Alabama Aviation College Blackfoot Physics and European Minds Reflection Paper Reflection #5: Read the paper Blackfoot Physics and European Minds. Write a reflection on the differences between the worldviews of Blackfoot Physics and European Minds
F. David Peat
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Western science and “European consciousness” is contrasted with that of Indigenous and
traditional peoples. The metaphysics of the Blackfoot of North America and this vision of an
animate world is examined. It is argued that something similar existed in Europe of the
early middle ages but that the secularization of space, time and matter paved the way for
the development of science. A new science may be possible which combines the current
power of abstraction and analysis with an “impersonal subjectivity”.
European consciousness dominates the world. As we move towards the next millennium will
this continue to be the case? In this article I explore a radically different world-view, that of
the Blackfoot of North America, and ask if their approach to society and the natural world
has anything of significance to teach us. Indeed, can the study of alternative ways of
thinking give rise to a creative response within own consciousness?
The initial statement of this article requires amplification and qualification. By “European
consciousness” I do not mean something confined to a specific geographical location but,
rather, a way of thinking and behaving that, while it did happen to develop within Europe,
now has an influence across much of the globe. Its seeds were already present in the
middle ages and its flowering resulted in the secularizing of time and of space, the rise of
science and the proliferation of technology. It transformed a society that had previously
existed on trade and barter into the major force for expansion and progress that now
dominates the world.
One of the most dramatic products of the Western mind has been its particular approach to
science, a discipline that, along with its associated technology, is by no means as objective,
neutral and value free as we once believed. Western science expresses an entire
metaphysics about the way be relate to the world, society and ourselves. Western science
has its triumph yet we are now aware of the hubris connected to its success. To take one
example, our technology acts somewhat like a virus which, when it enters a society,
transforms its entire structure. Export a sack of seed, a bag of fertilizer or a canister of
pesticide to the Third World and one transforms an entire way of life that may have
survived, largely unchanged, for hundreds or even thousands of years.
An Animate World
In recent years I have often heard the boast that, for the first time in human history, we all
share the same story of creation and that today children all over the world are being taught
the same facts about nature. Western science has become the yardstick of truth and,
measured against it, the stories and traditions that have sustained ancient cultures are
dismissed as myths, superstitions and old wives tales.
But, measured on the scale of the world’s civilizations, this “European mind” is
comparatively young and its science a mere infant. Go back a millennium and time was
experienced as a cycle of renewal. The seasons, the rhythms of daily life and the church’s
calendar were all in harmony. Space was united with time and its interior was as rich as the
yoke of an egg. Aristotle’s natural philosophy taught that each body has its natural place;
medieval society was a world in which each person was in his or her proper place. Our
modern notions of the rights of the individual was far less important than the well being of
society as a whole.
In such a world everything was alive; rocks, rivers and trees. Nature was constantly at work
and it fell to human beings to act as her midwife. Metals grew in the womb of the earth and
the sacred work of the miner and blacksmith brought this labour to completion. In many
ways the reality of this world was far larger than the scientific reality we inhabit today.
For a variety of reasons European consciousness began to change. Time, the theologians
had argued, belongs to God but now it became secularized though the practice of usury.
Banking is about buying time and setting time aside. Inevitably a secularized time led to our
modern obsession with growth and progress, prediction and control.
In the twelfth century Aquinas denied that the artifex (miner, blacksmith, sculptor, etc.) is
the assistant to nature for, he claimed, while the form of matter may be altered, its essence
is untouched. The crafts and arts of humankind had been reduced to the superficial
transformation of mere appearance.
In 1438 another influence was added to the developing European mind. With Byzantium
under threat from the expansion of the Ottoman empire its Emperor, John Paleologus, along
with seven hundred advisors, traveled to Florence in an attempt to gain Pope Eugenius IV’s
military support. In exchange he offered a resolution of the theological differences between
the two churches. The result was that for a time Florence was filled with neo-Platonism and
its influence, at the height of the Renaissance, cannot be underestimated.
