Breaking the Spell II: Rewilding Your Ability to Reason

I almost titled this “rewilding your mind”, but that implies a split between one’s mind and body, a pernicious myth, which as far as concerns me creates a kind of schizophrenia, even when used innocently for convenience. The human bodymind, not an abstracted mind-brain, reasons, discerns, and recognizes patterns. Perhaps that needs another blog to fully address…in any case, how do we rewild this faculty of reason?

The first step requires us to see the cult of science clearly…in Henry H. Bauer’s Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method the author states the case very clearly.

In his book he refers to the model of the success of science not having to do with a mythical scientific method (known as the “hypothetico-deductive method”, a hundred-odd year old creation of science philosphers trying to explain the success of the creature known as “science”), but rather with the revolution in communication…the ability of investigators to communicate experiment and speculation more easily and quickly than ever before in civilization.

“Historians are agreed that modern science has its roots in the seventeenth century…continuity becomes much harder to discern as one goes back farther than that. One knows of bits of science in particular places at some times—in ancient China, and ancient Mesopotamia, in classical Greece, in early Islam—but there is not much coherent progression towards modern science to be discerned in them. If modern science owes its success to application of the scientific method, then one has to regard the seventeenth century as a time when people, specifically in western Europe, first become really adept at drawing conclusions from observations, at testing hypotheses, at learning about the world from actual experience. Such an explanation is simply not tenable. From at least two or three millennia before that we have records of insightful discussion of empricism and logic…Human beings knew about empiricism and skepticism and were capable of logic long before the seventeenth century, and not only in western Europe…”

Please note that the author doesn’t claim a lack of useful knowledge or discoveries in ancient civilization…he just wants to explore why modern science has the accelerated pace and particular qualities that it possesses today. Also, as a reader of this blog you’ll know that, as a student of tracking, I consider humans innate, age-old users of empiricism, skepticism, and logic, knowing that we became humans by becoming trackers. For more on this see Louis Liebenberg’s the Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science. So humans have practiced empiricism, skepticism, and logic for countless millenia — since they began tracking.

“…If modern science is recognized to be an inescapably cooperative, social activity, it becomes plain enough what was crucial in seventeenth-century western Europe: viable scientific societies were formed and scientific journals were established. Indeed, it is remarkable how well the measurable growth of those indicators of scientific activity over the last three centuries extrapolates back to a beginning in the seventeenth century (fig 7)…”

Figure 7 (enjoy the tiltedness):


Remember again, we trace the roots of (modern) science to the seventeenth century. This should serve as a wake-up call to the true believers in the church of science — science owes its success to wide communication and fellowship; it does not constitute a better form of knowledge, but results from the dividends of sharing knowledge. Science describes a social phenomenon, not an intellectual one. Bauer cites a wonderful model for this behavior, the “puzzle and filter”.

“Even though science is done very differently in the various specialties, and the consensus over how things ought to be done embodies significantly different emphases in the various fields, the different sciences nevertheless can be seen to have somehting in common if one focuses on the social activiites that make up the enterprise of science…

…As Michael Polanyi has suggested, doing science is rather like putting together a jigsaw puzzle:

Suppose we share out the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle equally among the helpers and let each of them work on his lot separately. It is easy to see that this method, which would be quite approprate to a number of women shelling peas, would be totally ineffectual in this case, since few of the pieces allocated to one particular assistant would be found to fit together…The only way the assistants can effectively cooperate and surpass by far what any single one of them could do, is to let them work on putting the puzzle together in sight of the others, so that every time a piece of it is fitted in by one helper, all the others will immediately watch out for the next step that becomes possible in consequence. Under this system, each helper will act on his own initiative, by responding to the latest achievements of the others, and the completion of their join task will be greatly accelerated. We have here in a nutshell the way in which a series of independent initiatives are organized to a joint achievement by mutually adjusting themselves at every successive stage to the situation created by all the others who are acting likewise

Polyani’s metaphor, straightforward as it may seem, is capable without further ado of illuminating salient features of science: that modern science began when cooperation among scientists became widespread and systematic; that modern science is a quite particular sort of cooperative venture, working most successfully when autonomous; that what really constitutes pseudoscience is isolation from the scientific community; why science cannot be successful and also produce what ideologues want…”

