Monday, 23 November 2015

Reason is not the property of the West

The University of Otago’s second semester ends in October. I knew there were Summer School classes in January and February, because I’ve taken notes in them. I never knew there were also classes in November and December. But here I am. Turns out there’s a five-week course on titled “Introduction to the Māori World”, and one of the students taking it wants notes. My first class was last Tuesday. The lecture was about fundamental concepts in Māori culture, such as tapu and mana, and the polytheistic cosmology which underpins them.

A quick summary of that class. Tapu is of course the origin of the English word taboo, but it’s pronounced differently – both syllables are short and the stress is on the first one. Tapu is the presence or influence of an atua, a god. The gods are present everywhere, and one must treat them with deference and caution. But sometimes it is necessary to lift the tapu so that we humans can go about our ordinary lives without having to worry about it. Then, it becomes noa, which is simply the converse of tapu.

Which gods? On Tuesday we were introduced to four: Papa-tū-ā-nuku, Mother Earth; Tāne-mahuta, god of light and life and the forest; Tangaroa, god of all water, including the water in people’s bodies; and Ranginui, the Sky, Papa-tū-ā-nuku’s lover, who was separated from her by Tāne-mahuta to create the world of light. The gods are the ancestors of all life, including human beings. Most iwi (chiefdom-nations, though the word is usually translated “tribe”) trace their genealogy back to Tāne-mahuta. The chiefs belong to the elder line in each case.

Tangaroa’s dominion over water seems to be responsible for the tapu of blood, which in turn explains why women have a special power over tapu. A man can lift tapu by saying an incantation (a karakia) or using water, but a woman can lift it simply by virtue of being a woman, because women handle blood every month. When you enter or leave a marae – the space built at the hub of every Māori community to house formal gatherings – you pass through a gateway that symbolizes a woman’s legs, so that you don’t bring in any tapu you may have picked up on the outside.

Having just come back from Japan, I can’t help noticing the parallels with Shintō. There again, the kami are immanent in water, earth, and forests. Again, the kami are ancestors rather than creators of the human race, and the Imperial Family is the elder line of descent. And again you have that detail of the symbolic gateway, the torī in front of the shrine, through which you enter or leave the presence of divine power.

But there’s also a big difference. Japan is much more centralized than traditional Māori society, and you might expect to see that reflected in their religions – that Māoritanga would have lots of local spirits and Shintō would have a few big, important gods, like the pre-Christian Greek or Norse pantheons. In fact it’s the other way around. Each mountain, lake, river, and ancient tree in Japan has its own personal kami, but in tikanga Māori it is Tāne-mahuta in every patch of bush and Tangaroa in every body of water.

Mana is the other Māori word, besides tapu / taboo, that has been borrowed into English outside of New Zealand. Both syllables are short, so that to a New Zealand English speaker it sounds like “munna” – “monna” to an American. It’s been appropriated in crap fantasy books and games to denote a limiting resource for magic-users, like pixie-dust but slightly more badass. In fact mana is prestige, charisma, honour, dignity, authority; social power, not magical power. It’s about one’s standing with the gods. Duties and privileges in Māori culture are doled out entirely according to who has what kind of mana.

Now here’s what I wanted to tell you about. This particular course encourages student participation, and when we got up to this point in the lecture, a student spoke up. “Not to be offensive, but how does science fit into all this?” Māori people are OK with science, said the lecturer. “I find that religion and science usually clash,” said the student. “They’re getting closer and closer, are they not?” said the lecturer rather sharply. “I have a problem with these stories,” persisted the student, “because they don’t make scientific sense.”

If I were allowed to speak in class, my retort to the lecturer would have been “No, they are not.” What happens is that Religion sort of trails along, looking over Science’s shoulder, muttering “Yes, that’s what I really meant all along. When I said that thing that sounded completely different, what I actually meant was what you just said. See? I always get there first. But I’m still right about that thing you haven’t finished looking at yet.”

