Apples and Oranges: Contradictions in Worldview

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

“In recent years we have come to understand what progress is. It is the total replacement of nature by an artificial technology. Progress is the absolute destruction of the real world in favor of a technology that creates a comfortable way of life for a few fortunately situated people. Within our lifetime the differences between the Indian use of the land and the white use of the land will become crystal clear.”
– Vine Deloria Jr.

Apples and Oranges: Contradictions in Worldview

Comparing Native American philosophical concepts to the paradigms of Eurocentric westernized thinking is akin to the proverbial apples and oranges debate. The comparison itself is interesting in that it requires a writer or thinker to utilize a black and white standpoint in order to investigate what should, by all accounts, be a gray area somewhere in between. Since the two types of thinking or epistemologies are practically at direct odds to one another, it is nearly impossible to compare similarities and we are left with only contradictions and polarized opposites.

The fundamental foundation of Eurocentric thinking involves reason and rationality. It is based on notions of absolute truths, fact and logic, time and observation. If something can not be observed, witnessed, repeated and recorded, it is seen as being impossible, unimportant, or wrong.

Within North America and Europe, we are indoctrinated to think like this from a very young age. The Eurocentric worldview is taught to us, telling us that we ‘should’ attempt to organize and categorize our world; we ‘should’ be dependent on science and technology to provide us with ‘facts’, those facts leading us to the ‘truth’. It tells us that we ‘should’ think in secular terms, with religion and spirituality being mere distractions, at best abstract concepts that do little to enhance ‘progress’. It tells us that life is linear, that the past is the past, the present is now, and the future is years away. We are taught in our schools to rely heavily on analysis and observation – that our five senses are the tools we should use to attain information, and then our logic and reason should make the information ‘fit’ into a system of aforementioned categorization.

We are taught that impersonal objectivity is the ideal way to deal with information, that we should remove ourselves from the equation and look only at the input we have taken in, and nothing else. If there are patterns that emerge from these objective observations, and these patterns hold up under inspection and repetition, then they become ‘facts’, at least until more information is acquired. In other words, Truth is our best guess, using what we know now, and it may change completely or be overturned when and if more information becomes available.

These notions are nowhere more apparent than in the English language itself, which primarily uses descriptive terms – nouns and adjectives – lending itself well to a system of categorization and logic. The English language narrows, focuses, and sharpens our ‘facts’, until we live in a world of things, of objects, or restrictions and requirements.

Within such a “rational” and descriptive society, there are many limits. A rose is not just a rose; it is any flower that grows from a shrub of the genus Rosa. This genus has its own limits and anything fitting the criteria we have assigned to it, becomes a rose. Then we can claim that a rose by any other name is still a rose. We think that our Western science is impartial, is unshakeable, and can therefore be considered as being the yardstick of truth, with all things measured against it to see whether they fit our preconceived notions or not.

If a rose was to be found that did not meet the criteria of the genus Rosa, we would not call it a rose, even though any layperson or person untrained in botany would see it as one. Likewise, we have put ourselves at the top of the evolutionary chain, the kings of the hill, Homo sapiens. We are taught to believe that we are superior to animals, because animals have no feelings, no emotions, no intellect, and cannot ‘out-perform’ us as superior beings, with our opposable thumbs and oversized brains.

In this same way, we strive for and require plausible physical explanations for all things, all events and all phenomena. This limits us in another way, for what ‘should’ we do when we encounter “extraordinary” things, things that can be seen as supernatural or spiritual?

Within the parameters of Western thought, we deny that they exist, instead ascribing those extraordinary things with ordinary scientific reasoning. Someone who hears voices in their head must surely be suffering from auditory hallucinations, likely due to a neurological condition or ‘mental illness’. When two childhood friends meet after a 4o year estrangement halfway across the world in an unplanned ‘accident,’ it gets brushed off as being sheer coincidence, an odd but not ‘miraculous encounter that must only be at best, luck.

According to the Eurocentric worldview, these things (hallucinations and coincidences) can not be ‘real’, because they cannot be measured in a physical or mechanical way. They are not “rational” experiences, with no definite cause and effect, and cannot be understood by an outside observer, so are of little consequence. If follows from this that those stories and traditions that have sustained ancient cultures for millennia are dismissed as being nothing more than myths, superstitions and old wives tales. If there was a way that we could inspect ‘invisible’ events and forces beyond our comprehension in a lab or under a microscope, they could then be given credibility, but since we cannot, they are ‘incredible’ and unreliable.

We may make attempts to reduce some of the ‘unfathomable’ mysteries of nature and the universe down to our prescribed and predetermined set of laws, trying to categorize and order the cosmos, but if the cosmos does not follow the same ‘laws’ that we do, then we ‘can not’ do it, we are limited. With this being said, in our Westernized school of thought there is also the arguably arrogant notion that we can always know more, that more knowledge is always better, that eventually we can and will know all there is to know about everything, and our entire universe will be ordered and categorized, provided we have enough time to gather enough ‘facts’.

The Western paradigm also emphasizes individuality. Great importance is placed upon ones achievements, in comparison to someone else’s. Each of us plays out our own roles, believing that we are, for all intents and purposes, the centre of the universe. Family ties and cultural constructions are deemed less important, as are religious beliefs and group dynamics. Even our systems of economy, justice, and politics are ordered around the individual. We nominate individuals to positions of power.

