Mythic Physics: How We See the World Changes the World

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By Madronna Holden

Our Goldilocks Planet

In The Universe is a Green Dragon physicist Brian Swimme asserts that physics needs a story large enough to encompass the meaning of the natural world and our place within it. Physics at least needs a story large enough to embrace its own puzzles. Ninety-six per cent of our universe, as New Scientist writer Michael Brooks puts it in 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense is “missing” – made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that physics is unable to describe in spite of its wide scale effects. As our measurements grow more precise, science has also learned that those numbers once considered constants in the physical world vary in different places and likely in different times as well.

Such variability has spurred some physicists to suggest that our universe is actually a “multiverse” bubbling up fountains of “baby universes”, each with the potential to become a universe with its own variants of space and time—and laws of nature. Though, of course, we don’t know how or why this might happen.

For over a hundred years physics has been grappling with the fact that its theories describing the smallest and largest parts of the natural world do not fit together—they are off by a factor of millions. Relativity theory describing the behavior of the stars is wildly inaccurate when applied to the subatomic level, just as the quantum theory accurate at the subatomic level is wildly inaccurate with anything much larger.

Physicists are, however, sure of one thing. Whatever our ability to measure, predict and understand the laws of nature, here on our home planet earth, those laws pertain precisely as needed for us to exist. Like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, who found a place “just right” for her, the physicist’s “Goldilocks zone” refers to the “just rightness” of our own place in the cosmos. It is here we have come to life as if it everything has been prepared to us.

Astrophysicists searching for extraterrestrial life debate standards for locating other potential “Goldilocks” planets. But there is good deal more to our own “just right” planet than such things as being the right distance from a proper star.

In the eloquent words of native writer and naturalist Linda Hogan each of our lives is “the result of the love of thousands.”

Physics does not dwell on the poetry or ethics of our coming to life but it does count the odds—and they are literally astronomical. The Big Bang originating our universe took place with a temperature so precise that had it been off by a fraction of a degree so tiny as to be unimaginable all the matter in the universe would either have been instantly incinerated or condensed forever into a cold immobile point.

Instead it spread out to create galaxies like our own, in which stars spun off in the universe-making extravaganza, one of which was a sun like ours which broke off a piece of itself to become earth—a piece just the right size at the right time with the right orbit, with the right size moon itself breaking off from earth in a meteor strike—and as time went on, the right proportions of land and liquid water, as well as the right geological history under our blanket of air yielding breath, protection from most asteroid strikes, and warming us with just the right amount of solar heat while radiating the rest off into space. Thus physicists term ours the “Goldilocks planet” in a “Goldilocks universe”.

But we should perhaps take our analogy with the Goldilocks story further. Finding a planet so wondrously suited to our lives is not all there is to the story. There is a family of bears that created the home Goldilocks finds “just right” for herself. In like fashion, nature’s more than human lives prepared the way for our own.

And nature’s bears will also give us feedback if we don’t treat the home lavishly prepared for us properly—feedback such as the current cancer epidemic, the loss of our domestic honeybees and so many wild species that, as native writer Paula Gunn Allen puts it, no longer wish to be our companions here.

And increasingly tragic weather disasters and rising oceans are coming with climate change.

Just as the immature Goldilocks recklessly used whatever she found without any heed to its builders, we post-industrial humans have some growing up to do with respect to our treatment of our “just right’ planet.

Marrying the Bear: The limits of human thought

One hallmark of maturation is self-understanding.

It is not only physics’ mysteries that teach us humility with respect to our knowledge—but the limits of our own thinking. As Nobel Laureate Kurt Gödel’s theorem illustrates, our knowledge can go no further than its initial assumptions. Within any system of thinking, that is, the most elaborate findings can only be variations on the assumptions with which we start.

Thus if we build our society on the assumptions of a hierarchical worldview which places some humans over others and all humans over the natural world, for instance, we will be stuck with a society of winners and losers, of rich and poor– and a denigrated natural world.

Gödel’s conclusion that we can only properly assess any system of thought if we see it as a whole—from without—is supported by physicist Michio Kaku’s analogy of fish swimming in their small pond in his Physics of the Impossible. Such fish will know only the water in their pond—until the day it rains and stirs them to notice there is another dimension to their water: something from without.

In like manner, we need to get out of ourselves—and our worldviews– to understand our own world. Kaku uses his fish pond to discuss a many-dimensioned world like the one with the ten or eleven dimensions necessary for the string theory bringing relativity and quantum mechanics into alignment.

