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A Map in My Head

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A Map in My Head

Excerpts from the works of F. David Peat,

Physicist, Philosopher and Author.

“Since the time of the ancient Greeks Western civilization has be characterized by a desire to understand the universe. The early philosophers were concerned with that puzzling tension between The One and The Many, between constant change and static being. Today, as we look for patterns within the universe, the spirit of that quest is still with us. We desire to celebrate the universe, to come to terms with the existential fact of our own being in the world and to deepen our relationship to nature and the whole of society. And this desire is not confined to science and philosophy alone for has also been celebrated in art, music, literature, dance, drama, the rituals of religion and the great buildings of the past.

What is the deeper significance of the patterns around us? We are aware of the movements of the dance, of the architecture of buildings, the tensions of drama and the symmetries within the many natural forms that stretch from the elementary particles to the structure of the universe itself. We recognize that many of these patterns recur again and again, in different guises and in different scales and contexts. Science has focused on the patterns of nature in an attempt to reach towards their underlying order. According to this program, order is then expressed in terms of various laws. Through reason and experimentation, it is assumed, science will be able to touch the patterns of the universe and understand them.

Our present culture is based on this abiding faith in reason. The eye of the mind, it is believed, can move below the surface of nature's patterns to uncover their underlying meaning. Reason too dictates that patterns and orders must ultimately be understood in terms of eternal laws of the universe. Reason, moving in harmony with experience, will one day reveal the soul of the universe and describe it in the formal language of mathematics.” [1]

“Serious problems exist in many sectors of modern life. They are usually addressed with the call for more effort, more research, more enquiry, more investigation, all leading to an eventual program of intervention and control. Yet, despite the many dramatic successes of science and technology, the major problems have never been resolved in any truly satisfying way. While a particular plan of action may result in the temporary amelioration of a particular troublesome issue the whole thing is likely to pop up again, in some other location and, often in a more virulent form.

The crises of the modern world have been discussed at length by many writers. The more penetrating of them agree that the origin of these problems lies in a common source, that our present fragmentary world view is leading to conflicting action in the social, political and individual fields. Moreover, our present world view fails to give us that deep sense of belonging that was characteristic of earlier cultures.” [2]

“Without the aid of a mirror it is extremely difficult to examine one's world view and culture. By way of an exploration it may be useful to look at our science and culture from a different perspective. It is a characteristic of many of the aboriginal and indigenous peoples around the world, particularly those engaged in hunting and gathering, that they are able to carry out what seem to us prodigious feats of navigation, finding their way in what is often termed a "featureless landscape". The Natives of Micronesia are able to navigate with accuracy far out of sight of land, the Naskapi of Labrador can find last year's trails under many feet of snow. "But how are you able to get back to the same location a year later and with snow on the ground?" a colleague of mine asked his Naskapi friend. "I have a map in my head", came the reply.

The Naskapi, the Blackfoot, the Cree and many other Indigenous American groups all have maps in their heads, the Australian aborigines know the dreaming tracks of their remote ancestors. Thanks to these maps, groups are able to carry out a variety of practical tasks such as locating game, returning to the site of an earlier camp or even traveling to a traditional trail that no member of the group has visited in his or her lifetime. But it seems to me that this map in the head is far more than this, for more that an AAA Guide Book to game tracks, for it involves the whole relationship between the land and the people.

The Native map is learned in childhood. It is absorbed while sitting at the feet of elders and hearing their stories and songs. The map grows out of dance and ritual, out of the movements of the seasons and the ceremonies of the group. This map in the head is not simply a plan involving contours, vegetation and trails, for it expresses the group's place and their sense of harmony within the landscape; it goes beyond the practical into the sacred, yet makes no sharp distinction between either, for every act of the Native person has a sacramental quality. The map reason, sensation and feeling, is the meaning of the group, it is what holds them together, what binds them to their land, it is an expression of the music of their language.

