What can we learn about reality when comparing notes between quantum physicists and indigenous language and philosophy?
Some deep insights regarding wisdom with respect to the nature of reality comes from Indigenous elders, who emphasize that everything that can be created already exists–and this existence is an intrinsic, core quality of Nature. Some of these ideas are beautifully described in the book, Original Thinking, by Glenn Aparicio Parry, which I experienced firsthand when attending some dialogues described in this book with scientists, indigenous elders, and linguists. Physicist David Bohm and Harvard-educated Blackfood elder Leroy Little Bear attended the first such dialogue, hosted by the Fetzer Institute in Michigan in 1992. Also in attendance was linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford, who helped illuminate shared areas of agreement between quantum physics and indigenous wisdom. David Bohm, once an associate of Einstein, had been the key instigator behind this first meeting–and this had been a dream of his for decades, ever since reading what Benjamin Lee Whorf comments about Native American languages being verb-dominated. Linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford describes what this verb-centric quality suggests:
Whereas every sentence in English must properly have a subject, a noun or noun phrase, and a verb, many if not most Native American languages can have sentences with no nouns at all. ‘Rehpi,’ a full
sentence in Hopi referring to a celestial event, means ‘flashed,’ where we have to say ‘the lightning flashed.’ But this goes much further: sa’ke’j says that when he’s speaking mi’kmaq back on the reserve, he can go all day long without ever uttering a single noun. This statement is mind-boggling to most English speakers. So much of our facts and knowledge are wrapped up in nouns, so what would all that knowledge look like in a language that doesn’t value nouns in the same way? This includes all concepts, all the way to ‘god’.
Dan Moonhawk Alford documented eight key areas of agreement between the quantum physicists and the Native Americans. These include:
1. Everything that exists vibrates
This point of agreement is important because it moves beyond our usual ‘thingy’ or particle notion of existence based on raw sensory impressions, which is favored in the indo-european language family, and allows a justification on the part of Native Americans for the existence of spirits.
2. Everything is in flux
(Sa’ke’j:) The only constant is change–constant change, transformations; everything naturally friendly, trying to reach a more stable state instead of bullying each other around. That kind of process the English language doesn’t allow you to talk about too much, but most Native American languages are based on capturing the motions of nature, the rhythms, the vibrations, the relationships, that you can form with all these elements, just like a periodic table in a different way: relationships rather than a game of billiards,
where you only count the ones that go in–all of their motion doesn’t count.
3. The Part Enfolds the Whole:
… not just whole is more than the sum of its parts. (Sa’ke’j:) When we wear leathers and beads and eagle thongs and things like that, it’s not seen as totally ludicrous, as decoration – it’s seen as containing something you want to have a relationship with.
4. There is an implicate order to the universe
(Sa’ke’j:) This implicate order holds everything together whether we want it to or not, and exists independently of our beliefs, our perceptions, or our linguistic categories. It exists totally independently of the methods or rules that people use to arrive at what it is, and David Bohm’s captured that with the great phrase the implicate order, versus the explicate order of things that they can explain quite concretely, such as a rock falling out of a window. This also agrees with the lakhota phrase ‘skan skan,’ which points to the motion behind the motion.
5. This ecosphere is basically friendly
Sa’ke’j maintains that the planet, and especially the Americas as well as the physical universe, are basically gentle and friendly: You don’t have an electron jumping and bullying into other(s) unless it knows it’s missing a stable state and knows it can reach that stable state and increase its own stability.
6. Nature can be taught new tricks
(Sa’ke’j:) We also agreed that that world out there that exists–that reality, not imaginality–can be taught new tricks with the cyclotron; and what was raised in the meeting was, are these new tricks beneficial, or will they create a hostile universe on their own, independent of scientists, once they teach electrons how to jump and how to amass the energy to jump, and it becomes a bullying, hostile biological world. Reminds me of Alan Watts talking about how the universe has had to learn how to get ever smaller and ever larger as we probe it with microscopes and telescopes, receding ever further in the distance as self observes itself.
7. Quantum Potential and Spirit
After listening to the physicists and American Indians talk for a few days, it struck me that the way physicists use the term potential, or quantum potential, is nearly identical to the way Native Americans use the term spirit. They all agreed there was something similar going on.
8. The principle of complementarity
Physicists for all this century have realized that our usual notion of bipolar or black & white opposites was insufficient when working with nature. The first clue came when they asked incoming light, ‘Are you particle?’ and it answered Yes; ‘Are you wave?’ and it answered Yes. This is equivalent to asking whether something is a noun or a verb and getting a yes answer to both–which is exactly how Native American language nouns are made up: as verbs with suffixes that make them temporarily into nouns for discussion sake. this yes-yes complementarity is foreign to Indo-European languages, but quite
common in other language families (such as the Chinese notion of Yin-Yang), and represents a higher level of formal operations, in Piaget’s terms, referred to by some as post-formal operations–that which lies beyond normal Western Indo-European development.
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You can watch the companion video to this blog here: