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Superstition – but whose?
“Our laws of men change
with our understanding of them.
Only the laws of the Spirit
remain always the same.”
— White Wolf, Crow
Bending the Rules of Science
“I decry supernaturalism in all its forms,” declared Richard Dawkins in his attack on belief in God.1 Most contemporary scientists adhere to this view of supernaturalism, an assumed view that came to dominate science during the 19th century. Carried through time, the assumption that supernatural events are impossible eventually came to be seen as fact. Today this view of supernaturalism is a virtual requirement of professors in almost all major American universities. Among the general public we even have those who see themselves as professional “skeptics” or “debunkers” whose task it is to dismiss any accounts of supernaturalism. One might wonder how it came to pass that this mere assumption about reality came to be seen as fact. On one level all Dawkins is really saying is, “I declare my assumption.” Something here is amiss.
To unravel how this situation arose one needs to start with the philosophy of science, the basic rules of how science is done. When it comes to the supernatural, it would seem that scientists have distorted the ground rules. Nevertheless, scientific inquiry does have rules of procedure. One begins with an observation about external reality. In the case of supernatural events there are an overwhelming number of recorded observations that have been made throughout history. No one really questions that. Is it not a “miracle” that bestows priests and nuns sainthood among Catholics? The history of the world is replete with detailed, eyewitness accounts of supernatural events. Among the North American Indians, supernatural events were a daily affair. Obviously, that’s not the problem. The problem, then, has always been something else: namely, “How do I scientifically explain a supernatural event?”
Now the rule of science in this case dictates that if you cannot scientifically explain supernatural events, you cannot declare them to be real. No problem there. However, that is only half of the rule! It is the other half that scientists have chosen to ignore. That part says that you cannot dismiss any observed phenomenon until you prove that it does not exist. In the same manner then, there is no scientific proof that supernatural events do not occur. Consequently, without scientific proof either way, one can only make assumptions. You can either assume supernaturalism is not real or you can assume that it is. In either case, your belief is based on faith, not fact. In both cases you only have a working hypothesis. Most scientists have taken the assumption that supernaturalism is not real for nearly two centuries. After such a long period of time this view has become so entrenched, they now take their assumption as fact. For example, I have never read of an anthropologist declaring that spirits and their powers are real because science cannot prove their non-existence. That sounds absurd. Equally absurd is the notion that spirits do not exist because science cannot prove they do.2
There is a certain irony in all of this. If you trace the history of science back to its very beginning, you’ll discover that shamans, the masters of the supernatural, were really the first scientists. This is evidenced by the fact that there is a core set of procedures to shamanism that crosses all cultures throughout time (discussed below). This means the practice of shamanism is an art versus merely random acts of superstition. Furthermore this art has been successful for at least 20,000 years. From shamanism we first reached out to the stars, which gave rise to astronomy and astrology; then came mathematics, alchemy, chemistry, physics, and the many other new and specialized ways of viewing nature at all her various levels of operation. Over the course of the last 3000 years, beginning mainly with the Greeks, science became ever more concerned with controlling the material world around us rather than tapping into the powers of the shamanic realm that lie within the human body — a looking ever more outward over time versus a looking inward to control the world. Socrates’ admonition to look within (“Know the Self!”) grew ever more faint on our ears and the rites of renewal at Delphi that connected initiates to the other world eventually disappeared forever. As we left the shamanic world behind, our disdain for supernaturalism grew.
Eventually shamans came to be seen as evil, and we entered a witch-burning phase of history. As our scientific, ever-outward quest expanded, materialism became the predominant philosophy. So confident was the scientific community in their search for the laws of nature that by the early 1800’s they were convinced that all such laws would be discovered by the end of that century. Unfortunately, Madame Maria Curie’s discovery of radium discredited that notion. Nevertheless, the contempt for shamans remained such that the practice of shamanism still merited a death sentence in many lands. Even as late as the 20th century shamans were put to death for their practice in Russia and Central America. Here in North America, as soon as the American Indians gained U.S. citizenship in 1924, Herbert Work, the former president of the American Medical Association, called for the authorizing of the States to license Indian doctors as a means of eliminating them.3 Soon thereafter Indian medicine people were prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license.4 This assault on shamans has wiped out any memory concerning their former, widespread ability to wield medicine powers. Once most of the shamans were either destroyed or driven into hiding, we began to believe that such powers were never real in the first place despite the many, recorded accounts to the contrary.
Supernaturalism has always been a part of human history in North America. When the first humans set foot on this continent, medicine powers were already in hand, and they remain here to this day, albeit in only a few secluded areas. So how did it come to pass that the scientific community rejected supernaturalism with such vehemence that an assumption came to be seen as a fact? I see it mainly as the result of the 19th century spiritualist movement. Few people remember that during the early 1800’s scientists began to debate seriously the reality of spirits. Those who believed in the existence of spirits were labeled “spiritualists”. Therefore, a belief in Indian medicine powers meant you believed in “spiritualism.”5 This debate had little to do with the spirits called upon by American Indians and their medicine powers. The focus was mainly on local white mediums, who would go into trance in order to contact the spirit world. Many of them turned out to be fraudulent, while some were not. As the debate became more intense, more scientists began to investigate mediums. Naturally, other interested persons sought them out as well. Some of the more prominent 19th century investigators who became spiritualists include Cambridge-educated mathematician Augustus De Morgan who became Dean of University College in London; Robert Hare, M.D., who was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania; Nassau William Senior, Professor of Political Economy at Oxford; Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst; New York State Supreme Court Justice J. W. Edmonds; Oliver J. Lodge, Professor of Physics at Liverpool University College; Johann C. F. Zöllner, Professor of Physical Astronomy at University of Leipzig; and Professor Challis, the Plumierian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, to name but a few.6
It was a strange state of affairs. In the one camp were the spiritualists. They had conducted many investigations and had become convinced of the ability of mediums. In the other camp stood those who had never bothered investigating the matter and those who had studied fake mediums. Alfred Russell Wallace, co-discover with Charles Darwin of natural selection, authored the above list of spiritualists. Perhaps the most famous scientist among the spiritualists, he had conducted his own experiments, much to the embarrassment of his colleagues. In 1874, he wrote:
I am well aware that my scientific friends are somewhat puzzled to account for what they consider to be my delusion, and believe that it has injuriously affected whatever power I may have once possessed of dealing with the philosophy of Natural History…Up to the time when I first became acquainted with the facts of Spiritualism, I was a confirmed philosophical skeptic…I was so thorough and confirmed a materialist that I could not at that time find a place in my mind for the concept of spiritual existence, or for any other agencies in the universe other than matter and force. Facts, however, are stubborn things…The facts became more and more assured, more and more varied, more and more removed from anything modern science taught or modern philosophy speculated on. The facts beat me. They compelled me to accept them, as facts, long before I could accept the spiritual explanation for them.7
Wallace was keenly aware that the scientists who were most quick to denounce spiritualism were also the very ones who had never bothered to investigate the matter.8 In addition, one can conjecture that Wallace’s interest in spirits derives from the four years (1848-1852) he spent among Amazonian Indians, participating in their ceremonies.9 By 1882 the British Society for Psychical Research was formed, and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was among its members.10
The scientists demanded scientific proof for the existence of spirits, but over many years of investigation they continually failed in this regard. As for Indian medicine powers, there were plenty of spirit accounts on record, but no explanation for them. With no scientific proof forthcoming, most scientists turned to ridicule to silence the spiritualists. Any scientist who believed in the reality of spirits was automatically tagged as delusional and his research discredited. Once this attack began, it did not let up. By the end of the 19th century this ridicule served to create an atmosphere of fear among scholars. No longer would a professor free to express any belief in the supernatural without having his career destroyed. What had begun as a point of view, an assumption, had now turned into an abusive superstition that served to suppress academic freedom.
During the 20th century, this form of suppression became ingrained into American universities, where it remains to this day. Professors are not allowed to express a belief in supernaturalism—an assumption which has become taboo. You cannot request a grant to study the efficacy of an Indian healer, because no granting authority will allow funds to be used for something that is seen as merely superstition in the first place (discussed below). Moreover, university professors are not allowed to publish books that express a belief in the supernatural. They may write about the supernatural belief of others, but cannot express such a belief themselves.
In 1995 one such case received national attention when a Harvard professor’s book, published by a private press, caused him to come under investigation by a Harvard faculty committee. John Mack, a tenured professor, was a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School, where he was treating patients who had been abducted by aliens. In his 1994 Abductions: Human Encounters with Aliens he expressed the opinion that some of his patient’s experiences were real. Even though his opinion was published in a private press, Harvard responded by launching an investigation into possible “misconduct” on his part. In the September 1, 1995 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, the headline read: “Harvard launches John Mack attack: abduction psychiatrist’s scholarship questioned.” The investigation dragged on for one year. In the end Prof. Mack was not fired, “but was given an unusual public warning by medical school Dean Daniel Tosteson not to let his enthusiasm for UFO research get in the way of standards expected of the faculty.”11 Again, these “standards” of behavior dictate that a professor cannot express a belief in supernaturalism in any form. John Mack violated the spiritualist taboo, and that was the primary reason he came under fire.12 I suspect Mack was eventually not fired due mainly to the intense media coverage of his case and the fact that he was already a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Harvard’s warning did not prevent Mack from publishing a second book in 1999 on the same subject (Passport to the Cosmos: Human Encounters with Aliens). By then he had analyzed enough cases to establish the core features of alien encounters. He also interviewed Indian shamans, including Lakota shaman Wallace Black Elk, whose UFO experiences I had published.13 In the end Mack concluded that an alien abduction experience was similar to those of shamans experiencing the spirit world. That is, it was a contact with the “unseen world.” “Like shamans…they are brought by the experiences into non-ordinary states of consciousness in which space and time lose their defining power and a world or worlds of nonhuman spirit beings become manifest…Further, the altered consciousness and traumatic ordeals that experiencers undergo seem in some ways like the harsh and ecstatic elements of the shamanic journey and its encounters with animal spirits and other levels of reality.”14 “Aliens” were simply one of endless forms taken by spirits.
Alfred Russell Wallace was correct in that scientists who scoff loudest at supernatural abilities are also the very ones who have never investigated them. Perhaps the best example from that early period was Sir William Crookes’ setting out to debunk the best-known 19th century study-subject, D. D. Home, well-known for his supernatural abilities. Instead, Crookes reported back that Home was authentic, and his outraged colleagues insisted that Home was doing the impossible. Crookes merely replied, “I never said it was possible. I said it was true.”15 Anthropologists who study Indian cultures face the same situation. Any non-believing anthropologist, who manages to attend a series of Lakota yuwipi healing ceremonies, will end up becoming a firm believer in the supernatural. This is bound to happen to anyone who spends time around an authentic shaman. Nevertheless, anthropologists have been subjected to this taboo of silence as well. The way they have dealt with it is to preface any ethnographic account of the supernatural with phrases like “he believed that…,” “supposedly the…”, “the informant stated…” and other such phrases that serve as a clear indicator the writer does not hold such a belief. Nevertheless, a few did not remain silent.
Perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the last century to struggle under this academic taboo was John Reed Swanton, who was very famous in his time. Swanton joined the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1900 and remained there for forty-four years.16 At that time, an appointment to the Bureau was considered the most prestigious career position for any anthropologist in the U.S., outranking professorships at the best universities. This is because the Bureau anthropologists were full-time researchers who never had to teach classes. Swanton grew up attending the New Church, which followed the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, who was a spiritualist. For this reason he retained a life-long interest in Swedenborg’s theosophical works. As a Harvard undergraduate student he had also taken classes from William James, who shattered the basis of mechanistic materialism for Swanton. James had served as the President of the British Society for Psychical Research from 1893 to 1895, and was routinely insulted by his colleagues for his belief in spirits.17
Swanton continued to pursue privately his interest in “spiritualism” throughout his life, publishing a book of Swedenborg’s views on evolution in 1928. However, to avoid the antagonism of his colleagues, “Swanton thought it appropriate to sever his connections with the more austere scientific bodies to pursue this inquiry.”18 That is, he kept silent about his belief in spirits around other anthropologists, lest they try to damage his reputation and end his professional work. Swanton’s long career brought him into contact with many Indian shamans of the Southeast area, where his belief in spirits was undoubtedly reaffirmed.
During the 1940’s Swanton followed J. B. Rhine’s classic work on “extra-sensory perception.” Rhine’s research was based on mathematical probability, and it served as the foundation for the contemporary field of parapsychology. Finally, after retiring from a brilliant career at the Smithsonian, Swanton, at the age of seventy-seven, and much to the surprise of his colleagues, finally decided to speak out concerning his beliefs in the supernatural. In 1950 he privately published and distributed a 96-page booklet entitled, SUPERSTITION—BUT WHOSE? In Swanton’s own words it was his “reply to those individuals who, though they sometimes believe fervently in the reality of supernatural events which took place two thousand years ago, cannot conceive that anything of the kind could have occurred in modern times. The evidence is, in fact, abundant. It is merely being smothered by a widely spread will to disbelieve.” Needless to say, Swanton realized that a disbelief in the supernatural had become a superstition among scientists.
Another notable scientist who came to believe in the supernatural was John Neihardt, whose Black Elk Speaks became the most popular book ever written on an American Indian. First published in 1932, the book flopped, and Neihardt had to return some of his advance to the publisher. The University of Nebraska Press published a paperback edition in 1961, and it became an instant success in 1971 after Neihardt’s appearance on Dick Cavett’s television series.19 Today it has been translated into many different languages and still remains in print after half a century. However, most people do not know that Neihardt began his career as a scientist, graduating from Nebraska Normal College in 1896 with a degree in physics. Early on in life “he invented clever devices, such as a cut-off switch for the streetcar power cable release, and a new type of turbine engine, before he turned to the writing of poetry.”20
So what happened when this physicist-turned-poet encountered the likes of Lakota medicine man Nick Black Elk in 1931? Medicine powers peaked his curiosity. Neihardt became very interested in mind-over-matter phenomena, but initially kept silent. Later on, like Swanton, Neihardt followed Rhine’s research. Finally by September of 1961 Neihardt went public with his belief in the paranormal. Then a professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, he gathered together at his home, Skyrim Farm, a small group of amateur researchers interested in conducting parapsychological experiments. In particular, the focus was on telekinesis, sometimes called “macro-PK” (macro-psychokinesis), the ability to move objects with one’s mind. They adopted the name SORRAT (Society for Research on Rapport and Telekinesis). There, over the next twenty years, they conducted their experiments. They observed, as well as photographed, many instances of objects moving around the room via telekinesis. Consequently, Neihardt not only believed in medicine powers, he researched them as well.21
Why is it that so many scientists vehemently hold to the assumption that the supernatural is not real? The answer is simple. They do not want to give up their view of materialism, a mechanical reality in which the universe is governed by a set of ordered laws. However, the truth of the matter is that from the cornerstone of all sciences, physics, a proof has recently emerged that this is not the case.
Does God Play Dice With the Universe?
One of the great ironies of 20th century physics was that “the very man who from 1928 onward was to say so many times, ‘God does not play dice,’ was the first to show that ‘God does play dice.’”22 What most people probably don’t know is why Einstein made this claim in the first place. It was not a scientific fact, but rather his end of a philosophical debate with physicist Niels Bohr, and other physicists, about the nature of the universe based on the data coming from quantum mechanics research. This debate began in the late 1920’s. By then Einstein had proved that time and space were interrelated such that absolute time did not exist, and in so doing he had opened up a vast, uncharted territory in physics that had given rise to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.
Einstein’s theories also proved that Newton’s laws of motion were applicable only for small velocities, and he came up with a new law of motion. However, in so doing, Einstein arbitrarily chose to set the limit of speed in the universe at the speed of light in a vacuum. He made this assumption in order that Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations would not be violated. Both Maxwell and Einstein favored a mechanical view of the universe. Therefore, Einstein’s declaration was based mainly on his desire not to abandon a materialist view of the universe, which was the core issue of the Einstien-Bohr debate. This assumption was later proved erroneous with the propagation of superluminal light.23
It was in the fall of 1927, at the 5th Solvay Congress for physics in Copenhagen, that Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and other colleagues set forth what became known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Based on their findings, it was their belief that there is an interplay occurring between an event that manifests into reality and any observations being made on that event. This interplay became known as the “observer effect,” the impact of observing a process while it is running. In other words, quantum level events do not occur without an observation being made on them in the first place, and, more importantly, that there is a direct connection between an observer and what is being observed. This view postulates that one’s observations on reality can play a role in bringing events into being. Immediately, a red flag went up. Proposing a connection between matter and consciousness would entail the largest change ever to occur in the history of science in how we view reality. If matter and consciousness are somehow interrelated, it would put an end to the cherished mechanical view of the universe. No wonder Bohr perturbed Einstein—and other physicists as well.
Let’s also not forgot what happened the last time science demanded such a radical change in our view of reality. History makes it very clear that we had an extremely difficult time adjusting to the notion that the sun, planets, and stars did not rotate around the earth. When Giordano Bruno put forth Copernicus’ notion that we were not in the center of the universe, he was put to death for it, and Galileo was threatened with death as well.24 The change was so radical that it took the general public over a century before the belief that the sun rotates around the earth disappeared. Now, once again, the Copenhagen interpretation demanded an even greater change in our view of how reality operates, a view that is definitely much more difficult to visualize. It was already hard enough trying to grasp how it is that clocks run slower the faster one travels. As one physicist later put it, “the whole cloth of the materialistic picture of reality must now be rejected.”25
Schrödinger, who postulated the observer effect (along with De Broglie), came up with his famous Cat-in-the-Box “thought experiment” to explain how it operates. Physicist Gary Zukav restated it as follows:
A cat is placed inside a box. Inside the box is a device, which can release a gas, instantly killing the cat. A random event (the radioactive decay of an atom) determines whether the gas is released or not. There is no way of knowing, outside of looking into the box, what happens inside. The box is sealed and the experiment is activated. A moment later, the gas either has been released or has not been released. The question is, without looking, what has happened inside the box.
According to classical Newtonian physics, the cat is either dead or it is not dead. All that we have to do is to open the box and see which is the case. According the quantum mechanics, the situation is not so simple.
The Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics says that the cat is in a kind of limbo represented by a wave function which contains the possibility that the cat is dead and also the possibility that the cat is alive. When we look in the box, and not before, one of these possibilities actualizes and the other vanishes. This is known as the collapse of the wave function because the hump in the wave function representing the possibility that did not occur, collapses. It is necessary to look into the box [the “observer effect”] before either possibility can occur. Until then, there is only a wave function.26
If the Copenhagen interpretation was right, it ended the notion of a mechanical universe. Einstein certainly disliked a view of reality that involved “spooky actions at a distance,” as he dubbed it.27 To him, and to most physicists, it sounded absurd. Einstein’s opposition was expressed the following year, 1928, when he wrote: “Who would be so venturesome as to decide today the question whether causal law and differential law, these ultimate premises of Newton’s treatment of nature, must definitely be abandoned?”
Thus began a long-standing, philosophical debate among physicists, with most of them siding with Einstein, given the fact that the Copenhagen interpretation conjured up a universe too difficult for a rational mind to grasp. Those siding with Einstein set out to find the “missing variable” in quantum theory that would let them do away with the Copenhagen interpretation. Einstein never relented. On September 4, 1944 he sent a letter to his friend, physicist Max Born, in which he wrote:
You believe in the God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I, in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find.
Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice-game, although I am well aware that our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility. No doubt the day will come when we will see whose instinctive attitude was the correct one.28
Neither Einstein nor Bohr lived to see this debate settled, and for many years most physicists believed it impossible to devise an experiment in which the oddities of quantum mechanics could be tested. It was not until 1964, 36 years after the debate began, when Scottish mathematician John L. Bell published the first mathematical proof that could put the debate to experimental tests. It was a tremendous breakthrough in physics, now considered by many scientists to be the largest in the 20th century. Known as Bell’s inequality (or Bell’s theorem), it would determine if Einstein and most physicists had been right. If Einstein were proven correct, the experiment would not reveal the sought after hidden variable, it would only prove that the Copenhagen interpretation was wrong. Needless to say, Bell was certain that experimental tests of his proof would vindicate Einstein. That is, Bell did not believe that consciousness had any role in reality.
Professor Henry Stapp, a particle theorist at UC Berkeley and an authority on the implications of Bell’s theorem, has called Bell’s work the most important discovery in the history of science.29 To this statement physicist Even Harris Walker more recently added, “The experiment that John Bell conceived is now recognized as one of the most important experiments ever done in the history of mankind.”30 What is implied here is that all the very strange concepts we have learned to adjust to since Einstein—a universe in which clocks run slower as one goes faster; the mass of the sun bends space such that our earth travels in an ellipse while at the same time actually going in a straight line through space; the atom bomb transmutes matter into pure energy; quantum tunneling runs rampart; and other strangeness occurs—are merely the tip of the iceberg. The pressing question all along has been, “Is the observer effect real?”
Once Bell’s theorem was published, the race was on to solve the debate. It took only eight years before the first experiment on the theorem was designed, led, and performed by Professor John Clauser at UC Berkeley. Clauser had conceived his experiment in 1969 while a graduate student at Columbia University, and was subsequently brought to Berkeley to undertake it. This first experiment, using calcium atoms, was completed in 1972. The results shook the world of physics: reality is based on an observer effect. This finding sent physicists around the world scurrying to come up with the opposite result by placing greater controls on the experimental tests. Holt and Pipkin repeated the experiment in 1973, this time using mercury atoms, which was repeated by Clauser in 1976—both showed conclusively that the observer effect is real. In 1975 physicists at Columbia repeated a 1974 experiment done in Italy, again confirming the observer effect. In 1976, Lamehi-Rachti and Mittig at the Saclay Nuclear Research Center in Paris carried out another experiment, which again gave agreement with the observer effect.31 The future of a materialistic view of the universe was growing dimmer with each subsequent experiment.
The final nail in the coffin came in a March 1999 article in Nature entitled, “Bell’s Inequality test: more ideal than ever.” In this one and a half page article, Alain Aspect, from the University of Paris-South in Orsay, France, announced the conclusions of his team’s experiment, conducted at Innsbruck, that most closely aligned with the requirements of Bell’s theorem. Again, the results were in favor of the observer effect. These findings now tell physicists “that something about the way we had imagined the world to work must be wrong…We must recognize that objective reality is a flawed concept, that state vector collapse does arise from some interaction with the observer, and that indeed consciousness is a negotiable instrument of reality. Our entire conception of reality must now be rethought.”32
A universe that is continuously manifesting from the underlying quantum level of reality calls for a change in our concept of objects as solids. Physicist David Bohm had an interesting way of visualizing how objects manifest from his implicate (quantum level) to the explicate order (our material reality) of being. Imagine that there is a ball of ink suspended in glycerin; the ink does not dissolve. Now you slowly begin to stir the glycerin. You will see the ball of ink slowly disappear as the ink stretches out in the glycerin into a thin, swirling string. If you stir in the opposite direction, the string will go back into forming a ball. In the same way, our reality is merely the stringing and unstringing that is going on at the quantum level. In turn, our observations on this stringing process can affect the outcome at the explicate order of things. Here again, in line with quantum mechanics, Bohm did not see objects as solids.33 I find it interesting that the Hopi language carries this same view of reality. A Hopi will say “that appears to be a tree” rather than to say, “that is a tree.” They see objects as fluid events, as processes, and not as solids.
We were taught that objects are composed of molecules, and these in turn are made up of atoms consisting of “elementary particles.” These early concepts no longer really suffice. When we “look” at an atom, we see mostly empty space. If the nucleus at the center is the size of a baseball, then the orbit of electrons around it is the size of the baseball stadium, with lots of empty space in between. Atoms are actually 98% emptiness. Their electrons are something in constant motion. They are not tiny objects. When we look at the “elementary particles” that go to make up the nucleus of an atom, we end up with different repetitive wave patterns, called “quantum wave functions”. At the quantum level these waves are essentially “vibrations of probability,” or “state vector potentials.”34 Being “non-material” these waves also act in bizarre ways. For instance, elementary particles do not really move from one location to another in space, rather they jump or translocate. There is a “quantum leap” in their energy states. Given everything we now know, it is more correct to see “mass” as an ongoing event rather than as a solid object. It was simply the materialistic language of physics that caused us to “see” the tiniest events of reality in terms of tiny solids of something, an extension of our mechanical view of the universe. Ordinary reality is perhaps best seen as a continuous process of events at the quantum level that are constantly manifesting into space and time. Reality arises from processes occurring at the quantum level. Objects are events in progress. When the Hopi says, “that appears to be a tree,” he is well aligned with quantum mechanics which would hold that tree is a continuous process of events. If the process is altered, the tree will change.
The experimental data is in and Einstein was wrong. God does play dice with the universe. This does not mean that the Creator is uncaring, but rather that we can have a certain say in how reality comes into being from moment to moment. That has to do with the intent and intensity of the observation, to be discussed later. More importantly, for the first time in history, we also have a new view of reality that has the potential finally to give us an explanation of how American Indian medicine powers, and other supernatural events, operate. Can this new view make clearer to us why shamans do what they do in ceremony? If this is possible, it means that the actions of shamans are no longer to be seen as mere superstition.
Acceptance of this new view of reality will not come with ease. Despite the hard evidence from experiments, most physicists are still holding out on acknowledging the results of these tests on Bell’s theorem in hopes that some other explanation will be found. For example, John Bell himself never relinquished his siding with Einstein on this issue despite the evidence to the contrary. Given the difficulty physicists themselves are having, you can anticipate the general public will have an even more difficult time adjusting to this new view of reality. I suspect most people are not even aware that “the biggest discovery in the history of science” has just occurred.
Despite the overwhelming evidence for paranormal phenomena, parapsychological studies initially faced this same denial. As noted earlier, scientific proof for the “extrasensory” (supernatural) abilities of humans first began primarily with J. B. Rhine’s work in the 1940’s. Subsequently, it was mainly Prof. Stanley Krippner’s extensive publications on the subject that spurred full recognition for this field of study. However, that did not happen until 2002, when The American Psychological Association bestowed on Krippner their coveted, annual “Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology,” which is usually limited to a single scholar per year. This means it took over sixty years before this field of inquiry received official recognition by psychologists.
Dean Radin’s meta-analysis of parapsychology experiments also contributed to the recognition of parapsychology.35 “Meta-analysis combines and analyzes many studies simultaneously, and can therefore discern [detect] trends that individual experiments easily overlook…Meta-analysis of all (clairvoyance) studies revealed odds against chance of more than a billion trillion to one. Since experimental odds of one hundred to one are often considered sufficient to establish a phenomenon, these results are obviously astronomically high. Analysis of remote viewing has also been highly positive. In 1995, the CIA commissioned a review of all remote viewing research that had been sponsored by the United States government. Even the skeptic on the review team acknowledged that the results could not be dismissed as mere chance.”36 It is an interesting coincidence in that at the same time Radin’s findings were being published physicists were putting the final touches on the testing of Bell’s theorem.
Anthropologists meet with the same resistance noted earlier when they get involved with paranormal studies. Joeseph K. Long was most influential in bringing parapsychological research under the umbrella of anthropology during the early 1970’s. His efforts led to the formation on May 25, 1980, by a small number of anthropologists, of the Association for Transpersonal Anthropology. The society immediately met with resistance from the American Anthropological Association, which continually denied them recognition. It was a ten-year battle that was finally won in 1990, but only after the society had consented to be renamed the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. They now publish a journal entitled Anthropology of Consciousness.
Two major problems arose from anthropologists not being able to view Indian medicine powers as real. First, it eliminated the possibility of ever conducting a study on the efficacy of shamanism. As noted earlier, an applicant would never receive a grant to study something that does not exist in the first place. David Young ran into this problem when he conducted a study on the efficacy of a Cree healer in Canada in the 1980’s.37 There was an outcry from Canadian government official that funds had been given for such a study. Secondly, that caused anthropologists to focus on descriptions of various Indian rituals and ceremonies in contrast to focusing on their role as a means of contacting the spirit world. Consequently, much time has been wasted among anthropologist merely arguing about classification terminology.
Today, we are faced with the fact that human consciousness is somehow an integral and participatory aspect of our reality. “Space, time, matter, and energy—the very stuff of objective reality, as it turns out—depend on the perceptual participation of the observer” as Walker points out.38 That is to say, “the way things appear to us has become something of the substance of what they are.”39 Physicist John Wheeler echoed this view as well: “In some strange sense this is a participatory universe.”40
Despite the overwhelming evidence from parapsychology and physics that demands a change in how we view reality, the hard-core disbelievers will not be quick to disappear. Most likely the same tactics will be used: attempts to trivialize the results of research, finding fault with the design and running of experiments, declaring their results unreliable, and even suggesting fraudulent experiments, all in the name of holding tightly to a materialist view of reality. You can be certain that they have never read the literature nor conducted any research on supernatural (paranormal) events. These distracters are best seen as simply being very superstitious.
Physics and Shamanism
Quite frankly, most physicists did not want reality to turn out the way it has. I see that as the main incentive behind their repeated, ever improved experiment-based testing of Bell’s inequality. They wanted a mechanical universe and didn’t find it. Even more problematic has been the question of where to go with this new discovery. How do you construct a consciousness meter? How do you enter consciousness into the equations of quantum mechanics? There is no language in physics for dealing with such a realm of reality. The traditional concepts of physics, like electron, prove troublesome. If you ask an electron if it is a wave, it will answer yes. If you ask it if it is a particle, it will answer yes. Thus concepts like atom, location, etc. that are useful in Newtonian physics are often not applicable to the quantum level of reality. So there is a current need for finding new concepts to bridge the gulf between the world of quantum mechanics and our own space-time reality. Interestingly enough, there have been a series of conferences held annually in New Mexico to this end. They are in the form of an open dialogue between American Indians, knowledgeable in medicine power practices and physicists. The idea is to explore Indian views of the “unseen world” in order to come up with new, meaningful concepts about the nature of reality that can be applied to quantum mechanics. You could call it a physics language-building venture.
Although Time magazine saw fit to select Einstein as the leading scientist of the last century, I suspect that history will show that it was John Bell who set the stage for the most spectacular discovery of that century. As mentioned, his scientific revelation is already being hailed by some physicists as the “greatest discovery in the history of science.” Of course, the reason this discovery does not make headline news is that it is impossible to explain what it really means at this point in time. We have yet the ability to place it into a rational framework simple enough to visualize. Nevertheless, it does give us reason to be open-minded about looking for possible connections between the observer effect and the supernatural. That is what good science is all about.
My approach here is limited to the medicine powers of the North American Indians. Nevertheless, the shamans who wield such powers are to be found in every culture on the planet, certainly in a historical context if not at present. Furthermore, it is a known fact that there is a set of core characteristics common to shamans of all cultures. They include “such features as possession by denizens of a spirit world, however conceived; speaking in tongues; the ecstatic [trance-induction] techniques to which Eliade refers; and not the least, curing.”41 Among the American Indians “speaking in tongues” manifests either as the spirit’s voice speaking through the shaman or the shaman’s speaking in a special “doctor’s language.” Therefore, what applies here to American Indian shamans will more than likely apply to shamans anywhere in the world.
The first step is to adopt the assumption that their medicine powers are real—the taboo point of view. From there we look for correlations between the observer effect and the actions of shamans. That is, can the observer effect be used to hypothesize why shamans do what they do in ceremony? Even if it can, this must not be mistaken as a proof for the existence of medicine powers, but simply a hypothetical means for better understanding their nature, a way to explain them rather than simply assuming them to be the result of “magical thinking” as anthropologists are fond of saying.
I am certainly not the first person to take a look at the possible relationships between shamanism and quantum mechanics. The origins of my own inquiry began in the early 1970’s when Evan Harris Walker, long before it was established through experiments on Bell’s inequality, began to assert that consciousness plays a viable role in reality.42 Then in 1973 Joe Long, as mentioned, began to introduce the field of parapsychology into anthropology, due mainly to his own discovery of Walker’s work. Recall that Long is the father of the contemporary Society for the Study of Consciousness, now a branch of the American Anthropological Association. In Long’s 1977 Extrasensory Ecology, Walker outlined the physical bases for paranormal events:
In classical mechanics the solution to any physical problem yields one solution, or ‘state,’ if all the boundary conditions are specified. In quantum mechanics, however, many states are possible. No physical condition or restraint exists to cause a single state that the system will be found in when a measurement is carried out. As a result, until a measurement is carried out, the system is properly described by a state vector, which is the linear combination of all possible states of the system. For example, a radioactive atom can in many cases decay in more than one way. Starting with atom A, after an interval of time, this atom may have decayed into an atom of type B or C, or it may not have decayed. Thus the proper state vector is the sums of the separate state descriptions for A, B, and C collectively. Only after a measurement is performed can one state that the atom is now in state A, or B, or C. Before the measurement it is in all three collectively [as was Schrödinger’s cat]. Only after a measurement is performed can one state that the atom was in state A, B, of C. Before the measurement it is in all three collectively. This view of physical reality is entirely at odds with our commonsense conception of the physical world, but this is the correct picture of reality.43
It should be noted here that Walker opts for Heisenberg’s mathematical language when discussing quantum mechanics versus that of Schrödinger. As he explains it, “Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics predates the mathematically equivalent wave mechanics of Schrödinger. Although wave mechanics is mathematically simpler, the Heisenberg formulation is formally more elegant and more compatible with the present theory of psi [parapsychology]. The Heisenberg formulation depicts alternate solutions as states in Hilbert space. Any one state is potentially like our ordinary physical space, but Hilbert space contains many of these possible states, many alternate states. Although the Heisenberg picture is difficult to visualize, it is easier to speak of state selection in psi phenomenon than to use the language of wave mechanics.”44 To this Walker adds, “In the Hilbert space picture, what exists before observations is a collection—often infinite in number—of the realities-that-can-be. These are potentialities. They exist, but they are not the same as the physical realities we see on observation. These potentialities connect one observation state to the next and observation brings one of these into being…these potentialities all exist as observable states, and they can interfere with one another.”45
The fundamental point is an observer of a system composed of many alternative potential states has the possibility of biasing the probabilities of any particular state vector selection. When an alternative observation is made it interferes with the ongoing state selection. The manifestation of any alternative state into our space-time universe is known as the collapse of the state vector (Schrödinger’s collapse of a “wave function”). Which component state of the vector becomes the physical reality on collapse is in some way mediated by observation. This fact is further substantiated by our knowledge that the human brain operates on a quantum mechanics basis. The relationship between our brain and state vector collapse is beyond the scope of this book, and readers are referred to Walker’s detailed description of it.46 This suggests that reality is held steadfast due to our shared view of reality, but that observation can change that flow (discussed below).
What we experience as the flow of time is really the flowing of events. State vector collapse is a rapidly repeating process at the quantum level of reality that appears as solids at our space-time level. From this point of view, an object is not really “solid.” Rather, it comes about via a continuously repeating state vector collapse at the quantum level.
The first serious attempt to look for relationships between shamans, per se, and quantum mechanics did not come about until 1991. Physicist Fred Alan Wolf emerged from the jungles of South America with a new view of shamanism.47 Wolf’s hypothetical views were based on his personal visionary experiences among South American shamans. He came up with nine working hypotheses. However, Wolf is a physicist and not an anthropologist, so his hypotheses concern mainly the perception of reality by shamans while my concern here is to explain how their ritual actions affect reality. Consequently, Wolfe provides little, if any, useful new information in regard to explaining why shamans do what they do. Furthermore, his interactions were with shamans who use psychotropic plants to induce the necessary trance states that enable a shaman to deal directly with the quantum level of reality in the first place. This means his data is a bit skewed, since those in this category represent only about ten percent of the shamans found worldwide. Most shamans use natural techniques to induce an altered states of consciousness. Nevertheless, several of his hypotheses serve as a useful starting point for the approach taken here.
Wolf’s third hypothesis states: Shamans perceive reality in a state of altered consciousness.48 This hypothesis was well established prior to Wolfe’s work and is crucial to any understanding of shamanism. Mircea Eliade’s classic cross-cultural work on shamanism first established the fact that all shamans utilize an altered state of consciousness.49 Eliade defined shamanism as “techniques of ecstasy,” where “techniques” refers to different forms of trance-induction, and “trance” does not mean being unconscious. In an ecstatic trance he feels better than he has ever felt in his normal waking state.50 Subsequently, Michael Harner coined the phrase Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC) to refer to the shaman’s trance-like state-of-being during ritual.51 The most common form of inducing the SSC is through drumming, a form of “sonic driving.” Consequently it is not accidental that the singular, most important ceremonial instrument among the North American Indians is the drum.52
The ability of drumming to induce trance states has been scientifically confirmed. Experiments during the 1960’s revealed that repetitive sound patterns (sonic driving), such as drumming or rattling, at a certain frequency can induce altered states of consciousness (i.e., an SSC).53 Rattling alone can contribute to a trance-induction,54 but most often rattling accompanies drumming.55 Ceremonial assistants must learn a particular drumming rhythm in order to facilitate a shaman’s trance-induction. If the assistants “misbeat the drum, the shaman just becomes normal right away (i.e., comes out of the trance).”56 The simplicity of this technique is what makes drumming the preferred trance-induction technique among shamans worldwide. Singing and dancing often accompany the drumming to facilitate the trance-induction.
The very nature of medicine power ceremonies dictates they include some form of trance-induction. The shaman in an SSC is to be seen merely as a conduit through which the spirit can act. The spirits are only able to enter this realm through the shaman. For this reason it is common for people to report that the spirits work through the shaman.57 Once this core trait of shamanism was recognized, our initial studies took the form of trying to categorize different states of consciousness. That effort has led to more confusion than understanding of what is going on during a power ceremony. For example, there is a regular trance and a full trance. In the regular trance the shaman speaks to his helping spirit, while in the full trance the shaman’s spirit takes over the shaman’s body and speaks in an altered voice through the mouth of the shaman. In the full trance the shaman does not remember what was said. Such categorizing of different altered states based on physical symptoms tells us nothing of what is really going on here. Consequently, I prefer to use the concept of the SSC simply to designate a state of being in which the shaman is able to communicate with spirits.
Not everyone uses drums. The Takelma and Klamath of southern Oregon, and the Wishram of southern Washington, had no drums.58 Instead, they rested one end of a notched stick on the ground and rasped it with another stick. The point here is that we are dealing with sound rhythms. Even the South America ceremonies that use psychotropic plant mixtures to induce the SSC are filled with some form of “sonic driving.” We are dealing with processes that involve rhythms, what physicists call waves.
I want to make it very clear at the onset that using plants to induce trance states does not result in random hallucinations, especially in a controlled ceremonial environment. Tobacco is the most widely used plant in North America associated with trance-induction (covered in Chapter 3). The Indian variety of tobacco, Nicotiana rustica, is capable of rendering one unconscious. It is not the same variety that is used in cigarettes today. For example, “in late January 1843 Jason Lee observed Cascade natives swallowing tobacco smoke, which intoxicated them: ‘smoking themselves dead’…(as the Indians expressed it),’” where “various forms of altered states of consciousness are described by native observers as varieties of ‘death.’”59 However, other plants were used as well, albeit not often. The use of the Sacred Thornapple (Datura wrighti), often called Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) by mistake, is found among the nations of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico such as the Chumash, Cahuilla, Gabrielino, White Mountain Apache, Hopi, and Western Keres.60 Among the Mountain Cahuilla it is known as manet, “grass that could talk.”61 It is also found among the Southern Paiutes.62 However, for the most part, North American shamans did not use psychotropic plants. The use of peyote is a recent introduction into North America (covered in Chapter 3).
