Sunday, December 21, 2014

Surfing the Astral Light

In making sense of the astral light, the concept introduced in last month’s post on The Well of Galabes, it’s worth keeping in mind that operative mages are by and large more concerned with using magic than they are with proving its existence and efficacy to hostile skeptics The concerns of materialists or, for that matter, the dubious logic generally deployed in attempts to defend materialist skepticism these days, aren’t of great interest to most of the serious practitioners of magic I’ve met; if the skeptics don’t wish to help themselves to the practical benefits of magic, why should the mages care?

Thus the concept of the astral light is not presented by magical literature as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. It’s probably necessary to point out that this doesn’t make it meaningless. Falsifiable scientific hypotheses are extremely useful in that large but not limitless realm to which the methods of science apply—broadly speaking, those aspects of human experience that are subject to replicable quantitative measurement—but they reach no further.  Such statements as “I love you,” “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives me also,” and “government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed” are not falsifiable scientific hypotheses, either, but I hope most of my readers will admit that they mean something, and in their own spheres, something of importance.

So, too, the concept of the astral light. Because magic deals with consciousness and the whole systems that relate to it, it’s fiendishly difficult to quantify, and even harder to replicate exactly under controlled conditions. (How do you control for, say, the difference in the lifetime’s worth of experiences between one human mind and another?). Thus operative mages make use of concepts that are, strictly speaking, little more than rules of thumb, rough generalizations that reflect the experiences of magical practice. The only justifications for this practice are that, first, since the subjective phenomena of consciousness aren’t quantifiable or strictly replicable, generalizations are the only tools we’ve got; second, the generalizations in question do a very good job of reflecting the experiences that people encounter when they take up magical practice; and third, they also have an important pedagogical function.

This last point is at least as important as the first two. To understand how it works, it’ll be helpful to go back to the points made in the very first post on this blog, and remember how it is that this thing we call the world comes into being. As I noted then, the world isn’t sitting “out there” waiting for us to see it exactly as it is; what’s “out there,” scientists assure us, consists entirely of wholly unimaginable quantum-level stresses in the fabric of four-dimensional spacetime.  Those stresses impinge on our sense organs in certain strictly limited ways—did you notice the burst of neutrinos that went whizzing by just now? Neither did any other human being—and those sense organs trigger reactions in your nervous system; your mind then assembles those reactions into a coherent pattern, according to a template that’s partly biological, partly cultural, and partly individual, and that’s your world.

For most people, under most circumstances, the process of creating a world out of the fragmentary glimpses handed us by the senses isn’t a conscious thing. Still, it can be shaped by conscious action, and one of the most useful ways to shape the process is by changing the focus of attention.

This is something that every scientist learns early on in his or her university training. If you’re just beginning the study of botany, for example, odds are that you’ve only paid cursory attention to the trees and plants you see every day; you might be able to recognize a dozen species of trees and as many lawn and garden weeds, but how many people actually take the time, let’s say, to examine a blade of grass an inch at a time through a magnifying lens? As you study plant physiology and structure, put in the hours keying out plants in the laboratory, and tromp through the mud on field identification walks, what used to be a vague green background turns into something considerably richer: a galaxy of complex, meaningful structures that can be read and understood, and can teach you things that the uninstructed don’t notice. This plant tells you that the ground where it grows tends to be soggy in winter; that one tells you that the soil is poor in nitrogen; the tree up on the hill, which belongs to a species normally found far to the north, reveals the otherwise hidden history of climate change in your region over the last ten or twenty thousand years, and so on.

At the heart of that reshaping of awareness is a process of using concepts to focus the attention Before your first botany class, you may have looked at leaves on stems any number of times, but without the technical vocabulary of the botanist, it might never have occurred to you to notice the difference between those plants that have leaves in pairs on either side of the stem and those that have them unpaired—in botanical terms, between opposite and alternate habits. Simple and compound leaves, palmate and pinnate veins, entire, dentate, and serrate leaf edges, and the rest of the incantatory vocabulary of the field botanist: all of that permits botanists to communicate exact details of plant structure to one another, but it also, and crucially, focuses the attention of the novice botanist onto exactly those details that allow plant structure to be understood.

