Archive for January, 2016

Magick Hygiene

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2016 by Patrick

I’ve been pretty bad at clearing out my workspace.  I didn’t realize how bad until a few days ago.   I got a new larger altar (on wheels, with a top that folds out for ceremonies!) and in transferring stuff over from the old one I found sixteen separate talismans and sigils that hadn’t been disposed of.  Sixteen.  Some were just sigils of spirits I had summoned, and some were talismans.   One was a talisman I made to help me finish my dissertation.  Another was the sigil I used to summon the spirit who helped me meet my partner.  I found one very ominous looking thing — a grainy picture with a sigil across its forehead — before I remembered putting a protection spell on a friend of mine, back when he was going through hard times.  He didn’t need it now.  A few, I didn’t even know what I originally intended.

Clearly I need to be more careful about properly disposing of my things.



The Perfect Metaphor for Writing Occult Books

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2016 by Patrick

This little guy offers a perfect metaphor for the act of writing books on the occult.

In related news, I noticed the Barnes and Noble has gotten rid of their New Age section, and replaced it with something like Living Your Best Life or something like that.  They’ve always had a terrible offering for occult books, so I’m not surprised.  Books on Wicca are shoveled off into ersatz self-help while Bibles get a long aisle.  Not that I have a problem with Bibles, mind you.


The Enemy of Magical Study

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18, 2016 by Patrick

The biggest enemy of magical study are the cognitive biases that interfere with clear thinking.  “I don’t have time to meditate,” for example, is the one that gets me a lot.  It’s the function of a mental filter that skews reality.  What it actually says is “these other things I need to do are much larger in my mind than they are in reality.”  Objects in your imagination may appear larger than they are.

Confirmation bias haunts attempts to study magical systematically.  The best cure to confirmation bias is to keep a brutally honest journal that includes every single magical act you ever perform.  I’ve written elsewhere that I’m not convinced of the value of a magical journal.  I’m coming around there, because it does serve to keep you honest, and that’s what matters.  But it can also become a downward spiral of self-reinforcing delusion, so keep it practical and concrete.

And, of course, ego.  We want to protect our ego, our self-esteem.  We’d be better off developing a sense of self-efficacy.  Then we won’t feel attacked when someone tells us our magical order isn’t the whatever the hell such people argue about.

What are your cognitive biases?  What gets in the way of your magic?

Magical Claims that Science Can Investigate

Posted in Uncategorized on January 15, 2016 by Patrick

The only claims magicians make that science could falsify are those that are about the material world, and those that imply a change in that world that an observer can see from the outside.  This makes it all rather sticky, because if you take the idea of magic as a change in possible worlds in configuration space, then there’s nowhere to stand to observe any change that’s made.  The causal chain will always point to coincidence, no matter what, because the movement of the index across configuration space is narratively coherent.

But we do have some tools that could hint that magic might work.

  1.  If I claim that tarot cards predict the future, and I draw a tarot card to predict my day every day for a year, we can hypothesize that certain cards will more likely come up more often, since my life has certain themes that recur in any given short time.  For example, I do tend to get the Hierophant rather a lot, because I’m a teacher.  If we observed that statistical clustering over a long period of time, then we could say that tarot cards are not random.  And yes, this has been done as I explain in my book on the Lenormand, and not by me.  Jane English wrote an article published in Wheel of the Tarot where she describes such an experiment and its very impressive results.
  2. You could conduct an experiment to shift reality in very small ways and analyze those shifts statistically.  For example, you could make up a matrix like this:  “an X wearing Y will do Z.”  Then you make a list:  “X” could be “man, woman, boy, girl.”  “Y” could be “black pants, blue pants, red pants,” and so on.  “Z” could be “pick their nose in front of me, eat a slice of pizza in public, dance for no reason in public,” and so on.  Now you could set up a program to select two instantiations at random.  One of them it shows you, and one of it is hidden from you.  The one it shows you, you do magic for.  The hidden one, of course, you ignore.  You do this for years, one each couple of weeks to give them time to manifest.  If magic works, you’ll have more experiences like those you enchanted for, and not as many of the experiences described by the hidden permutations.  I haven’t set this up in this double-blind way, but I’ve done some informal experimentation along these lines and found it impressively significant.  The only problem is that it does kind of give me pause to deform my life in this weird way, because now women won’t stop singing in public and guys in black shorts keep striking up conversations with me.
  3. You could set up a series of goals over time, of varying difficulty (i.e., distance from the index in configuration space, which would show up looking like probability from a fixed indexical perspective).  This is pretty much what every magician just does, and then you look back over your magical journal and count up how often you succeeded.  You could even quantify it, and maybe someday I’ll write something about how to do that, but not here because it’s even more boring than usual.  The point is, you can then quantify the success rate.  If you use some mildly sophisticated techniques to estimate probability before doing the magic, you can compare the success rate to the probability and determine if the delta between the two is significant. I’ve done this informally, on the back of napkins and the like, and for me it’s quite significant.  But this is hedged all around with dangers, such as confirmation bias and sharpshooter fallacy and so on.  So my napkin-stats are scientific worthless, even if I find them personally convincing.

