaks.’ To illustrate the need for such a language, he took a seemingly straightforward sentence— ‘It is raining’—and exposed it for the nonsense it was: ‘Where,’ he asked, ‘is the “It” that would, according to the sentence, be “the rainer that is doing the raining”? Clearly, it is more accurate to say: “Rain is going on.”’ ‘Similarly,’ he continued, ‘we customarily say, “One elementary particle acts on another,”’ whereas, in natural fact, ‘each particle is only an abstraction of a relatively invariant form of movement in the whole field of the universe. So it would be more appropriate to say, “Elementary particles are on-going movements that are mutually dependent because ultimately they merge and interpenetrate.”’ And as he noted, ‘the same sort of description holds also on the larger-scale level. Thus, instead of saying, “An observer looks at an object,” we can more appropriately say, “Observation is going on, in an undivided movement involving those abstractions customarily called ‘the human being’ and ‘the object he is looking at.”’

In Infinite Potential, his 1997 biography of Bohm, David Peat described the paltry results of the Rheomode Project. ‘For a time a small group…adopted the rheomode as an experiment. After one of their rheomode-speaking sessions, Bohm noticed that everyone felt as if they were on one side of a gap, trying to reach the other. … The more perceptive noticed how, over time, the group began to use the rheomode’s verbs as stand-ins for nouns, defeating the very purpose for which the language had been created. Transforming language was a project more difficult than Bohm had anticipated.’ In addition, the ‘response’ Bohm received ‘from most professional linguists (but not all) was discouraging,’ and ‘after presenting his ideas in talks and a publication, Bohm no longer pursued his rheomode.’

Two linguists who did take Bohm seriously were Alan Ford of Université de Montréal and Dan Alford of the California Institute of Integral Studies, ‘both of whom,’ as Peat notes, were specialists in ‘the strongly verb-based Algonquian family of languages. ‘Peat himself, though a Western-trained physicist, had long been interested in the scientific worldviews of Algonquian Peoples such as the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Ojibwa, Soto, and the Mi’kmaq; in 2002 he would publish the landmark study Blackfoot Physics: a Journey into the Native American Universe.

Bohm’s 1992 indigenous epiphany came in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at a Sharing Circle organized by, among others, the Blackfoot philosopher Leroy Little Bear, David Peat, Alan Ford, Dan Alford, and James Youngblood (Sa’ke’je) Henderson, a leading authority on Mi’kmaw language, history and culture, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. As Peat recounts in Infinite Potential, the gathering opened in a manner most ‘westerners’ would regard as the height of ‘pre-modern,’ unscientific folly: ‘When the Native participants learned of Bohm’s presence, they made him guest of honor and treated him as a distinguished elder. One of them, distressed at the condition of his heart, indicated that during the opening ceremony, when sweetgrass would be passed around the circle, we should sacrifice part of our energy so that it could be given to Bohm.’ In the context of Algonquian metaphysics, however—and no physics is possible without a metaphysics to shape it, either consciously or subliminally—the gesture made perfect sense, as everyone and everything is considered a transient manifestation of the ‘Great Spirit’ (or ‘Great Mystery’), an underlying, generative energy akin in conception and effect to the formative flux of Bohm’s ‘implicate order.’ And what that implies is that energy can be summoned or induced to flow, both within and between seemingly separate entities or ‘beings.’

Being, if you like, can become becoming again: a principle which has, in turn, profound implications for how you practice science on the range of beings (animals, plants, atoms) under investigation. To quote Peat’s account: ‘The Native participants questioned Bohm about the ethical and moral dimensions of Western science. As one of them, Sa’ke’je Henderson, argued, traditional Native ideas of harmony and balance indicate that if order is created in the laboratory, then disorder must be created somewhere else. How, he wondered, does science take responsibility for this? There was also concern at the way physicists learned about elementary matter—by colliding particles together in a particularly violent way. We are also communicating with nature, the Elders explained, and entering into alliances with her energies. What are the moral dimensions of such actions?’

