A file image of an Aboriginal family walking in the wild near Darwin, AustraliaDeco (Alamy/Cordon Press)
Sometimes I find it difficult to write in English after having been on the phone with my great-grandmother; She is also my niece and in her language there are not two different words to refer to time and space. According to their kinship system, every three generations an eternal cycle of renewal is restarted and the parents of our grandparents are classified as our children. In her traditional language, she asks something that would translate directly into English as "what place", but actually means "what time"; And then you place yourself in that paradigm reluctantly because you know that when you have to get back to work it will cost you an effort from the devil to get out of it again. Kinship moves by cycles, the earth moves by seasonal cycles, the sky moves by stellar cycles, and time is so tied to those cycles that it is not even a concept independent of space. We experience time in a very different way than people experience it immersed in flat calendars and surfaces without stories. In our spheres of existence, time does not advance in a straight line and is as tangible as the ground we step on.
Nothing is created or destroyed, it simply moves and changes. That is the first law. Creation is a state of constant movement and as a custodian species we must move with it, because if we do not we will damage the system and condemn ourselves. Nothing can be retained, accumulated or stored. In a stable system every unit requires speed and exchange, otherwise it stagnates. This is true for economic and social systems as well as for natural ones. They all behave according to the same laws.
Around the central circle are three arches (or petals, as I seem to see them now) that show that our social system is mapped on the pattern of creation, according to which around each child there are three generations of strong women: sisters/cousins, mothers/aunts and grandmothers. The grandmother's mother returns to the center and becomes the girl, all of them eternally transit through these roles and the spirit of the child is reborn through the territory. Each of them also occupies all the roles simultaneously, such that the sister is also someone's aunt and the grandmother of her niece's daughter.
In this way, the system is different according to the relational context of the person who is contemplating it at each moment. If we are the child who is in the center we see one set of relationships, but if we place our child in the center we see another set of relationships. The child's aunt is also someone's child, occupying the center of his own system. Every time we meet someone and establish a relationship we are combining multiple universes. There is no way to be an outside observer of this system; To see it in three dimensions we have to place ourselves in it and to see other multiple dimensions we must move through it and establish the proper connections within it. From the outside it is nothing more than a flat image.
In contemporary science and research, researchers have to claim objectivity, an impossible position and proper to a god (being more than) who was floating in empty space and observing the territory without being part of it. It is an illusion of omniscience that in quantum physics has hit some obstacles. No matter how hard we try to isolate ourselves from reality, it always produces effects on the observer, because reality changes depending on our point of view. Scientists call it the "uncertainty principle."
I am a novice in physics, but what I understand is that when we are looking for the location of a subatomic speck it behaves like a particle and when we try to ponder its movement it becomes a wave. Therefore, its physical reality changes depending on what we are looking for. What is popularly answered to this has been: "If I can change reality with my mind, I want the universe to send me a Lamborghini."
"That's not how it works," I hear when I talk to Percy Paul, an Australian Aboriginal and theoretical physicist at Canada's Perimeter Institute. He seems to have the feeling that the complicated equations of uncertainty exert little influence on the reality he lives as an indigenous. As I listen to his explanation of his way of being and understanding the universe, I try to adopt his point of view: I begin to imagine that an electron generates a probability field for its potential location at a given moment and that it cannot be assigned a single position in linear time; It seems as if it forms a kind of beach in which each grain of sand is one of its possible locations. This suggests to me that tangible reality only exists by disobeying linear time.
I feel a little silly suggesting this idea to him, so my ego prevents us from spinning more conversations about the question. Egos always get in the way of a good conversation. Instead of talking about it, we talk about the first and second principles of thermodynamics, and he communicates some amazing ideas to me, but our paths of thought diverge right away; The conversation ends and we can't get it back. In the indigenous world we cannot force people to pass on knowledge to us: we simply accept what they think we are prepared to receive. Usually, the custodians of knowledge turn away when they see narcissism in us. And I know I've approached this conversation with the wrong attitude. Even so, I gratefully collect the seeds it gives me.
My conversations with Percy lead me to revisit Schrödinger's cat, which seems to be the best way to help the uninitiated understand the uncertainty principle. According to this famous thought experiment, imagine that we poison a cat and put it in a box. We don't know if the cat is already dead because we can't see it, so at that moment the cat is both alive and dead. The act of watching the cat breathe would mean that it is alive and the act of seeing its gazeless hieratic eyes in a mask of agony and panic would mean that it is dead. My god.
From the point of view of aboriginal cosmology the problem of uncertainty is solved when we recognize that we are part of the territory and accept our subjectivity. If we want to know what's so bad in the box, let's drink the poison and get into it. After my conversations with Percy I begin to see that the uncertainty principle is not a law, but an expression of frustration at the impossibility of achieving that scientific objectivity proper to a god.
Tyson Yunkaporta is an artist and lecturer in Indigenous thought at Deakin University Melbourne. This excerpt is a preview of his book Written in the Sand. How Indigenous Thought Can Save the World, by Herder. It is published on September 19.
Sign up for the weekly Ideas newsletter here.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
I'm already a subscriber