Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Language and magic

Some time ago, I got to discussing Psychic Questing with one of the guests who was at a talk I delivered on psychic questing.  The talk in question is actually reproduced elsewhere in this blog.  This lady (apparently a psychologist) seemed very obsessed with labelling things and fitting things into these labels, using a hammer if necessary. It was clear that throughout this she didn’t really understand a lot of terms common in our culture such as "wiccan" as well as common terms such as "group". Part of this can of course be put down to the academic use of words which occasionally has become so specialised that they lose any real meaning in the real-world. She seemed to have particular problems with the term "group mind".

All this has got me thinking a little and I started wondering what the impact of the language we use is to the understanding and practice of magic. Judging by this woman’s reaction I believe that she never had very clear definitions in her head of what she was talking about and this lead to her labelling people completely out of context. I feel that labelling people and generalising is dodgy at the best of times, however when one doesn’t even know the meaning of the terms being used it becomes linguistic and social suicide.

My first thoughts on this is that in magic we have inherited a very messy jargon and often peoples meaning of these words has changed, often in a very imprecise way leading to much confusion. Sometimes the words have stuck even though the original ideas leading to these words have died. Another problem is that we have several different definitions of the same word which can cause further problem.

For example we often find the word "Etheric" bandied about. I would imagine that this word entered the vocabulary in the later years of the Victorian era. Physics at the time was working on how light (as a wave) propagates across an area and postulated a "fluid" substance between the points where light is shining called the "Luminiferous Ether" or just "Ether". It is the vibrations in this fluid which is the medium on which the light waves travel, imagined in a similar way to how sound waves travel in air.

I should be clear here that my use of the word "fluid" is not meant to intend a liquid such as the common use of the word implies, rather it is a substance filling a volume in the same way that a liquid might - this nicely illustrates the confusion the use of an incorrect word or jargon can cause and emphasises the importance of defining terms when speaking about complex technical subjects such as magic or physics. Science certainly wasn’t postulating that space was filled with a liquid which would be a possible misconception readers might have if I were to not define the word "fluid".

Anyway, physicists early ideas on fluid were initially popular and much mention of this was made in the relevant journals. This was jumped on by the Theosophists who incorporated this term in their jargon to describe the vessel which carried the consciousness in an out of body experience. It has also been used by magicians, spiritualists etc and was seen as science catching up with magic and as a consequence the scientific terms of the day were pulled into the jargon.

Sadly science moved on and the ideas of a Luminiferous Ether were discarded. One of the nails in its coffin was Einstein’s Special Relativity which redefined many concepts previously expressed through "ether physics" with electrodynamics theory (Maxwell’s rule etc) which proved more accurate. These showed that ether was not necessary for light waves to propagate across a space. It was finally killed off when it was realised that particles possess wave/particle duality so a medium for waves to travel were not required in order to explain the observations. Wave/Particle duality itself is a big problem still being worked on, however it has left us in a world where ether has been superseded; mostly by Einstein’s General Relativity.

This is great because it allows a much more interesting universe to exist (or at least be described) and (very importantly) allows us to frame concepts in physics such as Time Travel which were previously not possible. I believe that in the future this greater ability to frame concepts will have a tremendous influence on magic. That’s a whole different discussion however.  It also sadly means that I will never get to buy a Luminiferous Etheromatic detector which sounds too cool for words.

For occultists however a consequence of all this is that journals stopped publishing papers on the Ether. At this point in history the scientific canon of knowledge was much smaller that it is today and it was very possible for someone to know everything known. As knowledge increased this became harder and harder until the need for specialisation developed. This was also the point at the turn of the 20th century where a lot of new concepts started emerging all at once. General Relativity was being discussed in the "New Scientist" type journals of the day, Quantum theory was just around the corner and Science was ablaze even though Einstein (one of its founders) hated many of the consequences of it. Science also started getting very inaccessible for the layperson. I suspect this is why it took so long for occultists to start bringing these ideas into magic.

For example it was relatively recently when Peter Carroll reframed the four elements in terms of the four basic natural interactions (Gravity, Electromagnetic, Strong Nuclear and Weak Nuclear). I am not sure this was altogether a good idea on Carroll’s part simply because it makes them even more inaccessible. How many people get a feel of the elements from the original terms (Earth, Air, Fire, Water compared to those who get a feel for terms such as "Weak Nuclear force"?

