Man’s dominion over nature, guided by patriarchal thought-processes, is a deeply rooted aspect of western scientism. This paradigm was advocated by Franscis Bacon, a very important figure of the era of scientific enlightenment. C.Merchant summarized the basic tenet of the Baconian approach in the statement, “The interrogation of witches as symbol of the interrogation of nature, the courtroom as model for its inquisition, and torture through mechanical devices as a tool of the subjugation of disorder were fundamental to the scientific method as power” (C. F. Hendrik, 1994).
This concept established the “Politics of Science,” which is the unbridled control, destruction and manipulation of nature for so-called humanitarian progress. It found its strongest voice in the Newtonian paradigm that followed, and the consequent industrial revolution. The much-celebrated value of “knowledge of external world,” as envisaged by ancient Greeks, was ignorantly replaced by the politics of “Control and Torture of Nature” for the cause of human development: a schizophrenic split within the scientific cerebrum.
The advent of new scientific ideas during the first half of the century reshuffled our philosophical ideas of space, time, matter and objectivity. The concurrent technological advancements, which were still guided by Baconian paradigm of “control and torture,” put us at the very core of instability and chaos in terms of damage to our natural resources and the biosphere. In response, a new science of complexity under a holistic approach is emerging. This approach shows a deeper ecological bent, which sees nature not as an external utility but a very part of our self. Every time we cut a tree, we are cutting a bit of our kids’ flesh, who are yet to come. As the contemporary environmentalist James Lovelock states:
“By adding greenhouse gases to the air and by replacing ecosystems, like forests, with farmland we are hitting the earth with double ‘whammy.’ We are interfering with temperature regulation by turning up the heat and then simultaneously removing the natural systems that helps to regulate it” (L. James, 2007).
In a nutshell, the damage we have incurred upon earth in last 100 years is unprecedented, irreversible and largely insane. What it requires is the immediate shift of our mechanistic view towards Earth, which is exclusively utilitarian, to organismic, which is sympathetic. Within the scientific paradigm, this was championed by the radical interpretation of Earth by Lovelock as a living system, technically termed as “Gaia Hypothesis.”
The idea of Earth as a “self-regulating living system” can be arguably traced back to the seminal work of Russian/Ukrainian scientist, Vladimir Vernadsky. In his book “The Biosphere” (1926), Vernadsky proposed the Earth’s biosphere to be a global dynamic system, which is in a state of constant evolution. With the advent of Chaos Theory and Cybernetics, non-linearity was recognized to be the primary signature of a complex system: for instance, Life. The concurrent development of the computer highly increased our computational capability, thus facilitating a new generation of scientists able to explore the different, novel and non-mechanistic world-views. James Lovelock, an independent English scientist, during the 1960s incepted the idea of Earth as a living super-organism. In the 70s, Lovelock met Lynn Margulies, the biologist famous for her revolutionary concept of “Symbiogenesis,” and the concept took a more solid shape. James Lovelock was the central figure of the conference named “Gaia in Oxford” held in April 1996, where the ideas of self-regulating super-organism were first seriously discussed by the mainstream scientific community. These finally paved the way to the development of more rigorous and formal shape of “Gaia Hypothesis.” The term “Gaia” is a Greek word for “Mother Earth.”
Gaia-Hypothesis depicts Earth’s biosphere as a self-regulating non-equilibrium system: a living being. The theory has been largely controversial and been termed mystical by the mainstream scientific community. Regardless, a little bit of contemplation and empathy, aided by empirical observations, can easily impart us with the understanding that the only sustainable way we can co-exist with Earth is her acceptance as a living being, our mother Gaia.
The conflict between the holistic Gaia-Hypothesis and the Baconian method of control is manifested in the ideology of world religions. The place of nature within the eastern traditions of Buddhism/Hinduism/Islam as well as Christianity is largely metaphysical, similar to mainstream science. Within the dualistic Samkhya tradition of Hinduism, “Prakirti” (the Sanskrit word for Nature) is the matrix of objective relationship, a dead background of multiplicity where the “Purusa” (the soul) is helplessly entangled. Within their schemes, Nature is not natural enough. Instead of the real, coarse nature we are embedded in, their “Nature” is a philosophical abstraction, an idea or a mere proposition.
In contrast, the closest similitude of the modern scientific view of earth as a living system can be found in ancient native North American Indian religion/philosophy. They have a rich history of religious practices, speculation, and observations which strongly revolve around the sympathetic appreciation of real nature around us. What makes this Native American view completely different from other religions is not just their thankfulness to nature, but the acceptance of sub-human species (animals and plants) and inanimate world (rivers, forests, and mountains) as our own kindred, animated by the same very spirit-force that flows through humans. Kinship with every animate/inanimate is their most vibrant belief and active principle, derived from deep experiential recess, rather from the shallow mire of dry speculations. As Black Elk, the famous holy man of Oglala Lakota, states:
“We should know that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that he is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above these things and peoples”(Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, 1972).
It is not an exaggeration to state that Christianity and many eastern religious traditions identify nature as more or less subservient to the psycho-social matrix of the milieu. In the case of Native American religion, in contrast, nature is organismically connected with the psyche of her occupants, thus forming a highly convoluted interconnection between nature, psyche and the society. In the former, nature has a utilitarian value while in the latter, nature is itself a value. In his book “God is Red,” Vine Deloria Jr. affirms this conclusion:
“The Near Eastern religions seek and guarantee salvation, which is conceived as an escape from this planet to a place where loyal followers can enjoy eternal life filled with the delights that they were denied during this lifetime. Indians see themselves returning to nature, their bodies becoming the dust of Mother Earth, and their souls journeying to another place across the Milky Way or sometimes being reborn in a new generation of the tribe” (J. D. Vine, 2003).
This essay has provided a short comparative study between the North-American religion and Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. We can safely surmise that Native American religious traditions are based on their belief in indiscriminate equality between human, animals and inanimate matrix, which is supremely unique and unprecedented, a markedly trenchant similitude with Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. The primary aim of this inference is to show how the scientific thought process, which is predominantly rationalistic, in certain cases shows a marked similarity with the religious thought-currents, which are mostly transcendentalistic.
We are certainly in dire need of an alternative to the prevailing western scientific paradigm, which holds important implications for holistic ecology in the face of environmental change. But above all, we first need to extricate ourselves from the dogmatic fanaticism of both “Religion” and “Science” and to clearly recognize the fact that human thought is also an ecological process. Compartmentalism leads to static and rigid categories, thus giving rise to the fragmented worldviews of absolutism, finalism, dogmatism and other semantic/metaphysical loops. Science and religion, just like life, are both deeply embedded in their socio-economic nexus. The only way to revere the sacredness of life and Gaia is to let ourselves be open to inter-disciplinary discussions.
Guest Contributor Sudeep Adhikari, from Kathmandu Nepal, is a PhD in Structural-Engineering. He graduated from University of Akron, Ohio, USA in 2013 after finishing his dissertation on structural behavior of Basalt Fiber-Reinforced Concrete. He lives in Kathmandu with his wife and family and works as an Engineering-Consultant/Part-time Lecturer. He is a keen observer of inter-disciplinary dynamics between science, philosophy, religion, literature, music, mathematics and psychology, and its implications on the epistemological foundation of human ideas. He also dares to do a little bit of poetry . His poetry has recently appeared in many online literary journals and magazines. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured Image courtesy of the author, digitally generated by Mr. Sven Geier)