But stepping out of the human-centered worldview as a method for making choices is a practice of long-lived indigenous cultures—whose stories and rituals prompted perceptions from a more than human perspective. The Rose Red tale from Europe as well as numerous tales throughout Native America relate how the bear who appears dangerous and savage in one human view can in another view be seen to be so much like us that we fall in love with its distinction and spirit. Unlike the immature Goldilocks who treats the bear’s home with such abandon, these stories sport brave and compassionate heroes who marry the bear –who in turn becomes an ally essential to survival.

Discovering and honoring how the lives of others contribute to our own is science’s way of “marrying the bear” today, when expanding our limited worldviews is more important than ever.

It is especially important to protect remaining global biological and cultural diversity as the library of our own expanded consciousness.

How We Perceive the World Changes the World

Changing our perceptions of the world changes the world. Quantum theory tells us that the building blocks of the physical world go in and out of existence as waves and particles. In his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg tells us more: if an observer sees these quanta as waves, they become waves, and if that same observer sees them as particles, they become particles.

To change our perception of the world is to change the world.

This is very different, however, from controlling the world. That would only work if we were alone in it—if there were no other lives here with their own perceptions and purposes. We are instead in intimate and inescapable relationship with others in our world in the way of any two atoms that once touched. Move them to the opposite ends of the earth and what happens to one is registered in the response of the other. This “action at a distance” is another of contemporary physics’ mysteries.

This is also how intimately connected our world is: our gaze upon it changes it—as in the traditional belief that directing an appreciative gaze on a plant helps it grow. As we direct our gaze upon the earth we create a wave-or-particle-world by turn certain and visionary: as solid and sure as the earth beneath our feet and as fraught with possibility as the seed pressed into that earth.

Thus the world turns in our eyes—as it also turns in the eyes of others. His Lower Chehalis ancestors told Henry Culture, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, explaining that it is before those eyes that human understanding of right action emerges. The Chehalis also believed those eyes of the earth judged human longevity as surely physicists believe that our observations of them construct waves and particles.

As I write this in January of 2015, I cannot predict what waits for us in the year ahead. But I can predict this much: the way we perceive our “just right” home planet will change the world. And if we shape our perceptions with respect, gratefulness and care, this will be a very good year indeed.

Plants as Persons: New Science Meets Enduring Ethics

By Madronna Holden

In his groundbreaking Plants as Persons:  A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall reveals botanical discoveries that indicate plants have individuality, self-recognition, self-direction, learning capacity, self- preservation and self-initiated movement.  Does this make them persons?  Hall’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

But if plants have the traits of persons on the list above, this does not make them persons like human persons.  Though Hall argues plants have a mind exhibited in the communication between plant parts by means of neural hormones, for instance, he stresses that they do not have a mind like the centralized human brainInstead they have a kind of “network mind”.

And though they may learn and adapt in the course of their lifetimes, their choices are not analogous to human free will.

What we have here is a contrary view to either the anthropocentrism that lays the world at the service of human ends or the anthropomorphism that projects human qualities on other natural lives.  Instead the particular qualities of plants challenge humans to expand their sense of personhood to include natural lives very different not only from humans but from all  persons in terms of a “zoocentric” bias that Hall argues permeates too much of our science.

Many indigenous peoples also attribute plants with the characteristics Hall outlines—in their worldviews the perception of plants as persons is commonplace.  Importantly, as Hall underscores in his detailed cross-cultural and historical analysis, those cultures with worldviews that see plants as persons also characteristically treat plants—and the living biosphere of which plants make up the substantial part—with respect and care.

The traditional Chehalis of Washington State, for instance, did not cut cottonwood or burn it for firewood, since they observed that it moved on its own—when there was no wind. Their respect for the cottonwood, that is, led to both careful observation of it and ensuing special treatment.  Notably, the water-loving cottonwood grows along river banks and in wetlands– and not cutting that tree helps preserve and cleanse local water tables protected by its roots.  A parallel case is that of the fig that grows along river and stream banks in traditional Kikuyu territory in Kenya.  Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement responsible for the planting of a billion trees, inherited the Kikuyu belief that the fig is sacred and should not be disturbed where it grows along such watercourses. Thus she learned the relationship between these trees and the preservation of precious water resources.

Such examples are legion:  I was told by an herbalist at Makah (on the Olympic Peninsula) that local loggers refused to cut the alder which their tradition considered sacred.  Not incidentally, the alder is a nitrogen-fixing tree that plays an essential role in re-establishing tree growth in areas ravaged by fire—or clear cut logging in the modern era.  The respect for the alder’s healing power was such that when native loggers learned alders were due to be cut in a modern logging operation, they would stay away from the job to avoid having any part in this.

