Shamans and Scientists

I’ve been following the conversation in the media about the lack of science knowledge in Congress. For some time now, lawmakers have held an almost anti-science attitude, preferring to ignore the findings of ethical scientists over political expediency. There has also developed a remarkable antagonism toward science on the part of many of the world’s religious leaders and organizations. Of course, this is not new; remember Galileo and Copernicus.

Shamans tend to be very pragmatic, even scientific. They test herbs, conversations, guides, and techniques for effectiveness. If something doesn’t work, it is usually discarded. At the same time, shamans live very near the Dreaming, so myth and mythic language are crucial tools and experiences in the shaman’s  tool kit.

I remember a lively discussion with a shaman, Bernardo, in the Amazon. Bernie is one of the world’s foremost Amazonian ecologists. He has a second Doctorate in Anthropology. We were speaking about his tribe’s origin myth; they know themselves to be descended from porpoises. He was unmoving in his assertion that humans and porpoise still form unions and procreate. I asserted that this was genetically impossible; I know the science. Much laughter ensued and no agreement.

The point of our conversation, I believe, was that myth and science operate in different realms. Each offers guidance for making one’s way through the world, but neither has an absolute claim to truth. Indeed, the truths each point to may not even overlap. Troubles abound when one side or the other claim absolute truth. The trick is to dance on the cliffs edge between them, to find and keep one’s balance, and to accept ambiguity and paradox. This quest for balance is the healer’s quest, the shaman’s journey, and the scientist’s goal. Maybe our politicians and religious leaders can learn something from these wise women and men.

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