Re: virus: Sham(an) again

Eva-Lise Carlstrom (
Sat, 13 Sep 1997 16:09:04 -0700 (PDT)

On Sat, 13 Sep 1997, David McFadzean wrote:

> Thanks to Eva-Lise, Prof. Tim and KMO for the criticisms. Allow me to
> revise my argument....
> At 01:46 PM 9/12/97 -0700, Eva-Lise Carlstrom wrote:
> >David, you do have a point, and it's a good one. I, for one, am willing to
> >stick my neck out and say that Psychic Friends Network and similar
> >services are selling, labeled as supernatural insight, a combination of
> >guesses, feedback, and simulated friendship. I think such services are a
> >total waste of money, but obviously some people don't, or they wouldn't be
> >in business (in some cases, it's possible that consulting the service may
> True enough. I didn't mean to imply that people don't find psychics useful
> or valuable, obviously some people do. I also don't mean to imply that
> psychics are necessarily insincere. I'm sure many (if not all) believe they
> really have supernatural powers. By calling them shams I meant that they are
> in fact not selling what they say they are selling.
> >even result in a net improvement to someone's life, for whatever natural
> >reasons). But I don't think the existence of such con games is sufficient
> >evidence to establish that all people labelled as shamans are selling
> >similar hot air. Which seemed to be the claim in question. Those of us
> >arguing against this blanket dismissal were saying such things as:
> >
> >"People we call shamans may be doing valuable practical things that are
> >simply not understood (such as using functional medicines)",
> >
> >"People we call shamans may be doing things that are valuable for memetic
> >reasons (such as changing someone's attitudes and perceptions to help them
> >reach a goal)",
> I don't think anyone said that.

You may well be right. I meant to. I understood it as being the basis
for some of the arguments I and others presented, which is why I stated
it here.

> >and
> >
> >"People who would be called shamans in one culture may be called something
> >else in another culture, depending on how what they do is understood".
> Our culture's psychics for instance.
> >The existence of shams neither proves nor disproves the existence of
> >useful shamanism, although it certainly disproves any claim that *all*
> >shamanism is useful.
> That's true, but my argument is meant to be an argument from likelihood.
> Consider this:
> 1. Groups in our culture selling supernatural services are shams. They
> might be useful, they might be valuable, but they misrepresent their
> services.
> 2. There is no reason to believe our culture is unique in that respect.
> 3. What are the chances that other culture's supernatural service people
> use *real* magic or mystical powers? I'm not talking beliefs, or herbs
> or memetics here, I'm talking about genuine psychic or mystical powers.
> If anyone says that other cultures' shamans are *real* magicians, then that
> is an extraordinary claim and the responsibility is their's to provide
> some proof, not mine to disprove it.

My understanding of what magic consists of has undergone changes. I
don't expect you to agree with my use of the term, but I don't separate
magic from memetics. In my view, magic is the use of symbolic and
indirect means to achieve physical, practical ends. I realize this
includes a lot. It's intended to. It's still less inclusive that
Aleister Crowley's definition ("The Art of causing change in accordance
with Will"), which, along with many many other factors inclusing my
discovery of CoV, was formative in my development of my own concept of

I hope you see how this view is relevant to the discussion of the
potential validity of shamanism, even if you disagree with it.

> > One of the stories concerned a man who, for some reason I can't
> >now recall, had to undergo an ordeal in which he was to spend all night
> >alone on top of a mountain without cover or fire, and was generally
> >expected to freeze to death. He feared for his life, but an old man took
> >him aside and told him he would help him live. The old man would climb a
> >nearby mountain and keep a bonfire burning all night in the first man's
> >line of sight, and if the the man being tested would watch this fire
> >unfailingly all night, it would keep him warm and he would survive the
> >night. He did as the old man said, watching the distant fire intently all
> >night, and he survived and attained his goal (being acquitted of a crime,
> >or marrying a princess, or something).
> >
> >Before I continue, relating my own and the grade-schoolers'
> >interpretations of this story, I ask the reader, and particularly David:
> >
> >Did the fire help the man survive the night? If so, how?
> Is this supposed to be a true story? Is there a good reason to believe
> the man would not have survived without the fire?

It is not necessary to postulate the story as true in order to look at the
implications of various beliefs about what happens in the story. What I'm
trying to get at is different ways of viewing the same events. For this
purpose let's assume that other people had been tested in this way and
none of them had survived. Even so, as you point out, it is possible the
man would have survived anyway, despite his doubts on that point, and that
the distant fire is completely irrelevant. I take it that's your
interpretation of the most likely explanation for the story's events,
were they to actually occur?
{Note that one does not have to agree that a given event *could*
occur, in order to come up with explanations for it *if it did*. I might
say "if David were to call the Psychic Friends Hotline, it would probably
be because he wanted to examine their psychological ploys himself, rather
than because he had been suddenly converted to belief in their abilities
to tell him secrets about his life", and not in fact believe that David
would ever do such a thing; I might even think it constitutionally
The unanimous conclusion of the grade-school students in the
study group was that the old man was a magician and had saved the other
man by magic. Does this mean that they all believe in magic? They
might, but it is also possible that they simply accept its existence
in stories, and it comes to mind as the most likely (or even only!)
explanation in that context.
My own private conclusion was that the man had been saved by the
strength of his own belief in the distant fire and the old man's promise.
People who believe they will live have been shown to be more likely to
live than others with the same injuries or degree of illness who think
they are going to die. A friend of mine who has taken some police
training said that he was told the first rule if you get shot is "Don't
die", because people's survival probability with gunshot wounds is greatly
affected by their belief in their survival.
At the time, I thought the children's interpretation and mine were
diametrically opposed. But I now hold a view that synthesizes them. I
consider the old man to be a magician, who used the principles of metaphor
and belief to affect another person's attitude, and thus shape events in
the physical world.

who notes that her interpretation of the story is dependent on the man
knowing about the fire and its purpose, and will not lend her support to
defense of, say, the power of prayer to heal distant strangers.

PS--I just related this story to a self-described witch of my
acquaintance, whose opinions on the subject I had no predictions about.
His interpretation turned out to be in accord with my own, but he had
one important addition: Focusing on the fire all night kept the guy
*awake*, which probably went a long way to keep him from freezing.