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 size.
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 Siberian tribesman.
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, January 2004