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STUDIO!SUS: What was the process that lead you to write your book «The Cosmic Serpent» and question the way science approaches reality?
→ When I was a student of anthropology in the late seventies, I really wanted to understand why there are rich and poor people. A professor in anthropology suggested I look at Amazonian rain forest development, because there was a confl ict between organizations such as the World Bank and the indigenous people living in the rain forest. It was a clear case where socalled experts said that the way to develop the jungle was to cut it down, take it away from the Indians that have lived there, and do monoculture. Well, even if you considered Indians to be «Untermenschen», it was still an ecological inexactitude. The experts were wrong. Although you can fl y over the rain forest and it looks very luxuriant, when you cut down the forest, the soil that remains is very poor.
Having read Marx at that time I was deeply suspicious of technological, technocratic answers, and actually, it was simply true that what these World Bank development experts were trying to promote was grass-roots capitalism. And they wanted individuals with a market mentality to chop the forest down and turn it into commodities. It was as simple as that. So, that was the path that took me to having a very critical gaze of science.

STUDIO!SUS: It seems rather like criticizing society, not just science.
→ Well the funny thing is that I was educated into science. I am a rational guy, I see the world through a rational lens. I’m not interested in believing things that I can’t verify. And it was with that gaze that I started looking at what development experts were doing. It’s not rational to chop down the forest and turn it into a sterile savanna and call that development. I guess what was also striking was that by going into the Amazon limits of science became very quickly apparent. Scientists – we’re talking about botanists, agronomists, economists – had a poor understanding of the rain forest ecosystem. Meanwhile, when they’d actually go and walk around under the trees, they would hire indigenous people as guides. So the true knowledge was in the minds of these indigenous people. You know, we’re talking several times more plants that have names in indigenous languages than names in latin given by scientists. It was simply a fact that not enough botanists had walked around the Amazon looking at it.

STUDIO!SUS: So the botanists in the jungle haven’t categorized many plants yet. But that’s just a question of time, so where is the limit of science here?
→ That’s true, but then it gets a lot more complex, because it isn’t just a question of categorizing every species and putting a name on it. An ecosystem is not a book, not a list, it’s actually a mind-bogglingly complex interactive whole. So, this takes us into questions of interpretation. Some of the limits of science I saw are in the way of knowing of indigenous people. The people have had a complex point of view on plants and animals for centuries that has been dismissed. We call it shamanism, and for 500 years when indigenous people said that plants and animals have intelligence and that you can communicate with these other species in the realm of modifi ed consciousness, we’ve called them crazy, we’ve called them devil worshippers, imposters, all kinds of insults in fact, simply revealing our incapacity to understand what they were talking about and our own prejudices.
It turns out that science has advanced so much now that right at the end of the 20th century it was being confi rmed in laboratories that even unicellular beings have a capacity to understand the world through their senses and make decisions. But if you look in a dictionary under intelligence, the defi nition is often given in exclusively human terms. Western cultures consider nature as not intelligent. We lack concepts to understand what the data of science is revealing.

STUDIO!SUS: So science is still locked into certain concepts and ideas that make it diffi cult to explain new data that’s coming out of labs.
→ Well if you look at how it developed, it clearly grew in western culture. It was practiced by westerners using western concepts, and it can’t escape that fact. But science has developed itself to the point where it is revealing things that go beyond the historical concepts of our own culture. I think that’s really interesting, it’s a situation that’s full of promise. It means that simply by putting ourselves in front of the data that our own system of knowledge is revealing we can see limits not so much in science at this point, but in the concepts of our culture. Maybe other cultures like Africans, Asians, actually have concepts that we in the west need. Maybe we have some concepts that they need. I think that indigenous Amazonians would benefi t from a bit of scientifi c method, and I think that westerners would benefi t from some of the insight of indigenous Amazonians.

STUDIO!SUS: So, do you think that scientists will reach a point where data clearly isn’t explainable anymore with a mechanistic worldview?
→ I think that having any certitude about that question is already a matter of belief. If we look at what’s going on in our own minds, there are people who believe that it all boils down to the physical and chemical aspect of neurons fi ring. My point of view is that the analogy with piano and music helps here, that what is interesting about a Bach piano concerto is not the strings of the piano. You can study the strings of the piano vibrating as much as you want, and yes, the strings in the piano are necessary for the piece of music to exist, but what is really interesting is what happens above and beyond the strings. I don’t think that you can reduce a Bach concerto to the physics of piano strings. It would seem to me that wanting to reduce human consciousness to the fi ring of neurons is analogous to that.

STUDIO!SUS: How does the scientifi c community react to your ideas?
→In 1999 I took three molecular biologists to the Amazon, and to cut a long story short: It was confi rmed in this small and modest test that molecular biologists can gain insights about their work, even down to details about the molecular, in modifi ed states of consciousness. I published it in 2001. There was no reaction. Clearly, the scientifi c community wasn’t ready to look into this. But I think it’s important to go with the rhythm of the world, and if the scientifi c community has its priorities elsewhere, then that’s just how it is, and you would be stupid if you wanted to force it. Maybe in a few years suddenly there will be scientists who reconsider this. It seems to me that scientists are getting ready to address the contradictions of an objective study of the subjective. It is simply a true fact that each and every human observer is a subjective being inside their body-mind and nobody has an objective point of view. So inside each scientist is a subjective person. An ordinary human consciousness is a subjective phenomenon, and the objective study of the subjective is like the dry study of swimming. You can do it, you can stay on the shore and talk about how to crawl and how to do the butterfl y, but the only real way to teach swimming is in the water.

STUDIO!SUS: So what do you propose for science in the near future?
→ The whole thing about science and democracy is sharing the knowledge so that individual citizens can make up their own minds. The struggle is to make balanced knowledge available to people, that considers the advantages and limits of different views.
There’s nothing like having deeper knowledge and deeper respect for the world we’re in. So it’s not a question of «you have to stop using poison chemicals in your garden», it’s more like «it is to your advantage to understand that the plants in your garden are beings just like you, and if you pour poison on top of them, that poison is likely to be poison for you too». I believe it’s in everybody’s interest to know more.

STUDIO!SUS: Better education and open access to knowledge will make society develop towards sustainability?
→It is necessary, but it’s not suffi cient. I think there is also a role for what one calls the spiritual traditions. Science has told us that it can only ask the how question, but not the why question. It’s not its business to answer the why question. That doesn’t mean that the why question disappears, it’s just not its business. The why question does take one towards «spirituality». People want explanations, but I try to sit with mystery. This is an agnostic position.

STUDIO!SUS: So your message to young scientists in a few words would be like «nothing is impossible, be as open as possible»?
→Yeah. Actually I found that entertaining seemingly impossible ideas is very creative. Actually working on myself to become aware of my own presuppositions, things that I considered a priori impossible, and then focusing on them and deliberately trying to see beyond my own limits, was extremely liberating.

Der Anthropologe Jeremy Narby arbeitet seit 1984 mit indigenen Völkern im peruanischen Urwald für die Anerkennung ihrer Territorien und ihres Wissens. Er ist Projektkoordinator für Nouvelle Planète und Autor mehrerer Bücher.

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