We respect and revere individuals who have achieved a certain level of fame, of money, of status.
In the Western world, we live and die under a democracy, which is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people (collectively), but have the democracy so entangled with capitalism (of the money, by the money, for the money) that the people who are influential are those who can afford to be. Thus we have a system of rules and authority, determining who can do what and who can not, leading to criminals – who do what they can not – and the poor – who can not do what they are entitled to. This capitalist democracy supposedly requires a consensus (or at least a majority) of the community or nation, but really only fosters constructions of dependence, and conformity, and categorization.

As implied in the first line of this essay, if the Western worldview is an apple, then the indigenous or aboriginal American worldview is an orange.

The fundamental structures of reason and rationality dissolve, allowing for notions of absolute truth and indisputable fact to be flexible, permeable, and even nonexistent.

In the Native American way of thinking, truth is a matter of perception. Something need not necessarily be ‘provable’ to be true, nor does truth require observation and repetition. Indeed, in the Native worldview, there is no truth, nor is there even a world in which to hold a truth, without first applying meaning a value to the question at hand. Even more so, there is no meaning and value that can be applied, unless we first acknowledge ourselves and our relationships with those around us – be they human, animal, or other.

In traditional aboriginal thought, the answer to a question often lies in the question itself. The answer is not as important as the question. Before wondering how or why something is the way it is; one should ask themselves why it is that they are wondering in the first place. If that question can not be answered adequately, then perhaps the answer should not be known in the first place. In this way, to a traditional Native American, there are some questions that should never be asked, as there as some answers that should never be known. Great mysteries are great only so long as they are mysterious.

A continuation of this way of thinking is what Vine Deloria Jr. calls “the meaning-shaping principle of action.” This principle dictates that what we do as individuals, the actions that we take and the reasons why we take them, is as important as any hard truth or fact. The world and its people, and the special relationships between them are where the emphasis lies. A people and a culture are only as strong as their weakest member. This implies that any group or collective, which may see itself to be strong or secure, is not necessarily so. For as long as there is one member who is who is suffering from hunger, poverty, injustice, or illness, the group is not strong.

This stems back to an underlying fundamental difference between Native and Western thought – interconnectedness. As opposed to the Eurocentric outlook, which emphasizes individuality and a self-central approach to living (survival of the fittest so to speak), the aboriginal paradigm sees that ALL things are inherently and inseparably connected by a web of energy, an invisible underlying force, that is in constant flux. If our reality is seen as being fluid and dynamic, constantly changing, always aware of itself and unrestrained by the five senses and scientific reasoning, then all things in the universe have their place and have their purpose.

This thinking allows for every aspect of our world to be seen as powerful and animate, from the most primitive one-celled life forms, through mountains and rivers, all the way to mammals, humans, and the aforementioned proverbial rose.

Along with power and animation, a fluid and dynamic universe allows for the existence of nonphysical things – things spiritual, invisible, and incredible. Unseen forces; spirits, powers, dreams, ancestors, energies; are not mystical, supernatural or abstract; they are just further extensions of the natural world that we are not always aware of.

If we ARE the world and the world IS us; if the universe is all united in a holistic and inseparable way with no separation, then science and language become less important. Any observation requires the observers’ participation, and any participation may affect the final observation. Any categorization is useless, for all things are of equal value. Any word ascribed to a living thing or object is restrictive and prevents the true value of the subject from shining through.

A rose is not just a member of the Rosa family – it is a thing of beauty, a source of food. It is connected to the earth. It gives off a delightful scent, which attracts all things. It provides nectar to insects and protects itself from harm with thorns. It takes in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen, helping all life breathe. This is a rose, no matter what it is named.

Because of this, aboriginal tongues are difficult to translate into English. As an example, the Blackfoot language utilizes many more verbs or movement words than descriptives. It describes the intimate, specialized relationships between objects, animals, and families in a way which English can not do. It also utilizes body language and lengthened syllables in a way that English can not.

This makes perfect sense when one considers that the Blackfoot language has only in modern times been even transcribed into words. Traditionally the language was only used orally, with stories and knowledge being passed down from generation to generation, containing moral examples, information about nature, and other natural knowledge by which it is wise to live. In aboriginal culture, renewal is very important. Life is a process, always in motion, always transforming. Life is cyclical, always proceeding only to later repeat itself, provided that all things are in balance.

Native peoples traditionally knew what resources were available, how long they would last, and how to make the most out of them. When something was off-kilter, it was obvious, for there would be illness and imbalance – if one thing is out of whack, so are all things. This is why many certain tribes would move every three seasons, to allow forests and the earth to replenish itself, resetting the balance, and ensuring that the precious resources would be available at a later time.

This conception of renewal allows for philosophical notion of natural knowledge and natural law. The absolute truths of the universe become apparent when watching an eagle fly – one can learn about gravity, momentum, aviation, hunting, and peace all at the same time. By observing the way that grasses blow in the breeze, one can learn about weather patterns, botany, and the food chain, while also hearing the voices of their ancestors. Of course, this is only so if the listener/observer of the eagle or the grass are wise enough to be able to interpret what they are witnessing. This wisdom comes from experience as well as from oral tradition – experience handed down to us from another.

Natural knowledge is much different from the Western notion of knowledge, that being an academic variation, a collection of observations and memorizations. Natural knowledge is something more akin to a living being to which one can enter a relationship. It requires an active dialogue with the other side; that being animals, plants, rocks – the best teachers, for they have been around much longer than we have; making them our elders, who are worthy of our respect.

When one looks at the world as a web of social relationships connecting all things, then respect, education and spirituality come quite easily. However, without our participation in the web, without respect for each other and for all things, the natural world is out of balance, and the web itself is weakened.


~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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