Ancient Science

ermadog at ermadog at
Mon Dec 10 23:32:35 MST 2001

By now, interested readers will have seen some of the criteria by which I
decide whether a given body of knowledge can properly be considered a
science.Those who have been following should understand by now that I am
not talking about "pure science" or some rigid set of rules. Instead, I
have talked about general principles which have developed over the course
of time in the historic development of scientific endeavour and which are
recognized through consensus by today's working scientists. Since most
scientists do not study the philosphy of science, and since the principles
do not apply equally in all situations, different scientists will give
different off-the-top-of-their-head working definitions of scientific
method, confusing the average reader thereby. I am not at all qualified to
pinpoint the exact point in time whereby "the roots of science" turned
into "true science", and will not attempt to do so. Instead, I will
continue discussing knowledge that has been put forward as examples of
ancient science.

I have previously stated that every herbal I have looked at can be
characterized as eclectic compendiums of acquired lore, with no logical
system of principles underlying their use. What then, can we say that the
people who used them knew?

Well, my dog knows that comfrey is good for her - at least she knew that
when she was pregnant, which is when I fed it to her. Every day, I picked
two 14 inch leaves for her, and every day she ate 1 1/2 leaves, greedily
gobbling from my hand and stopping in mid-bite. The day before labour, whe
refused any. Since dogs have a sense of smell 200 times more accute than
that of humans, I assumed she was drawn to the presence of needed
nutrients the way we are when we have a craving for certain foods. I doubt
very much that Elsie knew that comfrey contains calcium, which is used to
prevent eclampsia during labour. What does "good for you" mean?

Yarrow is the mainstay of the pharmacopea of the clans of the Scottish
highlands. It is listed in most herbals as an "alterative" and blood
cleanser, followed by an impressive list of lesser properties. For
herbalists, an alterative is a general system regulator, inducing
homeostasis, and is therefore treated as a panacea. It is considered "good
for" balancing almost anything. Most herbal "systems" are based on notions
of balancing the life force - the theory of vitalism - and data is forced
to fit this preconceived notion.

>From my own experience with herbs, I know that medicinal herbs have subtle
effects on the state of consciousness, much as coffee and tea have theirs.
Different herbs have different effects - one nervine will calm the nerves,
another will strengthen, an alterative will "centre" the consciousness. I
have come to recognize the taste of ascerbic acid, vitamin C, in the
leaves of yellow dock and in spruce tips. This alteration of consciousness
is subtle, and hard to describe. I have come to conclude that any system
of medicine based on the comparison of my state of consciousness with
yours cannot possibly be a science. The work of a shaman must be
considered an art, not a science, because it is almost entirely

The shaman cannot possibly know that yarrow has antibiotic properties,
antiseptic properties, a high iron content, and so on, or that the state
of consciousness induced by ingesting small doses of false hellebore are
brought on by a drop in blood pressure resulting from the slowing of the
heart. Explanations are sought in the supernatural, and are woven into
tribal mythology. The problem with mythology is that it has no explanatory
power; therefore, it is difficult to assess exactly what is known and what
isn't in herbal lore.

In the end, all that the herbal practitioner can really know is that
certain herbs are good for him. He can only hope that they are good for
other people in the same way.

Yoga has also been mentioned, and Sid continues to defend it. Again, I
note problems in its basic premise - vitalism - and in its lack of logical
unifying principles. The stated purpose of meditative yoga practices is to
raise the kundalini - the life force - thereby inducing a state of
consciousness in which, allegedly, a person can live forever. In most
systems, this kundalini is specifically identified as the creative force
of the individual person. In other words, we're talking about spiritual
masturbation. Generally speaking, I consider sexual arousal to be an
artform, and not a science.

In the case of yoga, as with all forms of mysticism, the creative force is
specifically harnessed to the holy purpose of self-discovery, and/or union
with the Divine - which, in many cases, is the same thing. Different
mystic traditions attempt this union by different paths; typically, the
Christian mystic likes to daydream about God. But the end result is to
fetishize a state of consciousness, which in reality cannot be permanently
maintained in a state of stasis. Again, what do we actually know when we
conduct mystic practices?

When we come back from the Land of Faerie, we know we had a good time, but
we don't really know where we've been. Sort of like drugs, but they're not
addictive and you get to be a saint. Engaging in mystic practices has the
effect of "putting your subconscious on steroids", as it were, which can
force it to cough up answers you didn't know were there. These answers, of
course, still have to be tested out in real life.

The real question to ask here is: why is "working on yourself" such a
difficult thing? and why do we need to set aside special time for it?
Furthermore, why advocate bypassing the analytic method of resolving
conflicts? These questions raise the whole issue of the individual vs.
society, the mediation of which is what religion is all about. Obviously,
I'm not going to answer that in 25 words or less.

Joan Cameron

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