When people from the United Kingdom and Europe settled in Australia, the fledgling nation made a declaration of terra nullius (nobody’s land). In a blink of an eye, the aboriginal people, who had lived in Australia for thousands of years, were deemed part of the flora and fauna (plants and animal) and a people considered unworthy of the designation ‘human’.
2017 is the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision, a decision that overturned a 240-year-old display of arrogance that took one look at another culture and thought so little of them that they were deemed less than human: they were then removed from their land, denied basic human rights, their children forcibly removed and in some circumstances, such as the frontier war in Tasmania[i], eradicated.
The harm caused by that kind of thinking is still felt today; it is a long road back from such an entrenched position. While we like to think that we learn from history, this article explores where we continue to see the same blinkered thinking.
In many ways, Science is facing its own Mabo moment, where it realises that it has declared terra nullius on different ways of understanding the world.
Like so many things in life, science is at its core a truth, and much needed in society. However, it has become caught in a trap of its own making. The truth of science is that we can understand the world better through being methodical in our approach, and making our best efforts to remove the hundreds of thinking biases from our minds and search for replicable outcomes over a period of time. The trap is that over time, science began to value the use and collection of knowledge more than the search for truth.
In the process of establishing its predominant role in delivering understanding, science began to marginalise or at times even eradicate any evidence or explanation outside of its particular form of language, or particular way of analysing and measuring, hence classifying the world. In doing so, science began to ignore the inherent flaws and manipulation that approach can engender.
To explore science’s terra nullius thinking, we need to go back in time.
Around 300-440BC, philosopher and scholar Plato, student of Socrates, influenced by great teachers like Pythagoras, had the view that human life was only a small part of who we were in truth. His ‘Allegory of the Cave’ painted the picture of beings forced to live trapped in a cave, watching shadows on the walls. By virtue of having grown up in the cave, they began to believe that these shadows were true and all that life was.
Plato presented that to fully understand life, we needed to make it past the light that was casting the shadows in the cave and then make our way out of the cave, to understand that we are beings connected to realms well beyond the cave. Life on earth (the cave) was a mere transitory stop as part of our learning to reconnect to that innate and grand being that we had forgotten about.
"the soul is like an eye, when it sees that on which truth and Being shine, the soul perceived and understands and is radiant with intelligence" PlatoPlato, The Republic Book VI
His student Aristotle had a different view of life. While Aristotle did not dispute the presence of divinity or that we have a soul, his view was that we were in a cave for a reason, and that the key to understanding life was to understand the cave and to explore its reason for being – its effects on our lives and our effect on it – in detail. Thus, a scientific method of observation and classifications was born, founded in the belief that broader understanding stems from a more detailed and segmented study of life’s composite parts.
‘In all disciplines in which there is systematic knowledge of things with principles, causes, or elements, it arises from a grasp of those: we think we have knowledge of a thing when we have found its primary causes and principles, and followed it back to its elements. Clearly, then, systematic knowledge of nature must start with an attempt to settle questions about principles.’ In Physics Book 1, Chap 1, as translated in J.L. Ackrill, A New Aristotle Reader (1988), 81.
Over time, this approach slowly relinquished the energetic elements of life, and focussed solely on the reduction of life to its component parts. The crucial significance of being aware of complete context and holistic understanding were lost.
In our modern times we have largely thrown our lot in with Aristotle, investing heavily in this form of scientific approach to life. Indeed, this has brought much understanding and spawned more speciality fields of study than we might have ever conceived. We have more PHD and research centres than ever, yet at the same time, as a one humanity and a couple of thousand years later, we are still scratching around in the cave, looking for answers for some of life’s big questions and challenges.
This is not for lack of integrity or effort by most scientists, but because science is yet to admit that it is still blinded by its own ‘terra nullius’ moment. It did not declare ‘terra nullius’ on a piece of land or people but rather, on the existence of a soul by denying any reference to the energetic elements of life.
Thus, the current method of science confidently suggests it is still interested in the whole, but has a method that ensures its version of the whole is forever enamoured and contained within its exploration of the cave. Indeed we have become experts at the shadows, but have forgotten that we are still in the cave.
Indeed, the quest to understand the whole has become drowned by the amount of data we have about the composite parts, much of it contradictory and confusing to people who are trying to make decisions about their life and what to believe.
Rather than science becoming a tool to help develop a more unified understanding of the world, it has become a divisive weapon of interpretation, ownership of knowledge and selective use or exclusion of information to deliver a result that matched the preferred paradigm.
Too many scientific disciplines hold onto their ideas with a righteousness matched only by the church, attacking others who disagree or propose an idea that does not fit into the accepted paradigm. Climate change deniers and the misuse of nutritional sciences for commercial ends are prime examples of the brutality and arrogance the scientific approach can engender. Results being generated to suit a commercial, ideological or political end game are put ahead of the wellbeing of people and the planet.
Those that turn to the approach of Socrates and Plato to seek a life outside of the cave, were and are still ridiculed. In the past they have even been hunted and killed. Now they are nullified and deemed fringe dwellers and unworthy of consideration.
Declaring terra nullius on the soul has indeed left much of science quite soulless. Yes, the exploration of concepts like energy and soul is fraught and messy. There is as much defensiveness surrounding religion and theosophical thinking as there is in science, coupled with a level of aggression that makes it understandable why science prefers to stay out of that mess. Yet maybe it is a mess that needs cleaning so that we can get back to a whole understanding of life.
And yes, maybe it is a mess, but in the words of a scientist who was willing to look at both the detail and the grandeur of what we are part of:
"A problem cannot be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it" Albert Einstein
If we remain transfixed on the mess, we fail to see that it is one of our own making and miss the possibly that underneath it all lies a vast simplicity. This is our path of return – the way we can get back to a whole understanding of life.
Like many things in life, the answer is not about only doing one or the other, but allowing each to inform and guide. The scientific approach can help to understand, heal and improve life, yet without a perspective that encompasses life outside the cave, it will forever be stuck looking at and casting its own shadows.
[i]Utas.edu.au. (2017). Frontier Conflict. [online] Available at: http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/F/Frontier%20Conflict.htm