Friday, April 14, 2017

Towards an appreciation of indigenous spirituality

Like many people in the modern world today I believe there is much of value to be learned from indigenous spirituality and religions, particularly from their reverence towards and relationship with the natural world.

 However, like many others I suspect, my westernised mind often struggles with ways to make sense of these traditions without an almost automatic characterization of them as 'primitive', 'animistic', 'superstitious' or 'irrational'.

Below are some rough ideas and arguments I have found helpful in providing an entry point to appreciating indigenous spirituality. I hope to flesh these out further in the future:

1. It is reasonable to assume that reality beyond the body has an experiential character

The only reality we directly know is experiential in nature - there is no direct evidence that non-experientiality exists. In accordance with Occam's razor, if we can get by without the assumption of non-experientiality then we should.

For more on the problematic nature of the non-experientiality assumption see my last post.

2. It is reasonable to assume that there is no single and absolute objective reality

If experientiality can reasonably be implicated in all aspects of reality external to our selves, then if reasonably follows that there is no objective reality existing totally independent of experience.

This has similarities to the philosophy of emptiness of Nagarjuna. Everything depends on everything else and everything is lacking an independent, inherent existence (including of course, the philosophy of emptiness).There are also parallels here to postmodernist perspectivism, though I think the soteriological grounding of Nagarjuna's philosophy on the relief of suffering makes it more beneficial and fruitful than a free-floating relativism.

This is more of a metatheoretical consideration and may not be essential to other points in this post.

In understanding Nagarjuna's work from a Western perspective I have found Emptiness and Joyful Irony by Greg Goode and the works of Jay Garfield very helpful.

3 Our reality is partially created by our past experiences, perceptions and beliefs

It is commonplace to say that ones' past affects how one perceives things, but combining this with propositions 1 and 2 leads to the much stronger claim that different past experiences lead to different realities. Thus, shamanistic visions may not be able to be simply dismissed as hallucinations of things which aren't there, but as perceptions of a non-ordinary but nevertheless valid reality.

Note that this does not mean fabrications about the world of everyday events have any validity, as assertions about conventionally experienced reality can be tested by consensually agreed standards for truth claims.

4 Indigenous cultures are in some ways grounded in a more rational metaphysics than a Western, scientifically oriented world view

If the assumption on non-experientiality is less reasonable than the rejection of this assumption, then cultures whose underlying world view reject this assumption are in this respect more rational than cultures that do not.

Here, I am not referring to any explicitly argued metaphysics, but the underlying Weltanschauung which impacts on how those in a particular culture appreciate and interpret reality beyond the body. In the West, part of this world-view is the assumption of the non-experientiality of matter.

5 Scientifically based empirical observation is superior to other ways of obtaining facts about the external world

The scientific emphasis on replicable and verifiable observation yields more useful observational data than methods which give undue reliance on authority, tradition, superstition or belief systems.

However, in some cases, such as those to do with perception of non-ordinary realities, a reliance on replicability and verifiability is not applicable.

6  For a given set of empirical facts, numerous possible theories could be constructed which are consistent with such facts

This is the problem of underdetermination. Underdetermination is usually applied to scientific theories but I think it applies equally to other ways of understanding the world, whether these be in the realm of everyday commonsense or overarching philosophies of living. Scientific behaviour and methods of understanding are not different in kind from other type of behaviour and methods.

7 The parameters for choosing between theories for living are broader than the parameters for theory choice in scientific practice

If there are a potentially infinite number of possible explanations for a set of facts, how does one decide on which theory to adopt? In the philosophy of science, this is the problem of theory choice. Theory choice in science is supposedly guided by rational criteria such as simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope and fruitfulness (although the problem of which criteria should predominate and how to balance them is unresolved).

Outside the insitutional constraints of what constitutes science,  in adopting theories to guide personal decisions and frameworks for living ('theories for living') other criteria are relevant. As well as simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope and fruitfulness, other factors such as asethetic appeal and how the theory contributes to a fulfilling life may also be appropriate.

There may not be a one size fits all method for balancing how different criteria are prioritised. This is not to say that predictiveness and accuracy should be abandoned in theories for living. For instance, if a theory predicts x will happen under certain conditions and x never does happen, it probably makes more sense to abandon the theory than to keep adding ad-hoc hypotheses to salvage it.

7 Metaphysical beliefs constrain how reality is appreciated

It follows from the above points that the metaphysical beliefs one holds about the nature of reality impact on the way nature is perceived and appreciated.

A worldview underpinned by a metaphysics that the material world outside the human body is 'mindless' and devoid of experientiality, perceptivity and sentience leads to views of nature as being mechanistic, dead and lacking in intrinsic value. A naive scientism impoverishs how the world is experienced.

 Instrumentalist views of science, which state that scientific theories are just ways of systematising observation statements and making predictions, without making any claims about the reality of non-observable abstractions,  in principle may not lead to impoverishment. However, where this methodological principle of how science mutates into an epistemeological claim that the only statements which have any value for knowing are observation statements, this too can lead to impoverishment. There is value in ways of knowing that are not captured by science.

8  Knowledge about the natural world may be able to be inferred from the patterns, structure and features of the experiencing human body

Accepting that experientiality may not be constrained to human bodies means also that there is no radical separation between the experiencing human body and other aspects of the universe. Processes beyond the body may yield insights about those within the body and visa versa. As Whitehead put it:

It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.

Thus, theories based on concepts of microcosm and macrocosm may have some validity.


None of the above is meant to suggest that the westernised mind needs to adopt indigenous creation myths, traditions or ideologies which may be inconsistent with scientific knowledge as their own. But appreciation of such traditions could lead to a more embodied, participative and connected way of understanding, being in and with the natural world. The infusion of western empiricism with indigenously-influenced metaphysics could lead to worldviews that are more rational, expansive and  inspiring.

We may not be able to believe that the actions of the rainbow serpent awakening from slumber led to the creation of the world, but we may be able to believe that the Big Bang was an explosion of love.

free web page counters

No comments: