Glue from Beaten Dead Horses Helps Things Stick Together

Some shamanistic Native American societies use hallucinogenic drugs to achieve altered states of consciousness that allow them to connect with the spirit world. According to one of the texts for an anthropology of religion class that I took in college, anthropologists really like to do participant observation and use the hallucinogens, but they do not like to go through the extended periods of fasting and self-denial that shamans also endure when they work toward contact with the spirit world.

Shamans have a whole culture that prescribes how hallucinogens are to be used, while anthropologists have a sterile palate for cultures: they try to strip away their own cultural prejudices for the sake of discovering how other cultures work. In their pursuit of objectivity, they might think themselves objective and unwittingly subvert their own research. Alternatively, if you try to sterilize your environment to protect yourself from certain “infections,” you might encourage the breeding of the idea equivalent of a super germ that your normal mental filters and coping routines cannot handle.

For various reasons, people have little to no defenses or ways to process ideas that are radically different from what they are used to thinking about. One example is the notion that the world will end in 2012: I do not know anyone who believes in this, but colleagues of mine discuss the notion that the world will end in that year. The hearsay basis for this notion is that the Mayans had a calendrical cycle that ended every few thousand years or so, and this cycle ends in 2012. What makes me scratch my head is that people think that a 2012 end of the world might be authoritative while they do not put any stock in other ideas of Mayan origin.

Recently I was talking with a girl who described some spiritual experimentation that she had done. I think she went on a spiritual exploration journey of some sort with a Native American guide. Another girl described her admiration for the Tao I-Ching. Both of these girls were university educated, and they seemed to be generically spiritual people. I wonder whether they have a systematic theological or philosophical or spiritual persuasion by which they live. If they do not have solid grounding in anything, what will they do if they stumble upon a war between spiritual forces they do not know?

Where am I trying to go with all of this? I have not yet decided.

What do we do with all of the people who only read the Bible for the supposed UFO references or for information about the end of the world? What do we do with the people who only read Plato to find out where Atlantis is? What do we do with the people who look into Chinese fortune-telling as a method to determine what they should do tomorrow without knowing the theories behind it?

Ultimately, the search for truth is not a quest that allows for lackadaisical investigation or piecemeal sampling of systems of thought. People who seek truth are not looking to be original; they are looking to be right. My anthropologists from the beginning have their search going for them: here’s to them being willing to examine their own selves, for they to are anthrops who need some ology. The search for truth also demands personal inventory, because personal unpreparedness can disqualify people from finding the truth.

If you want to know the truth, get your act together. You have to discipline yourself so that you continue to know the truth you knew at first and that you can determine how something is true, if it is true at all. Do not let sensationalism lead you astray, but at the same time, abstract notions can kill you in some concrete ways, so urgency in the pursuit of truth is often necessary. If you have “the book,” read the whole thing and not just the controversial chapters and the last chapter.

The need for intellectual discipline is an easy dead horse to beat, especially when dead horses provide the glue that we need to keep our thinking together.

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