cultural myths and misery

John Schinnerer eco_living at
Sat Dec 8 21:17:03 EST 2001


> We *can* learn to recognize reliable knowledge from
> unreliable knowledge,

I have never said otherwise, as far as I can tell.  Pattern
recognition, etc. is fundamental to permaculture designing. 

> for example, by resorting
> to meta-analyses instead of believing the media,
> or newage frauds, or corporate bleaters when they
> make the portentous announcement that a *single*
> study said so and so.

My point is that *all* science praxis ultimately leaks out of the
mythical ivory towers through (and is sponsored by, thus influenced by,
or it wouldn't get done) one of the filters you contemptuously name
above, or any number of others.  

I don't disagree with your ideals regarding "pure" science; I'm just
saying "pure" science isn't relevant (doesn't happen) in circles larger
than ivory towers where all the disciples agree.

> I'd also recommend reading Korzybski. He tackles 
> meta-languages (i.e. talking about talking or
> finding out about finding out); also, he presents
> means for educating oneself in an habitual
> multi-valued orientation. 

I've read (and am still digesting - it's a heavy meal) most everything
Bateson wrote; he seems to often draw on and refine Korzybski, and
covers the first part of your comment above.  Maturana covers both that
and the latter part, and much more "carefully" than either Bateson or
Korzybski.  His 'constitutive ontolgy' seems a penultimate example of
"multi-valued orientation," though it's really just a scientific
explanation of basic Buddhist theory/practice.  If you've only read
Korzybski (and who else do you recommend?), I recommend you read them

Both are scientists, and explicitly state in their works that they are
looking at epistemology/ontology of and from science, because they are
scientists and that is what interests them.  So from that standpoint
they ought to satisfy.

Philosophy is head games, even philosophy of science, because it is
philosophy first and foremost.  The likes of Bateson and Maturana (and
Buber and Donaldson and others, myself included) are concerned not with
head games but with the very constitution of our experiences - how we
know what we know, and what we can know about that.  Digging into that
is how I have come to recognize "science" as simply one manner of
observing and explaining, with its own set of advantages and

"epistemology - the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of
knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity"

'Limits' and 'validity' being the key words.  What I'm pointing to is
the limits and validity (relevance) of science in varying contexts.  I
am not attempting to

> ...deny contemporary science
> and reason 

But to point out their limitations as human-created tautologies.  They
certainly have advantages in some contexts as well.

> will have little effect if you
> continue to evaluate using our millenia-old
> institutionalized aristotelian two-valued
> orientation --known in the vernacular as
> "either-or" and used whenever you speak with a
> couple of common forms of the verb "to be."

I figure since you're using it, the least I can do is cooperate... ;-)

A good exercise, by the way, to noticing what you mention above is to
try going 24 hours straight without using the word "the" or any forms
of "to be" in daily life.  I found it quite difficult, and also

> So you're trying to tell me that apples don't
> fall to the ground at 32 feet per second per
> second? Pardon me, mate, but that remains an
> invariant law on this planet, demonstrated again
> and again for centuries. 

If you really live what you say Korzybski teaches you about
meta-understanding and multi-valued orientation, then you understand
that "32 ft./sec/sec" is nothing more or less than a *description* of
*how* the apple falls, based on certain implicit presuppositions (in
this case, those of "scientific explanation," or in particular
"physics").  How fast did they fall before the "foot" was standardized?
 And in the rest of the world they fall in meters...I know, I know,
another straw man... ;-)

It is one of an infinite possible number of descriptions of the apple
falling, whether by scientists or poets.  It does not *cause* the apple
to fall that way; it is not a "law" in any context other than the
tautology "science" (or more precisely, "newtonian physics").  Apples
(and before them, lots of other things) fell for countless millions of
years without any need for or benefit from this "law."  When I jump off
a cliff, I do not fall "because of" the "laws" of physics.  They do
offer one description of how I fall, and can even predict how much
energy will be released when I hit bottom.  This may be more than I
really want to know... :-p

As a description that can be generalized to a certain extent (but not
to the realms of quantum physics, for example), it can be applied
usefully.  I do not argue with that.  It can also be applied
destructively.  As can "media", "corporations", and "new age" ideas be
applied usefully or destructively.  Which happens depends on human
actions based on human feelings, thoughts, ideas, passions.

