JOURNAL ISSUE 11

2004/2005

 

 

Metaethics & shamanism in the Age of Science

Igor Manenica, SW Student
School of SW, University of Zagreb


The last few decades have been witness to a massive increase in lifestyles and their accompanying philosophies and ethics, with scientific principles weaved into them on a regular basis, ranging from “Quantum Christianity to Chaos Magic and Psychedelic Neo-shamanism”, to name just a few from a seemingly endless sea of ideas. The free flow of information allows a large number of previously obscure lifestyles to gain significant footholds in everyday life, creating a vast diversity.


Global postmodernism has caused an intense level of subjectivity, which in itself is not decadent, but the resulting ethical relativism tells a different story. The diversity in which many take pride, besides being a thoroughly delusional state, is, in its core, a very undignified monolith. Ethics is the binding principle which cannot suffer any dispersion, especially not by a divide et impera maxim, so generously provided by the apologetic- intellectual cornerstones of today's society. This would be a laughing matter, not to be taken seriously, if not for the severity of the present state, and that is only taking the geo-political matter into account, since it is, as a macro-level phenomenon, the easiest to observe, if one can navigate the schizophrenic web of propaganda and deceit that is spun every day. Disputing these facts leads into solipsistic numbness and is therefore a waste of time.

 

The emerging manifold of religious and similar systems, sympathetically termed synkretismos, from the Greek word meaning "a union of communities" is a consequence of the deep and harrowing vacuum orchestrated by very real and immediate entities, not by some pan-psychological, archetypical, quantum, or other meta-phenomena.

 

The metaethical why is pointed towards this “diversity”, although it is rhetorical in its nature. Ethics as we know them cannot be developed any further; the peak has been reached ages ago. Meister Eckhart, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Khalil Gibran, to name just a few, have stated this simple and obvious fact in their lives' work.

 

The concern of this paper is focused on the modus operandi of shamanism, the diversity of forms it takes, relations to modern day society, possible applications in social work, and so on.

 

(D)Evolution And Dispersion Of Shamanism Through The Ages

 

Western society is introduced to shamanism through ethnology, an offspring of anthropology. Although very interesting, the ethnological diversity will be mostly skipped; instead this paper will focus on the nexus of all such practice throughout the globe, be it the strange world of the old Siberian shaman, the whirling Sufi, divine Indra drinking soma, or the modern day psychonaut visiting a herb shop in Amsterdam.

 

The focal point around which all techniques revolve is the mystical experience, dissolution of self, merging with a universal soul, illumination, resurrection; again, the terms describing the Gnostic moment are endless, yet the experience is one in all cultures. Although this fact is ancient, the abyss faced by modern man causes reactions ranging from wide-eyed disbelief to cynical amusement.

 

Regardless of the name the practice takes, its presence has been felt on all continents throughout time: early nomadic tribes worshipping the Mother and similar fertility cults, druid and witch cults in Europe, Sufism, tribal shamanism on the African continent via dancing and plant entities, the Aborigines (dance and music), countless tribes of the rainforest (plant entities), other south-American tribes focusing on cacti (Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru), etc. After a few more decades, shamanism, as a general term, was introduced to a larger society in the 60s, through a massive influx of mysticism, spirituality, the eastern philosophic cluster, etc. From that point on, decadent tendencies started to surface, as more and more guru cults begun to emerge, focusing on the usual—individual power and money.

 

Today, many atavistic traces of shamanism are present in society, ranging from massive gatherings with excessive substance abuse, whose sole purpose is to recreate the melting experience, the loss of self, but failing (due to a lack of intimacy, knowledge, respect, holiness), and instead creating everything from short-term happiness, redundant behavior (termed as outlets in popular literature), to gestalt therapy, transpersonal psychology (this is not meant to be derogatory, simply a relation to Wittgenstein’s seventh proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (see next page)) and others, all trying to reach other realms, whether on the inside or outside. Many of these approaches are potentially useful, yet most suffer from the syndrome of classic psychoanalysis—overlong duration with a high recidivism rate, dependency, money consuming, and therefore available only to certain strata of society (although one might argue the need to advance the bloated upper echelons of any given society).

 

Similarities to Other Systems of Perception

 

It is impossible to give a precise definition of the term shamanism, as it represents very intrinsic and intimate patterns of action. It is definitely of a transverbal nature, representing travel to a world of symbols and archetypes and beyond. In western terms, the traditional tribal shaman, who enters a trance of his own creation, is a “common” schizophrenic, which relates to the everyday phrase that “to be normal, one has to become insane”. This concept is shown in the description of the dancing Sufi:

 

“. . . he began turning in harmony with it, an ecstatic dance of surrender and yet with great centered discipline. He arrived at a place where ego dissolves and a resonance with universal soul comes in. Dervish literally means 'doorway'. When what is communicated moves from presence to presence, Darshan occurs, with language inside the seeing. When the gravitational pull gets even stronger, the two become one turning that is molecular and galactic and a spiritual remembering of the presence at the center of the universe. Turning is an image of how the dervish becomes an empty place where human and divine can meet. To approach the whole the part must become mad, by conventional standards at least. These ecstatic holy people, called matzubs in the Sufi tradition, redefine this sort of madness as true health”

 

Those words appear throughout many philosophies, both old and new: human and divine, two becoming one, language inside seeing, etc. The ever-present duality which is one; for example, Spinoza's Deus sive Natura, forming a single entity of infinitely many attributes, of which extension and thought were two, which opens tangents to Hindu thought or, in the language of a more recent technological shaman, “. . . that it was impossible to describe simultaneously both the position and the velocity of an atomic particle with any prescribed degree of accuracy. We can either measure the position very accurately—when the action of the instrument used for the observation obscures our knowledge of the velocity, or we can make accurate measurements of the velocity and forego knowledge of the position," i.e., Heisenberg's Uncertainty relation, representing the language of quantum physics in its own highly deterministic way, trying to describe other realities, and so on.

 

If one reads carefully, a very certain pattern begins to emerge, that of Panton hrematon metron ho anthropos, or “man is the measure of all things”, which is no wonder; as the level of subjectivity increases, so does the possibility of detectable patterns. This “paradigm of the mind” represents the destructive solipsistic (or, in a broader view, anthropocentric) ignorance and attitude of today's society: I can do what I wish, therefore I do.

 

To keep things short, let us jump to a very necessary conclusion, or in the words of Wittgenstein: “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein abandons metaphysics to natural sciences, pointing out the transverbal nature of this realm. This is the starting point of shamanism, and also a definitive reference to Gnosticism, being the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means. As the traditional Gnostic school is a horrid maze of complexities (in a typical, almost ironic way, this system of thought starts with the individual and ends up with several gigabytes of information of how to become one), we shall, in a most pragmatic and shamanistic way, extract the core paradigm—intrinsic experience is a good start. Although theoretically easily understood, practical gnosis is very hard to come by, as it requires a farewell to extremely well established patterns of thought and behavior, archetypical manifestations hard-wired into our genetic code (meme). If we take into account that most people need a lifetime's worth of effort to get rid of outwardly perceptible behavioral patterns, such as chauvinism, nationalism, profession, idealism, religion, science, politics, philosophy, etc., these being only the archetypes of socio-cultural conditioning (spreading their roots to every corner of macro and microcosm, interrelating with each other, creating new constructs etc.), not to mention the vastly unexplored “subconscious” oceans of complexity, existing in a happy intermarriage with the above mentioned labyrinth, influencing each other, and so on.

 

Complexity

 

A holistic understanding is certainly required to understand the potential complexity, if only as a requirement for awareness to perceive the interrelatedness of things. Changes in body chemistry (some of them permanent), brain activity and chemistry (brainwave frequency, endogenous substance increase etc.)—the various (mainstream) sciences describing this area are quite tainted by ethical immaturity—are under heavy (pharma)dogmatic/corporate pressure, and oriented towards substances which are equivalent to chemical lobotomy, decreasing inherent and necessary metaphysical sensibility, reducing in-body entropy buffers (cell oxidation, toxic substances in general, etc.). accompanied by physical damage (methadone and equivalents, the Prozac school, Viagra, etc.), inducing redundant and destructive behavioral patterns, with a progressive trend towards waste and decomposition—and this is only the scientific right oriented wing. The left, or what is left of it, has its own patterns of redundancy. and following the science filter come various others. After the trail-off at brain chemistry follow relations to other interweaved areas (thought in general, socio-cultural relations and impact on the classic term “self”, etc.). While this maze seems complicated enough, it is basically a question of epistemology in general, or the epistemology of epistemology. Today certain pride is taken in the “diversity” and various inter- and trans-associations between areas of knowledge, yet the main apparatus of thought can be traced to old Greece and the idiotic father of fascism, chauvinism, racism—Plato and company, which only points out the fact that the core epistemology stems from a very poor and undignified, non-diverse environment.

 

Keeping the holistic part in mind, physical environment plays an important role: techniques (a broad and interesting field); “memic” mythology (Dawkins defined the meme as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation," so it too must be taken into account); physics, whether tainted or not, by digging into the “quantum sea” in which most of all floats, and to which the mind and body are linked (simple holistic logic allows this conclusion); creating new possibilities (quantum psychology); other complex theories (M theory in physics, where M stands for magic, possibly to popular fundraising methods); new weapons and other popular global paraphernalia, etc.

 

Why bother with the issue of shamanism at all, since the maze seems to grow each moment? Certainly the roots of shamanistic practice were (and still are) much less complicated, at least to the explorers observing native shamanistic practices throughout the globe—a ritual preceding the shaman’s entry into the trance, the method of entering the other realm (whether by music, dancing, entheogen* or a combination of all three), and the return from the voyage followed by healing, and problem solving.

 

It seems that complexities arise only when the core method is drawn into a broad modern-cultural frame. This can certainly be a drawback, but putting aside the usual criticism towards dominant western society (war, poverty, ignorance, decadence, corporate logic, eco damage, etc.), it has also produced many beautiful things, which deserve further attention, exploration, and evolution/enhancement. This takes us to modern day shamanism, with legal and illegal methods practiced throughout the globe.

 

Methods

 

Keeping the idea in mind that the general purpose is to achieve profound experiences, whether mystical, religious or otherwise, one is confronted with a plethora of techniques.

There are many schools of meditation, listening to specific music or using the instrument itself, inducing beta, theta and delta brainwave frequency resulting often with changed awareness, ecstatic dancing, adrenaline oriented methods (extreme sports), chemical compounds (both synthetic and natural in origin), fasting, sex (the Tantra school and similar ideas), “brain machines”, and other technological gadgets.

 

The effectiveness, availability, and legality of various techniques is certainly arguable, but is besides the point in this case.

 

Realm Translocation and Experience Integration

 

What really happens when the Sufi whirls, or the shaman communes with a sacred plant?

 

Reports from the transverbal realm, paradoxically, come in thousands upon thousands. It does not matter whether a near death experience, a “psychedelic trip”, or the ecstasy of tantra techniques is described. The fact is that people are endlessly trying to remember, recreate, and give testimony to those essential experiences. They are essential because they represent a leap from an ostracized, and primitively and crudely imposed perception of “reality” mostly of dialectic materialism, and deterministic origins. The common word “dumb” comes to mind, skipping complex philosophical masturbations of a verbal-mental nature.

 

Reports range from hilarious to ultra-paranoid on a mental level and serene to chaotic on an emotional level.

 

The experience itself is difficult to describe, as it is intrinsic and transverbal; the outcome, the essential transformations following the “mystical voyage” can be measured, although many reports of such peak experiences exist, even in clinical literature (Stanislav Grof). Many of these methods trigger changes in people’s lives; they deepen understanding and perception of the self and the environment, which is why such methods could be potentially strong tools in social work, among other things, as they could steer social work away from the Gansian state of things.

 

Criticism Towards a Deluded Pseudo-Scientific Approach

 

This text contains, at several places, criticism towards science in general, especially the way it is has become the focus of a new kind of idolatry today, pushing crucial issues like ethics away. Cappra illustrates this in the Tao of Physics. Written in 1975, the book that over 60% of scientists work for corporations and other extensions of technocracy. And that was back in the 70s. The NSA (National Security Agency) alone employs around 30,000 mathematicians, as far as can be known about such an obscure agency, to which the term “terrorist” can be applied only as an euphemism.