Then another student had a point to make. “Science and the Māori worldview are different worldviews. Westerners are hell-bent on rationality, but other cultures have advanced up there by different pathways.” This second student went on to praise the navigation techniques of the Pacific Islanders (including the ancestors of the Māori), and cited a recent TEDx talk by a woman who had used her tribal elders’ genealogical knowledge to help determine whether she was susceptible to the cancer that afflicted her family.

Guess which gender the two students were. Go on, guess. Nope! Wrong. Well, if you ignored the content of what they said and instead noted that the first one opened with an apology whereas the second one monopolized the floor for some time, you may have got it right. The one who wasn’t comfortable with things that didn’t make scientific sense was a woman; the one who considered science to be one worldview among many, and symptomatic of being “hell-bent on rationality”, was a man.

The whole episode was fascinating to me. Back when I was a student, you would never have heard someone in a Humanities class (let alone a Māori culture class) complaining that a cultural belief didn’t make scientific sense. And there would have been an awful lot more of the “hell-bent on rationality” kind of comment – with strong hints, if not outright statements, that “rationality” was gendered male. This is not an isolated incident; I’ve noticed a sea-change in young progressive people’s attitudes over the past decade or so, swinging towards science and away from postmodernism.

I won’t tell you what I mouthed, silently, at the male student. He did strike me in that moment as insufferably smug, but that’s a fact about me, not a fact about him – it wasn’t his fault that I was on the opposing side of the debate and unable to reply. Yes, the fact that I couldn’t speak up in class is the whole reason I’m writing this now. I think I’ve mentioned before that most of my blog posts are me responding to things I disagree with. Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, or in this case Someone Is Wrong In The Seminar Room. You, dear reader, are a proxy for the person I would really rather be shouting at. I hope you don’t mind.

First of all, rationality is not a “worldview”. Science and reason are not beliefs; they are methods of arriving at beliefs. In my opinion, they are the only legitimate methods of arriving at beliefs. In this context I realize that’s a rather inflammatory statement, so I must add that neither science nor reason, as I use the terms, is in any sense the property of the West. Let me explain.

Reason is a form of mindfulness. In a typical mindfulness exercise, you close your eyes and try to notice every sensation, until you think of “the pressure on my back” rather than “the chair”, “the ticking sound” rather than “the clock”. In theory you could do the same with vision, breaking it down into patches of colour in your visual field, though in practice you’d have to be a pretty advanced meditator to pull that off. Reason is the same kind of exercise, applied to conceptual instead of perceptual awareness. “Why do I think this? Where did that idea come from? What evidence has led me to this conclusion?”

In the bad old days when postmodernism reigned, rationality was often criticized – no, dismissed – as “reductionistic”, as if that was some kind of weakness. No-one seems to have the same complaint about other ways of practising mindfulness; indeed, they’re often praised as “holistic”. But this makes no sense. In perceptual mindfulness, you reduce your perception of the world to a collection of sensations. Whenever you “break down” a thought, or “unpack” it, as the lecturer repeatedly asked students to do in discussion, you are being “reductionistic” in exactly this sense.

As you must quiet your mental reactions to practise perceptual mindfulness, so you must quiet your emotional reactions to practise reason. It’s not that emotions are necessarily frivolous or unreliable; it’s that they are short-cuts between a situation and your response to it, and the point of this exercise is to forgo short-cuts. But sometimes emotions can be wrongly tuned, and then reason can help. It is the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I can’t speak for everybody who suffers from emotional disorders, but reason has helped me with my social anxieties.

The primary purpose of reason is to find truths that are independent of the finder’s state of mind, which makes it the perfect tool for a second purpose: conflict resolution. We are each the most important thing in our own personal universe, and when others (being themselves the most important thing in their personal universe) inevitably disagree, there can be clashes. Reason brings us out of that personal universe into the shared one, where no one person’s emotions are more important than anyone else’s.

