Rethinking how we can know the world

Since messy ethics requires ongoing communal conversations among humans and between humans and numerous other-than-human subjects, we will need to know how to include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community.

Much of what we understand about one another and the world rests on what we understand about how truth is arrived at and understood. This is an epistemological study, a philosophical field that deals with ways of knowing. At one point in our communal conversation, questions about truth will undoubtedly arise: “How do I know what you are saying is true?” or “How can you know what the trees are saying to you?”

So how do we include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community? I suggest that we start by taking seriously different ways of knowing our world. For us in the West, it will be a challenge, since, as Thomas Berry puts it, “We have forgotten our primordial capacity for language at the elementary level of song and dance, wherein we share our existence with the animals and with all natural phenomena.”

For some time now, in our Western society, we have tended to give too much emphasis to a discursive mathematico-logic approach to knowing, or what we might more easily label the scientific method. Now, there is nothing wrong with this rational analytic thought processes: we get medicines that keep us healthy because of it! The problem is that we have also tended to exclude other ways of knowing the world.

You could say this exclusion of other ways of knowing the world grew, in large measure, out of the Enlightenment period in Western Europe (the 1700s). We came to believe that anything that could not be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, was illusion. Modern positivism is a philosophical result of this thinking to-the-extreme: it asserts that absolutely nothing is valid or true unless it passes the test of logical mathematical proof. Poetry becomes ‘nice’, but its value is reduced to ‘mere feelings’. Any belief in that which cannot be seen (a God, for instance) becomes a no-no. Indigenous people’s claim to ‘know’ the land through dreams, dance and fasting, is treated as laughable or, at best, politely as ‘quaint’.

This sort of arrogant way of understanding the world has started to change however (albeit slowly). Interestingly enough this shift began when we started to deal seriously with the environmental crisis back in the 1970s.

We began then to realize that despite all our scientific advances, we still know very little of the world around us. After a century of unrestrained chemistry, for example, no one could say how the 100,000 chemicals in common use mix in the ecosphere or how they might be implicated in rising cancer rates, disappearing amphibians, or behavioral disorders. We began to learn that our practical knowledge of particular places is often considerably less than that of the native peoples we displaced.

Moreover, it wasn’t just that we realized that the rational analytic way of knowing  is insufficient, it became clear that this approach, which treats nature as an unaware collection of material ‘stuff’ to be measured, manipulated and utilized for human purposes is actually what has led to disastrous results for our planet.

The truth is that there are multiple orderings of reality and many other ways of knowing it. I love how Isadora Duncan once put it. Considered to be the mother of modern dance in North America, she had to defend the value of dance as special form of understanding reality. She said to doubters: “If I could tell you what it meant, there’d be no point in dancing it.”

Isadora Duncan, mother of modern dance

Now sometimes it’s the other way around: people ignore rational analytic thought processes. Fundamentalist Christian thinkers, for example, are guilty of this when considering the age of Earth to be around 6,000 years. My concern here is not with such silly nonsense that ignores the scientific method. My concern is ethical. I care about how we engage with a larger world full of subjects, not all of whom are human, and if they are, not all are men, white, or citizens from a Western industrialized society.

In the blogs ahead, I’d like to deal with these multiple ways of knowing. It will be clear that in the face of a complex, diverse and relational reality, a far more humble way of knowing it is called for.


Three good works on this issue:

Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988 (my quote from Berry comes from page 2).

David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990 (my quote from Isadora Duncan comes from page 95).

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