How can we upend “knowing”?

How can we upend “knowing”? How has the pursuit of knowledge in modern science paradoxically gotten us further away from the truth and reality? How is “knowing” actually a process of co-creation, rather than a linear path towards an imagined enlightenment (that defines our anthropocene, a self-centred, misguided age)?

“One of the greatest tragedies of our age is the rise of an empirical dictatorship that decrees nothing can be known of itself, unless it's quantifiable, unless it is measurable. … Robert MacFarlane writes, 'only that by instrumentalising nature linguistically and operationally, we have largely stumped the earth out of wonder'.”

Peter Owen Jones, “Spiritual Ecology”, via advaya

Fascinatingly, while the words “empire” and “empirical” have different etymological origins, the foundations of modern science and its methods are certainly intertwined with imperialism, conquest, rule, and patriarchy. The prophet of the mechanical worldview that was established with the Scientific Revolution was Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, who envisioned himself as the saviour and science as a blessing to the people, explains Rupert Sheldrake. Harold J. Cook writes: “This urgent empiricism, so emblematic of the Scientific Revolution, was induced by global commerce, off-loaded among the cargoes of spices and remedies from European fleets that scoured the earth for material advantage.”

Regardless of its history, the empirical, scientific method and this way of knowing, of perceiving, stands in stark contrast to the non-empirical: the personal observation, the subjective, the “non-scientific”. While not a perfect comparison, this “empirical dictatorship” can be paralleled to, or at least understood alongside, what Iain McGilchrist would identify as one of the great ailments of our current time: our left hemisphere thinking world. He characterises the left and right hemispheres as such: as different modes of engaging with the world, where the left hemisphere builds up a world from pieces that are decontextualised, seeing individual, little parts without the whole, and the right hemisphere contextualises, seeing things as interconnected. The left hemisphere is more static, fixed, and certain, while the right hemisphere is flowing and changing: “There is a trade-off, if you like, between accuracy [the left hemisphere] and truthfulness [the right hemisphere].”

What happens when our dominant worldview parallels a left hemisphere perspective? It is dangerous, he shares: it involves “a kind of narrow beam attention to something that it wants to grasp”. Embedded within this perspective is a desire to grasp: to make familiar and make known, to narrow things down to a certainty, a preference for fixity (and things that are isolated and static, because those are more easily grasped), abstraction, decontextualisation, separation, and deanimation. To grasp easily, things must be made explicit, emptied of meaning, devoid of the broader picture. “Things will become simultaneously rather cerebral and abstract, and matter would just become lump and matter. That's what reification means—that things become thingy. Whereas at the same time, we lose touch with the tactile embodied reality of the world in which we all used to live, until quite recently.”

In other words, perhaps we can say that in the quest for the one truth, we tunnel vision our way away from a more holistic form of truth, the kind that sees the whole, the context, the world for what it is, rather than what we think it, or want it, to be. McGilchrist goes on to share that there has been evidence that the left hemisphere actually lacks depth, breadth, patience to more truthfully understand the world. He describes that without the right hemisphere, the world is flattened, “as it were, to a screen that represents the world”. Time too, is flattened: instead of having flow, extension, it becomes a series of points. Emotional depth is lost: “superficial jocularity” replaces rapport, empathy, humour, understanding. He zeroes in on this idea of representation: rather than experiencing the world in all its multi-dimensional vividness.

“There would be a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder, which is what the right hemisphere sees, because it knows how little it knows, whereas the left hemisphere thinks it knows everything, and finds the idea of awe and wonder irritating… Well, thank God, we don't live in that world.”

Iain McGilchrist, “The Divided Brain and Human Behaviour”, via advaya

McGilchrist is probably right: we live in a world that is heavily leaning into the left hemisphere. We live in a world that wants to know, so desperately, without seeing that in the processes of science-making, knowledge-creating, we are getting, paradoxically, further and further away from that imagined, objective, out-there truth. As John Muir wrote, and McGilchrist quotes: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Everything is embedded within its own context, intimately related, inconveniently (for those who believe in one objective truth) so.

And so much so that even the science-making process itself changes the “truth”: Hardin Tibbs wrote in 1992 about the current state of quantum theory at the time, supported by experimental results even during the 1990s, “suggest[ed] that the physical world does not manifest its physicality until we observe it”. In other words: “physical reality does not exist in a fully resolved or definite state prior to our attempt to extract information about its condition, but that it actually resolves into a specific state precisely in response to our effort to extract information.” Despite attempts to show that the physical world (one objective truth) is out there independently of our awareness, it does not seem to be true. In even simpler words, one could say that we are influencing the world we make as we try to know it, getting us closer to not knowing than knowing.

