Every year, as the Halloween season comes upon us, I find myself stopping by bookstores and curiosity shops more and more often just to browse around and pick up a trinket or two. Often this trinket comes in the form of a book. One such book was Monsters: An Investigator’s Guide to Magical Beings by John Michael Greer. In it he covers major categories of supernatural creatures and then delivers ideas on how to go monster-hunting, neo-pagan-style. What turned out to be really interesting, though, wasn’t the book itself, but the introduction where he took some time bash scientific thought. Take the following quote for example:
Before the Scientific Revolution most people saw the world as a living unity, one that communicated with the observant mind. With the new science came a radically different way of thinking about the universe – a way that saw dead matter moving in empty space as the only reality, and rejected everything else as fable, fraud or delusion.
This is a common complaint by spiritualists (pagans, shamans, healers and others) of the adherents of science. It’s not quite true. Take, for example, Neil deGrasse Tyson, a noted astrophysicist. Listen as he discusses the what he considers the most astounding fact in the cosmos:
These are hardly the words of someone who thinks of the universe as dead. Rather, he finds everything in the universe heavily interconnected, just not as an animist philosophy.
The type of rhetoric that Mr. Greer states is echoed in one form or another by spiritualists in general. Take, for example, a random video selected by searching for “Modern Shamanism” on YouTube:
At the 2:24 mark one Dr. Alberto Villoldo notes that Western society is sick and that children are dependent on the medical system. He then follows up with a statement that 20 years ago only one in ten thousand children were found to be autistic while today it is one in one hundred. This is all very ominous, but it’s a common statement in that it criticises modern society and it’s lack of adherence to spiritualistic ideals.
The rivalry goes both ways. In the following video, Neil deGrasse Tyson spends time discussing the dangers of spiritual beliefs (in this case Intelligent Design) in science. The video is 40 minutes, but well worth watching for this discussion.
Just as humans generally have two eyes, two arms and two legs, so too do they (generally) have two realities. The Objective Reality concerns itself with concrete physical dynamics such as geology, physics, thermodynamics, and so forth. The Subjective Reality deals with psychological and emotional dynamics, such as perceptions, relationships and management of emotional situations. Each have equal importance in daily life. Objective reality tells us to be careful while driving, but subjective reality helps smooth over interactions with people at work.
These two realities intersect quite heavily in certain areas of a person’s life, and this creates a struggle for territory and influence. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the fields of health and medicine where the two sides battle constantly. In the shamanism video above, a neurosurgeon is featured who suffered a debilitating disease. He goes to Peru and takes a hallucinogenic compound that gives him an out-of-body experience and, apparently, heals him of his illness. A scientist might argue there is some placebo effect going on, or the compound the man drank had chemical ingredients that required study. Or, perhaps, the medical issue that was ailing the man was either on its way out anyway or a figment of his mind. A shaman might argue that the man suffered from demons or negative energy that needed to be purged to heal him, or that modern medicine is too stuck on details to understand the whole picture of physical balance.
Both sides reject the other and find arguments to support them. Spiritualists decry the modern medical system and insist on the non-existance of neurological conditions such as autism or ADHD. Scientists point to the fast food spiritualists who are looking for a quick fix to their problems rather than spending time in treatment and to the charlatans who might actually get someone killed with misinformtion or blind trust.
Both sides have a point to a degree. Westerners eager for alternative medicine or a comfortable solution to their issues flock to shamans for healing, often with tragic results. On the other hand modern Western medicine is often seen by some in modern society as a cold machine that pumps out medication for profits not health. Such people gravitate to herbalists or shamanistic healing because they feel someone is listening to them and taking their needs into account.
It’s interesting to contemplate a world where the two get along. For the most part, they do. There are plenty of scientists who are religious or spiritual and there are plenty of spiritual people who accept science. The benefits and practicality of science are obvious; we would not live in the modern world in almost any way without it. Spiritualism, with its focus on the relationships between humans and the world seems to benefit people from moral or philosophical angles. In the end the often strange cosmologies and rituals aren’t required so much for their veracity as they are to lull a participant into accepting advice on how to live one’s life or deal with various issues.
Psychiatrists would, no doubt love to have the influence shamans and psychic readers have over their customers. With their offices, chairs and diplomas on the wall, however, patients often are aware of the need to confront and work with themselves. A psychiatrist often feels like a distant bystander. In fact, psychiatrists sometimes use the idea of emotional distance to prevent a patient from becoming too attached. In a shaman’s lodge or at the table of a tarot reader, however, clients are encouraged to believe a higher power is directing them, which potentially reduces the stress of dealing with one’s issues. Perhaps tarot readers should take psychology courses? Of course, the greatest benefit to this would be the psychological framework of morality and interpersonal relationships. The symbiotic relationship between science and spirituality could be that science creates and discovers and spirituality directs the best use of that creation or discovery.
The symbiotic relationship is defeated once literalism takes hold. Creationists, for example, are trying essentially to replace science as the explanation of the world. Scientists in turn have no room for superstitions. Everything must be testable, verifiable and provable. Here again is Neil deGrasse Tyson, this time on the absurdity of UFO believers:
And just for fun, a little bit on astrology:
So, maybe, things can’t be reconciled after all. At least parts of the two world views aren’t just distinct, but fairly opposing.
As Halloween approaches and I find myself looking more and more at the occult section of a bookstore, I ponder whether or not the spiritual philosophies and the scientific philosophies can find some level of cooperation. Spiritualists and scientists have coexisted fairly well with the exception of very specific issues relating to people, health, and the general interaction of people with the rest of reality. In these areas there is rivalry and conflict. It would be interesting if the two sides could work together in a sort of symbiotic relationship to direct and improve the lives of people in general, but largely it seems like there will always be a battle of some sort.
There’s nothing in this article to suggest a solution. It’s really more of a loose arrangement of thoughts. It would, of course, be fascinating to hear different perspectives on this issue. Feel free to comment below to get a discussion going. I look forward to reading them.