In the thirteenth century William of Auvergne could write “When you consider the order and
magnificence of the universe… you will find it like a most beautiful canticle.. and the
wonders and varieties of its creatures to be a symphony of joy and harmony to the very
essence. … The goodness of a substance, and its beauty are the same thing”. Likewise
Abbot Sugar supervised the rebuilding of the abbey church of St. Denis in order to make the
divine manifest within bronze, stone, stained glass, precious metals and jewels. 1 Now, in the
Renaissance, artists were directing their gaze away from the natural world into one of ideal
Within this melting pot of ideas matter and spirit became fragmented one from the other
and a participatory reality was transformed into scientific objectivity. For me the exemplar
of this change of consciousness is linear perspective which developed in the earlier part of
the Renaissance. Siena is referred to by Italians and a feminine city. Within the paintings of
its school time and space are united. The various events of a saint’s life are presented in
total, like a superimposed comic strip; and while depth in space is certainly indicated it is
still possible to see an object from a multiplicity of viewpoints. But, as the Renaissance
developed in the more masculine city of Florence, time was abstracted from space and
painting was left with the single viewpoint, a frozen world seen though a window. With the
device of perspective one longer enters into to painting but views it with an objective eye.
Mirroring the metaphysics of the period, nature has been projected away from us and the
world is experienced as something external.
The mathematical basis of perspective is called Projective Geometry. This term says it all.
One no longer engages directly with an object in its natural, essential form, as something
that can be explored and touched, instead it becomes a surface that must be distorted to fit
the global logic of mathematical perspective. The rich individualistic inscape of the natural
world had given way to a uniform perspectival grid of logic and reason.
How well perspective parallels a science in which nature obeys laws that are, in some
metaphysical sense, external to matter’s essence. As Bacon argued, these laws are to be
discovered by placing nature on the rack, another sort of grid, and tormenting her to reveal
her secrets. Descartes and Newton can not be held responsible for our modern world, the
seeds of its consciousness were sown long before.
It is only as we reach our own modern age that the perspectival vision of science has been
shaken by, for example, quantum theory. Yet artists are always the antennae of society and
the foreshocks could be felt when Cezanne restored touch to painting and, in the process,
activated time and multiplicity of viewpoint. Never interested in projection Cezanne entered
directly into nature, and nature entered into him. “The Landscape becomes reflective,
human and thinks itself though me.” he wrote, “I make it an object, let it project itself and
endure within my painting….I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and
my painting becomes its objective consciousness.” 2
The Modern Mind
The European mind, along with its material and conceptual products, exerts a powerful
seductive force on all of us. It would be extremely difficult to live without the products of
such a consciousness, nor would most of us we wish to – at least not in an entirely radical
fashion. Many have already written of the shadow side to this power; intensive farming,
high technology medicine, rapid communications and so on. My own interest in somewhat
different. It is to ask if an earlier richness together with a sense of harmony and a balance
can be restored to the European mind. It is to ask if an ethical and moral dimension can be
added to our science and technology and if supposed objectivity can be tempered through
Is our world destined towards increasing uniformity or can we accommodate alternative
view points and metaphysics, each enriching the other? The arts have always been eager for
such enrichment, Debussy drew upon Balanese music, Picasso on African masks, and a
director like Peter Brooke has explored the world’s theatrical traditions. When used in a
creative and respectful way these are not acts of cultural appropriation but of cultural
renewal. Is something similar possible within our science?
At this point is could be objected that, unlike the arts, science is objective and, from a
cultural point of view, value-free. It is for this reason, it is said, that Indigenous and
marginalized cultures cannot really co-exist beside industrialized nations and are doomed to
extinction. I don’t believe this is true. Traditional cultures have enormous power and may,
in the end, act to transform or renew our own technological society.
