In its original use, the word "shaman" applies
to the witch doctor or sorcerer who acts in the role of priest and
healer amongst Siberian and also native North American tribespeople.
The shaman operates in the world of invisible, disembodied good and
evil spirits and has commerce with these forces in ways not accessible
to ordinary members of the tribe.
Thus he or she mediates between primordial underground forces
and the everyday life of the community. Such concepts had long been
known to cultural anthropologists but they entered mainstream North
American and European cultures primarily through the writing of Carlos
Casteneda from the 1960s onwards; more recently the native North
American shamanistic practices have been popularised and are widely
taught in America and Europe.
The cultural theoretician Charlotte Bach
generalised the concept of "shaman" to cover any person who - through a
visionary experience of some kind - contacts the deeper forces
underlying everyday reality and makes these available to other members
of the community. This is meant to apply to all artists, all
charismatic teachers and leaders, to culture heroes of every shape and
Bach also argued that the shamanic experience
is fundamental to the human biological organisation - that something in
us causes us to recoil from the world given to us through our instincts
and through our culture. This recoil is likely to happen in every
person's life, and in some cases repeatedly in a single lifetime. So
this is a pan-human experience and in no way confined to a few
non-typical cultures. Also, it has no intrinsic ties to beliefs in
disembodied spirits or to the dualistic construction of "ordinary
world" versus "spirit-world".
The shaman and the scientist
Charlotte Bach's extension of the concept of
shamanism can help us to recognize an essential affinity between the
practices of the shaman and the scientist. For this, we need to make a
clear separation between the scientific temper, and the particular
story that scientists may be telling at some particular time. By
"scientific temper" I refer to the traits which make a scientist a
scientist: primarily her attitude to the story she tells, and her
active participation in a methodical search for a better story.
Scientific "facts" are not scientific
So in this sense, there is nothing scientific
about the latest TV documentary trying to tell us about the "first
three minutes" of the universe after "the big bang". The "big bang" is
merely the latest in the series of scientific metaphors - it is valid
not because it is true
but because it is an honest attempt to
orientate ourselves accurately in the universe we find ourselves in.
Perhaps the TV journalist has got it right, and this really
is the latest and best account we can give; even so a true scientist is
not interested in the metaphor as such, but in the continuing
collective effort to improve our stock of metaphors and our ability to
orient ourselves in the universe.
A new context for the shaman
In a similar way we need to separate the
shamanistic temper from the particular story that local shamans may be
telling about the how the universe appears from the perspective of
their own tribe, time and place.
Many of us today will want to discard the story of good and evil
spirits, as being irrelevant to the world we find ourselves in. This is
because we have a different consensual reality to draw upon than the
Different in what way?
We have different assumptions and different
problems. For in our cultural toolkit we have highly sophisticated
accounts of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and molecular biology,
and we also have our collective experience of two and a half millenia
of philosophy. For us to revert now to simplistic beliefs in evil
spirits is to disregard a rich intellectual heritage.
If we seek the essential trait of the shaman,
separate from the local mythologies and rituals, then we get something
like the following:- the shaman, though fully versed in the consensual
reality of his tribe at its own time and place, is willing and able to
take the risk of letting this reality shrivel away - so that he or she
may journey to another level of reality - actually a place where dream
and reality have not yet differentiated themselves. This is somewhere
he/she will discover new and different perspectives, new sensibilities.
These are then brought back as a gift to the tribe, where they will
function to disrupt and enrich the consensual reality that used to be.
A new assemblage point
The Shaman's journey to the underworld is often
described as a shift to a different assemblage point for construing
reality. It is also known as stopping the world
- which means that the shaman's subconsciously generated perspective on
the world is brought to a standstill, allowing a new perspective to
assemble spontaneously. Thus a different reality is now able to emerge.
A contest of realities
The fact that it is different means that there
are now rival versions of reality in play; almost certainly they
contradict one another in certain respects, but there are no clear
grounds for judging that one is more, or less, valid than than the
other. Thus we are confronted with a challenge and a puzzle: how to
discover the best orientation in practice. This, in my view, requires
the test of ongoing experience and experimentation.
The scientist is a shaman
Meanwhile the shaman's perspective acts as a
standing challenge to the everyday consenus reality. I maintain that
this is exactly the same dilemma which the scientist has to work with,
once she has made the leap to a new theoretical construct. The new
theory offers a reinterpretation of the reality she had previously
believed she inhabited. Therefore she has to create suitable tests in
experience, to clarify which interpretation is true. The progress of
science depends on the co-operation between these two attitudes - the
visionary and the experimental.
Our philosophy is important because it is a
continuous span of evolving arguments and orientations, from its tribal
origins in ancient Egypt and Greece, through wise and witty
cosmopolitan discussions in ancient Athens, and culminating in the
global conversation which we initiated five hundred years ago with the
invention of the printing press.
© all content: copyright reserved,
Michael Roth, March 2009