schizotypal shamans, depersonalized monks, and obsessive-compulsive priests

Videos in increasing order of sanity.

When I was in grad school trying to do science, I didn’t get the impression that my classmates had ever read Foucault.  Once, in a show of hands, not many people had heard of Thomas Kuhn, even though the word “paradigm” is a cliche by now.  On our way to grad school, I’d ended up reading philosophy where other people learned more math and physics.  I wasn’t a brilliant statistician, but they couldn’t make philosophical arguments about animal research to save their lives.  I’m a “those who can’t, teach” person.  I ruminate too much to be efficient and productive on a consistent basis, but I gravitate towards theoretical stuff out of a need for control or something.  Maybe it’s depersonalization and executive impairment.  Who knows?

Anyway, philosophy of science is interesting.  Less well-known than Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is Against Method, an “epistemological anarchist” rebuttal to it by Paul Feyerabend.  Reading that and The Postmodern Condition corrupted me before I tried to be a scientist.  Feyerabend makes a mind-bending argument that the Catholic Church was right about Galileo.  In fact, new “paradigms” often explain less than the theories they replace, social factors come into play, and there are no universally valid rules for what can be considered “scientific”:

The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes‘.

The change of perspective brought about by these discoveries leads once more to the long-forgotten problem of the excellence of science. It leads to it for the first time in modern history, for modern science overpowered its opponents, it did not convince them. Science took over by force, not by argument (this is especially true of the former colonies where science and the religion of brotherly love were introduced as a matter of course, and without consulting, or arguing with, the inhabitants). Today we realise that rationalism, being bound to science, cannot give us any assistance in the issue between science and myth and we also know, from inquiries of an entirely different kind, that myths are vastly better than rationalists have dared to admit.’ Thus we are now forced to raise the question of the excellence of science. An examination then reveals that science and myth overlap in many ways, that the differences we think we perceive are often local phenomena which may turn into similarities elsewhere and that fundamental discrepancies are results of different aims rather than of different methods trying to reach one and the same ‘rational’ end (such as, for example, ‘progress’, or increase of content, or ‘growth’).

It’s a lot like American philosophical pragmatism (William James, Richard Rorty).  It also fits better with Foucault. The impulse to be skeptical of anything “objective” is correct.  There’s no Mount Olympus above politics.

It’s part of America’s cultural legacy that we stamp out the religions of the natives, which tended to be shamanic:

Across history, it seems more normal than not for psychoactive drug use to have ritual significance.  Our “Schedule I Controlled Substance” is someone else’s religious sacrament.  Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany has the following forgotten history:

This European explorer observed them and their use of hemp (riamba) for mind-altering purposes during his 1881 expedition through equatorial Africa. According [to] von Wissmann, the Bashilange were originally a warlike society: “One tribe with another, one village with another, always lived at daggers drawn..The number of scars which some ancient men display among their tattooings gives evidence of this. Then, about twenty-five years ago…a hemp smoking worship began to be established, and the narcotic effect of smoking masses of hemp made itself felt. The Ben-Riamba, ‘Sons of Hemp’, found more and more followers; they began to have intercourse with each other as they became less barbarous and made laws.”

The shift from warfare to peace among the Bashilange was only one transformation inspired by the new cultural trait of smoking Cannabis. Another phenomenon was the rise of a novel religion based on riamba, which became strongly associated with tranquility, friendship, the supernatural, and security: “Tribesmen were no longer permitted to carry weapons in their villages, they called each other friend, and they greeted one another with the word moyo, meaning ‘life’ and ‘health’. Although formerly cannibals, they abjured their previous custom of eating the bodies of their captured opponents” (Abel 1980).

The same book quotes Henry Stanley in Through the Dark Continent:

…telling us how he believed that the psychoactive use of Cannabis caused deterioration in the native peoples to such a degree that they were worthless as cargo carriers, and he considered the “almost universal habit of vehemently inhaling the smoke of the Cannabis sativa or wild hemp” to be the drug most hazardous to the “physical powers” of these people:  “In a light atmosphere, such as we have in hot days in the tropics, with the thermometer rising to 140 Fahrenheit in the sun, these people, with lungs and vitals injured by excessive indulgence in these destructive habits, discovered they have no physical stamina to sustain them.  The rigor of a march in a loaded caravan soon tells upon their weakened powers, and one by one they drop from the ranks, betraying their impotence and infirmities” (Stanley 1879).

The Portuguese in Angola punished cannabis smoking.  It was also associated with Indian laborers (“coolies”).  500 years earlier, quoting the same book quoting Lewin in 1964:

It is recorded that in the year 1378 the Emir Soudoun Sheikhouni tried to end the abuse of Indian hemp consumption among the poorer classes by having all plants of this description in Joneima destroyed and imprisoning all the hemp-eaters.  He ordered, moreover, that all those who were convicted of eating the plant should have their teeth pulled out, and many were subjected to this punishment.  But by 1393 the use of this substance in Arabian territory had increased.

The second video in this post also mentions the persecution of witches.

Postmodernism, “political correctness,” etc. get caricatured for saying that tribal stories and science are “equally valid.”  The Feyerabend quote doesn’t sound as melodramatic in context with the actual record of colonialism.  The sadistic pleasures of the powerful, and their genocidal urges, really do explain a lot about the drug war.  It’s an issue that’s deeper than just the recent history of the United States.

It seems striking that shamanism has been part of human experience for longer than civilization, and that a subset of people seems prone to altered states of consciousness, being a feared, mysterious outsider weirdo, etc.  Our current culture tries to stamp out this natural part of human experience, and of course it turns out poorly.  It could be that marginalized people are alienated because society really has artificially removed the natural place for them, and decided to persecute them instead.

The Ghost Dance, the hippies, the Bashilange, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses look very similar to me.

To say that mental illness is socially constructed doesn’t mean that certain mental phenomena don’t exist.  It means those mental phenomena affect people differently depending on their social contexts.  We have choices about how to treat people.  Modern Western society doesn’t like to listen to what its unhappy people have to say.