An Alternative Vision
My test case is that of the Blackfoot people, a nation who once occupied an area of the
North American plains east of the Rocky Mountains but now today live in reserves in
Montana, U.S. and reservations in Alberta, Canada. By tradition they were hunters of
buffalo; traveling with their tepis in the summer and wintering along river banks. Their
language is a member of the great Algonquin family which runs from the Cheyenne in the
central US plains though the Blackfoot and up into northern Canada with Ojibwaj and Cree
finally into the Naskapi of Labrador.
My encounter, as a representative of Western science, with the Blackfoot was neither
systematic nor anthropological 3. It was more an ongoing friendship and a series of
discussions about our respective world-views. In turn this led to a number of circles in which
Western scientists sat with Blackfoot and other Native American Elders.
The Blackfoot have weathered the extermination of the buffalo and the appropriation of
their lands. Anyone past middle age would have experienced the residential schools in which
children’s heads were shaved, clothing burned, and a prohibition placed upon speaking their
mother tongue or praying according to their tradition – physical and sexual abuse was also
far from uncommon. Today the Blackfoot have exchanged their horses for cars and pickup
trucks. They live in houses instead of tepis and job hunting has replaced the buffalo jump
and buffalo wallow. Surrounded by the pressures of North American society they are faced
with drug and alcohol problems yet what struck me most during my visits is the way that
the old is able to coexist with the new so that, for many Blackfoot, their traditional vision
and metaphysics survives untarnished. Clearly the Blackfoot have the extraordinary ability
to coexist within two worlds. Yet they taught me that we all possess a similar capacity and
buried deep within the European mind lies something that may be able to temper the
momentum of our present path. We are all indigenous people, in the sense that each of us
is the carrier of a sacred relationship to the natural world and has access to a wider vision of
a reality long denied.
What is the nature of Blackfoot reality? Certainly it is far wider than our own, yet firmly
based within the natural world of vibrant, living things. Once our European world saw nature
in a similar way, a vision still present in poets like Blake, Wordsworth and Gerard Manley
Hopkins who perceived the immanence and inscape of the world. Nevertheless our
consciousness has narrowed to the extent that matter is separated from spirit and we seek
our reality in an imagined elsewhere of abstractions, Platonic realms, mathematical
elegance, and physical laws.
The Blackfoot know of no such fragmentation. Not only do they speak with rocks and trees,
they are also able to converse with that which remains invisible to us, a world of what could
be variously called spirits, or powers, or simply energies. But these forces are not the
occupants of a mystical or abstract domain, they remain an essential aspect of the natural,
material world. It is not so much that the Blackfoot live in an extended reality but that our
own Western vision had become excessively myopic.
This wider reality embraces flux, movement, change and transformation. The creator of the
land, Napi (the Old Man), is also its trickster, one who is constantly changing form,
traversing boundaries and upsetting preconceptions. For example, what the West takes as
the aberration of multiple personality becomes the acceptance that an individual is not a
fixed thing but fluid, a being whose multiplicity is reflected in the way a person’s name
keeps transforming during their life.
How is one to maintain orientation in a universe in which everything is caught up in the
river of transformation. How can anything be preserved from change? The answer lies in
participation within the flux by means of acts of renewal. Renewal requires an act of
sacrifice and it is these sacrifices, these actions of participation, performed each morning
when the sun rises, each year at the Sun Dance, which help to maintain the great circle of
renewal. Thanks to these acts of renewal time, within the flux, turns on its axis. Seasons
follow seasons. Circling time is always the same, yet always different, always renewed.
Acts of renewal reflect the compacts formed in ancient times; negotiated relationships
between the ancestors and the energies, or spirits, or keepers of the land. No one believes
that a pipe ceremony actually causes the sun to rise. Rather, by renewing their relationships
to the dynamics of nature the Blackfoot maintain a harmonious role within the cosmos.
Within a balanced cosmos the sun will rise and the seasons follow in their proper harmony.