One ‘western’ answer is that energy itself is not alive, and when the form it takes is inanimate, no harm can be done. (Other excuses, of course, have to be found to justify vivisection and other methodical violences.) Different cultures, however, define and experience ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ very differently; and for a culture like the Algonquian, what is sacred—truly ‘elemental’—is energy, the Great Spirit that makes all the ‘lesser things’ of the universe. Bohm, in fact, had broached this subject in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, proposing a guiding principle of ‘All implicates all,’ a radical holism meaning ‘that “we ourselves” are implicated together with “all that we see and think about.”’ The same is true, he insisted, ‘of every “object.” It is only in certain special orders of description that such objects appear as explicate.’ And he gave this startling example, going to the heart of the matter of alliances raised by the Elders: the ‘orders of movement,’ he wrote, ‘that are directly perceivable to the senses are generally regarded as explicate, while other orders (such as, for example, those appropriate to the description of “an electron” in a quantum context) are taken to be implicate. However, according to the extended principle of relativity, one can equally well take the “electron” order as explicate and our sensual order as implicate. This is to put ourselves (metaphorically) in the situation of “the electron” and then to understand the latter by assimilating oneself to it and it to oneself.’ (Such ‘assimilation,’ or radical communion, by the way, was the core aim and grand goal of Goethe’s philosophy and practice of science.) There is, Bohm concludes, a ‘holomovement…which is the ground both of…“life explicit” and “inanimate matter,’ and this ground is what is primary, self-existent and universal. And for this reason—a reason that has probably never occurred to a single atom-smashing scientist—we do not fragment life and inanimate matter, nor do we try to reduce the former…to nothing but an outcome of the latter.’

During the Sharing Circle, Henderson made what to Indo-European ears sounds an outlandish claim—‘I can spend a whole day without uttering a noun’—while Leroy Little Bear defined Blackfoot as ‘800 variations on [the verb] “to be.”’ Bohm was overwhelmed. ‘At last,’ Peat writes, he ‘had found a people whose metaphysics strongly mirrored his own, and whose language, not to mention the role it played in their reality, echoed his own rheomode.’ (It would be fairer, in fact, to say he had found a people whose language successfully surmounted the difficulties bedevilling his rheomode.) Bohm’s wife, Saral, was also present, and both, Peat remembers, 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.”’ To the conventional western mind, ‘deeply spiritual’ means ‘unscientific’; for Henderson, Little Bear, and their Indigenous colleagues ‘spirit’ is a foundational scientific concept, a recognition of (and reverence for) the creative energy generating everything but itself ‘nothing,’ no-thing. Which is why the ‘Great Spirit’ is also the ‘Great Mystery.’ To quote Wholeness and the Implicate Order one last time: ‘The holomovement is not limited to any specifiable way at all. It is not required to conform to any particular object, or to be bounded by any particular measure. Thus, the holomovement is undefinable and immeasurable.’ And to ‘give primary significance to the undefinable and immeasurable implies that it has no meaning to talk of a fundamental theory, on which all of physics could find a permanent basis, or to which all the phenomena of physics could ultimately be reduced. Rather, each theory will abstract a certain aspect that is relevant only in some limited context, which is indicated by some appropriate measure.’ As Peat documents in Blackfoot Physics, this sense of humility—of knowing that knowledge, no matter how powerful, will never make you ‘godlike’— pervades the theory and practice of Indigenous Science.

I’d like to close with an account of the closing of that memorable Circle, 25 years ago. The description is Peat’s: ‘On the final day of the meeting, gifts were exchanged and a drum was set up beside a lake. As the Potawatomi People sang and drummed, several of the participants danced, and to my surprise I saw that David Bohm had joined the circle. Dressed in his tweed jacket, he was dancing to the beat of the drum—the drum that is both the human heart and the beat of the universe.’