Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything substantial separating traditional shamanism from materialistic Western science.
Although it’s tempting to believe that Western scientists are bastions of objectivity – mechanically-precise observers of nature – they’re really no different from the shamans of animist traditions who journey into astral realms to bring back knowledge and wisdom.
Animism, the belief that everything in the world possesses a living spirit, is found in most of the traditional cultures that also utilise shamanism. It’s common for animism to be based in a duality between the seen and unseen worlds. The seen world is composed of the forest; the animals; the people; the village. The unseen world comprises the natural spirits and their desires and wills, influencing the events in the seen world.
A malicious spirit working in the unseen world may be the cause of an illness, or dispute, in the seen world. Some process, mostly hidden from our normal perception, working away in the shadowy realms of the unseen, could be behind a drought, a food shortage, or an invading army.
In these animist belief systems, trained shamans are the only people capable of venturing into the unseen; perhaps to investigate the causes of illness, or influence future events. Shamans will diagnose and treat conditions of the spirit and body, usually for an exchange of goods – but they are more than just doctors. They also transform themselves into animals, entering the forest to lure prey into traps, or to maul their enemies. Their visionary states can show them past and future events, and allow them to travel to distant lands.
At first glance, especially from our perspective, this seems worlds away from the labcoats and laboratories of Western scientific methods.
Yet it only takes a moment of reflection to see the differences are mostly superficial.
In the materialist paradigm, the world of atoms and quantum forces is largely (if not entirely) unseen. In fact, it seems that the more we search for substance and solidity in the behaviour of particles and forces, the more we find it slipping through our fingers.
We can easily see how the materialist philosophy creates a stark dualism. One one side, we have the seen world of our subjective experiences (vision, feelings); and on the other side, the unseen world of the “objective” particles and forces working like a mysterious and impenetrable engine.
The only people who claim to be able to see inside this engine, and report back on its workings, are scientists.
They can peer into the unseen world and explain to us why things are the way they are. Why am I sick? Because a bacteria is working its way through the cells of your body. How can I get better? One of us will inject you with an unseen magic that will attack and destroy that bacteria.
Scientists embark on vision quests, much like those of the shaman. Einstein envisioned himself running alongside a wave of light. Mullis saw himself astride a DNA molecule being replicated by the polymerase enzyme. Hawking’s mind “soar[ed] ever more brilliantly across the vastness of space and time to unlock the secrets of the universe,” according to a Time magazine review of A Brief History of Time. As much as modern science wants us to reject the idea of our leading scientists as experiencing humans, the ability to journey into visionary realms is absolutely crucial to scientific discovery.
The tools of the scientist, while different from the tools of the shaman, also allow brief glimpses into the unseen worlds for the appropriately initiated. Anyone can peer into a microscope, or take a psychedelic plant medicine; but it takes training with either tool to be able to interpret what they’re seeing, and turn it into knowledge.
This isn’t to say that either one of science or shamanism is superior to the other. They are both methods of venturing into the unseen world, and bringing back knowledge, or exercising power.
Both scientists and shamans can be guilty of similar crimes.
Western scientists are keen to manipulate their laboratory findings, and falsify results, for personal gain. Pharmaceutical companies thrive on lies, keeping us hooked on ineffective and dangerous medications. Researchers often do more than simply tell us what they’ve observed on their travels into the unseen – they can be corrupted by bias, racism and patriarchy – causing untold suffering. Historically, science has been used to justify bigotry in any number of forms.
Shamans can often be guilty of misogyny, abuse, and sorcery; all justified through their personal experiences of the unseen. They frequently use their visionary powers to cause pain, and manipulate the world for their own purposes. They sometimes see themselves as gatekeepers of truth; the all-powerful stewards of natural processes. Sound familiar?
Scientists, and shamans, are also both capable of great healing. Without the discovery of penicillin, who knows how many millions more would have died. Without traditional shamanism, and its understanding of the natural order, we may have lost even more of our precious rainforests and life-sustaining habitats – and let’s not forget about the healing benefits of psychedelic plant medicines.
The most important thing we can learn from the similarity between scientists and shamans is to avoid worshipping our ontological prophets.
The current scientific paradigm has swept the Western world like a religion; and the most popular scientific figures are the clergy of our times. Ontologies that challenge the mainstream materialist philosophy are met with a vicious evangelical passion.
Similarly, an unconditional trust of indigenous shamans is foolish. Many are abusers, many subjugate women and queer people, and many are more interested in profit than healing. This problem is becoming more pronounced as Gringo neo-shamans have begun to flood the market of quick-fix ayahuasca tourism.
The moral here, I think, is to also venture into the unseen world ourselves. Find our own methods for understanding the engines that drive our experience. Always retain scepticism of authority figures that come back from the unseen with their own fervent teachings; while also respecting the wisdom of those who have used their journeying to demonstrably heal others – scientist or shaman.
Learn what you can from the twin wisdoms of science and shamanism, and reject those who would insist you solely follow one over the other.
3 thoughts on “Why Shamanism and Western Science are Basically the Same Thing”
Very interesting and thoughtful article. I have been thinking recently how fed up I am with conflicting medical research and how full of bias and misinformation it is. I have decided to value personal experience over the words of others and the psychedelic journey will form part of that. Perhaps it will enable me to see outside the fishbowl in which I exist.
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Back in the early 90s I heard this really amazing spoken word piece on Rice University radio called What is the matter in Amy Glennon? That link is to the soundcloud version; here’s a nice transcription from the New American Radio archives. I actually bought the four CD box set that this amazing piece is on, but I don’t know that it is available any longer; the CDs were called Radius One – Four and this Sheila Davies piece was on One. Great stuff!
From “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle” (keep in mind this book was written in the 70s)
After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
”No,” I say
”Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”
The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”
The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”
”I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris says.
”I’m being kind of facetious.”
Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don’t think it hurts him.
”One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.”
”He was just spoofing you.”
”No, he wasn’t. He said that when people haven’t been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes in that.”
”He was just spoofing you,” I repeat.
”What’s his name?” Sylvia says.
”Tom White Bear.”
John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
”Ohhh, Indian!” he says.
I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”
”What’s the difference?”
John roars with laughter. “He’s got you,” he says.
I think a little and say, “Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”
”Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”
He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”
Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.
”It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”
John nods affirmatively and I continue.
”My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”
”Oh, the laws of physics and of logic-the number system-the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.
”They seem real to me,” John says.
”I don’t get it,” says Chris.
So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”
”So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”
John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.
”What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”
”Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere this law of gravity still existed?”
Now John seems not so sure.
”If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still common sense’ to believe that it existed.”
John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”
”Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
”And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”
”Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”
”Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as education.”
”You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?”
”You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.”