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Traditional Knowledge and Western Science


Until around the middle of the 13th century Europeans lived in what could be thought of as an animate world; one that was filled with correspondences, ‘sympathies’ and connections. Metals, for example, were born in the womb of the earth and the metalworker, miner, artist and alchemist acted as the midwives to nature, helping her in her striving for perfection. Time was cyclical and social space was as rich as an egg. In some ways the European worldview was not that different from that shared by many indigenous people across the world today.

But then something significant happened, a series of mental tools were developed that allowed human beings to abstract and quantify the world. On the surface these tools may not appear all that spectacular but their influence was enormous. Time, for example, had traditionally belonged to the divine and therefore usury, charging interest on a loan of money, was to be condemned. But then the first mechanical clocks appeared on public buildings and soon time was secularized and linearized. It became something that could be ‘saved’ or ‘wasted’; ‘put aside’ and ‘lost.’ Ironically the theological basis for indulgences, that is for a partial remission of temporal punishment, was also established around this period.

It was also the period in which double entry bookkeeping and Arabic numerals were adopted. Suddenly merchants had a more transparent control over their enterprises; they could begin to predict future business and chose the best vehicle for an investment. And so notions of prediction, control and progress began to influence the European mind. (This change is discussed in more detail in my Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World (Peat 2008)).

With such power of abstraction the world was soon seen as an object, something external to ourselves; something that could be objectified, dissected and manipulated within the mind. A century later came the flowering of the Renaissance, one triumph of which was the development of perspective which encouraged us to see the world as something outside ourselves, distanced; almost as if we were observing it through a window. Moreover where time had earlier been present in paintings—for example through multiple viewpoints, or the temporal sequencing in the life of a saint—time was now frozen through perspective, only to return with Cézanne who would, seated before the motif, move his head a little to the right and a little to the left, always questioning what he saw.

Following the Renaissance came the rise of science, with Bacon, Galileo and Newton. And soon we had the world as a vast Newtonian clockwork. One that obeyed fixed laws as systems developed in linear time against a backdrop of fixed space. Along with this vision came a host of technological triumphs and soon science had become the dominant form of knowledge in the West, the yardstick against which all other knowledge systems were to be measured. In fact with Western science in such a position there is a tendency to view other knowledge systems in a somewhat patronizing way, or even to dismiss them as myths or ‘just stories.’ Thus the Big Bang origin of the universe is set against ‘creation myths.’ But this is to ignore the profound psychological implications, and the exploration of the nature of human relationships to the world, that are found in origin stories.

At this point some may try to justify the present position by arguing that while indigenous and traditional knowledge systems are culturally based, Western science is totally objective and value-free. Therefore it occupies a quite different and independent level from that of all other knowledge systems. But just how true is this? It is certainly the case that the results of experiments are objective, in the sense that the particular numbers obtained—such as a melting point, specific heat or density of a substance—are independent of an experimenter’s nationality or belief systems. At normal atmospheric pressure pure water boils at 100 degrees Celsius no matter if measured by an atheist at Oxford, a Catholic in San Francisco, a Buddhist in China or a Hindu in Delhi. On the other hand, the sort of questions that science asks and the areas it chooses to investigate, are very much the product of a particular society, its values and worldviews.

Take for example C.P. Snow’s book The Two Cultures (1993) which argued, amongst other things, that every educated person should have an understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. So if that is a cornerstone of education where did it come from? One pathway originated in France. Following the French Revolution engineers in France were concerned that they lagged behind the English who had experienced an Industrial Revolution. The result was that people such as Sadi Carnot sought to develop more efficient machines, but soon found that there was a limit to efficiency, one set by entropy. This investigation in turn became one of the royal roads to the development of the Second Law. This law, which is now an objective fact about the way the universe works, was therefore very much the product of a certain social concern.

The theories posited by science, which must then be subject to experimental investigation, are very strongly culturally determined. Unlike the Logical Positivists of Vienna, who held that good science involved the shortest set of steps from experimental observations to theory, it was Einstein who pointed out that it is the theory itself which suggests the observables and not the other way around (an observation that was very helpful to the young Heisenberg in setting up quantum mechanics). And theories are very much the product of human imagination, in turn a reflection of the society in which a scientist lives. Thus while Western science has become the standard yardstick for certain types of knowledge, it is itself very much a reflection of Western worldviews.