The Western colonizers, to put it mildly, did not attempt to engage in reasoning with the indigenous people they displaced. Their claim that they deserved the land they seized because they were more “rational” than its erstwhile occupants was the purest hypocrisy. If they were hell-bent on anything, it was wealth and power. Rationality was an amusement, a badge of superiority, and periodically a useful tool but one to be kept to themselves. (A similar attitude has crept into today’s politics with the rise of neoliberalism.)

The colonizers did indeed try to disabuse the colonized of their spiritual beliefs, but not using reason or science. The missionaries themselves were, of course, in complete earnest; they had a calling from God to save the souls of the lost. The governments and businesses who funded them had a much more cynical motive. Christianity had survived the Enlightenment by rebranding itself as a religion of peace and forgiveness, but still frowned on the idea of questioning authority – which coincidentally is just the attitude that suits conquerors like the British Empire. No Western power sent out any science teachers to educate its colonies.

Science is reason put into practice. Various philosophers in Western history, most famously Aristotle, have made pronouncements about the structure of the universe based on what they called “pure reason”, but this is a misnomer. Reason itself should tell you that you can only find what’s out there in the real world by going and looking. Your logic might be perfect, but you could still have got a basic assumption wrong. So you gather knowledge, accumulate it, store it, and pass it on to be improved by future generations.

And this is my biggest point of disagreement with that male student: the Polynesian navigation techniques he mentioned, and the elders’ genealogical knowledge, are every bit as “scientific” and “rationalistic” as the Western ideas he was scoffing at. The Polynesian navigators did not find new islands in the ocean by praying to Tangaroa and having visions. They found them using empirical evidence: watching bird life, feeling the change in the sea swell, observing the reflections on the underside of clouds. They were scientists. Not “scientists” in hedge-quotes, scientists.

I’m Pākehā – the Māori term for the English-speaking colonizing culture of New Zealand. I have taken more pains than many Pākehā to educate myself about tikanga Māori, but I’m not under any illusion that I could teach a Māori person anything they didn’t already know. I don’t know how a Māori atheist would handle tapu or mana. But the student wondering how to reconcile the stories with science was Pākehā, and if I had been able to enter the discussion I would have said something like this:

Myths do not need to be true, or even believed, in order to provide the underpinning narrative of a culture. How many Pākehā still believe that God made the world in seven days? Yet every calendar in New Zealand commemorates that mythical event in the seven-day week. Few of us literally believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin and heralded by angels, and no adult believes that Saint Nicholas brings presents to children on the anniversary, but we celebrate it with great ceremony every year. True or not, the stories capture values that we want to preserve.

But mythology can also capture values that shouldn’t be preserved. In Christianity’s case I would cite its censorious attitude to sex, especially sex between people of the same gender, and to the human body. Not all Christians hold these attitudes, of course, and not all those who hold them are Christians; nor will you find more than half of them in the Bible. But they are a legacy of Christianity nevertheless. While the myths themselves can sometimes be reinterpreted to support the new values (as some Christians today look to Genesis 2:25), they do not provide a justification which someone coming from outside the culture is obliged to observe. Only reason can do that.


  1. This is good. One (very very minor) question - doesn't mana have some magical or at least supernatural dimension? I'm sure I recall reading retellings of Maori legends where people performed supernatural feats which were possible because of their enormous mana.

    1. The way we had it explained in class, mana is about one's standing with the gods. I'm sure it would have a bearing on Māori magical practices as well, and I imagine that would loom larger in stories than it does in real life. But most of the time, even if you believe in magic, you're not actively practising it. Mana as social authority, on the other hand, is in constant operation. And in any case, performing a powerful act of magic absolutely would not drain your mana -- it would do the opposite -- and the idea of getting mana back by drinking a blue potion is utterly ridiculous. I'm looking at you, Diablo...