 

However, criticism also must be extended in another direction, mainly towards “new” systems of thought, alternative lifestyles, etc. An example follows from “Quantum psychology” by R.A.Wilson:

 

Standard English

English Prime

1. The photon is a wave.

1. The photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments.

2. The photon is a particle.

2. The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments.

3. John is unhappy and grouchy.

3. John appears unhappy and grouchy in the office.

4. John is bright and cheerful.

4. John appears bright and cheerful on holiday at the beach.

5. The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.

5. In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.

6. That is a fascist idea.

6. That seems like a fascist idea to me.

7. Beethoven is better than Mozart.

7. In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance Beethoven seems better than Mozart to me.

8. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a pornographic novel.

8. Lady Chatterley’s Lover seems like a pornographic novel to me.

9. Grass is green.

9. Grass registers as green to most human eyes.

10. The first man stabbed the second man with a knife.

10. I think I saw the first man stab the second man with a knife.

 

Standard English refers to an Aristotelian frame of perception, linear, a priori, highly deterministic, while English Prime refers to a “quantum” state. While Aristotelian logic definitely should be put on the margin of relevant perception, what is bothersome is the popular demand and use of the term quantum and other basically scientific terms—d from quantum healing to quantum Christianity, chaos magic, etc. Often such terms are used simply to increase interest, increase sales, recruit sheep;  they create a false atmosphere of “scientific awareness” in a given environment, when in fact lacking scientific understanding/sensibility of such phenomena, as far as they are understood currently (originally, the Quantum Psychology Project® originated with Eddie Oshins' reconciliation of arguments in the psychological literature concerning the nature of schizophrenia as a logical phenomenon in the mid-1970's).

 

Conclusion

 

Although certain paradigms mentioned or hinted at in this text might seem out-of-date, it is actually quite the contrary—many brilliant, efficient, non-exclusive systems have been pushed beyond the academic margin for different reasons, and despite their chronological age they are still far more advanced than even the newest products of the "academic" mainstream conglomerate.

 

*“The term entheogen was coined in 1979 by a group of ethno botanists and scholars of mythology derived from two Ancient Greek words, ενθεος (entheos) and γενεσθαι (genesthai). Entheos means literally "in God", more freely translated "inspired". The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. Genesthai means "to cause to be". So an entheogen is "that which causes (a person) to be in God". The term was coined as a replacement for the term "hallucinogen" (popularized by Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception in 1953) and "psychedelic" (a Greek neologism for "soul-expanding", coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond,). Ruck, et al., argued that the term "hallucinogen" was inappropriate due to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term "psychedelic" was also seen as problematic, due to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960spop culture.

 

Whether a euphemism or not, the most appropriate way to look at this term is from the perspective of more advanced (from certain points of view, mainly holistic in nature) tribal cultures (who first encountered this phenomenon thousands of years ago) who do not experience politic, ideological, scientific, etc., schisms, but simply the “holy inside the plant”. This acknowledgment of plant intelligence is usually vehemently denied by those experiencing anthropocentric spasms, as it interferes with the “man is the measure of all things” adage and behavior pattern. Certainly, Western thinking can sometimes be accused of idealizing “primitive” cultures, even though the cruelty they sometimes displayed towards members of their own tribe often surpassed western standards.

 

 

 

References

Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi

 

Cappra, Fritjof. (1975).The Tao of Physics

 

Chomsky, Noam. (1994).World Orders, Old and New. Columbia University Press.

 

Dawkins, Richard. (1976) .The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

 

Grof, Stanislav (1975). Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. The Viking Press New, York

 

Heisenberg, Werner. (1958), pp. 39-40

 

Jansen, Karl. (2001). Ketamine: Dreams and Realities. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)

 

Popper, Karl: The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1: the spell of Plato

 

Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org

 

Wilson, Robert Anton (1990) : Quantum Psychology

 

 

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