Notice that second-to-last point: psuedoscience means isolation from the scientific community. I see a connection between that and our anti-social “rewilder”, aka “the mountain man”. You cannot perform an essentially social and cooperative activity in isolation. Though the hermit plays a role in human culture, they play a very particular role, and need to find a place amongst a diversity of human co-action. The community itself can consist of any group (scientific or otherwise), but inquiry outside of the community, in isolation from it (or simply belonging to a different group), identifies a fundamentally different activity, a different “science”, a different sphere of exploration. Pseudoscience simply means the fields which scientists don’t cooperate on. Which sheds some interesting light on the idea of pseudoscience…can we call any sincere inquiry a pseudoscience? Perhaps pseudoscience most usefully describes the act of insincere inquiry.

Through an inherently conservative human process, the puzzlers’ game puts ideas through a filter, with the fit of puzzle pieces reaching broader and broader consensus (as disagreements over certain arrangements filter many out). In the same vein, however broad the consensus, a new revolutionary piece, that fits in an unexpected way, will force the abandonment of an entire section of the puzzle, since the players had based it on the fit of fundamental pieces that now they see work less well than the new piece. Players can expect substantial resistance if they think they will easily convince other players to accept a revolutionary new piece that requires the complete reworking of substantial sections. No one likes to feel like they’ve “wasted” their time, and yet one cannot actually waste time in this fashion…the perception of having to “do it all over again” still persists, thus the well-known resistance to new scientific paradigms.

Alright. Next step: the inherent uncertainty of knowledge (inclusive of the “scientific” kind). Bauer, in the section titled “Discarding the Myth of the Scientific Method”, continues on:

“…Under [the filtering process discussed], scientific knowledge becomes…more firmly accepted as time goes by–those parts of it that are not jettisoned along the way…At no stage, however, is guaranteed certainty reached; at no stage is it definitively proven that scientific knowledge is truly in accord with nature. Science is seen not to be dealing in permanent or absolute truth, as it was or could be seen if the scientific method could crucially test hypotheses against reality.

The myth of the method is not easily discarded, for one thing, because humankind is reluctant to accept that all knowledge contains an irreducible, inherent element of uncertainty. Over the last few centuries, the authority of science came to supersede that of religion precisely because science seemed to offer more certain knowledge, at least about the tangible world. If scientific knowledge now turns out to harbor ineradicable uncertainties, then science is in essence a false god, and moreover, is inferior to the God on whom science turned its back. So there is a reluctance to accept that the method is a myth, reluctance especially on the part of atheists, secular humanists, Marxists, and other such ideologues—perhaps the more so because fundamentalists and New Age obscurantists have also been so eager to topple science from its pedestal of authoritative uncertainty.”

So, we’ve reached a good stopping point. The vital importance of all this talk about science comes down to the need to understand what makes the engine of scientific activity, a social phenomenon that accelerates the pace of investigative/intellectual activity, so successful.

So now we can understand that if we want to accelerate our own explorations, we need only copy what the scientific and industrial revolutions have accomplished, an idea already suggested by Daniel Quinn in his book Beyond Civilization. We don’t need keener intellects, bigger vocabularies, or more extensive education and scholarly degrees. We can perform rewilded inquiry, animist inquiry, every bit as successful as science, simply by emulating the social revolutions of recent history, which amounted to a revolution of communication.

Did I just say the internet will save us? Well. Whatever the medium, whether digital or face-to-face, or in paper periodicals, the sharing of information of how to live in a new way will accelerate the pace of rewilding itself.

Also, we now know that scientific knowledge does not consist of a “better”, “higher”, “more objective”, “more accurate” kind of knowledge. At any time, new data and models can topple the most well-founded of scientific thought. Scientific activity does produce a highly filtered, highly cooperative, highly reviewed amount of information and understandings, to its credit. We could ask no more of such a pursuit…but we shouldn’t hesitate for a moment to think that we too have the skills and abilities to perform important and useful inquiry, inquiry that we find satisfying, based on sustainable and inspiring paradigms: a living world woven out of our relatives, our bodies, our sensations.

Succintly: set free your ability to reason. Rewild your bodymind. Know that science has no authority. Emulate the social revolution that it embodies, using new/ancient nourishing paradigms, such as animism.

Really, if I had you here next to me, I’d just teach you tracking, and I wouldn’t have had to write any of this…

Written by Willem