Certainty, prediction and control were the hallmarks of this approach: one which could then be applied to other areas of life and society. Sigmund Freud, following on from the physicist Hermann Helmholtz’s study of sensation, sought to apply the new science of thermodynamics to the mind—dealing with it in terms of energy flows and blocks. Thus in turn psychoanalysis became the child of thermodynamics.

Science describes a cosmos controlled by fixed laws. Indeed it is interesting to see how that particular use of the word ‘law’ entered the scientific vocabulary in the mid 17th century. The Complete Oxford Dictionary indicates that the first users of the term ‘laws of nature’ considered them to be commands imposed by the Deity on matter. Later this notion of fixed laws, in the scientific sense, would be projected onto society. Western justice systems, for example, are concerned with notions of law, proof, guilt and innocence, and of fixed penalties when laws are transgressed. Some traditional justice systems, including those of Native America, are more concerned with discovering what actions can be taken to restore harmony and balance within the community1.

In conclusion, while it is true that the previous century saw the revolutionary advent of quantum theory and chaos theory, our mindset is still very much influenced by a traditional view of science. Thus ‘scientism’ pervades our society. Our organizations, for example, tend to contain fixed and hierarchical elements which are not proving healthy or adaptable to a rapidly changing world. By contrast some traditional societies are more fluid. A ‘leader,’ for example, may be someone chosen for a particular task and when that task is completed leadership ends.

Engaging in Dialogue

Across the globe many traditional societies have had their life seriously disrupted by such interventions as colonization, transformation of traditional lands though large-scale farming, destruction of species, residential school systems, forced movements to reservations, and the death of their languages. In turn, feelings of pain and anger can be passed on from generation to generation. If this is to be addressed, from both sides of the fence, then Western science has to acknowledge a level of responsibility to engage in open dialogue with traditional knowledge systems. Science must be willing to moderate its view on being the unique truth about the world. Western science may also be asked to consider its moral responsibility not only to the environment but to the cosmos at large.

Traditional knowledge systems can, for example, be of great value when they provide a mirror in which Western science can view itself and so become aware that what once appeared as inevitable, natural and even totally objective is to a certain extent a particular social construct, and that other constructs are possible. (Peat, 2005)

The prayer ‘all my relations,’ is an expression of a person’s connection to a wider, animate world; one that is not exclusively mechanical but filled with powers, spirits and energies. It is certainly possible for the Western mind to engage in dialogue with such a notion. Goethe, for example, suggested that rather than putting nature in artificial situations in the laboratory, we should enter into a dialogue with nature and that within such a dialogue nature would provide us with ‘the example worth a thousand.’ (Bortoft, 1996)

In this context let us return to the question of entropy. In 1992 the physicist David Bohm was in dialogue with a number of Native Americans, one of whom asked him to explain superconductivity. Bohm explained that it was a state of very high order that can exist at low temperatures. ‘But since everything is in balance then some disorder must also exist,’ the elder observed. ‘Yes,’ Bohm replied with enthusiasm, ‘we call that entropy.’ ‘Are you morally responsible for the entropy you create?’ asked the elder2. To bring in the issue of ethics and morality within the context of a scientific explanation came as quite a surprise, but on reflection appears to be a very valid one.

But while this point of view would be alien to the ‘hard-nosed physicist’ there are an increasing number of voices within science who feel that the cosmos is closer to a living organism than a machine. David Bohm’s own approach of the Implicate and Explicate Order, and of the quantum potential, is very much in harmony with that of the Blackfoot’s world of flux and transformation. Indeed he proposed that a form of ‘protomind’ was present from the inception of the cosmos. Likewise Wolfgang Pauli suggested that ‘the spirit of matter’ had been denied for 300 years but was now struggling for its resurrection and that ‘what is truly the issue is the lack of soul in the modern scientific concept of the world.’ (See for example Lindorf (2004)). Likewise in How the Leopard Changed its Spots (1997) the biologist Brian Goodwin explored the need for ‘a science of qualities,’ and more recently in Animate Earth (2009), Stephan Harding proposes a participatory approach to the natural world and advances the idea that the biosphere is a living subject. It was the contention of these scientists that with its insistence on quantative measurement science had sacrificed a deeper and more comprehensive vision of the world.