Every method of scientifically studying magic runs into the same problem, though: it just won’t convince a scientist, because it won’t end up in a peer reviewed journal.  Jane English’s excellent article ended up in an obscure book of essays on the tarot (a very good obscure book — I highly recommend it).  Many of the peer reviewed articles debunking psychic phenomena begin from the assumption that it must work according to the same material laws as physics, not that it might be a completely different magisterium.  Having decided to look for something that they know isn’t there, they crow that they didn’t find it.  It reminds me of the guy who lost his keys and was looking under a street lamp.  He didn’t lose them there, but the light was so much better . . .

The Scientific Method

Posted in Uncategorized on January 13, 2016 by Patrick

The scientific method works like this:

1. I observe a phenomenon. Let’s say I see objects fall.

2. I adopt, usually without doing so consciously, a set of axioms about reality: The only reality that matters is material. We can know this reality through our senses. Inductive reasoning leads to truth but never arrives at it. If many attempts to falsify an inductive hypothesis fail, then that hypothesis is more likely to be true, but if at any time it is falsified, it must be revised or discarded. We are always willing to discard hypotheses.

(If you work in academia, you recognize that even though we all adopt these axioms, none of us really adhere to them too hard. It’s nice to imagine that falsifying a hypothesis is just as good as failing to falsify one, until you have to explain to your tenure board why you haven’t published a paper in three years.)

3. I make a guess about that phenomenon based on my axioms. Objects fall, and heavier ones are heavier and hurt more when they land on my foot, so I guess that objects fall faster if they’re heavier.

4. I set up an experiment, or an observation in nature if an experiment doesn’t work (or a statistical analysis of observations, or . . . several ways to do this step, really). Here it’s easy. I get a light object and a heavy one. A bowling ball, and a feather. I drop them. The bowling ball falls fast, the feature takes a good long while.

5. I publish my results. Hey, Chad, buddy, look. The bowling ball fell faster. Those results are reviewed by peers, who point out flaws or just attempt to repeat the experiment (snort, yeah, right, ’cause that’ll get you tenure). Chad says “wait, but — air pressure, though, right?”)

6. We conduct another experiment, accounting for the earlier critiques. I get two balls, one of lead and one of foam. I evacuate the air from a chamber and drop them both in the vacuum. This time, they fall at the same acceleration.

7. If our experiment falsifies the original guess, we make a new guess and start over.

8. Eventually, we try to express this guess as a universal law. In this case, we will eventually end up with the equations governing the laws that describe gravity.

9. But we have to keep in mind that new observations may falsify that law, leading us to revise it.

That’s science, and it’s awesome, and it’s nearly entirely useless in investigating magic. Not entirely, though, but nearly entirely. Which is the subject of my next post.

A Stupid Thing Crowley Said

Posted in Uncategorized on January 11, 2016 by Patrick

One of the stupidest things Crowley ever wrote wasn’t all that stupid, but it annoys me to no end.  Crowley was far from stupid; I admire his work tremendously. But there are occasional bits of stupidity: flashes of racism, idiotic attitudes toward women and Jews, and hints that he’s not all that serious about any of it.  That all gets on my nerves, and is certainly stupid. But the bit I’m thinking about is a kind of stupidity that just gets on my nerves, rather than offends my sense of justice. He once wrote:

“Then, when thou hast Him, cease to speculate —
Who hath the How is careless of the Why.”