Further north, in the Koyukan lands, the birch was thought to carry out reciprocal relationships with its human users. This idea limited the harvesting of birth bark so that trees were not harmed in the process.  In terms of its contract with humans, the birch would retaliate with environmental depravation if its bark were overused or wasted.  Such reciprocal relationships between humans and plants prevailed throughout native North America, where cloth weavers, basket makers, canoe makers, and house builders used plants according to human-plant contracts in which plants were thought to give permission for their use—which they would never do if humans wasted or overused them—ruined their habitats or harvested them in any other destructive way.

Altogether, the perception of plants as beings with minds and choices of their own led to both the careful observation and the respectful treatment of plants and their habitats—as well as special sensitivity to the interdependent relationships between humans and plants.

All knowledge of nature might be considered a form of story—a paradigm, as modern philosophy terms it.    What Hall’s work raises for consideration is the question of which stories are in line with the scientifically observed dynamics of the natural world and also elicit ethical consideration of that world from humans.  He argues that the idea of plants as persons fills both these criteria. By contrast, the story of plants as “automatons”, as Hall argues, is not only wrong on scientific and rational terms—given the characteristics of plants that make them very different from automatons– but wrong on ethical terms—which license humans to treat these living creatures with such carelessness.

So why do the members of modern industrial society often miss these special characteristics of plants outlined by Hall—and thus fail to treat the natural world that sustains us with the respect and care that such a view engenders?  According to Hall we can chalk this up to a mistaken turn in Western thinking that took up Aristotle’s dualistic and hierarchical philosophy, dividing humans from nature as it set humans above all else on earth. There were other choices:  for instance, pre-Socratics who argued that all natural life should be accorded equal consideration since it shared the same natural sources.

But Aristotle’s views went well with a culture based on empire—whereas the view of the equality of all life did not.  Not incidentally, Aristotle’s views of the natural world mirrored his views of humans, which divided them into classes allotted at birth—with male urban Greek landholders placed above the farmers from conquered cultures and slaves originating as war captives. And all men placed above women whom Aristotle saw as soul-less vessels good only for reproductive purposes—unlike some pre-Socratics who held female thinkers in high esteem.

The worldview that sees things in terms of domination and hierarchy can also inhibit scientific understanding—as Hall argues that it does in what is misses in botanical life. Further, the worldview that separates humans from other natural lives has historically given little attention to the interdependent or reciprocal quality of that world– in which each action has consequences. This worldview, that is, often licenses the dismissal of ethical concerns with respect to the treatment of the natural world.

The stories we tell of the natural world are not accidental, but set in cultural contexts:  they both serve and reflect social purposes.  The best science transcends the limits of the dominating worldview—as did Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, who attributes her brilliant results to her “speaking with the corn”. Though presently recognized with this award, she at first had a good deal of trouble publishing her work, given both the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field and had such a holistic, reverential attitude toward the corn she studied.

It is no mistake that societies that sustained their ways of life for tens of thousands of years had a worldview that encouraged both the careful observation of plants as living beings—and the ethics that flowed from such a view. And Hall points out the ways in which modern science parallels such ancient ethics.

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Madronna Holden’s review of Plants as Persons  was published in the newsletter of the International Society for Environmental Ethics ( summer 2012).

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Why Science Will Never Know Everything

By Madronna Holden

“Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery.”

— Stephen Hawking (courtesy of M. Goldstein’s Physics Foibles)

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James Watson, co-discoverer of the code of DNA famously declared,“If we (scientists) don’t play God, who will?”

It is comparable arrogance that has brought us so many environmental crises today.  We have been going full steam ahead with the idea that whatever we can do we should do, evidenced by the 84,000 human-made chemicals released into the environment without testing. I would argue that nothing better supports our need for the precautionary principle.

Watson’s statement licensing scientists to play God indicates the disjunction between scientific achievement and self-knowledge—a hazardous disjunction indeed. When our power outdistances our knowledge, there is trouble ahead.  This dangerous attitude is summed up by a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Report assessing geo-engineering plans that include placing mirrors in space to deflect sunlight in order to compensate for global warming.

The report noted that such a plan assumes that though we are not smart enough to manage our own behavior, we are somehow smart enough to manage the behavior of the entire planet’s climate system.

Unforeseen consequences have already arisen with the idea of seeding oceans with nutrients to encourage the growth of tiny creatures to lock up carbon.   Larger creatures ate the smaller ones before they had a chance to do their carbon-sequestering duties.