That sort of refocusing of attention on details that might otherwise be neglected is central to most kinds of education. It certainly plays a crucial role in magical training and initiation, and the use of concepts to focus attention is just as important to the neophyte occultist as it is to the beginner in botany. The astral light, as a concept, has a central part in that process. Whether or not you’ve had any previous exposure to occult philosophy, dear reader, and even if you consider the subject of this blog to be the worst sort of superstitious malarkey, imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as the astral light—a vast field of subtle substance streaming out from the Sun to fill the solar system and everything in it, intangible to the physical senses and to all the instruments so far devised, but clearly perceptible to certain less widely recognized capacities of human consciousness. Imagine that this field permeates your body and that of every other living and nonliving thing, and that the phenomena discussed in last month’s post are among its many effects.

That’s a core aspect of the universe as understood by traditional occult philosophy. Like the details of plant structure studied by botanists, it directs attention toward certain things that are otherwise very often neglected by the untrained.

Let’s take an example that may be familiar to some readers. Members of a certain generation used to talk about the “vibe” of a place, a person, or a situation: “The scene had a really groovy vibe early on, but once that dude in the leather vest showed up, man, the vibe got heavy in a hurry”—that sort of thing. It’s a convenient shorthand for a dimension of human experience that normally gets brushed aside as an irrelevance in modern industrial societies: one of many things we dump into the grab-bag category called “feelings” in English, and generally ignore.

Pay attention to the vibe or, if you prefer, the feeling that occurs in different places, though, and you may just begin to notice that it’s something distinct from other senses of the word “feeling,” such as your emotional states or the internal sensations produced by the nerve endings in your viscera. The more closely you attend to it, the more complex the experience becomes and the more likely it is to communicate information that has practical value. With practice, attending to the vibe becomes a sensory modality of remarkable complexity and power, as useful as eyes or ears.  I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve used it in unfamiliar towns to find used book stores and cheap dives with good food.  No, I don’t expect you to take that on faith; start directing attention to your surroundings in the way I’ve just suggested, and see what results you get.

(A digression about occult slang might be useful at this point. Most of the older systems of occult philosophy still in circulation use the 19th-century terminology of “planes,” and speak of the mental plane, the etheric plane, and so on; we’ll get to those and the common human experiences involved in them in a later post. The material plane, in this way of speaking, is the world as known by the five ordinary senses and instruments based on them: basically, the world as known by modern science.  The other two, or four, or six planes—depending on the specifics of the system of occult philosophy you’re studying—tend to get lumped together in ordinary conversation among mages as “the inner planes,” and the material world is called “the outer plane” It’s a very rough categorization but a useful one.

(The “vibe” or “feeling” we’ve been talking about belongs to the category of inner plane experiences, and when an inner plane experience checks out in material, verifiable terms, that’s called an “outer plane check.” Operative mages tend to pay close attention to outer plane checks, since those offer one of the very few ways to calibrate inner plane perceptions. When a perception turns out to be a dud—which of course does happen; inner plane perceptions are no more infallible than, say, eyesight, and suffer from their own equivalents of optical illusions and eye trouble—it’s not uncommon to hear the discomfited mage say something like, “Yeah, my outer plane check just bounced.”

(Which shows, if nothing else, that occultists have their own quirky sense of humor. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Well of Galabes post.)

The standard explanation in magical philosophy for what I’ve been calling vibes and feelings is that the astral light isn’t uniform; it’s influenced—colored or flavored, perhaps, depending on your choice of sensory metaphor—by a very broad range of phenomena, including human thoughts and feelings. These influences, in turn, can be sensed and interpreted by someone who’s taken the time to pay attention to them and learn how to read them.

Does this mean that there’s actually a vast field of subtle substance streaming outwards from the Sun, interpenetrating all things, picking up influences and communicating them to attentive minds? That’s an excellent question to which, as far as I know, nobody knows the answer. It may be that something exists that corresponds closely to the traditional concept. It may be that something very different is responsible.  It may be, for that matter, that “the astral light” is a convenient catchall term for several different effects that influence the human nervous system in various ways, and can be perceived and used by those who learn to pay attention to them.

