Apr 22 2024

Indigenous Knowledge

I recently received the following question to the SGU e-mail:

“I have had several conversations with friends/colleagues lately regarding indigenous beliefs/stories. They assert that not believing these based on oral histories alone is morally wrong and ignoring a different cultures method of knowledge sharing. I do not want to be insensitive, and I would never argue this point directly with an indigenous person (my friends asserting these points are all white). But it really rubs me the wrong way to be told to believe things without what I would consider more concrete evidence. I’m really not sure how to comport myself in these situations. I would love to hear any thoughts you have on this topic, as I don’t have many skeptical friends.”

I also frequently encounter this tension, between a philosophical dedication to scientific methods and respect of indigenous cultures. Similar tensions come up in other contexts, such as indigenous cultures that hunt endangered species. These tensions are sometimes framed as “decolonization” defined as “the process of freeing an institution, sphere of activity, etc. from the cultural or social effects of colonization.” Here is a more detailed description:

“Decolonization is about “cultural, psychological, and economic freedom” for Indigenous people with the goal of achieving Indigenous sovereignty — the right and ability of Indigenous people to practice self-determination over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems.”

I completely understand this concept and think the project is legitimate. To “decolonize” an indigenous culture you have to do more than just physically remove foreign settlers. Psychological and cultural colonization is harder to remove. And often cultural colonization was very deliberate, such as missionaries spreading the “correct” religion to “primitive” people.

But like all good ideas, it can be taken too far. People tend to prefer the moral clarity of simplistic dichotomies. What the e-mailer is referring to is when science is considered part of colonization, and something that indigenous people should free themselves of. Further, we need to respect their cultural freedom from science and accept their historical view of reality as being just as legitimate as a science-based one. But I think this approach is completely misguided, even if it is well-intentioned (well intentioned but misguided is often a dangerous combination).

There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that science is not a cultural belief. Science (and philosophy, for that matter) is something that transcends culture. The purpose of science is to transcend culture, to use a set of methods that are as objective as possible, and to eliminate bias as much as possible. In fact, scientists often have to make a deliberate effort to think outside of the biases of their own culture and world view.

Logic and facts are not cultural. Reality does not care about our own belief systems, whatever their origin, it is what it is regardless. Respecting an indigenous culture does not mean we must surrender respect for facts and logic.

Another important perspective, I think, is that as a species we have some shared culture and knowledge. This is actually a very useful and even beautiful thing – there is human culture and knowledge that we can all share, and I would put science at the top of that list. There are objective methods we can use to come to mutual agreement despite our differing cultures and histories. We can have the commonality of a shared reality, because that reality actually exists (whether we believe in it or not) and because the scientific methods we use to understand that reality are transcultural. Science, therefore, is not one culture colonizing another, but all cultures placing something objective and verifiable above their own history, culture, and parochial perspectives.

We can make similar arguments for certain basic aspects of ethics and morality, although this is more difficult to achieve universal objectivity. But as a species we can conclude that certain things are objectively ethically wrong, such as slavery. If an indigenous culture believed in and actively practiced human slavery, would we be compelled to respect that and look the other way?

Yet another layer to this discussion is consideration of the methods that are used by one society to convince another to adopt its norms. If it is done by force, that is colonization. If it is done by intellectual persuasion and adopted freely, that is just one group sharing its knowledge with another.

And finally, I think we can respect the mythology and beliefs of another culture without accepting those beliefs as objectively true, or abandoning all concept of “truth” and pretending that all knowledge is equal and relative. Pretending the ancient cultural beliefs of a group are “true” is actually infantilizing and racist, in my opinion. It assumes that they are incapable of reconciling what every culture has had to reconcile to some degree – the difference between historical beliefs and objective evidence. Every society has their narratives, their view of history, and facts invariably push up against those narratives.

I know that in practice these principles are very complex and there is a lot of gray zone. Science is an ideal, and people have a tendency to exploit ideals to promote their own agenda. Just labeling something science doesn’t mean we can bulldoze over other considerations, and science is often corrupted by corporate interests, and cultural promotion, even to the point of hegemony. This is because the people who execute science are flawed and biased. But that does not change the ideal itself. Science and philosophy (examining arguments for internal logical consistency) are methods we can use to arrive at transcultural human beliefs and institutions.

Let’s take the World Health Organization (WHO), for example, which is an international organization dedicated to promoting health around the world. I would argue, as an international organization, they should be relying on objective science-based methods as much as possible. Also, since their goal is to improve the health of humanity, science is the best way to do that. They should not, in my opinion, bow down before any individual culture’s pre-scientific beliefs about health for the purpose of cultural sensitivity. It is not their mission to promote local cultures or to right the wrongs of past colonizers. They should unapologetically take the position that they will only promote and use interventions that are based on objective scientific evidence. They can still do this in a culturally sensitive way. All physicians need to practice “culturally competent” medicine, which does not have to include endorsing or using treatments that do not work.

So in practice this is all very messy, but I think it’s important to at least following legitimate guiding principles. Science is something that all of humanity owns, and it strives towards an ideal that it is transcultural and objective. This is not incompatible with respecting local cultures and self-determination.


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