11 June 2011

Magick, reason, and science

This, in a nutshell, is how I reconcile magickal practice and the understanding of reality we get from the natural sciences.

I take Uncle Al's maxim “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” to mean that magick is to one's personal, subjective experience of one's life as science is to the physical universe. Your life is the material you're working with in magick.

Obviously your subjective experience is profoundly conditioned by your encounter with the material cosmos. What you see is shaped by what's in your head, yes. But what you're looking at, outside your head, also has a big effect. (At least, it does if you're sane.)

Science organizes the application of reason to the physical universe through the use of meticulous experimentation and observation within controlled conditions, confirming its models of the world through reproducible results. These rigorous standards produce High Quality Truth. Let me say that again. Science produces High Quality Truth. If you are wise, you will not fuck with it.

Magick organizes the application of reason to your life through the use of meticulous experimentation and observation ... but in your life you cannot have controlled conditions, and you cannot get neatly reproducible results. In studying your life, it is impossible to use the full rigorous standards of science. But you can still apply reason and experiment to get very useful results.

Science produces models of how the physical universe works. Models are regarded as strong to the degree that they predict what the universe does, using the simplest explanation of the widest range of phenomena. Again, this marvelously rigorous standard gives us extremely reliable models. These models tell us that at the scale we live in the cosmos has crisp, mechanical rules for causality in which the operations of the mind do not directly affect what the cosmos does.

Yeah, yeah, quantum mechanics, I know. QM does not apply at human scales. Do not kid yourself with some What The Bleep bullshit about how QM proves that the universe is just craaaazy. It does not. That is fucking with the High Quality Truth of science, and I warned you about that. The world of people and teacups and cheeseburgers that we live in is Newton's clockwork automaton. But don't worry, it has plenty of room for magick.

Magick produces models of how your life works. Consider two types of models that can describe the effects that you get: Consciousness and Spookiness. In the Consciousness model, you understand a magickal operation as having altered the processes of your mind, resulting in changes in behavior and perception that produce the effects that you get. In the Spookiness model, you understand a magickal operation as having connected to spooky patterns in the cosmos (gods! angels! demons! egregores!) which use spooky means to reshape the cosmos, bringing the effect to you.

Both models provide explanations of the results you get from magickal practice. Early in your magickal practice the Consciousness model seems tidy and straightforward — “after the ritual for A New Job, I started talking to people about A New Job more, started preparing for it, started looking for it, so it's no surprise that I was able to bring myself A New Job when I bumped into it in the form of Jane at that cocktail party” — while the Spooky model seems elaborate and tortured and, frankly, a little goofy. This is comfortingly consistent with Newton's clockwork universe that we know about from science; you can see all the material, causal connections at work. But as your magical practice progresses, the Consciousness explanations you can come up with for the magickal effects you get become increasingly elaborate and tortured ... while the Spooky explanations become increasingly tidy and straightforward.

Models should be regarded as strong to the degree that they predict what your life does, using the simplest explanation of the widest range of phenomena.

Both explanations will always continue to apply. You will never get magickal results that outright conflict with a Consciousness model consistent with the scientific understanding of the material world. But your life is inherently a great big irreproducible result, with plenty of room for the improbable. Looking at your life, performing magickal experiments, seeking the simplest explanation, things can get very, very Spooky.


Greg said...

Good piece, and I think you might say A LOT more about the nature of the spookiness model. From a hard scientific perspective, from a purely rational p.o.v., it is, as you put it "goofy," and is usually elaborate and tortured. So, how is it that the consciousness model eventually becomes elaborate and tortured in the face of magical experience? And what is the process whereby magical practice and the spooky model become simple (even if unrepeatable in the hard science sense)? It seems to me that this transformation (that you allude to) is precisely what needs unpacking/unfolding....etc.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Thank you for putting this so clearly.

your life is inherently a great big irreproducible result

This is the key. Science has the luxury of saying "Only accept what has been rigorously proven." We don't have that luxury in our individual lives.

I differ a little bit about "using the simplest explanation of the widest range of phenomena". That's an aesthetic standard for judging beliefs -- one that has been shown to have great practical advantages for generating High Quality Truth in science. In judging the truths of our lives, we need multiple aesthetic standards -- simplicity of explanation for science, depth of heart for relationships, profusion of imagination for dreaming the world into being.

These standards conflict with each other -- that comes with living inside of a big irreproducible result.

Jonathan Korman said...

Greg, that is a very good, and very big question. I commend Lon Milo DuQuette's memoir My Life With The Spirits, which provides much better examples than I could.

Angelweed, well said.

Greg said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Jonathan. I also appreciate Angelweed's comments; they are consistent with your piece.

Greg said...

Looked at DuQuette's bio on Amazon and he looks very interesting. But perhaps "you" might take this further. It seems to me that the consciousness model is about dealing with objects, subtle or dense, while the spooky model is not about "me" dealing with "that" but somehow includes the spooky sense that things are being "sorted" from a place other than "I". I would assume/guess that the spooky method would include techniques in which we learn how to enter that place or to recognize that "that place" is already "here". Are rites, in fact, a way of inducing that awareness and providing a path to enter/recognize "that place"?
You may not be inclined to engage the supposition, but I felt like there is more in your grasp of this than you reveal and I would be interested in how you see it.

Amy Hale said...

Hooray! High Quality Truth is a good phrase. I guess knowing that many results aren't repeatable and that there are tons of variables we as magickal people work with (which can hook us into the spooky) is ok with me. I think that us soft science folks are pretty comfortable working in the grey areas. If I can't get reliable, I'm very happy with valid.

Abbathoniah said...

"Science produces High Quality Truth. If you are wise, you will not fuck with it."

I nominate this for the best fucking quote of the century!

Abbathoniah said...

By "Spooky" are you referring to what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance i.e. Bell's Theorem?

Jonathan Korman said...

Abbathonia, you have correctly discerned my little allusion, yes.

Anonymous said...

For the science part, I recommend Nancy Cartwright's "The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science."

As far as the desire for the illusion of control goes, I will tell a story. When I was just learning how to drive, when my mom would ride with me, should would press her food against the passenger floorboard when it was time for me to brake. She was so terrified, and had such a need to feel some kind of control, she had the need to do this. It must have, on some level, provided some comfort.

Joon said...

Thank you for this post. I too am pondering about the balance between reason and intuition. Your model of consciousness and 'spookiness' which I'd rather name higher consciousness seems to match my sentiment. Though I'd like to add my 2 cents.

Magick is science. Through the hypothesis of will, we experiment with rites and meditation. The only real difference is that mechanical science produces quick observable results while magickal science requires continuous effort for an indefinate amount of time to evoke the desired phenomenon. As such, hypothesis becomes rather like faith, particularly and precisely that of one's own intuition, that may extend to the faith in gods and the supernatural. It is when intuition becomes concrete enough that one gains experience in determining which rites to use for which ends. That concrete intuition may exactly be what you may refer to spookiness.

Also, while Mechanical Newtonian science is powerful in this macrocosm, it is only through hardcore possibilities. Normally such improbabilities does not, indeed can not ever, produce magickal supernatural phenomenon by its self. But, to each own of the faith in his own intuition, the methods to such manipulation are still excavated by those such as me.

Jonathan Korman said...

Indeed, though I'd say it the other way around: science is a form of magick which produces tidy observable results ....