It should be clear that when the Naskapi speaks of having "a map in my head" he implies something far richer than what is today called a Cognitive Map. To borrow from another contemporary terminology, the Native map exists in a complex enfolded or implicate order for it contains not only topographical information but the passage of time and indeed very much more. It is a map in which each aspect, each landmark, has an associated value and meaning, it is a map dealing not only with the external but also the internal. When the map is used along the trail, it acts not only as a guide to location but expresses a whole tradition of relationship to each part of the land.” [3]

“The essential point is, of course, that such maps or internal landscapes are not unique to Native cultures but are possessed by each one of us. We too have our own maps in the head. But while they have they may have grown highly sophisticated in certain areas they are impoverished in others. The maps we carry have become fragmentary and incoherent and no longer guide us on our journey through life. Our maps do not bind us together for they have become ambiguous and contradictory, they point us each in a different direction and the values they teach often come into conflict with the path we chose. And so we have become lost in a universe of our own making.” [4]

“Connection is also involved in that special sense of oneness that a Native person, or indeed any other sensitive individual, feels in the presence of nature. The Native person may talk to trees or rocks. Yet, as I understand it, this talking is something very different from our own notion of a conversation--which is our way of bridging the gap between persons. For the Native there may be no original separation, no distance to be bridged by interaction. Talking to a rock or tree reinforces a person's sense of communion with all living things and becomes yet another aspect of the map.

As so the map in the head is of a profoundly different order than anything that would be recognizable within our orthodox scientific approach. Although it should be pointed out that physics today is admitting new sorts of connections, such as the quantum correlations discussed in Bell's Theorem which lie outside conventional causal interactions. This at least opens the possibility of a different order of thinking of thinking about connections that may perhaps lie outside the accepted categories of space and time.

The map of science, as we have already pointed out, stresses objectivity and freedom from the values of a particular society or period. But, as the following example shows, it is at this very point that the map subverts itself. In the middle ages a person had a place within guild and society. Space and time were highly structured. Instead of the relativistic space-time of today space was as rich as the yoke of an egg for each part had its own unique value and function. Indeed this vision of space is reflected in pre-Renaissance paintings. The space and time they portray has an implicate quality about it, for many different orders of relationship are enfolded together. A single painting may encompass the whole life of a saint, from miracles to martyrdom with the holy figure appearing again and again in the same picture. Incidents, seemingly unconnected in space and time are nevertheless enfolded together and unified on the same fresco or panel. Likewise a particular occurrence is never seen from a single viewpoint but from many different locations. One may simultaneously look down on the distant landscape of Jerusalem, mingle with Mary and the disciples, gaze up at the cross, confront the face of Christ directly and float in heaven with God and the angels. A typical crucifixion scene integrates a whole series of different view points or perspectives. It could be thought of as the artistic portrayal of one aspect of a corporate map in which many different points of view are contained without tension. It expresses the viewpoint of a society which has not learned self-consciousness and is still unified.” [5]

“Mathematics in general has had a profound influence on the development of the physical sciences and its maps. But the great scientists of the past were as much concerned with philosophical and metaphysical matters as with the formal details of physical law. Today, however, mathematics is taking an increasingly important role. "God is a mathematician" declared the physicist Sir James Jeans half a century ago and since that time the God of science has not looked back. Physics has become highly abstract and dependent on mathematics. Its highest degree of sophistication has been reached in the current superstring theories in which mathematical arguments are now being used to guide the physics itself.” [6]

“In another essay I have asked if a symphony or other piece of music considered as a theory of the universe. After all, music is highly ordered and structured, it is governed by generative laws and moves in a regular way and, at the same time, music is highly creative. Music has been called, by the composer Edgar Varese, "the corporealisation of thought." Why then can the realization of structured thought directly in sound not represent a theory or portrayal of nature, just its abstract symbolization in mathematics purports to be? A number of societies would indeed regard music in this light. A song of an American Native group or a raga of India has a sacramental quality that both binds together as well as representing and celebrating the unfolding of creation itself. Within such world views, sacred music would certainly express the meaning and nature of the universe. In the culture of Indonesia the universe is portrayed in another way, through the ritual of the shadow-puppet play. Music, drama, dance and art all become ways of formally relating to the universe and pointing to its deepest secrets.

But, from the perspective of Western science, one can immediately see the objection to music as having a serious role to play in understanding the universe. Music lacks a quantitative side--it cannot be used to predict and compare with scientific measurement. But, as we have also seen, some of the more important and highly abstract theories of modern physics, while they may make some limited quantitative predictions, are also remote from empirical verification. If the modern theories of physics are now being guided by the aesthetics and intuition of mathematics as well as by their overall coherence, then are they really so remote from the internal orders of music. Is it possible that the boundary between music and mathematics will one day become permeable?

