Some academics argue that, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incas aside, the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere were at a pre-scientific level of development, and so there’s really no such thing as indigenous science. I think this mischaracterizes the case. 

By science is meant whatever affords us prediction and control. And by the so-called scientific method is meant whatever means might serve that end. Since, cf. Hume, causal connections can never be observed but only inferred, it follows that every causal postulate, in chemistry no less than in astrology, is a theoretical entity. The most that can be said, then, is that some theoretical entities and causal postulates give us better prediction and control than others. 

Are there pre-Contact understandings of the world that give us better prediction and control than those brought to this hemisphere by us ‘settlers’? If so they’re few and far between. And it’s that, and only that, that justifies the exclusion of indigenous science from the curriculum. To repeat: That exclusion is justified, but that indigenous understandings of the world are unscientific is a misidentification of that justification.

Can the same be said of indigenous philosophy? I’ve often remarked that my Hebrew ancestors, and your early Christian ones, were pre-philosophical peoples. For example, neither could tell you how God could know He’s always been, because that’s not the kind of question it occurs to a pre-philosophical people to ask. 

This is nothing these ancestors need apologize for. Neither, then, need indigenous people make shit up to pretend to compete with Plato or Kant or Darwin. Our (largely) European philosophy was the happenstance of a set of material conditions that had simply yet to obtain elsewhere. Need Europeans feel inferior because they had to appropriate rhythm from Africa?!

Every pronouncement from a university administrator in Canada now has to include a laudatory acknowledgement of indigenous “ways of knowing in caring for this land.” This is horse shit. Most indigenous people know it’s horse shit. But they let it slide, because it plays well for them. Which is the same reason we Jews let it slide that we invented monotheism. To paraphrase Tennyson’s Ulysses, horse shit “too has its honour and its toil.”  

Categories: Critical Thinking, Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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1 reply

  1. You may be interested in the controversy bubbling away in New Zealand about a proposal to teach, in the high schools, Maori traditional knowledge/ways of knowing alongside and “co-equal” with science as valid ways of knowing about the universe. The Royal Society of New Zealand has been hijacked by the censorious Left, including a surprising number of actual respectable scientists who are gleefully persecuting “OWG”s — old white guys — who attracted attention to themselves by pushing back in public. (Darn. I had so wanted to be a White Old Guy!) Richard Dawkins and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland have waded into the fray as well. (Don’t mean to make light of it. Working scientists in New Zealand are seriously concerned for the future of science in the Land of the Long White Cloud.)

    You can read the latest instalment on Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True.

    By the way, your reference to Hume and the failure of induction reminds me that I took up your challenge — it might have been on your YouTube video — to explain to a skeptic how it is we know that we know that the sun and the heavens are not on the inside of a sphere that rotates around a stationary earth. You need a good clock and some way to verify that it keeps time. Easier said than done, but doable without relying on induction. (The actual proof, stellar aberration, required precise mechanical observing instruments built for the purpose by skilled artisans in the 1700s when clocks were not yet good enough to prove it my way.)


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