He wrote this in his Bagh-i-Muattar, which he claimed to translate from a rare Persian manuscript.  Of course he wrote it himself.  This quotation shows up in a lot of magical work as an excuse for anti-intellectualism, a vice that Crowley never indulged in.  Most people who quote it never read the B-i-M.  If they had, they’d know it was a satire with mystical elements.  In fact, he includes a footnote to this line:

The natural (though hardly altogether
just) contempt of the practical expert
for the arm-chair critic.

It’s easy to excuse intellectual laziness.  After all, the rutabaga grows without knowing it’s a rutabaga.  “My magic works: why should I think more about it than that?”  Because you’re a human being and not a root vegetable, goddamn it, that’s why.

This anti-intellectual contempt is “natural,” as he says.  It’s how we avoid the unpleasant sensation of cognitive dissonance.  He’s also right: it’s not “altogether just.”  Without insight, without theory, there’d be no practice. And to head off the inevitable, kitchen witches and folk magicians have theory; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what to put into their gris gris.  If you can’t wrestle some cognitive dissonance into shape and hitch it to your wagon, you better not claim any attainments in the control of your own mind, let alone reality.

If you’d like to quote this phrase at me again, as some have, I ask first that you read the Bagh-i-Muattar.  And if you’re using it as a thought-stopping cliche to avoid having to engage your intellect, ask yourself what Crowley might have thought of that.

Is Magic One Thing?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 8, 2016 by Patrick

Physics works wherever we are.  Go to Haiti and drive a car.  Go to Louisiana and drive a car.  Go to Bangalore and drive a car.  In each case, that car’s motion is governed by the same laws.  It doesn’t matter what kind of car it is, either: electric, gas, or nuclear.  Acceleration is still velocity over time.  Force is still mass times acceleration.  There’s a famous joke about physicists: how many physicists does it take to change a lightbulb?  Well, first assume that all physicists are frictionless spheres . . . In other words, we can abstract behavior, and details don’t matter.  The color of the car or what it runs on is cultural decoration to the physicist.

Is magic the same way?  If a practitioner of Wicca, a Cabalistic magician, a Buddhist sorcerer, and my chaos magician buddy T.B. all do a spell, it’s gonna look different.  But is the magic the same?  In other words, is there just one thing we call magic?

I think it’s helpful to think in terms of culture and onton. By “culture,” I mean those symbols, rituals, practices, and beliefs that get passed on and define membership in a particular group. Wearing pants rather than a toga is culture. Thinking slavery is reprehensible is culture. Eating enchiladas for Christmas is culture. Onton is a term I made up, because there just isn’t an easily available one in English. Onton is what’s actually really real, beyond all difference, and outside of time.

The car’s color, what means it uses to drive it, and so on, that’s all culture. But the onton of a car, what a car is when reduced to absolute eternal theory, is a set of equations describing motion, and all motion is one kind of thing: F = ma, no matter what object has that quality of mass, no matter what color it is and no matter what it’s called.

Another way to understand it is this: I speak English, grew up in the midwest of the United States during the late twentieth century. Someone else may speak French, and maybe grew up in Paris in the early twentieth century. Our cultures are very different. But our onta, what we are, is the same: we’re both humans.

Papa Legba, the Iunges, angels, and so on — all very different things, granted. But they belong to the same class of things, the same sort of things: spiritual entities. Magic, too, in the broadest sense, differs culturally, and that cultural difference matters a lot — I’m not discounting that. But what magic is, ultimate, the sort of activity it is, seems to me to be one thing, one onton. Maybe it’s not: maybe some things are different. Maybe talking to spirits is different from making a talisman in a very fundamental way; they certainly feel very different. But if they are, it seems strange that the same sorts of habit of mind, the same sorts of skills, are useful in both.

What I’m not saying is that culture doesn’t matter or is just decoration. I’m not saying that we should discount people’s experiences (the exact opposite!). I’m not saying that nothing exists but culture (again, the exact opposite!). I think that culture matters a lot and one of the decisions we make when we do magic is how our culture shapes that magic.

We have the advantage of knowing what some of the onta are that govern the behavior of our world. We know the equations of force, thanks to Newton. What we don’t know are the onta that govern magic, and I think it’d be interesting to think about how we might find that out. Because I don’t think science can do it. Which is the subject of a future post.