We simply don’t know.  What we do know—“we,” here, meaning operative mages—is that if you approach “vibes” with the concept of the astral light in mind, and treat them as though they’re perceptions of a vast field of subtle substance, etc., you pretty reliably get certain useful results. Since, as previously noted, operative mages tend to be more interested in using magic than in proving its existence and efficacy to hostile skeptics, they don’t tend to worry too much about the matter.

The same vibes or feelings, by the way, are affected by time as well as by place. It’s not just that the color or flavor or whatever you want to call it changes over time as new influences overlie older ones; there appear to be cyclic processes that move through the astral light like tides, affecting different “vibes” in distinct ways. Most magical traditions thus include systems that allow these cycles to be tracked. Now of course that brings us up against another of the classic hot-button topics in this field, because the most widely known of these systems in the Western world just now is astrology. It’s not the only option by a long shot; operative mages, depending on their choice of occult philosophy and practice, may use the planetary hours, the tattwas, the velocia, or any of more than a dozen other systems; still, astrology’s the one the skeptics have heard of.

The standard pseudoskeptical arguments against astrology would in some ways have made an even better example of last month’s point than either homeopathy or acupressure, in that they’re among the most impressive displays of circular logic in contemporary pop culture. Why doesn’t astrology work? Because there’s no way for planets millions of miles away in space to affect events here on Earth. How do we know that there’s no way for planets to do that? Because scientists haven’t detected anything that would cause such effects. Have they looked? No, because there isn’t one, and we know that because astrology doesn’t work. Mix in an impressive degree of ignorance about the history and practice of astrology, and you’ve basically got the party line. It’s bad enough that schools of astrology routinely assign Objections to Astrology, the 1977 screed by Paul Kurtz et al, as required reading for students; there’s no better way to demonstrate that most critics of astrology literally know nothing about it.

Still, we can leave a more detailed discussion of that for a later post, because the value of astrology and its kindred systems in magical training doesn’t depend on whether the movement of planets through the astral light does in fact set up complex wave patterns that propagate throughout the solar system, with predictable effects for those of us surfing the astral light here on Earth. (That’s a standard explanation for astrology in the sort of old-fashioned occult philosophy I favor.) The point to systems of timing in magical training is that they focus attention on what, resorting again to metaphor, we may as well call the texture of time.  The standard scientific notion of time as a featureless continuum with no qualities of its own works well enough when you’re focusing on the kind of phenomena physicists study, but the closer your field of study gets to the subjective phenomena of consciousness, the less valid that notion becomes.

Pay attention to the vibe or feeling of different times, in fact, and it becomes hard to miss the fact that some times are better for certain activities than others. The conceptual language of magical timing systems focuses attention on that aspect of human experience, and helps the mage in training learn how to sense the changing textures of time and act in accordance with them. Mind you, a good case can be made that at least some of the cycles tracked by these systems have a reality that goes beyond their value as pedagogical tools, but again, that’s a point I don’t expect anyone to take on faith; the best way to explore that—the standard way in magical training of the old-fashioned sort, in fact—is to start using some such system on a daily basis, and see what kind of results you get.

So these perceptions I’m calling vibes or feelings vary with changes in place, and they also vary with changes in time. What else? Changes in activity, of course, and the kind of activity that matters most to the novice mage in training is ritual.

It so happens that certain patterns of human action—certain combinations of gesture, movement, vocalization, mental imagery, and focused intention—have effects on the vibe or feeling of the place where they’re done, at and after the time when they’re done. That’s one of the two factors behind ritual magic. The other is applied psychology, and this latter is probably the more important of the two; a vast amount of what can be done through magical practice depends utterly on the use of emotionally charged symbols, dramatic action, and an assortment of other means to reorient the unreasoning levels of the human mind. That said, what occult philosophy calls the astral light is also involved, and ritual, like so much else in occult training, functions as a pedagogical tool to direct attention toward that intangible but important factor.

