One summer in the 1980s, theoretical physicist F. David Peat went to a Blackfoot Sun Dance ceremony. Having spent all of his life steeped in and influenced by linear Western science, he was entranced by the Native American worldview and, through dialogue circles between scientists and native elders, he began to explore it in greater depth. Blackfoot Physics is the account of his discoveries. In an edifying synthesis of anthropology, history, metaphysics, cosmology, and quantum theory, Peat compares the medicines, the myths, the languages--the entire perceptions of reality of the Western and indigenous peoples. What becomes apparent is the amazing resemblance between indigenous teachings and some of the insights that are emerging from modern science, a congruence that is as enlightening about the physical universe as it is about the circular evolution of humanity's understanding. Through Peat's insightful observations, he extends our understanding of ourselves, our understanding of the universe, and how the two intersect in a meaningful vision of human life in relation to a greater reality.
He has worked actively as a theoretical physicist in England and Canada.
But Peat's interests expanded to include psychology, particularly that of Carl Jung, art and general aspects of culture, including that of Native America. Peat is the author of many books including a biography of David Bohm, with whom Peat collaborated, books on quantum theory and chaos theory, as well as a study of Synchronicity. Since moving to the village of Pari in Italy, Peat has created the Pari Center for New Learning.
When I found this book, as an archaeologist who works primarily with Plains First Nations, I was thrilled that someone had written an in-depth book about the worldview of the Blackfoot. Through my own experiences, I have gained some outsider insight into the wealth of Blackfoot culture and was eager to learn more.
Unfortunately, the title Blackfoot Physics is a misnomer. Though the author describes his experiences while waiting for the Sun Dance to begin in the first few chapters, most of the book discusses various traditional belief systems and world views ranging from various North America First Nations to various cultures, past and present, around the world. Much of this material is either very general in nature or is intended for those without any prior knowledge of these traditions, basically illustrating the point that all world views have value.
Although I thought that the author did a very good job of illustrating that other cultures have different (and just as valid) ways of viewing the world, I am concerned that people will believe that all aboriginal world views are the same. This erroneous perception could further strengthen the common "primitive societies" stereotypes that the author was trying to break down.
It isn't so much about physics that you will have a hard time keeping up if you are not well-versed, though a familiarity with the work of David Bohm would make it more meaningful.
I found the parts on language particularly interesting, as well as some things on brushes with inspiration for different artistic people (an awkward way of phrasing that, but I don't know what else to call it). Also, I really have to agree with some points on Chapter 5, where much of the improvements in health are not so much about medicine as sanitation.
I was then also disappointed when in the next chapter Peat lends credibility to homeopathy and toward the end when he clearly misunderstands political correctness (typical) but also the need for legislating human rights (much less common). He does not stick the landing.
That would probably knock him down to three stars, but I am letting him have the fourth because while I can certainly imagine how there could be better books on this topic, I am not aware of any, and so this felt new and fresh.
TL;DR I'm not sure who the intended audience for this book was so it's hard to recommend. Three stars.
I bought this book immediately after reading Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence by Gregory Cajete because, while I found Cajete's book intriguing and enlightening, he made some rather egregious comments about quantum physics and chaos theory. He supported those comments by citing Peat's book (which was originally printed under a different title Lighting the Seventh Fire ). Since Peat was a theoretical physicist, I figured he could articulate Cajete's interpretations of physics better. I am disappointed to report that Cajete's retelling of these ideas were a misunderstanding of Peat's writing. For example, Cajete wrote "in a world of chaos, anything is possible," and (paraphrased) "electrons are constantly exchanging energies and transforming into different kinds of atoms." Both are strictly untrue and neither of those statements were made anywhere by Peat. Further disappointment however, was that every mention of quantum mechanics felt like a total non-sequitor. For example, in the chapter on medicine and healing, Peat describes how Indigenous healers will dilute a solution until it's essentially pure water, followed by precise tapping, to "write into" the structure of the water molecules. How? Why, quantum mechanics of course! Peat's use of chaos theory and his speculations about its connection to Indigenous practices are a little better, but not by much. He talks about chaos theory in a rather abstract way, but commits the same sins as many popular science writers by conflating "chaos" with "randomness." Chaotic systems are fully deterministic -- the problem is we can't perfectly know the initial conditions, so eventually our predictions will deviate from the true trajectory. For this reason, chaos is "pseudo-random" (i.e. random enough) for humans. A truly random system would be nuclear decay. A set of equations describing a dynamic system can also display no chaotic behavior at all for certain parameter values!
Much of the book is devoted to metaphysics , a philosophy more than a science. Understanding that any comments about quantum mechanics are not indications of Indigenous civilizations anticipating quantum mechanics and wave-particle duality, but are a modern application of Indigenous thought to interpreting the strangeness of quantum mechanics, alleviates some of the frustration that may arise if you are particularly sensitive to anything that sounds "woo woo" (which I think I am). Without being mentioned, these interpretations remind me of Carlo Rovelli's "relational interpretation of quantum mechanics" which emphasizes relationships among particles and fields, as Indigenous science does. However, I would have liked a stronger articulation of how Indigenous science and language can help us comprehend quantum mechanics, but there is none to be found.