This reminds me of Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s essay (in her book, Dwellings)  featuring a wizened grandmother’s tongue in cheek response to grandiose experiments to prove something that careful and respectful observation of the natural world would just as well tell us:  “We knew that probably would be true”.

As to the mirrors in space proposition, there is already a drawback to this plan on grounds of justice—since it is predicted to change weather patterns for the worse in certain poorer countries.  Seems like we have enough of that result already, as a film on the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples in Banglades documents.

Still, there is something in us that wants to believe that any unforeseen consequences to our actions can all  be handled by some magic bullet.  I don’t find this vein of thinking comforting.  To the contrary, I find it troubling when anyone offhandedly asserts that science will one day know everything–as now and again one of my students asserts.

They might easily get this assumption from the “magic bullet” instant-fix attitude in our culture.  But I will give them more credit than that and assume that science majors are getting this idea from the scientific search for a unified field theory:  a  “theory of everything” with which scientific laws might predict the consequences of all actions in the natural  world. Currently, physics is grappling with the fact that the laws by which it describes the operations of large bodies do not match the laws that describe the operations of very small bodies– such as those on the quantum level.  A “unified field theory” would purportedly solve this dilemma.

I second the attempt to discover the interconnections in our cosmos, but this is a far cry from knowing—or being able to predict– everything. Indeed, I would argue that our own connections with the living world must honor its ability to surprise us.  If we think we are simply “managing” that world, we are obviously missing its own living essence.

At the very least a theory of everything should include a theory of ourselves that entails responsibility for our choices. Whereas I hold out hope for better ways of understanding ourselves, the most sophisticated scientific theory counters the idea that science might yield the knowledge to allow us to act as God of nature.

I am thinking of the work of mathematician Kurt Gödel and his “incompleteness theorem”.  What he proved with this theorem for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize is that no conceptual system can prove more than it originally assumes. That is, the proofs that derive from within any conceptual endeavour are only elaborations of what we already know– or assume we know– to begin with.

Thus we will never have a “theory of everything” that applies to our universe unless we are standing outside of it. And even if there are multiple and parallel universes, one could only understand the “everything” they are part  of by standing outside of them. I think even those engineers designing mirrors to deflect sunlight in outer space will find moving outside everything that exists a daunting task.

This perspective necessary for understanding our assumptions is why standing outside our own worldview gives us such important material for self-reflection.

As observers, we are intimately caught in the net of our observations, like the Hindu “net of jewels” that weaves the lives of  the world together– an analogy that coincides with Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that  on the quantum level, wave-particles can only be observed as waves or particles but not both.

And why should that be?  Because, Heisenberg postulates, the dynamic relationship between observer and observed is such that the very way we observe a quantum particle changes its essential nature.

There is more:  some modern physicists have documented how the very laws of physics may be changing over time.

This coincides nicely with the indigenous view that the world is alive- since change is a characteristic of life.

Two linguists, Benjamin Whorf and  Edward Sapir, speculatethat modern science might have come to quantum theory more quickly had we been speaking Hopi rather than Indo-European languages.The latter’s dualistic subject-object configuration more nearly coincides with the Newtonian worldview than does the space-time quanta that characterize Hopi languages.

In the traditional vision quests of the Coast Salish people, finding your spirit-power was linked to humbling yourself before the spirits of the natural world—who might thus find favor with you and speak to you in a language a mere human could understand.  The spirit power-knowledge found on such a quest was exercised throughout one’s lifetime as a joint affair, rather than as a manner of controlling the world.  One should always “ask permission” to use it—as a Snoqualmie traditionalist once told me.

According to such belief systems, children become mature adults who understand how to act in the world by humbling themselves to the more than human world.

My own belief is that the universe will always be  mysterious to us —for which I am grateful.  I find considerable hope in our human limits—perhaps this will someday motivate us to partner with nature rather than attempting to rule it as a god.

Sophisticated scientific theory and indigenous views of the world both indicate we can only get perspective on our culture by seeing it through the eyes of an alternative–and perspective on our humanness though the more than human world.

This is humbling.

It replicates the insight of Paula Gunn Allen’s Laguna Pueblo people who asserted that we need our enemies to show us who we are .  And thus if we outcast “others” from our world, we only diminish ourselves.

On the bridge between modern science and indigenous philosophy, there is this insight:  knowing the world is a matter of relating to it–and such knowing is bound up in the self-reflection we can only gain by suspending our egoism.

The discussion of the scientific certainty continues. here.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.