Tibbs acknowledged that “religious and mystical ideas”, that have been around for hundreds and thousands of years, seemed to now be compatible with “physical and biological science”, with what was at the time the most modern of human thinking, and thus demanding a “profound reexamination” of these ideas, synthesising them with science. What was mere inklings in Tibbs’ writing, and what should have been said more explicitly, is this: science and its laws, as Sheldrake would say, are metaphors. They are one way of interpreting the world, and must be integrated with other ways of interpreting the world.

As McGilchrist quotes Einstein, “the rational mind is a faithful servant and the intuitive mind is a precious gift: we live in a world that worships the servant and has forgotten the gift”. And in the spirit of integrating it all, McGilchrist’s answer is not that we should merely lean into the right hemisphere, but that we should see how both of these reinforce and strengthen each other to arrive at an even more whole truth.

“And the movement is like this: the beginnings of our understanding, the beginnings of our thinking, the beginnings of our awareness of the world, and of everything, is sub-served by the right hemisphere. But then the left hemisphere comes along and does something very important. It unpacks what was formerly implicit, it expands what was before compressed, it makes clear and focussed things that before were complicated and interwoven, and in doing so it helps us to see things that otherwise we wouldn’t have seen. But in themselves they are never enough, they are never the truth. And that means that our left hemisphere vision needs to go back into the broad context that the right hemisphere holds and enrich it. It’s a dialectic process. You have A followed by B, which doesn’t negate B, but it enriches and unfolds an aspect of it, and that’s taken up into the synthesis of the two.”

Iain McGilchrist, “The Master and His Emissary”, Holistic Science Journal

And let’s return to the idea that in trying to get at “truth”, we influence it. The idea that “knowing” is a process that does not actually get us further down the line in a linear, obsolete version of progress and modernity, but rather as a process that shapes. What are the implications of understanding “knowing” as web-forming, network-making, place-finding and place-making? Is there not a renewed humbling when we understand knowing as a process of us interacting with matter, with photons, with electrons, with whole atoms? Is this not a much-needed coming to terms with our humanity if we accept that, as Tibbs puts it, “[the] concreteness [of our world] is called into being by our awareness of it”, that “physical reality depends to some degree on our awareness of it”? One fuller extension of this is recognising that we humans do influence and interact with the world in this humbler way, rather than in the way that we have seen in the anthropocene.

Satish Kumar writes that McGilchrist and Gregory Bateson both say something he feels is “almost key to everything”: that reality is not a thing in itself, but rather as the relationship between things. That what is real is not some objective truth, that what is real is only what lies between us. This, again, is an embedding of humanity in the wider, reenchanted world. From here, one might ask why we (modern science) are so obsessed with knowing something outside of ourselves when what can only be known is what is embodied, shared; why we are so interested in abstraction when we realistically cannot abstract beyond ourselves?

If what Tibbs pointed out in 1992 is right, then he is also right in saying that this is compatible with what we have already known (but not necessarily acknowledged by that all-encompassing “we”). There are two parts to this, both of which some ancestral and indigenous knowledges have pointed out before: the process of “knowing” as that of place-finding and place-making. That on the one hand, the scientific inquiry, like all other forms of inquiry and human metaphor-making and sense-making, is a way of putting us back in our place; but also that this process is one that influences and makes our “place” too. It is a humbling (what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls the great remembering), and a reenchantment with the world, a return to wonder, a reminder that we are making the world as much as the world is making itself, and making us too, a constant co-creation.

Pat McCabe has spoken at length about the right relations, reminding us that we in the anthropocene, this “self-centred age” have strayed far away from being in right relation to the earth (and within and beyond it as well). Science and knowing should not lead us further towards elevating ourselves above other species (in the way that Francis Bacon and the likes of his “scientific priesthood” did in the Scientific Revolution), but rather lead us towards the right paradigm: “a Sacred Hoop of life paradigm, in which every single form of life has an honored place on the Sacred Hoop”.

“We say every single being on that Hoop has a perfect design, to uphold their part. And if everybody in that whole community, so flying ones, swinging ones, creepy-crawling ones, four-legged ones, all the plants... the whole structure... if everybody enacts their perfect design, then we get to have thriving life here… I, as a human being, also have a perfect design for thriving life. I'm here to uphold the honour of being human being.”