Besides this, there some seeming inconsistencies in the author's argument. In one place disparaging writing systems on the whole ("westerners write to forget") and in another describing the sophistication of another society's writing system, allowing complex astronomical calculations. This is because Indigenous civilizations were numerous and varied! But this also means that it can't be used to criticize Western forms of knowledge preservation and sharing.
What was the point of this book? To initiate dialogue between Indigenous People and Western Scientists. The thesis was simply that all human societies developed their own methods of knowledge production and all are equally valid. How can they all be equally valid? Because they ask different questions . There were some good parts to the book. I liked the author's discussion about the debate of how human's populated the Americas. There were also some interesting stories about the detailed astronomical calculations and observations the Mayans made (they knew the length of a year down to a fraction, 365.24 days!). While those facts are always welcome, I didn't feel like I gained a significantly new perspective from this book, since I already respect the demonstrable power of Indigenous science. But I think the author himself was also frustrated at the limitations to his own understanding of Indigenous science and culture. This was a book that I covered with notes and annotations, but ultimately felt mediocre.
While some may gripe that this book was not written by someone who was himself Indigenous, author David Peat was encouraged by several Indigenous scientists he interacted with to write and share his perspective.
As someone who has indigenous ancestry, I have to say I definitely appreciate the care and respect that Peat made apparent throughout the book. He talks reverently and with respect, not pretending to have some sort of arrogant belief to know the ways of the various Indigenous Nations.
Let's be honest, Peat *asked* the indigenous folks and they gave their perspective. Thenhe wrote as fully and as completely as the information was presented to him. In my view, I find that a welcome change over the scores of non-Indian academics who like to pretend they know better than Indians themselves about what's what. While some NDN folks can get miffed that another non-NDN person wrote a book about the various customs and ways, there is something to be said for approaching it with the dignity and respect that David Peat has done in this book.
This book was good, but I feel like there were a lot of topics presented on which the author barely skimmed the surface. It has definitely lit a fire in myself to devour as much information on this topic as I can.
//edit I'm editing this. The above is still true, and this book left me with more questions than answers I might say, but that is ok. What I did get out of this book was a better understanding of Native Culture, and I have become much more aware of my relationship with the Universe. And I like it.
Gives an great insight into the differences between native and western sciences. As someone who’s not previously given native anything a lot of credence, it’s been a really valuable read! Especially easy to interpret given the authors scientific background, as he’s able to guide you down the same paths of understanding he himself had to take.
Aimlessly meandering gibberish. Barely anything to do with the Blackfoot and even less to do with physics. He kept making these broad-stroke claims about what how indigenous people see the world and then not providing any examples or anecdotes to back it up.
"You see, the First People are more focused on harmony. They see knowledge as a coming-into-knowing, rather than collecting crystallized facts."
That's an awesome baseless claim, but you're a British guy who is not particularly adept at writing. What credentials you to explain this? And do you think the explaining will be forthcoming any time soon?
(It will not, even by the Blackfoot's allegedly laxer understanding of the passage of time, which was also not explained beyond "they like being late for things and made fun of someone, once, for wearing a watch.")
The book was tedious, thinly veiled Ancient Aliens nonsense. In the middle he prattled about the Mayan calendar and sacred numerology for around 50 pages, zip-tied in there with a hamfisted "My buddy Leroy who is actually credentialed to speak about any of this told me one time that some of the Blackfoot walked to Mexico once."
A must-read if you want to hear a physicist free-associate about how cool he thinks Native Americans are while also making unfounded stereotypical generalizations about the culture.
This is a great starting point, as long as we acknowledge that Peat is showing us a Western perspective on Indigenous beliefs in comparison to Western science. Readers should follow this up with more modern Indigenous perspectives, such as Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
I appreciate what Peat does though, and he is upfront about his limitations in having these discussions. The focus on how new perspectives out of quantum physics are more in line with Indigenous beliefs rather than Euclidean logic is captivating. We have to be careful not to veer into thinking that everything about Indigenous thinking is "magic," but a more holisitic approach to science and anthropology is called for.
Excellent look at Indigenous philosophy and science by a western theoretical physicist. A bit repetitive in points, but Peat clearly has a deep respect for the topic and a comparison of the similarities and differences in the worldviews isn’t something you can find almost anywhere else.
This book came recommended by a Aboriginal man to anyone that was raised in a western society with an interest in the ways and worldviews of indigenous peoples. The author does a really good job breaking down the fundamental differences in the way humans interact with the their environment and society, while acknowledging that indigenous and western sciences will never be able to completely explain or fully understand one another. A very enlightening and highly recommended book. Hard to find without buying online.
For anyone who is open minded enough, to put aside the western religious or scientific view of the world we live in. This is a must read book. It's Native American (an inadequate term as they don't see themselves as one people) rather just Blackfoot, it compares the beliefs of western science and culture to it own, but it mainly helps give you a completely different viewpoint, not so much carving a canoe but finding it in the tree.
Second time. This book rocked my world when I first read it. It's contextually better this time. It has more meaning for me because I've had more experiences that align with what Peat is saying: a challenge to how we see the world. Since I read it way back in the 90s I've come across a range of writers that question our 'ways of seeing' - Berger, Scott. Even resonates with Aristotle's ideas of 'knowing' and practical wisdom (phronesis).