While music may lack a quantitative measure it certainly has a powerful aesthetic side. Music acts to bind together at a social level, it both calms and stimulates the mind, bringing it to order, induces a sense of oneness with nature and is an image of creation. Music deals in feelings, emotions, and sensations. Mathematics, in the main, does not. Is it necessary therefore that our current map of the world should maintain such a sharp boundary between mathematics as a language of science and music, art, dance and drama as both artistic expressions and celebrations of understanding? While music can not and never should replace mathematics as the major language of science it is possible that a less fragmentary map in the future may find a special place for music's social, cosmic and individual functions so that the scientific map merges into and complements the artistic and the religious.

Music speaks of the cosmic and the eternal. So too do the great laws of physics. But again as we compare the Native with the scientific maps we discover an apparent paradox. For, while the scientific map, which strives for the eternal is ever changing, that of the Native, which deals directly with time, has an timeless nature.

The Native map enfolds both time and space. It deals in the cycles of the seasons, the movement of game, the time of planting and the time of gathering. Its sets aside time of ritual and time for dance, times of birth, time of naming and times of death and passing away. If the hunter-gatherer lives so fully in time this may perhaps explain why he or she has no desire to step outside the timeful in order to make predictions and contemplate a future which does not yet exist. A complaint sometimes voiced is that the Native person neglects to not plan ahead, refuses to gather and store more than is needed for the present, does not predict and forecast. It may not be so much that such people are unable to perform such an act of abstraction and intent but that its meaning lacks a deeper significance to them.

So, paradoxically, by living in time, the map within the head is eternal and constantly renewed. It is a map untarnished by time.

Contrast this with the scientific map that seeks, through eternal laws, a place to stand in the universe that is unassailable for all time. Paradoxically such a map is subject to the vagaries of time, constantly being replaced, always becoming out of date. By seeking to occupy a place outside time science has become engaged in time's movement in which its laws are always being subverted.

From the days of the early Greeks we have been seeking the certainty that lies in what could be called closure. Closure implies that final world that brings discussion to its conclusion, it is a wrapping up, a resolution of the great questions of the universe, an ending of time. But this is also the sort of ending beloved of Victorian novelists in which all conflicts are finally resolved, warring parties united, loving couples married and the wrong-doers punished. Although life may go on after the novel's ending it is a life without conflict or tension. While post-modern stories can no longer afford this luxury some scientists still believe that the story told by science can reach an ultimate conclusion through its laws, a conclusion in which time is finally blotted out. Truth, however, may be of a very different order from timeless stasis for it may require a search for what is straight rather than what is static.

At present the scientific story is required to have both a beginning and an end. The universe is pictured as emerging through a process of symmetry breaking in which the forces of nature and the masses of the elementary particles are differentiated. The world begins in a highly symmetric, ideal state and moves towards complexity through broken symmetries and timeless laws.” [7]

“As we have seen, our culture lives with a map that is enfolded in highly complex ways and, to a great extent, dominated by the map of science. Other levels exist within this map as do other forms of knowing and feeing, yet for our modern world this whole landscape has begun to loose its meaning and coherence. The map in our heads has become fragmented so that although we may have lost the power to talk to trees and rocks we now want to talk to the stars. Yet if the stars are dead what would be the point? What sense of connection could there be in a vast, dead and meaningless universe?

Today we are beginning to experience a desire for a more holistic relationship to nature and within society. People are beginning to sense the universe as a living organism, they are concerned with ecology and the state of the planet, they are calling for a new order to society, and end an to conflicts that separate us. And so, sensing the fragmentation of our present map, we feel the need for new landscapes: but where are they to be found? Maps cannot be translated from other cultures, nor can they be bartered, borrowed or stolen. Neither can we return to some imagined Golden Age of our past. What seems to be required is a re-creation of our map and with it an act of healing. We must look into the endless folds of our contemporary map and sense its fragmentation, the separation it maintain between mind and body, head and heart, individual and society, society and nature. We must come to terms with its conflicts. We must acknowledge our pain, grief and sense of loss. We may need a period of morning and a period of letting go. We must accept that act of dying which allows the creative to flourish. And so we may eventually return to the patterns of universe, but this time they will be patterns redolent of meaning.” [8]

“The Search for Meaning.