Pat McCabe, “The Science of Right Relations - Sacred Masculine, Sacred Feminine, & Divine Consent”, via advaya

It is worth noting how science has strayed very far indeed from this worldview: so much so that it has disenchanted and deanimated the world, declaring that nature has no greater purpose and teleology, that processes within nature can be reduced to random chance. What a lonely world it must be, and a woefully reduced one too, stripped of all its possibilities—strangeness and greatness and everything in between. If instead we began to see this process of “knowing” as sense-making and place-making in an ever-unstable world, one that we should not begin to seek a logical, full comprehension from, then everything comes alive, what we live in, who we are, comes alive together in a mutually active process of co-creation.

Storying and myth-making are also processes, alongside “knowing”, that embed us in an enlivened world that co-creates. (What if we were to begin to see modern science as a form of storying too?) Sharon Blackie writes: “We think that we imagine the land, but perhaps the land imagines us, and in its imaginings, it shapes us. The exterior landscape interacts with our interior landscape, and in the resulting entanglements, we become something more than we otherwise could ever hope to be.” She characterises storying as not just a way to place-making, weaving us into geographical, geological, material, locational history, but also as a way of us as storytellers constructing alongside the land itself. It is dialectical, for Blackie: “If we as humans have a calling to become something, why wouldn’t the places in which we live have their calling too?”

Mainstream modern science is an academic, rather stuffy worldview that abstracts, but of course, science itself is not monolithic and it is being reinvigorated from the inside out (and the outside in). Merlin Sheldrake (alongside and in the footsteps of, of course, many others like him) finds a home in the field of ecology, which is one science that embeds humans in embodied reality, that is fascinated by intimate relation, and one that, we could say, is in the interest of enlivening the world, in opposition to mechanistic materialism. “Ecology,” as Sheldrake characterises it, “is the study of the relationships between organisms and the places they inhabit.”

“Fungi live their lives totally embedded in their environment, they explore their environment, they branch, they can navigate labyrinth, they're very amazing coordinators of their rambling, shapeshifting selves. And they are thus embedded in very intimate contact and relation with their environment. And they're fascinating organisms, because they form actual connections between different beings. … And so they make literal, they embody, this principle of ecology, this relational science.”

Merlin Sheldrake, “Ecology, Mycelium & Relationships”, via advaya

Sheldrake goes on to say that the developments in the microbial sciences have shown us that we carry communities of microbes, that we are ecosystems just like how plants are ecosystems, that we aren’t “neatly-bounded individuals”, but “walking networks of relation”. If we think of these nested relationships, he asks, what happens to “me”, “you”, “us”, “them”, and all the terms of relation we use to dysfunctionally govern our lives and arrange our societies? And in this way ecology is a science that contrasts the dominant scientific paradigm and worldview that un-divines, un-wonders, and instead it is one that helps us find our way in this world. And it encourages interaction, embedding, embodying with the world, seeking to know and understand but while doing so recognising that we are but one of many moving parts.

Many of us are probably also familiar with James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, a theory that came from a chemist, alongside a biologist Lynn Margulis: together they proposed that the planet is alive, that the planet has properties of a life form, displaying homeostasis (forms of self-regulation) and giving rise to remarkably stable life-sustaining qualities that allow, for hundreds of millions of years, life to thrive. David Grinspoon describes it this way: “In the Darwinian view, Earth was essentially a stage with a series of changing backdrops to which life had to adjust. Yet, what or who was changing the sets? Margulis and Lovelock proposed that the drama of life does not unfold on the stage of a dead Earth, but that, rather, the stage itself is animated, part of a larger living entity, Gaia, composed of the biosphere together with the “nonliving” components that shape, respond to, and cycle through the biota of Earth.”

To these scientists the “entire skin of Earth, and its depths as well”, are alive. Of course, the Gaia Hypothesis was ridiculed and disdained, and it continues to be not accepted within the mainstream: Grinspoon notes that some complained “Gaians” had “failed to present an original, well-defined, testable scientific proposition”, in the same way, notably, that scholars of the empirical method camp favour their own methods because their non-empirical counterparts do work that is “not verifiable, subjective, irrelevant, and nonscientific”.

But as the certainties provided by mainstream modern science, founded upon questionable mechanistic assumptions, melt away, and as chasms have been growing in the fields of science, perhaps it is time to reground science in enchantment, in a world that is very much alive, to allow what were once seen as “contrarian”, or “controversial” within conventional science, to be taken seriously alongside more established forms of science.

For what is science, but one of many stories we tell ourselves and each other to know the unknowable world, an ongoing inquiry and exploration, one that should be collective and pluralistic?

advaya’s course on the big questions in science with Dr Rupert Sheldrake asks, in the face of a crisis of conscience and confidence within the scientific world, how do we reinvigorate, and reflower science? How do we better science, freeing it from its mechanistic, materialistic assumptions that do not even hold, that instead hold it back from a more pluralistic version of itself? Can we reenchant the world of modern science?


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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