Likewise science is engaged in the re-evaluation of the relationship between the observer and the observed. Until the advent of quantum theory an object was considered impervious to the act of observation. Likewise the observer would be essentially unchanged as he or she gathered new facts about the world. But in quantum theory the observer and observed form an unanalyzable whole. To observe the cosmos is therefore to disturb it, a viewpoint that would not be alien to some indigenous groups.

Of course when I write of dialogue there is the underlying assumption that representatives of indigenous groups would travel from their homes to meet representatives of Western science and carry out a discussion in English, or perhaps French or German. But how different would a dialogue be if it were to take place in the language of one of the indigenous groups themselves? The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, accepted in some quarters and controversial in others, proposes that there is a deep interconnection between language and worldview. This is a position with which Niels Bohr and the other fathers of quantum theory would be in harmony. When discussing the nature of an underlying ‘quantum reality,’ Bohr pointed out that these philosophical discussions about physics were being held in Danish (or German or English, for example). But European languages all contain deeply inbuilt assumptions about the nature of space, time and causality. This means that when we attempt to discuss the nature of quantum reality, we become suspended in language such that we do not know what is up and what is down (Wheeler and Zurek 1983).

Likewise David Bohm pointed out that the subject-verb-object nature of European languages reinforces the Newtonian worldview of objects that are well defined in space and time and interact via forces and fields. (Bohm, 2002) On the other hand, quantum theory points to a world of objects in flux and transformation. What was required, he felt, for a deeper discussion of the quantum theory was a strongly verb-based language. Interestingly the Algonquian family of languages spoken by the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, etc., is very strongly verb-based, and the worldview of these peoples is one of continuous flux and flow. In 1992 Leroy Little Bear and the present author organized a circle of Native American Elders and Western Scientists at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo. Many of the Elders were Algonquian speakers and were able to engage in a very rewarding dialogue with Bohm on their respective worldviews.

The Fetzer meeting was significant and other meetings, under the guidance of Little Bear, have been held since. Yet it is highly improbable that a deep discussion on quantum reality will ever be held in the Blackfoot language itself by Western and Blackfoot knowledge holders. Thus, in a deep sense, such discussions will always be limited by language. After all, the learning of a language does not simply mean sitting down with a dictionary and book of grammar but of absorbing an entire worldview which, in some cases, would mean growing up within that culture. Indeed in so many cases, an indigenous group will point out that so much of their knowledge is contained within their language. Thus with language death not only is a spoken language lost but much of the knowledge that is contained within that language.

The 1992 Fetzer circle also included Therese Schroeder-Sheker who had created ‘The Chalice of Repose’ program at a hospital in Montana. Interestingly enough her approach evolved out of a traditional knowledge system. The monks at Cluny Abbey had two pharmacopeias that dated from the Middle Ages. One prescribed herbs for sickness and the other prescribed musical modes. Thus, for example, there were modes prescribed as an anodyne for pain. As part of their practice the monks also used these modes with the dying and Schroeder-Sheker continued this tradition using two harpists at the bedside of a dying person. She used the metaphor of ‘sacred midwifery’ as the harpists would use minor modes in an almost alchemical process that began to separate the subtle until the point of ‘transitus’ where a major mode would be employed.

As we have seen from the example above, in referring to ‘traditional knowledge’ this does not exclusively mean knowledge systems associated with, for example, the descendants of tribal people who occupied a particular area prior to colonization. Traditional knowledge also exists within European cultures, and within communities who are the descendants of immigrants into North America. This may include knowledge about the land, healing plants, food and so on. For example, the older people in the village of Pari, Tuscany, where I now live use the phases of the moon as a signal for planting and know about healing plants. (What’s more, each know their own secret location in the woods were the best porcini mushrooms are to be found!!)

Traditional Knowledge Collected

So what would a compendium of traditional knowledge look like? This is really far beyond my sphere of competence and should be the product of a dialogue between different knowledge systems.  But a ‘top of the head’ list would include:

  • Astronomy

From Stonehenge to Blackfoot Medicine Wheels, astronomical alignment has been significant the world over. The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, for example, aligned their buildings and temples according to the location of the rising sun on certain days of the year. What is particularly striking is that when the flat horizon cannot be seen, because of an intervening hill, the alignment is exactly where the sun would be seen should that hill not exist.