More fundamental to our understanding here is that there are two very different realms of reality to be dealt with, each having its own rules of engagement: our ordinary reality and the “unseen world” of spirits. In order to interact with the supernatural level of reality, humans must access a trance state. For example, when a spirit being comes into an Indian ceremony some people can see it and others cannot. This difference is due to their different states of consciousness. Those in the SSC are the very ones who all see the same spirit. There are numerous reports confirming that shamans in ceremony all hear the same thing from the same spirit. For example, from the early 1600’s there is a report of twelve Powhatan shamans all holding a discourse with the same spirit.63
Wolf’s fifth hypothesis is also useful. It states: Shamans choose what is physically meaningful and see all events as universally connected. Wolfe contends that shamans view reality in terms of “a gigantic hologram.”64 I suspect this view is more of an extrapolation of physicist David Bohm’s view of reality, postulated in the 1960’s, than something that is espoused by an Indian shaman. However, Bohm was very much in Einstein’s camp, and his theory was fundamentally a philosophical attempt to get around the Copenhagen interpretation. In Bohm’s view this “hologram is known as the implicate order [of reality]. This order is normally invisible but yet contains all the possible phenomena that can be experienced. When an experience occurs, the order is changed. The new order he calls the explicate order. Thus what is explicate is what is observed.”65 Wolf sees the explicate order (our space-time reality) as controllable (to some extent) by the shaman’s choices (the observer effect), which Bohm never did. Another way to say this is that shamans are capable of generating a specific observation that directly affects the manifestation of the explicate order of reality—an observation that selects for a specific state vector collapse, to use our terminology. That is, the SSC gives them access to the implicate order of reality, and thus power over the explicate order. Then by changing their view (Wolf’s “choose what is physically meaningful”) of a holographic universe, they in turn change the universe. However, it should be pointed out that once Bohm was proven wrong via the tests on Bell’s theorem he, like Bell, never did accept the view that consciousness was interrelated to reality, although he even made a study of psychic Uri Geller, and found that he was capable of producing PK (psychokinesis)—the movement of objects via the mind.66
Nevertheless, it is the “universally connected” aspect of Wolf’s hypothesis that is more important to us. Tests on Bell’s theorem indicated that the underlying level of reality is completely interconnected. Specifically it revealed that when two particles of matter interact (or come into contact) their potential state vectors become entangled such that, after separating, any effect on one particle instantly produces a simultaneous effect on the other particle, regardless of their distance apart from each other. (This finding also violates Einstein’s notion that nothing travels faster than the speed of light.) This “invisible” connection throughout the quantum level is referred to as “non-locality.” The way it is spoken of is that when two particles interact they become entangled such that their entanglement remains forever regardless of their subsequent separation in space. In that sense, one of our space-time illusions is the separateness of objects. At the level from which they manifest, everything is interconnected. However, at this level, once two objects come into contact that contact also somehow remains intact. For example, it is for this reason that psychics will often want to hold an object you wear in order to “tune in” to you, a practice known as “psychometry” in the field of parapsychology.
My sense is that the SSC allows a shaman to access many different levels of reality. Shamans certainly access a level of reality that allows them discourse with spirit beings or spirit helpers, as they are termed. These often appear in dreams or visions in the form of an animal that changes into human form.67 For example, among the Penobscot such animal forms are called baohi’gan, “means by which magic is performed.”68 Between our world and the world of spirits there are many different levels of organization in nature, and it is quite probable that shamans can access any of these levels of reality as well. For example, Swiss anthropologist Jeremy Narby published a very convincing account of how South American Indian shamans acquire a molecular view of reality through their use of ayahuasca, a psychotropic plant mixture used to induce the SSC. He concluded that “what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all forms of life” and “that a human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness [the SSC] with the global network of DNA life.”69 To prove his contention he showed how some of the drawings by shamans on ayahuasca accurately depict molecular and DNA activity.
Wolf’s work does demonstrate how contemporary quantum mechanics can begin to provide a working understanding of how shamanism operates, although he provides little insight into the actions of shamans given his focus is on how shamans view reality. I doubt Newtonian physics applies to shamanism. It is the quantum level of reality that shamans tap into with their consciousness via trance-induction techniques. This is quite consistent with Indian views of reality where there is a spirit-world (non-ordinary reality) and there is this world (ordinary reality). To put it another way, shamans have mastered the art of altering their consciousness to attain an SSC within which they are able to “view” and operate within this underlying level of reality. In so doing, the content of their “view” and the intent put to it (the will of the shaman) are what serve to select quantum level probabilities.
It is important to point out that “will” is not being seen here as a philosophical concept, rather it is a quantifiable aspect of quantum mechanics.
[Will] is something that has been thrust upon us as a result of our efforts to understand consciousness. This means that we have to look at how this aspect of the mind ties in with physical processes in order to understand just what capabilities the will possesses. The will is indeed a part of our mind, but it has other aspects as well…[will] is caught up as part of our brain’s function and is also tied to exactly the central point tested by Bell’s theorem. Nothing we have done, nothing physics has proved, takes the events of the physical world out of the domain of quantum mechanics and puts them into the realm of that billiard ball physics of the classical or objectivistic conceptions of reality. It is by means of the quantity W [Will stream] that we as observers determine state vector collapse in the things we observe, and conversely, those external events are tied to the states our brain becomes.70
Shamanism is a complex process whereby a human being (or one’s helping spirits) generates an observation at the quantum level, such that the ritual being performed will alter the course of ordinary reality by causing a specific state vector collapse. What shamans must do during ceremony is follow the “spirit rules.” To deviate in any manner from the given rules always results in failure of the ceremony. The question here is to what extent are these rules based on quantum mechanics? In the quote at the beginning, White Wolf declares that these laws do not change. With this in mind we need to take a particularly close look at what Indian shamans do across the board during ceremony, regardless of what culture they are from. Once we have a clear notion of what those actions are, we need to see if they follow the rules of quantum mechanics that serve to activate the observer effect.
Historically, quantum mechanics is still quite new, and this recently confirmed interplay between matter and consciousness will form the direction of future inquiry. At this early point the best I can hope to do is to provide a view of shamanism that fits with the known facts of quantum mechanics, given the limited language of physics in this regard. Even the use of concepts like “state vector collapse” gives us a skewed notion of what is transpiring. As we have seen, it is impossible to describe fully the quantum level of reality using concepts developed for Newtonian physics. Nevertheless, that need not keep us from trying to come up with a better understanding of exactly why shamans do what they do in ceremony. I believe we can make sense of the shaman’s actions in terms of the observer effect. For example, when making a journey to non-ordinary reality via the trance state, time itself becomes elastic. When visiting the spirit world time often seems to pass more quickly than here, but the reverse can also be true. That is why medicine people are often called upon to “see into the future,” a process known as divination. They simply take a plunge within themselves to where time doesn’t exist in the usual sense, and then report back on what they “saw” there. What they “see” is a probability of what is to come. In quantum terms, they report back on the most likely probability of what is to come. For example, among the Kootenai “if a shaman gains information from the spirits, this information applies to the future of the material phase of the world and allows the Kootenai certain advantages: bad outcomes can be avoided and good ones seized.”71 Divination has many other uses, as we will see.
Every shamanic ceremony is in essence a scientific experiment, crude as it may appear to our eyes. At the onset no one knows whether the ceremony will be successful or not. However, my sense is that their ceremonies rarely fail, and it is the efficacy of their art that has caused it to stand the test of time. American Indians have always been too pragmatic to waste their time on difficult undertakings that failed. The primary piece of laboratory equipment is human consciousness, and it has to be used with great precision. A sustained personal will (observation) is what forms this precision. Hence the route of scientific enquiry in this connection went in a great circle. It began with shamans utilizing their consciousness and eventually came back around to our discovering that consciousness and matter are intertwined.