Here’s how it works.  When you take up one of the classic systems of ceremonial magic, among the things you get assigned early on is a simple ritual, which is performed daily. The specific ritual varies somewhat from tradition to tradition, but it’s usually intended to produce, in the terms I’ve been using in this post, a balanced and healthy vibe—I suppose, given the recurrent reference to Sixties slang, I ought to say “a really groovy vibe, man” instead. It doesn’t have any more specific or practical purpose. You perform it daily, usually right before your daily meditation, and for the first few weeks or months, what you get out of it can be explained wholly by the psychological side of things.

Psychological devices, though, tend to lose their immediate emotional and cognitive impact with time and repetition. (There are other, subtler shifts in psychology that come from repeated ritual, but that’s a subject for a different post.) After the first few weeks or months, whatever emotional charge you got at first from doing a magical ritual fades; the cognitive effects settle into a rut; the ritual becomes familiar, and then dull, and tolerably often it strays over the line from merely dull into nightmarishly tedious for at least a little while in there. It’s usually around the time that this latter point is reached that you begin to notice that after you’ve done the ritual, something really did change in the place where you did it, and the change lingers there for a while before fading out into the background.

This is usually the make-or-break point in magical training. A certain number of students, no matter how enthusiastic they may have been up to that point, start to sense something happening in their ritual work that pretty clearly isn’t inside their heads, slam face first into the fact that what they’re doing is no longer just dress-up games and make-believe, and run like rabbits for the nearest exit. Even those who have the necessary gumption to stick with the training tend to freak out at this point; teachers of magic know to expect the panicked phone call or email from those of their students who actually do the work, and get used to reassuring those on the other end of these conversations that no, they’re not crazy, even though they just experienced something that our culture insists is impossible.

Once that point is passed, ritual becomes something more than an elegant system of do-it-yourself psychodrama—though it remains that, of course; psychology is an integral part of ritual. Once that point is passed, more broadly, magical practice in the richest sense of the word comes within reach, though there’s a great deal of learning and practical work that still has to be done to turn reach into grasp. It’s a lot of work, like anything else that matters. The one consolation is that it’s accessible to anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort—or more precisely, anyone who’s willing to keep doing so in the face of the make-or-break point just mentioned.

It can be helpful to think of that point as the moment at which the astral light stops being a theory and turns into an experience. That’s a shock for people raised in modern Western industrial cultures, for reasons that go all the way down into the grimy crawlspaces of our collective worldview. Once you have to face the possibility that the astral light or something like it might actually exist, after all, you then have to face the possibility that it might be...

...inhabited.

We’ll talk about that next month.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Two Impossible Realities: A Second Interlude

The logical fallacies discussed in last month’s post here on The Well of Galabes aren’t simply a product of sloppy thinking. As already noted, they serve a specific purpose, which is to protect a particular set of beliefs from criticism. Every society in what I’ve termed the Dragon phase of its history, the stage in which it fossilizes intellectually around the achievements of its past, makes use of some such set of dodges to defend its preferred belief system against all comers; every society in the Dragon phase of its history, equally, insists at the top of its lungs that this isn’t what’s going on—no, it’s always presented as the noble defense of truth and reason against an inexplicably rising tide of sheer craziness.

Some of my readers last month insisted, though, that they’d never actually seen anyone use any of the three fallacies I outlined. I find that easy to believe; it’s only a minority among us who spend our time in contexts where what historians of ideas call “rejected knowledge” comes under heavy fire from the defenders of scientific orthodoxy. Fortunately there are topics that always bring on a counterattack of this sort, and it so happens that one of those topics also makes a solid if roundabout introduction to the side of magic that isn’t applied psychology: the side that depends on something that according to the conventional wisdom of our time, does not, cannot, and must not exist.

My own experiences as a longtime participant in the occult scene give me a fairly broad knowledge of the topic in question. It so happens that, at least in America, old-fashioned occult schools routinely got into alternative methods of health care. There are sociological reasons why this was generally the case, and also reasons woven into the theory and practice of magic, which we’ll discuss in a later post; the point that’s relevant just now is that, if you got the kind of traditional occult education I did, during the years when I got it (or for most of a century before that time), it’s a safe bet that you learned at least one, and more commonly more than one, of the health care modalities that our current crop of rationalists like to denounce as so much delusion and fraud.