Meanwhile, countless cultures without "science" and "physics" as we
live them created their own explanations/descriptions of what they
observed as consistent phenomena, and used them to build pyramids,
irrigation systems, bridges, temples in the jungles and deserts,
floating cities, floating gardens, seaworthy boats, terraced rice
paddies on steep mountainsides, surfboards, etc. and use wind and water
movement, seasonal cycles, plant growth, difference in elevation,
density of water, etc. etc. to their advantage (or disadvantage).

> You seem to have developed the impression that
> scientists claim for themselves some kind of
> perfect conduct or perfect results.

Perhaps some do.  I notice mainly that they tend to presuppose that
theirs is either the only way or the universally most appropriate way
of explaining everything, or both.

> I would rephrase that

Go ahead, since I didn't say it... ;-)

> to say the results of modern
> inquiry provide the most reliable knowledge we
> have to date.

What is "knowledge" to you?  I am curious as to your presuppositions in
the frequent use of that word.  I find it to be a "straw word" -
meaningless without context and specificity, like "quality of life" or
"better."  Science does provide reliable descriptions and explanations,
within its own contexts.  Is that what you mean by "knowledge?"

> But when we've been studying things for centuries
> (i.e. since Newton), and we keep getting similar
> results, we might as well admit that nature has 
> varying predictabilities

No argument there; and, all those other pre-Newtonian cultures did the
same, and used their observations of patterns and predictabilities for
various purposes as well.  

> Nature exhibits also some
> characteristics of relative *un*predictability as
> yet--mostly in the social sciences, which remain
> fairly new in comparison to granddaddies like
> physics.

"Nature" knows nothing of "social sciences" - and, both are human
mental constructs.   We observe some events that over time seem
relatively predicatble and others that seem unpredictable.  As human
observers there are implicit limitations on what we can observe and how
we can observe it.
> This doesn't qualify as genuine scientific
> gathering of data. You have no peer-review.

Well, perhaps you should gather peer-reviewed reports of how
social/political/economic bias affects peer-review of scientific data.

> Again, please study some philosophy of science.

I am still interested to hear what sources you recommend.  However,
your assumption that I have never done this does not seem
scientifically arrived at.

> In short, yes, some people and corporations use
> the *mystique*, the *appearance* of reason for
> their own aims--but we owe the success of this to
> laypeople's misunderstanding of the process of
> scientific inquiry--we do not owe it to some
> inherent truthlessness in those pursuits.

Yes, that is "what is."  That is what happens in the world.  So what
use is abstract philosophy of science? Since only humans do "science,"
and since no humans are free of human loves, hates, desires, feelings,
biases, etc. etc., there is no "science" aside from what humans do, and
no science that is not "used" in some way by humans.  All else is a
myth, an ideal, a utopian concept of science that does not actually
happen.  I prefer to work with "what is."  

I know that scientists paid by Monsanto are going to (except for a
maverick martyr or two) praise the safety and appropriateness of GMOs. 
I know that the nuclear industry will scientifically show how safe
nuclear power is.  I recall the scientific reassurances that DDT was
perfectly safe.  And I see the scientists on the other side of such
debates struggling to "prove" the opposite.  I know that both are human
beings doing what we human beings do, and that "science" is what we
make of it and do with it, nothing more or less.  That is why, as
Bateson says, science never "proves" anything.

If anyone wants personal experience of this, get to know a candid
statistician with lots of experience, and ask about how scientific
studies are actually *done* (designed, implemented, funded, etc.) in
government, business, non-profit, academia...they bring it all right
down to the ugly details.  ;-)

> So although I'd be glad to persist
> in this dialogue--if only for the practice at
> debate--

There's that darn "either-or" habit again... ;-)

I've put out about all the "data" I need to, including quite a bit
about how I came to where I'm at for now, so I reckon I'll pass from
now on and reduce the signal-to-noise ratio on the list.  It's been
fun, I must say, and I haven't found it all that contentious.  I think
we're close to having a "furious agreement" in a lot of ways.  Perhaps
I'll recognize them more clearly after letting this thread sit for a

John S.

John Schinnerer, MA
- Eco-Living -
Cultural & Ecological Designing
Food - Shelter - Community
john at

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