Personal sacrifice, responsibility, ceremonies and acts of renewal therefore have nothing to
do with the world of mechanical causality but are more to do with a relationship to a living
cosmos. Although it does not come from the Blackfoot, the story of the rainmaker well
illustrates this point:- A rainmaker was called to a region experiencing drought. He arrived
and immediately went into the hut provided for him only to emerge several days later as it
began to rain. When he was asked how he had made the rain he replied that he had not
caused the rain to fall. Rather, when he arrived in the village he discovered everything to be
in disharmony. He therefore retired to his hut in order to bring himself back into balance.
Once balance had been restored then nature returned to harmony and the rain fell as it
Carl Jung chose to term this synchronicity, his “acausal connecting principle”.4 It was
present earlier in the West in the form of Alchemy in which external material workings and
internal transformations mirror each other. This constant movement towards balance and
harmony within the flux is the essence of the Blackfoot world.
The Map in the Head
An expression of the Blackfoot’s relationship to a reality of rocks, trees, animals and
energies is expressed within what many Native Americans call “a map in the head”. This
map is a way of knowing where one is in relationship to the land, its history, society and all
the living beings of nature. For the Blackfoot this map begins with Napi’s body, which is
traced out in the landscape in the form of rivers, buttes, hills and valleys. It is also the track
left by Napi as he walked across his land. The Map in the Head is songs sung and the stories
told around the fire at night. It is the relationship of the Blackfoot people to their world.
The map in the head is a form of knowledge, but knowledge, for the Blackfoot, is no mere
collection of facts but something that one grows towards. Knowledge, like a song, is a living
being; a being with which one can come into relationship. Coming to knowing is an active
dialogue with nature; with the rocks, plants and animals. As one Blackfoot put it, “the plants
and animals are our microscopes and laboratories.”
Knowledge is relationship and relationship brings with it responsibilities and obligations.
Thus it has been put to me that when Western science performs its experiments it is
actually conversing with nature and, in this process, telling nature about ourselves. Are we
willing to take responsibility for what we say? Each action in the laboratory must be
balanced by its reaction somewhere else in the world. When we create order in one place we
give birth to disorder in another.
Such a point of view should not be entirely alien to our European minds. It was a European,
Goethe, who suggested an alternative to the Newtonian method which he saw as a way of
gaining knowledge by placing nature in highly artificial situations. By contrast, Goethe
sought “an instant worth a thousand, bearing all within itself.” 5 His method involved, for
example, coming into relationship with plants and contemplating their inner nature. In this
fashion Goethe sought to understand the inner nature and meaning of plants.6
While Newtonian science studies particular instances in the hope of generalizing into a law
of nature – unity within multiplicity – Goethe studied the multiplicity that arises out of unity.
Goethe’s notion of the archetype of all plants resonates with Indigenous concept of the
Guardians or Keepers of plants and animals. By carrying a piece of bone a Blackfoot comes
into direct contact with the Guardian or Keeper of the buffalo.
Plants have the power to heal. For the Blackfoot the nature of their action cannot be
reduced simply to chemical substances or molecules. Healing involves a relationship to the
entire plant and this includes its power, energy, spirit, or in Goethe’s terms, its archetype.
One can perhaps understand this by analogy to sacred sculpture of, for example, India.
Within a ceremony these objects act as windows into the world of the sacred yet are at the
same time no more than stone, clay and pigment. Their action is that of a diagram, or map,
of the pattern of the sacred. One comes into relationship with the numinous though the
catalytic action of the icon. In a similar way the plant and its associated chemicals open into
a larger world of energies and healing powers.
There is a related metaphor in Western science. A molecule is not so much an object but a
dynamical pattern. At the quantum level it is a pattern of energies which extend into the
ground state of the entire cosmos. Absorbed into the body this dynamic energy pattern
provokes a range of transformations of the body’s biochemical activities. Of course, the
analogy can only go so long as Western science continues to fragment matter from ethical
values, consciousness and spirit.
It goes without saying that the relationship to the plant…
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