Here’s an example. In 1873, a German physician named Wilhelm SchΓΌssler started treating diseases with special preparations of the twelve mineral salts that are present in the human body in macroscopic quantities; in case anyone’s interested, those are calcium fluoride, calcium phosphate, calcium sulphate, iron phosphate, potassium chloride, potassium phosphate, potassium sulphate, magnesium phosphate, sodium chloride, sodium phosphate, sodium sulphate, and silicon dioxide. Back in the day, those were called “biochemic tissue salts;” nowadays the term that’s normally used is “cell salts.”

There were a lot of innovative therapeutic systems in circulation in those days, and a great deal of lively competition among different approaches to healing diseases and maintaining good health. From the 1870s straight through to the legal prohibition of alternative healing in the 1950s, healing methods using the cell salts had a significant market share of the health care field, and they remained in widespread use even after many other alternative methods fell by the wayside—thus, for example, you can still buy bottles of cell salts in many American health food stores today. Part of the reason for their survival is that they ended up being adopted by a variety of occult schools, and taught to generations of students of magic. The other reason—well, we’ll get to that in due time.

To the proponents of conventional medicine, by contrast, cell salts are pure witchcraft. There’s more than one reason for that judgment, but we’ll ignore for now the obvious matter of financial interest—it’s not polite to point out, after all, that there’s a 1.00 correlation between those health care modalities that make profits for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and those that today’s rationalists call scientific and evidence-based, just as there’s a 1.00 correlation between those health care modalities that today’s rationalists denounce as superstition and fraud and those that don’t make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries. The other reason, the ostensible reason, is that cell salts are prepared using homeopathic methods.

(Before we go on, I want to ask all my readers, especially those who consider themselves scientific rationalists, to take the time to read what follows, and not simply react to it like one of Pavlov’s dogs to a ringing bell. It’s quite standard for rationalists these days, the moment they encounter a naughty word such as “homeopathic,” to run off at once to one of those websites where true believers heap up talking points to use against heretics—the same reaction, by the way, that sends Christian fundamentalists running off to equivalent websites at the sound of a naughty word such as “evolution,” and the websites in either case are about equally accurate. Those who do run off to such a website, and come back spewing talking points irrelevant to this discussion, will be publicly humiliated. Thank you, and we’ll now proceed with the discussion.)

Here’s how you manufacture a cell salt. You take, let’s say, one gram of pure sodium sulphate, and nine grams of an inert substance—lactose, milk sugar, has been standard for the last century or so. You mix them, and then put them into a device that subjects the mixture to steady vibration for a good long time. This step, which is called succussion, is essential; if you don’t do it, you just end up with dilute sodium sulphate, without the distinctive biological reaction that homeopathic medicines have. You then repeat this same process—take the ten grams of your mixture, add ninety grams of lactose, and succuss it—and repeat it again a fixed number of times. For cell salts, that’s almost always six repetitions of 1/10 dilution followed by succussion, resulting in what chemists call one part per million of sodium sulphate, and homeopaths call the sixth decimal dilution or, in the shorthand that appears on labels, 6x. 

If you were to dissolve a good-sized dose of pure sodium sulphate in water and choke it down, you’d get nausea, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and perhaps some liver trouble. When you prepare sodium sulphate for cell salt use by dilution and succussion, though, what you get is a medicine that treats nausea, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, liver trouble, and an assortment of related symptoms. That’s the distinctive biological effect I mentioned above. Furthermore, if you don’t have nausea or one of the other specific symptoms that homeopathically prepared sodium sulphate treats, and you take a dose, it has no noticeable effect at all.

Now of course the claim on the part of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment is that Natrum sulph. 6x (that’s the standard shorthand for the medicine we’re discussing) has no noticeable effect at all, no matter what symptoms you may be having. All I can say in response is that the cell salts have been one of the staples of home health care in my family for more than thirty years now, and they work reliably—more reliably, and with fewer side effects, than over-the-counter medicines generally do. As far as I can tell, by the way, those results aren’t a function of the placebo effect; like most operative mages, I use the placebo effect all the time, with good results. In my experience, for whatever that’s worth, the effects of cell salts are qualitatively different.