The Mayans for their part were sophisticated astronomers able to predict lunar eclipses. One of their accurate calendar systems has a starting point on August 12, 3113 BC and its great cycle will end in 2012—a time associated with the ending of the Fifth World and the coming of the Sixth Sun. They also appear to have constructed calendars that dealt with the cycles of Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn.

  • Mathematics

From the time of the Pythagoreans, through Carl Jung and others, number has always had a deeply mystical significance in its connection to the cosmos (von Franz and Verlag, 1986). Indeed the physicist Eugene Wigner (Mickens, 1990) believed that mathematics was ‘unreasonably effective’ in that a particular area of mathematics, developed for purely aesthetic reasons, often turns out to have considerable practical consequences. Clearly there is a deep connection between mathematics and the structure of the cosmos. Moreover in cosmology the anthropic principle points out that if the numerical values of the fundamental constants of nature were very slightly different we would not have a universe with suns, planets and life.

For some traditional peoples numbers are not mere measures of quantity but are living beings. For his part the mathematician Roger Penrose (2009) notes the deep connection between mathematical beauty and truth, a point of view that would also have been shared by G.H. Hardy (1992).

  • Agriculture

So much of what we take for granted today, including corn (maize) was developed in Central America. In Eastern Canada and the US the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) plant the seeds of the ‘three sisters’ (corn, squash and beans) together. The corn provides a stalk up which the beans can grow and in turn fix nitrogen from the air to fertilize the corn and squash.

Stories of a large indigenous tribe in Columbia were at first dismissed by anthropologists as being something of a myth since it was believed that the Sierra would not be able to produce sufficient food to support such a population. When Alvaro Soto finally located the Kogi he discovered they had adopted intense methods of cultivation that would support their population, including the ‘lazy-bed’ method for potatoes. One was adopted in Ireland, which allows for a greater weight of potatoes to be grown in a given area and eliminates the need for cultivation after planning3.

  • Health and medicinal plants

The circulation of the blood was known to Arab doctors long before Harvey’s discovery. Jacques Cartier, the early French explorer, and his crewmen were famously cured of scurvy by the Iroquois people using a concoction of tree bark rich in Vitamin C. The tree itself became known as ‘the tree of life’ and was then introduced into France where interest in its medicinal properties contributed to the revival of the study of botany in Europe. Indigenous peoples have a deep knowledge of the healing plants. The pharmacopeias of China and the Arab world contain information that today is being used by companies that manufacture herbal remedies. Moreover, highly commercial drug companies are eager to obtain the traditional knowledge about healing plants which they are then happy to patent. For their part some traditional people would give an offering to the earth when picking a plant.

There is much that Western medicine has still to learn. What is more, mainstream Western medicine understands the healing power of a plant to lie in their molecular structure while in other traditions it is also necessary to acknowledge the spirit within the plant.

In mainstream Western medicine ‘healing’ implies the curing of a disease or the knitting of a broken bone. In other traditions healing can also mean ‘to make whole.’ Richard Katz’s Boiling Energy (1992) explores how healing amongst the !Kung emerges out of the entire community.

  • Justice Systems

Should we be concerned about innocence, guilt and punishment or with the restoration of harmony within a society? The intersection of two worldviews—the Canadian legal system and traditional relationships to the land in the context of a planned oil pipeline—can be found in Hugh Brody’s Maps and Dreams (1997). In some Canadian courts it is now possible for an Elder to sit on the bench with the judge and give advice4.

  • Navigation systems

Indigenous peoples on the coast of the Pacific Ocean navigate long distances by means of astronomical clues and water currents. Likewise the Olmec people were using the compass in navigation a thousand years before the Chinese.

  • Inseparability of knowledge systems from spiritual world views

Western scientific knowledge objectifies the world while other traditions incorporate a sense of the sacred.

  • Engineering and Technology

The Haida ocean-going canoe is an excellent example of efficient marine design. From Java came a technique of sintering glass onto spades for more efficient digging5.

