Rethinking how we can know the world: Part II

If our goal is to include the voices and concerns of a diverse Earth community, particularly those whose expressions and apprehensions are different from our own, there will be much learning (or unlearning) we will have to do.

Consider these 3 points:

  1. We rely too narrowly on rational analytic thought processes to understand our universe, ignoring other diverse ways of knowing.
  2. How we know and what we perceive of the universe is filtered by our own experience and standpoint. We will always need critical reflection and engagement with other subjects on what is perceived.
  3. While I do hold that the universe IS knowable, it is knowable only to a degree. Think of it this way: we can never know parts of the universe separate from the whole any more than we can understand the theme of a musical piece by listening toa musical phrase without the earlier notes (a neat metaphor used by Thomas Berry). And since the whole universe is not available to us to know, we cannot fully know its parts.

So, knowing is limited, always filtered and relational, and comes to us in many varied ways. These points are important to stress since – ultimately – we DO want to know how much we can ever know and whether what we do understand is true.

Let’s start with point #1 above in how it relates to science as a way of knowing. I like how Thomas Berry approaches this subject of science and knowing: he says knowing the universe – or even just Earth – is like listening to a story. Everything tells a story.  Yet, with the rational-empirical (only that which you can touch, see, feel, hear) approach alone, we are often unable to feel or understand the stories of the Earth. Berry sees stories coming from the universe as mysteries. Sometimes these mysteries can overwhelm us. Often, they cannot be expressed in human words.

We are having difficulties, though, in hearing and listening to the stories being told to us in the world. Berry puts it this way:

People generally experience an awesome, stupendous presence that cannot be expressed adequately in human words. Since it cannot be expressed in language, people often dance this experience, they express it in music, in art, in the pervasive of the beautiful throughout the whole of daily life, in the laughter of children, in the taste of bread, in the sweetness of an apple. At every moment we are experiencing the overwhelming mystery of existence. It is that simple but that ineffable.*

Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation between Humans and the Earth. Edited by Stephen Dunn, C.P., and Anne Lonergan. Mystic Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1995, page 11.

In other words, it is not just that we cannot know the world fully through science. Science, he maintains, is inadequate in certain aspects of understanding and, therefore, ought not be the only way of knowing the world. The main epistemological issue for Berry is that our scientific preoccupations have left us with a diminished sensitivity to the natural world. The world is also known at the intuitive, aesthetic and affective (think of feelings like love) levels.

This is why increasingly scientists are embracing a larger epistemological paradigm and beginning to experience a personal rapport with the Earth in their work. Take biologists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall who give names to the gorillas and chimpanzees they study (something previously unheard of in the scientific community: apes were given numbers; they were objects). Berry would content that naming these subjects is happening not through some analytic process, but through scientists absorbing their experiences with the natural world into their very being.

Dr. Jane Goodall with orphan chimpanzee Uruhara at the Sweetwaters Sanctuary in Kenya.
Michael Nuegebauer / Jane Goodall Institute

In other words, Goodall as a biologist is listening not solely to what her instruments are telling her, but to what she is being told through a deeper and more corporeal level.

There is obviously more going on here. Next blog, I’d like to explore this aspect of knowing – sticking with animals – a little more by looking at affective ways of knowing, namely using love as a starting point for knowing.


Author: Simon Appolloni

I am a writer, teacher, publisher and lover of the universe

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