I don’t know of any experimental studies assessing the cell salts as such. For the last century or so, they’ve mostly been used by occultists, and that doesn’t exactly attract grant money and enthusiastic scientists, you know. The broader field of homeopathy is another matter. This site, this one, and this one all list controlled experimental studies that show replicable, statistically significant effects from homeopathic treatment. There are also studies that show no such effects; those that I’ve read failed to make use of the distinctive diagnostic criteria used in homeopathic prescribing, which is a bit like insisting that a radio doesn’t work when you haven’t tried turning it on. Homeopathic medicine isn’t chemical medicine, and ignoring the differences is a useful way to guarantee failure; if you want to test it, you need to learn how to use it according to the rules that more than a century of experience have shown are necessary to get the benefit of the treatment. 

Most criticisms of homeopathy over the last half century or so, however, have fixated obsessively on the third of the three fallacious arguments discussed in last week’s post: since current scientific theory doesn’t happen to contain a causal mechanism that can explain the effect of homeopathic medicines, critics have insisted that the effects don’t happen. Now you may be thinking, dear reader, that the logical response to an effect with an unknown cause would be to go looking for the cause; you’d be right, too, except that there’s some reason to think that the cause in question is something that today’s conventional wisdom desperately doesn’t want to find.

There’s actually a very precise theory explaining why cell salts and other homeopathic medicines work; you can find it in the writings of classical homeopaths such as John Tyler Kent, as well as in the mimeographed pages of the kind of old-fashioned occult lessons I studied back in the day. According to this theory, there’s something—we’ll call it the X factor for now—which is present in material substances such as sodium sulphate, which is distinct to each substance, but can be detached from the material mass by certain physical phenomena, including rhythmic vibrations of the sort you produce via succussion. The result of the usual homeopathic preparation process, the theory goes on to claim, is a bottle of lactose that has the X factor normally associated with sodium sulphate.

When you ingest the resulting pills, as a result, the body senses the X factor and reacts as though it was about to get hit by a big dose of sodium sulphate, dumping glandular secretions into the bloodstream and digestive tract in order to counter the expected impact—but there’s only a part per million of sodium sulphate coming, not the dose the body expects from the X factor. It’s reminiscent of one of the classic judo techniques: fake a shove at the other guy, and as he leans forward to counter it, don’t complete the move. If your timing is right, he falls forward onto his face. In the same way, the body’s equilibrium shifts in the opposite direction from the effect a large dose of sodium sulphate would normally produce, and topples over into a new state, closer to normal health.

It’s all very straightforward, except for one little detail: the X factor doesn’t appear to be a material substance. It has no measurable mass, charge, or other physical qualities. It can be detected easily enough by its effects on living things—animals, plants, and cells in laboratory cultures respond to it as well as human beings—but attempts to detect it using any other means have produced extremely equivocal results. That’s what triggers the sudden rush to the fallacies discussed last month: for reasons woven deeply into the fabric of contemporary culture, anything like the X factor I’ve described here generates a visceral reaction among believers in the contemporary scientific mainstream.

You can observe the same reaction at work with another alternative health care modality I’ve studied and practiced extensively. Occultists from different cultures and continents routinely and cheerfully swap techniques, which is why a healing method of Chinese origin, reworked in Japan, got taught by Japanese occultists to French Druids and ended up being practiced enthusiastically in French Druid circles, from which it came my way. Its name is Do-In—the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese term Daoyin—and it’s one form of what’s often, and inaccurately, called acupressure. (The Latin word acus means “needle;” acupuncture means just what it sounds like, “needle puncture,” and acupressure means, well, nothing that makes any kind of literal sense.)

Do-In, like other healing arts of the same general type, doesn’t rely on complicated preparations of chemically pure mineral salts, or anything else on the same level of intricacy.  It relies on fingers. There are places on the body—yes, other than the obvious ones!—where rubbing can cause complex physical reactions in places distant from the site of massage. Over the centuries, physicians in east Asia paid close attention to those points and their reactions, and worked out how to use them to remedy ailments of various kinds. It’s a simple, inexpensive, and very effective way of dealing with a range of common home health care needs, but again, to the proponents of conventional medicine, it’s pure witchcraft.