 Of particular interest is the way new technologies, such as cell phones and the Internet, are used by tribal people in India, Africa and the Amazon. Even back in the 1980s the Naskapi of Labrador used two-way radio so that various hunting groups could communicate. Of particular interest was the way in which a collective dream, indicating the location of Cariboo for example, would be shared over the radio so that hunters in different locations could contribute their part of their dream6. The Paiter/Suruí tribe in the Amazon are using cell phones to map parts of the rain forest in collaboration with Google Earth7. And for several years Indian fisherman have used cell phones from their boats to determine the most profitable location to land and sell their catch, while farmers look up futures on the Chicago stock market to determine what crops to sell8.

  • Reality and the Nature and Relationship of the Animate to the Inanimate

Western science makes a very clear distinction between what is living and what is not, although there are times, as with disease-producing prions, when the distinction may be a little blurred. But physics is clear about the existence of a large-scale world in which the non-living components obey the laws of classical physics. On the other hand, the distinction is not so clear cut amongst people who would treat stones as if they are alive and in which relationships can exist with rocks and trees. As we saw above with Goodwin, (1997), Goethe (Bortoft) (1996), and Harding (2009) the reanimation of nature is not an alien concept to every scientist.

And what of reality itself? Quantum theory takes us into a new realm and Bohm (2002) argued that there is a deeper reality (the Implicate Order) hidden beneath the world we see around us. The physicist M.S.A. Sastroamidjojo has pointed out that the Javanese Shadow Puppet play provides a deep analogy to this underlying world. What is seen are only the shadows of the puppets on the screen in a performance that lasts all night until the morning so that members of the audience will fall asleep, awake to shadows and dream again9.

  • And there are many others…

Alternative economic system. Human and animal psychology. Alternative organizational structures. The role of trust in a society10.

I could continue but realize what is called for is open and forthright dialogue and so the next part of this essay should be written by someone else. For if we are to address the results of several hundred years of colonization and cultural disruption each of us has the responsibility to come to the table…


1Author’s discussion with representatives of several Native Canadian and Native American groups

2Dialogue circle between Native American Elders and Western scientists held at the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo, Spring,1992

3Discussions with Alvaro Soto during the late 1980s.

4Discussions with Rupert Ross, Ontario Assistant Crown Attorney at Banff meeting on Native justice and Native self-government.

5Exchange of emails with the Javanese physicist M.S.A. Sastroamidjojo during the mid 1990s.

6Discussions during the 1980s and early 1990s with Alan J. Ford a linguist at the University of Montreal who spent time hunting with the Naskapi.

7http://www.usaid.gov/press/frontlines/fl_nov09/p06_brazil091114.html. Accessed January 27, 2010.

8Discussions with Siraj Izah who is taking a special interest in the way new technologies are being used by tribal people and by slum dwellers in India.

9Sastroamidjojo, M.S.A  ‘A Physicist looks at the Javanese shadow-puppet performance in,’ Symmetry: Culture and Science  6(3), 468-471, 1995.

10By way of elaboration I am currently collecting essays for a volume of the Pari Dialogues Traditional Knowledge and Western Scientific Knowledge. I am also pursuing the possibility of an extended dialogue between representatives of Traditional Knowledge and Western science.


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Brody, H. (1997) Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. Long Grove IL: Waveland

Bortoft, H. (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books

Goodwin, B. (1997) How the Leopard Changed its Spots: Evolution of Complexity, Columbus, OH: Phoenix

Harding, S. (2009) Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia. Totnes, UK: Green Books

Hardy, G.H., (1992) A Mathematician’s Apology. Cambridge: CUP

Katz, R. (1992) Boiling Energy: Community Healing amongst the Kalahari Kung Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Lindorff, D. (2004) Pauli and Jung: The Meeting of Two Great Minds. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books

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Peat, F.D. (2005) Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Universe. Newburyport, MA: Weiser

Peat, F.D. (2008) Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World. Pari, Italy: Pari Publishing

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von Franz, M-L, and Verlag, E.K., (1986) Number and Time: Reflections leading towards a unification of depth psychology and physics. Evanston, IL: Northwest UP

Wheeler, J.A (ed) and. Zurek, W.H. (ed) (1983) Quantum Theory and Measurement, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press