The Ether was left in the jargon of the occult however as a relic. It wasn’t simply relevant anymore and clearly not linked to the 21st century science. In practice this has not really been a problem as we can say that Ether is still something, just not the same sort of thing physics was talking about.

I think that one thing we can learn from this is that I don’t think we need to connect magic and science or seek justification of one in another. One is experiential, the other empirical, both are fantastic and I don’t want to be seen as dismissing science as it has formed a large chunk of my academic background and I am not deserting it, merely trying to place it in context.

I also feel that we are in danger of making the same “etheric blunder” by comparing and trying to redefine magic in terms of “quantum theory”, “chaos theory” “brane theory” or whatever the next big topic will be. Parts may have similarity with magic but we need to see this in context not just draw on elements which match a small part and disregard the whole. Perhaps we are looking at the trees but missing the wood.

At this point in history I do not think that Science is able to explain how magic works. I am being very careful with my words here. Science can not and should not explain magic (in the explaining away sense); to do so would be to accept that magic is really a part of physics and I don’t think that it needs bringing under this umbrella. Neither magic nor science needs to seek justification in each other and I personally have no problems living in a universe where the two (or more) world-views are inconsistent with each other.

Inconsistencies seem to be a part of reality. For example Quantum theory and classical theory are inconsistent with each other and there is no (known) way to map the two together. We might be able to understand this by looking at Godel's theorem.

My use of the term theorem here is important, and I don’t want to lapse into jargon. A theory is something which looks likely based on the observed evidence however can never be completely proven because to do so we would need to examine every case of the phenomena in question. For example I could have a theory that all swans are white based upon my observation of swans, however I could never be sure of this as to do so would be to examine every swan that ever lived. A theorem is however a mathematical proof and it is something we can be certain of. For example Pythagoras's theorem that a2 + b2 = c2 is shown to work for any right angled triangle mathematically - we don’t have to measure every such triangle to test this.

My swan example is also interesting as it shows how to disprove my theory that all swans are white. Rather than test all white swans (impossible), all one needs to do is produce one black swan. As we can see science works by disproving things. Again we have the instance where the need to be sceptical forms the basis of scientific enquiry which would be antagonistic to the demonstration of magic which requires a level of belief. I also suggest that a sceptical approach means one will not be open to holes in ones model of the world which might allow such phenomena.

For example if we consider the case for apports. The record of peoples paranormal experience suggests that apports exist. However physics in lacking a mechanism to work with the phenomena can only look at each individual case and attempt to dismiss the case. It cannot look into the underlying mechanism behind the phenomena to understand how one might be generated. This failure in epistemology is I believe the problem experienced when physics hits any paranormal subject.

Kurt Godel was a logician who postulated two incompleteness theorems. The theorems themselves are largely incomprehensible in their technical statement - I refer you to the relevant wikipedia pages for an idea of this. However what they bottle down to is saying that no system of description can be perfectly consistent - eventually inconsistencies and strange loops will become apparent which form paradoxes.

For example "This statement is a lie” cannot be resolved. If true, it becomes false and if false becomes true. So it will be eternally flipping between one state or another. The works of MC Escher provide a more graphical example of a strange loop such as shown with his picture of hands drawing each other

This shows that inconsistencies and paradox are actually a part of reality and that we (are lucky enough to) live in such a world where we can express and produce examples of paradox so simply, perhaps shows that the universe has no problem with paradoxes.

Actually I think that that might depend on the nature of reality and dimensionality. A paradox will be invisible to anyone caught up inside it, and to see it one needs to step outside. The inconsistent sentence above provides an example of this. Each time it is read it remains internally consistent. It is only when it is read and evaluated does its meaning crystallise and immediately change its nature.

Similarly with MC Escher’s hands it is only by looking from outside onto the image does the strange loop become apparent. In their own context each hand is existing in a perfectly consistent reality.

So, I don’t see a problem with a universe consisting of numerous descriptions - magic, science, various creation myths etc all conflicting with each other yet forming a part of a greater pattern. We don’t need to resolve whether science or magic is true just because the two are inconsistent with each other, the universe has shown us that it doesn’t mind inconsistencies - and we have just demonstrated this both artistically and linguistically.