So how does the conscious will of a shaman work on reality? A simple way to understand this is to see a medicine power ceremony as a wish-fulfillment process. We are already somewhat familiar with this technique. It appears in a milder form via “daily affirmations”: that is, the writing of a particular wish on a piece of paper every day until it is realized. Or you may have a special time each day you set aside to say your wish out loud. It may take years to achieve, but you simply persevere. This is a somewhat diluted version of wish fulfillment that many people in our culture swear by. Focusing on attaining specific future goals by writing them down is another form it takes. For example, business courses will often teach students first to put their business goals in writing, and then continue to review them on a regular basis. However, in shamanism this same process is compacted into a singular point in time that manifests as a sacred power ceremony. For example, one observer of Navajo peyote ceremonies reported that the practitioners “create an image of what they wish to accomplish weeks beforehand. They think about this accomplishment to the exclusion of all other thoughts.”72 From the Navajo perspective “thought is the power source of all creation, transformation, and regeneration.”73 This begets among the Navajo a quantum view of reality whereby “language is not a mirror of reality; reality is a mirror of language.”74
Medicine power ceremonies also require an intense amount of very focused, concentrated consciousness. For example, among the Fort Nelson Slave, a medicine man’s power is known as inkonze, which one informant translates as “will power.”75 Inkonze requires a greater input of human consciousness than normally attained. Alice Fletcher noted the same for the Omaha, where the dominating force in life
was conceived to be that which man recognized within himself as will power…We trace the Omaha’s estimate of his own will power in the act called Wazhindhedhe (wazhin, directive energy; dhedhe, to send), in which, through the singing of certain songs, strength could be sent to the absent warrior in the stress of battle, or thought and will be projected to help a friend win a game or a race, or even so to influence the mind of a man as to affect its receptivity of the supernatural.76
Here human will power is seen as an actual force that can empower any observation being made. The amount of personal will differs with the wish (observation) desired. In wishes that merely involve, say, the shaman’s finding the location of a lost object, such as a horse, relatively little input of focused consciousness may be required. This is a spatial location problem that can be easily solved when the shaman goes into the SSC and travels about to find the lost horse (which will be covered in more detail in Chapter 5). Parapsychologists call this act “non-local viewing.” However, if the wish includes physically bringing the object back to its owner, then one would expect more consciousness to be required as the shaman is now moving mass as well. That is, the more any wish entails changing ordinary reality, the more consciousness the wish-fulfiller needs in order to bring about the desired result. When the amount of consciousness required is more than the capacity of an individual shaman, ceremonial assistants, other shamans and/or additional spirit helpers are brought into play to augment the power (conscious will) of the shaman who is conducting the ceremony.77 In essence, the more prayers being said for a patient, the more likely a ceremony will succeed. For this reason, it is common to hear of the shaman’s telling the patient to invite his friends and relatives to his healing ceremony. However, every spirit helper usually comes with a singular ability to exercise medicine power. Put into quantum terms, this would suggest that each spirit is associated with a particular aspect of the state vector (probability amplitude) collapse. Consequently one always needs to find the shaman who has the particular power one needs before he goes into ceremony. Quite often the proper shaman is sought out through a divination or spirit-calling ceremony.
Shamans will not ordinarily talk about limits to the power of their spirit helpers. They are much more apt to say their spirit helpers can do anything. I believe this standard response is more out of respect for their spirits, not wanting to insult them. Shamans seem to feel it is disrespectful to quantify or judge the abilities of their spirits. Such a viewpoint also keeps the doors open for the possibility of a spirit helper to produce additional powers. However, there are limitations to medicine powers. One common limitation arises when a patient has been diagnosed as “too far gone” to be healed. In addition, healing ceremonies are usually limited to one patient at a time. For example, there are accounts of Indian shamans curing cases of smallpox78, but these shamans were unable to save entire villages. It takes a large amount of consciousness to alter a small amount of mass. Consequently, you also never read accounts of their moving large objects. Another limitation is the shaman’s ability to control his spirits. Generally speaking “a spirit is regularly conceived as an inherently malevolent being that is dangerous to people.”79 It is the task of the shaman to gain control of a spirit in order to make it a helper. When first acquired, a spirit usually needs to be “tamed.” For example, “If the spirits which he [the shaman] inherits are weak and few, he need only sing every week or ten days; if they are powerful and many, he may have to sing almost every night, for a time at least. Gradually the spirits are tamed, and become more and more friendly to the man.”80
On the other hand, shamans and their helping spirits are not limited when it comes to giving out information—knowing what is going on anywhere in the realm of space and time. Again, the reason for this is that a mere revealing of information does not involve changes in reality. We have here a viewing process in contrast to a process that involves altering ordinary reality. The fact that such information is accessible stems from the non-local or interconnected nature of non-ordinary reality in the first place. The shaman is merely tapping into this realm via trance. Such a process also appears to require less energy; only the induction of the SSC is necessary and it does not require the use of spirit helpers. With this in mind, it is not surprising to find that the ethnographic records clearly indicate that answering questions is the most common activity in any shamanic practice. That is, shamans get called upon much more often to discover things and answer questions than they do to change ordinary reality.
Putting this all together, you can expect to find that shamans and their helping spirits are all-knowing, but not all-powerful.81 This is indeed what the ethnographic records reveal. For example, medicine powers could not stop the advance of civilization upon them, but they could assist in individual warfare. American Indians seem to have an inherent understanding of this limitation to medicine powers, although it is not openly expressed in such terms. This, in turn, is related to their training of how to behave during a ceremony. For example, when listening to Indians pray for help during a ceremony, you most often will hear them asking for small favors, small wishes, such as help for a sick relative, for someone who has been jailed, or for someone who has been drinking. On the other hand, Westerners who come to these same ceremonies don’t have this understanding or training. Therefore you will hear them pray for things such as world peace, an end to environmental pollution, and other unobtainable goals. From the American Indian’s perspective, such prayers are wasted effort, if not a little foolish. However, being humble, an Indian won’t mention this fact.
Reality and the Observer Effect
Knowing that the observer effect is real raises the question of how it operates. What is the interrelationship between what is observed and how you observe it? What does it have to do with anyone else who is also making an observation? Let me give one example of how this seems to work. In 1977 I attended a conference in Tokyo on “psychotronics”, the international word for parapsychology. One of the invited guests was a man from the Netherlands who could move objects with his mind, known as “telekinesis” or “psychokenisis” among parapsychologists. We all gathered in a large room, about a hundred of us, to watch his demonstration. Also in attendance were numerous TV news crews with cameras. Russell Targ, an American parapsychologist, stood at his side to insure no trickery occurred. The demonstrator forewarned us that he would see the object move before we saw it move. We all began to watch intently as he attempted to move a small cube of clear Plexiglass (plastic), about 2-inches square, across a sheet of glass. Our eager anticipation went on for nearly fifteen minutes, with no movement occurring. Nevertheless, the demonstrator kept a continuous, fixed stare on the block, without ever looking away, while his hands and arms kept pushing at the block from a distance. Finally, everyone got a bit bored watching his antics, our attention waned, and we started talking to each other. The room became noisier and most of the audience was no longer watching the demonstration when we suddenly heard him yell out, “There it goes!” We all looked back, and indeed the small block moved about 10-inches across the glass, defying the laws of Newton. My point here is that it was our combined observations that kept the block from moving in the first place. That is, our doubts concerning his ability to move the block constituted a strong observation. It was only when our attention was diverted that he was able to generate a strong enough observation that selected a series of state vectors capable of moving the block.
At that same conference there was a report from a German schoolteacher, named R. Layritz, who had become interested in Uri Geller’s fork-bending feats. As you may recall Geller became an international celebrity known for his ability to hold a fork or spoon in one hand and causing it to bend using only his mind. That he was able to do so in public indicates a strong will on his part. Layritz noted that after Geller visited a locality, the local newspapers would often report on other people in the community who could demonstrate this same feat, once having seen it. So Layritz decided to test his class. He first showed them a film of Uri Geller bending a fork. Then he let his students try it. To his surprise, 8% of them could perform the fork-bending feat.82 So it appears to be a matter of what observations are being made on the universe at any time in any location. Consequently, believing that an event can take place appears to be integral to it taking place.
