Towards a New Ethic – “Social Science that does not break your heart is not worth doing”
In this blog entry I want to relate and connect together experiences I have had whilst being in Mexico the last three weeks – first through participating in a series of seminars organized by three academic institutions based in Guadalajara on the theme of complexity, dialogue and interdisciplinary work, and secondly watching the on-line launch of the new film ‘Aya Awakenings’ and the subsequent panel discussion.
A key theme of this blog has been how the experiences we have with La Madre Ayahuasca take us beyond our conventional, culturally determined ways of experiencing and making sense of the world. They show us that we normally think of as solid, taken-for-granted reality is consensually produced and socially validated. Some would describe this ‘normal’ reality as a hallucination.
The anthropologist Jeremy Narby has commented that our experience with ayahuasca is a profound challenge to the patriarchal, materialist and rationalist worldview, which has dominated the Western world for the past nearly five hundred years and been the foundation for the Scientific Revolution and what is often referred to as “modernity”.
My last blog entry on the work of Richard Tarnas showed how his rigorous scholarship has carefully traced the unfolding of this worldview in the history of Western philosophy. He believes that this worldview is now in crisis and that we are in transition to a potentially new more inclusive understanding of the world which recuperates the lost and suppressed feminine, and also brings us back full-circle to an indigenous worldview in which self and world interpenetrate one another and in which both are ensouled and enchanted.
As Tarnas and others show, the fundamental assumptions of the reductionist, Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm have been severely questioned in three ways:
First, from within science itself as the limitations of the mechanist worldview have been exposed initially at the beginning of the twentieth century by quantum mechanics and at the end of the last century by the sciences of chaos and complexity. The work of Thomas Kuhn, too, in the philosophy of science has done much to undermine the Enlightenment ideal that science is always advancing in a linear, progressive way to a more complete, objective and better understanding of reality.
Secondly, from the whole thrust of post-modern philosophy initiated by Nietzsche and further developed by Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein, Foucault and Derrida. These philosophers, amongst many others, have demonstrated that modernity’s criteria of valid knowledge as universal, timeless, value-free and independent of personal, cultural and historical context and political interests is a convenient fiction. In fact, it has been the impressive sleight of hand of modernity to propose its partial view of the world in the name of objectivity as the only route to valid knowledge. This perspective is then used to deride other forms of knowledge and cultures, such as those of indigenous peoples’, as superstitious and primitive.
Thirdly, the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with their world wars, genocides and ecological devastations profoundly problematizes the Enlightenment notion of progress – that the rational application of science and technology would lead to an increasingly better, more humane and just world.
The idea of being at a key social and philosophical turning point has been around since at least Fritjof Capra’s book “The Turning Point”, published in 1982, in which he argued that society needed to adopt a more holistic, systems-based approach to resolving the social, economic and especially ecological problems that, by then, were becoming increasingly evident. The idea, too, is found in Joanna Macy’s notion of “The Great Turning”, which she defines as the shift from an industrial, growth-based society to a life sustaining civilization.
This theme of transition is also an important dimension of a new film by Australian counter-culturalist Rak Razam about ayahuasca called “Aya Awakenings”. The film puts forward the idea that we are witnessing and participating in a global evolutionary change of consciousness facilitated by the growing use and spread of ayahuasca throughout the world.
I have to confess that I find some of the language used to describe this transition over-optimistic and self-inflationary – for example, to exaggerate only a little, the promotion of the adventurous ‘psychonaut’ as the hyperspace pioneer mid-wiving a new, world-saving form of consciousness.
In contrast, in the Evolver-organized panel discussion of the film, Dennis McKenna spoke eloquently about the need for humility and his repeated experience of being shown by the plants that individually and collectively as species we really know very little. As he says, the plants tell us that: “You monkeys only think you are in control”. Note how this is in sharp contrast to the assumptions of modernity which emphasize control and certainty.
It is within this context of the shift in understandings of the world – plus my experiences with La Madre Ayahuasca, which have shown me that “other worlds are possible” – that I approached the task of contributing to a series of seminars co-organized by three academic bodies in Guadalajara. The challenge for all of us is to take these ideas concerning a shift to more life sustaining forms of being and genuinely embody them in our lives and work, not just pay lip service to them.
One of these three academic institutions, in particular, is really grappling with the issue of what it means to actively engage in changing social systems by generating new action and knowledge in the changing intellectual, social and ecological context – of complexity, trans-disciplinary work (to tackle problems like violence and environmental degradation in a holistic way and overcome the limitations created by separate academic disciplines). All this implies working with tools and methodologies that promote dialogue – understanding that new knowledge and new solutions to outstanding problems are generated by people being and thinking together.
Once we see through the myth of objectivity, as can be seen in the work of one of the key contributors to the seminars, Dr Denise Dajmanovitch, we are then forced to recognize that all research is value based – that is all research carries, often in a hidden way, its own ethics.
In a seminar with the institution mentioned above, some important aspects of this new ethics began to emerge. This process was itself illustrative as it embodied the idea found in the study of complex adaptive living systems at all levels, from neurons to the universe, that life evolves, and creativity happens, through open-ended, unplanned, self-organizing processes. The explicit intention of the seminar had not been to unpack this ethic – it arose in an unexpected way through interaction – thus showing the usefulness of dialogue as a method of generating new perspectives.
The aspects of this new ethic are:
Participation: the way to understand and change social situations is through participation and engagement with people not through distance. From this perspective, conventional notions of detached observation are a defense against involvement.
Commitment: engaging with people facing any major social and/or environmental problem requires commitment.
Mutuality: as we form committed relationships, we enter into mutual obligations and expectations, what the theologian Buber calls ‘I-Thou’, rather than ‘I-It’ relations.
Conviviality: this term was first coined by the philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich in his far-sighted critiques of Western health and educational institutions to describe the necessity to develop tools for human flourishing rather than the dependency which describes peoples relationships to mechanistic social systems. The Spanish word ‘convivir’, which could colloquially be translated into American as ‘hanging out together’, is an important aspect of Mexican culture. This dimension, therefore, is highly culturally congruent.
The Cultivation of Care: a key dimension of mutual obligation that we enter into is care – of the other person/people and their environment.
Permeability: we have to allow ourselves to be effected by the others we engage with – as the alternative title of this blog, which is taken from an article by Ellis and Bochner (2000) suggests: “Social science that does not break your heart is not worth doing”.
Intimacy: in allowing ourselves to be effected by the ‘other’, and as we move from the mechanistic to the affective world, we enter into relations of intimacy.
Interestingly, all these aspects apply to our relationship with La Madre Ayahuasca. We enter into a participative relationship with her that entails obligations (see an earlier blog based on Steve Beyer’s idea that we incur obligations to the spirit world), mutual commitments and intimacy. If we try to use her by forming an instrumental relationship with her for our own benefit (financial or otherwise), it is likely she will withdraw.
It seems increasingly, as Dennis McKenna and others suggest, that La Madre Ayahuasca and other plants are communicating to us, urging us to wake up, to assume the responsibilities that are incumbent on us as co-participants, rather than dominators, in the exquisite, delicate web of planetary life.