Each one of us at some point in our lives has sensed a quickening of experience and that remarkable feeling of intensity which seems to flood the whole world around us with meaning. It may involve a sudden vivid vision of nature, almost as if we were seeing the rocks and trees for the very first time. It may embrace some other person such as a child, spouse or lover. It may emerge out of the focused intensity of our work or a creative hobby. It may simply flow out of a sense of the very vibrancy of one's body and whole being, or be an intense and gratuitous inner vision.

At the instant of such an epiphany there is a sense that we are touching something universal, so that the particular moment in time takes on a numinous character and seems to expand in time without limit. There is the sense that all boundaries between our self and the outer world vanish, for what is being experienced lies beyond all categories and all attempts to be captured in logical thought.

Such epiphanies may occur in fleeting moments or they may pervade the whole of a person's life. Whatever their nature they allow us a feeling of hope and an abiding sense that the universe itself has a deep meaning. It is almost as if nature were alive, alive at all levels from the rock to the tree, from the molecule to the star. At such moments we believe that it is indeed possible for one to live harmoniously with the whole earth, to feel united in mind and body and able to relate in a totally satisfying way to everything around us.

A moment of illumination points towards a meaningful universe. Yet science for its part seems to be denying that matter could be imbued with meaning and significance in any objective sense of the words. The material world, we are told, functions according to fixed laws and could never be described as being free. Moreover, every structure is ultimately reducible to something simpler, ultimately to quarks or superstrings. In such an objective, material world there seems to be no room for subjective human values such as meaning, freedom, creativity and significance.” [9]



Moments of meaning and wholeness have become so rare within our culture that we have had to invented special words to describe them, such as synchronicity or epiphany. The psychologist Abraham Maslow also referred to what he called "peak experiences". Yet, to some peoples, life is always lived at this level and it is to these Indigenous people, with their feeling of a direct relationship to nature, that we turn for our first map.

In the words of Chief Seattle (Seathl) of the Swamish people, "every space, every humming bee, every part of the Earth" is sacred. Writing in the mid nineteenth century, he explained, "We are part of the Earth and the Earth is part of us. The fragrant flowers are our sisters. The reindeer, the horse, the great eagle are our brothers. The rocky heights, the foamy crests of waves in the river, the sap of meadow flowers, the body heat of the pony--and of human beings--all belong to the same family."

To the Native person, everything is alive, and it is possible to talk to animals, trees and even rocks. The idea of Jung's "meaningful connection" or "acausal connecting principle" becomes a lived experience, rather than some theoretical idea. But to many of us, with our rational conception of the nature, the possibility of communicating with inanimate matter would be dismissed as being totally out of the question. Communication, as we see it, must always involve some sort of interaction in which a signal, involving matter or energy, passes from one location to an other. How then could a rock speak? And how could a tree listen?

But suppose that there are other ways of being, ways in which communication becomes communion, a direct and unmediated presence? To the North American forest and woodland dwellers this is called "skanagoah" and is the electrifying awareness of unity and balance felt in nature. When there is no separation to be bridged it becomes possible to talk to the rocks and trees and to hear their inner voices; indeed, it becomes possible to experience the authenticity of all things. In the words of another native elder: "We have to understand the nature. That is why we have to talk to them. We don't pray to them, we talk to them because they breath the same air we do. We are put here with them. We are also a part of the plant life. We are always growing, we have to have strong roots. " (Colorado 1988)

The North American continent must have appeared boundless to the early settlers who arrived from Europe. Yet already, to Chief Seattle, writing in the mid nineteenth century, the implications of the White Man's separation from nature were crystal clear: "To him, one piece of land is much like another...The Earth is not his friend but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on...His hunger will eat the Earth bare and leave only a desert."

It is my suggestion that despite society's prevailing sense of separation and alienation, it is still possible to capture that earlier sense of wholeness. Indeed if we go back far enough we are all, in a sense, Indigenous people and our childhoods were flooded with a similar intensity. The search for a new physics and a new scientific vision may also help to heal the wounds divided us from nature and reanimate our lives and society.” [10]

[1-8] I've Got a Map in My Head - F. David Peat - Based on a talk given at the conference "Patterns in the Universe", Smithsonian Museum. October 1989.

[9-10] F. David Peat - The Philosopher’s Stone - Chaos, Synchronicity and the Hidden Order of the World, 1991


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