Blackfoots’ language and physics

I just realized by chance that a person by the name David Peat died last year. I have never met him on person, and I only know of him what the Internet has to offer me, so I won’t spend useless words, you can make your own idea.

The reason why I pay this small tribute to his memory is that I once read with very much interest and without prejudice his book  Blackfoot Physics, a personal recollection of his encounter with the Blackfoots and a reflection on the world-views of Western Science and of Native Americans. The book was extremely well-written and persuasive, and it revealed a sensible soul. Although it is nowhere close to the standards of academic rigour I usually prefer, still I found it a quite honest recount and a commendable take on the processes of knowledge, a theme that I’m getting more and more sensible about.

Today I went back to one paper that summarizes his thought:

F. D. Peat, Blackfoot Physics and European Minds, Futures 29, pp. 563-573 (1997).

I find it a remarkable paper. I will report some of the sentences that I like best, and sometimes I will comment on them. I perfectly know that this practice is pure cherry-picking, and that many of his claims throughout the paper might not withstand a deeper examination. But I’m becoming more and more sympathetic to Paul Valery’s motto about what “humanity does with its researches and speculations: it deepens to not see” [L’Idée fixe ou Deux Hommes à la mer (1932)].

“Time, the theologicians had argued, belongs to God but now it became secularized through the practice of usury. Banking is about buying time and setting time aside.”

In this passage he is trying to argue for a specific era when time and space were separated. I’m not interested in that, but I like the idea that banking is a way to secularize time, to quantify, buy and sell it. It resonates with many of the considerations about debt and credit I found in David Graeber’s Dept: the first 5000 years.

“matter and spirit became fragmented one from the other and a participatory reality was transformed into scientific objectivity”

In my talk in Berlin I quoted Wheeler: “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe…. Observer participancy gives rise to information; and information gives rise to physics.”. (apparently Feynman said of Wheeler: “Some people think that Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy!”). Interesting that the word “participatory” appears here as well, it might well be that there is an historical connection between the two.

“It is to ask if an ethincal and moral dimension can be added to our science and technology and if supposed objectivity can be tempered through participation.”

I like “supposed” objectivity.

“Not only do they speak with rocks and trees, they are also able to converse with that which remains invisible to us, a world of what could be variously called spirits, or powers, or simply energies. However, these forces are not the occupants of a mystical or abstract domain, they remain an essential aspect of the natural, material world.”

This passage might be tough for any scientist. A few years ago, when I heard the word “energy” coming from the mouths of mystics or yogi or astrologists etc. or all that crowd I would almost faint. Now, even though I don’t give an ounce more credit to these people, I’ve come to realize that we scientists don’t own words. Furthermore, in a framework of processes, these “spirits” should not be considered as something “existing” for real like ghosts in spirited houses. “Spirits” are the manifestations of the incompressible complexity of certain processes. Also our imaginary world as theoretical physicists is haunted by such figures: consider for example the experimentalist-who-reads-our-papers-and-considers-making-an-experiment-out-of-them, that mythological figure to whom we dedicate our prayers at the end of our writings…

“How can anything be preserved from change? The answer lies in participation within the flux by means of acts of renewal”

As a thermodynamician, I like this idea of renewal. After all thermodynamics is the science of cyclic processes.

“An expression of the Blackfoot’s relationship to a reality of rocks, trees, animals, and energies is expressed within what many Native Americans call ‘a map in the head’. This map is a way of knowing where one is in relationship to the land, its history, society and all the living being s of nature.”

I love this passage, the more so the the more I realize that the “westernization” of our human functions brings us to outsource many mental faculties to external toys and tools. An obvious example is the sense of orienteering, which with the advent of geolocalization is completely lost.

“Knowledge is no mere collection of facts but something that one grows towards.”

Our schools and faculties instead often teach mere collections of facts to people who don’t give a shit any longer.

“Our physical reality is that of objects in interaction with one another: nouns linked by verbs […] How eagerly do we build categories and concepts, how literally do we take our “language games”, how easily do we become in empty philosophical argument.”

As epigraph of another of his papers, The Role of Language in Science, he reports an interesting sentence by David Hume: “Nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach on the province of grammarians, and to engage in disputes of words, while they imagine they are handling controversies of the deepest importance and concern” (this reminds me a lot of all the disputes in thermodynamics about what is entropy, what is temperature, and all that plethora of thermodynamic potentials etc.)

“It is not the intention of this essay to argue that we should abandon the Western world-view and become Blackfoot over night. Rather it is to suggest that it would be useful for us to examine our metaphysics in the light of that of another society”.

I strongly advocate for an ethnoanthropology of the scientific community, of its myths and rites. One of those myths is certainly that of objectivity.

“While other problems may certainly arise, this sort of trap is not present within a language where the verb takes the centre stage. Within Blackfoot all is movement, process and transformation. Nouns as objects emerge in a secondary way through the modification of verbs. To them the English language is a straight-jacket which forces their minds into a world of objects, categories and restrictive logic”.

This was the original motivation to come back to this paper. I love the idea that the Blackfoot had a more naturalistic language focused on processes rather than objects. Unfortunately, this claim is not supported here by a serious analysis. But I did manage to find a better reference:

P. Bakker, Algoquian verb structure: Plains Cree, LOT Occasional Series 5 (2006): 3-27.

Some quotes:

“Cree is a typical polysynthetic language [i.e. words are made of several morphemes that often cannot appear alone] in the sense that almost all of the grammatical information is given in the verb, and very little in the noun. This means that verbs are frequent and also morphologically complex.”

“Verbs contain most of the information. It contains obligatory reference to grammatical roles and number of its arguments (subject, direct and indirect object), and optionally also several valency-changing affixes (causative, applicative, detransitivizer, passive), gender-changing suffixes (from animate to inanimate, and the reverse), plus adverbial modifiers, tense, mood, aspect, Aktionsart, discourse markers, and further also incorporated nouns, classifiers, and diminutive suffixes.

Somewhere in other readings (probably from Howard Zinn’s recount of the “discovery” of the Americas) I have read that allegedly the fact that the structure of language was so different between Europeans and Native Americans made so that it was easy for Europeans to “buy” their land off them for nothing, because Native Americans did not even conceive of the possibility of the land to be “owned”. But I’ve also heard contrary opinions on this thesis, so I’ll have to dig this up more in depth.


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