In fact these inconsistencies might need to be necessary at least with regards to magic. If we step back and consider results magic for a moment, it generally works following the path of least resistance and generating a coincidence. Crowley made a comment once (I think it was in Confessions) where he mentioned a working to get a friend to write to him. He reported success and also suggested that the working had to reach back in time as the letter must have been posted before his working was performed in order to reach him the next day.
  To make one change means that all of reality will need to be rewoven.

Similarly often I feel the energy for a working building the whole day before it starts (usually in the evening). Occasionally this has happened even when I achieved an invite for an evening working without expecting it - ruling out autosuggestion, which is given far too much credence than it really deserves.

I don’t think in either case we can say that the magic is reaching back in time. I would rather suggest that magic works (or at least reaches) outside the current context and somehow is able to reweave part of reality in order to achieve its results from outside. In this sense it is the hand drawing itself, but it is not possible to perceive that from the angle we are looking from.

I feel I have digressed somewhat so lets get things back on track talking about language. Western magic is left in a somewhat embarrassing position in that we have very little native jargon of our own. The most common terms we have are inherited from a number of sources including:

i. Science or Superseded Science

ii Eastern Sources such as tantra
iii Sources inherited from a particular tradition such as Qabalah. Often these are used generically.

This is no bad thing and the eclectic nature of magic brings in many philosophies. Each of which may (or may not) be equally valid. However a confusion of the terms can cause problems and lead to all sorts of situations. For example in Tantra we have the concepts of the Chakra's. In the West we often find systems based upon this and use a system of Chakra's which is not necessary the same as what was taught in the east. This too is fine. What I have problems with is when terminology such as chakra's is used (for example) to describe the sephiroth in the middle pillar.

We see this everywhere for example a scan through recent publications shows that there are now

  • Voodoo and Enochian Tarot Decks
  • Goetic Reiki
  • What next - Satanic healing?

I think that there is a potential "physical" danger in this with people bringing in Eastern breathing techniques which should really be taught on a one-on-one basis being mixed with whatever system the writer thinks would work well - for all we know with no experience on the authors part apart from a bit of reading.

I think an equally dangerous result of this is also that all this mixing is going to create a lot of white noise. Very specific terms get diluted too much and we lose the meaning of the original terms. "Chakra" becomes synonymous with any energy centre regardless of the underlying philosophy, "Reiki" might start referring to any form of healing etc

My view is this can cause problems. Whilst there are similarities in practice between working with kundalini energy by activating each chakra in sequence, compared with performing the Qabalistic Middle Pillar there are also massive differences and (for example) the Yesod Sephiroth does not correspond to the Svadhisthana chakra although (like anything) correlations can be found. Each term is really the produce of different philosophies and will inherit a ton of cultural baggage. I don’t have any problems with cultural appropriation (maybe I should?) but I think that if we are going to do this, as well as the respect needed to take up any spiritual practice, we also need to maintain a rigorous discipline to understand the background and history of the practice as much as possible and not take in terms in a woolly sense. To use an analogy this really needs the equivalent of a PhD level study in the subject – something we should all have in our chosen subjects anyway; regardless of the need for a formal academic paper.

We frame our thoughts in language but it is more that that, because our language arises out of experience - in part what we are taught from our parents as we learn to speak, but afterwards from out own thoughts, they define what we focus on and at least for myself most of my vocabulary, my use of words and concepts which (as with everyone) grow beyond childhood proto-conversations through experience in life, study choices and also a desire to play with words. In this sense our language is as much dependant upon our thoughts as our thoughts are upon our language. Again, we have another strange "self defining" loop constantly reiterating and redefining itself.

My language itself took a quantum leap when I discovered Kenneth Grants Typhonian trilogies. Initially I found Grant very difficult to read even through his wordplay evoked such scintillating worlds in my mind. Grant stretches language to its limits, finding the language to express that which is often ineffable. Speaking for myself I have found that taking these concepts and allowing them to expand the mind provides a bridge across the inconsistencies in the fabric of reality enabling us to explore these worlds.

I think this is vital. If we take a view that our thoughts are dependant upon language and the act of expanding our language and the concepts expressible in our language will expand our minds and ultimately our magical reach.

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