Again, these types of “paranormal” changes in reality are the result of observations being made on a continuous stream of events at the quantum level. Walker’s view of how this happens is as follows: “Objective reality actually exists as a collection of potentialities [Einstein’s “dice” possibilities] like pages in a book…these states are selected as whole pages non locally, irrespective of spatial relationships…this state selection process (the pages pulled from the book) is caused by observation, which ultimately means the consciousness of the observer. And we have seen [via research in neurophysiology] that the [human] consciousness is a quantum mechanical process that has associated with it a will channel that connects our consciousness experience to those events in the outside world to bring about state vector collapse. The will selects the state of the brain that we consciously experience, and the global nature of quantum mechanics of necessity links this brain state to the external event that occurs.”83 Thus, it is the “hidden variables of our consciousness and of our will that do the state selection—that create the events of the next moment we see.”84 Shamans are masters at the art of manipulating these hidden variables, the art of changing local reality. Again, the main tool is human consciousness. The ceremony through which it is activated is the apparatus used in the experiment. As already pointed out, this apparatus must be operated according to very strict rules.
Reality coming into being at every instant “is a process in which a collection of alternative realities is poised on the brink of coming into being. It is a vision of potentialities cascading from the depths of our own brain’s quantum machinery or spilling from the turbid sea of atomic uncertainties suddenly coming into being through the action of observation, at once individual and universal, unbounded by limits of either space or time.”85 This “universal” aspect of human observation is based on “the fact that about 1/10 of 1% of what we are in our mind’s being is shared; it is identically the same as the mind-being of all others who exist. This is an incredible realization.”86 It is this “universal” observation that makes objects appear to us as solids. It is what makes them retain their shape over time. (Newtonian physics contains no laws as to why objects retain their shapes; there are no boundary laws.)
This grip of the universal observation is broken when a more powerful observation is made on the cascade of possibilities. Let me give an example of this in the form of a question. How many medicine men does it take to bend a tree? David Lewis saw this happen as a child during the last gathering of the most powerful Creek medicine men, circa 1940 in Oklahoma.
They took a break and then they were standing outside on the porch. One little short man was teasing this tall guy. He pointed out a bent little tree, a young sapling out there, and he was telling this tall one, “You’re beginning to look like that tree, you know. You’re humped over.” He was teasing about the other man getting old. “You’re beginning to look like that little tree over there.”
So, they teased each other awhile and then some of them smoked, some of them chewed nearly all day. They came back and washed their mouths, spit all this out, then they went back into the house to sit down to do their talk…[Then] they all came outside and just before they left, another little short one—it wasn’t the same one that had been teasing before—said, “Let’s go talk to that tree.” And nothing was said; they all went out to that tree and they put their hands on that tree.
I was crowding in between legs and getting up in there, too. Little kids want to do what the older people do. They put their hands up on that tree. And this little tree was so bent over that one limb was on the ground. It was just an ugly little tree, sickly little thing. They put their hand on that tree. All of them were saying the same thing [my italics]. They were telling that tree to stand tall and straight. And the little tree and limb popped and cracked upward as if it was reaching for our Creator. They told the limb to get off the ground and point toward the Creator. And while they had their hands on that little tree, you could hear it popping. You could actually hear it snapping. From being bent over, while they were still standing there with their hands on it, it slowly stood straight up. And the limb that was down there on the ground, they were bracing it up. It came up into a beautiful tree.87
I began this chapter with Dawkins’ disbelief in the supernatural. The assumption that the supernatural is nothing more than superstition has been around for a long time now. It was never a suitable explanation. It could not account for the cross-cultural core characteristics found in shamanism. In attempting to explain American Indian medicine powers, it was also at a loss. Point in case is Charles F. Lummis, who at the turn of the last century wrote numerous books on the Indians of the Southwest. In his 1892 Some Strange Corners of our Country he describes some of the Navajo and Pueblo “magicians.” His assumption that medicine powers were superstition forced him to view medicine men as performing tricks.
He begins by pointing out that their magicians work under much more stringent conditions. They are closely watched by observers who have very keen eyes, and the audience sits right next to the performer. They do their tricks with sleeveless shirts, on dirt floors, and with no mirrors, wires, or other contraptions used by American magicians. However, before proceeding, he is obliged to point out that “superstition is the corner-stone of all the strange aboriginal religions.” He then goes on to tell of a hot fire being built on the bare floor upon which their magicians
dance bare-footed and bare-legged in and upon the fire, hold their naked arms in the flames, and eat living coals with smacking lips and the utmost seeming gusto. There can be no optical illusion about this—it is plain as daylight. Of course there must have been some preparation for the fiery ordeal, but what it is no one knows save the initiated, and it is certainly made many hours beforehand, for the performers have been in plain sight for a very long time.88
Lummis also tells of a storm within a ceremonial chamber where
…they hear the low growl of distant thunder, which keeps rolling nearer and nearer. Suddenly a blinding flash of forked lightning shoots across the room from side to side, and another and another, while the room trembles to the roar of the thunder…Outside the sky may be twinkling with millions of stars, but in that dark room a fearful storm seems to be raging…How these effects are produced I am utterly unable to explain, but they are startlingly real.89
Then there is the Navajo feat of making a feather stand on end “in a flaring, pan-shaped basket, and dance with it as a partner. The Indian—in this case sometimes the dancer is a very young boy—dances in proper fashion around the basket; and the feather dances too, hopping gently up and down, and swaying in the direction of its human partner. If he dances to the north, the feather leans northward; If he moves to the south, the feather tips southward, and so on, as if the quill were actually reaching out to him!”90
More difficult to explain is the “seed-giving” trick. Here each medicine man takes into his hands his sacred “Mother”—a perfect ear of white corn with white downy plumes bound to the head. “Now, as all in the audience rise, the chief shaman and his assistants shake their ‘Mothers” above the heads of the throng in token of blessing; and out pours a perfect shower of kernels of corn, wheat, and seeds of all kinds, in a vastly greater quantity than I would undertake to hide in ten times as many of those little tufts [of down plumes].”91
The most remarkable Pueblo feat is a special ceremony where their shamans “turn themselves at will into any animal shape; and where a moment before had stood a painted Indian the audience sees a wolf, or bear, or dog, or some other brute!”92 An equally remarkable Navajo feat “takes place in the medicine lodge at night—the time of all official acts of the medicine-men. At the appointed time a sun rises on the east (inside the room) and slowly describes an arched course until at last it sets in the west side of the room, and darkness reigns again. During the whole performance a scared chant is kept up, and once started dare not be interrupted until the sun has finished its course.”93
However the most remarkable feat is when
[The Navajo] magicians is the growing of the sacred corn. At sunrise the shaman plants the enchanted kernel before him, in full view of his audience, and sits solemnly in his place singing a weird song. Presently the earth cracks, and the tender green shoot pushes forth. As the magician sings on the young plant grows visibly, reaching upward several inches an hour, waxing thick and putting out its drooping blades. If the juggler stops his song the growth of the corn stops, and is resumed only when he recommences his chant. By noon the corn is tall and vigorous and already tasseled-out; and by sunset it is a mature and perfect plant, with its tall stalk, sedgy leaves, and silk-topped ears of corn! How the trick is performed I have never been able to form so much as a satisfactory guess; but done it is, as plainly as eyes ever saw anything done, and apparently with as little chance for deception.94
To see medicine powers as tricks is merely to sweep them under the rug, because there is no possible way to explain these tricks. Does it not seem more feasible, especially in light of a relationship between consciousness and matter, to assume they are real? Only when we do see them as real, will we begin to look for the cross-cultural actions of medicine people that serve to produce a strong observer effect. Therein rests our explanations of how these powers come to be activated. Even though it is not possible to visualize clearly the observer effect, this need not inhibit us from exploring relationships between this effect and the use of medicine powers. You don’t need to understand the physics of medicine powers in to use them. You only need to know the “laws of the Spirit” for dealing with the unseen world. Consequently, one goal here is simply to present a new viewpoint that enables us to understand better why medicine people do what they do.