The reason for this rejection is the same as the one behind the dismissal of cell salt therapy: today’s scientific mainstream knows of no mechanism that would permit, for example, rubbing a point on the wrist to be an effective treatment for nausea—so much more effective than other modalities, as it happens, that even some physicians are now prescribing it for nausea due to pregnancy or chemotherapy. Even though there are plenty of controlled experimental studies showing replicable, statistically significant effects for this and other effects of the same kind—see, for example, this site, this one, this one, or this one—if you mention Do-In or one of its sister arts to one of today’s rationalists, you can count on it being rejected out of hand.

The difficulty is again the X factor. According to the traditional theory that guides Do-In practice, there is something that flows through the body and plays an important role in maintaining it in a state of health, and blockage or stagnation of this something correlates precisely with specific disease states. The specific routes taken by this X factor along the skin, and through the organs and tissues of the body as well, have been mapped out in detail. If you’re pregnant and can’t keep breakfast down, you can find the right point, rub it, and dissipate the blockage that’s keeping your stomach roiled. It’s hard to think of anything more straightforward, except that once again the X factor doesn’t seem to be any form of physical matter or energy. It can be detected by its effects on living organisms—here again, its effects are not limited to human beings—but attempts to detect it by any other means have produced only the most equivocal results.

What makes the issue considerably more challenging is that there are good reasons to think that the X factors behind cell salt therapy and Do-In are not different factors, but different modes, effects, or applications of the same thing, which is also behind a great many other alternative healing modalities, and a great many other things having nothing at all to do with health and healing. Assemble all the various traditional and contemporary reports, and the picture that comes through is of something that’s not matter or energy in the usual, physical sense of either word, but appears to form fields, currents, and accumulations in physical matter of various kinds, and can be affected by certain physical actions, especially rhythmic vibration of the sort involved in either succussion or fingertip massage. It’s not the same as the chemical reactions that modern science identifies with biological life, but it has a close relationship with life and living things, and it can be felt: vaguely by most people, precisely by those who take the time to pay attention to it and develop their abilities to perceive it.

What’s more, an X factor fitting exactly this description has been considered an ordinary, obvious part of everyday reality by most human societies around the world and throughout recorded history. In classical Chinese, the X factor is called qi; in Japanese, ki; in Sanskrit, prana; in Hebrew, ruach; in ancient Greek, pneuma; in classical and medieval Latin, spiritus; in the language of the Kalahari !Kung, n:um—the ! and : are both clicking sounds we don’t have in English—and so on through the roll call of the world’s cultures. (The term we use for it in the Druid traditions I study and teach is nwyfre, which is pronounced roughly “NOO-iv-ruh” and comes from medieval Wales, where it was a familiar concept.) Are these the same thing? A great deal of evidence suggests so; certainly I’ve had detailed discussions with Chinese martial artists, Indian yogins, Shinto priests, and the like, in which we’ve compared notes and agreed that, yes, these different words are referring to the same thing, in the same spirit that an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a German can agree that “the dog,” “le chien,” and “der Hund” all refer to the four-legged animal that’s barking at them.

Are there human societies that don’t have a common word for this very common thing? They’re very much in the minority, but yes, there are some: above all, the cultures of the modern industrial West.

It’s really quite an odd situation, all things considered. A concept that’s part of everyday life in most other human cultures has to lead a hole-and-corner existence in ours, consigned to the realm of rejected knowledge, kept alive in a variety of fringe groups and alternative traditions, and denounced in furious tones by the defenders and cheerleaders of the scientific status quo. That situation has plenty of dimensions and no shortage of irony, but it also has a particular relevance to the theme of this blog, because one of the traditions on the fringe that preserve, teach, and use this X factor—this thing that officially does not, cannot, and must not exist—is magic.

Eliphas Levi, who kickstarted the modern revival of magic a hundred and sixty years ago, described it in the ornate language of his era:

“The great magical agent that we have called astral light, by others named the soul of the earth, which the old alchemists denominated under the names of Azoth and Magnesia, this occult, unique, and indomitable force, is the key of all empire, the secret of all power. It is the flying dragon of Medea, the serpent of the mystery of Eden; it is the universal mirror of visions, the bond of sympathies, the source of love, prophecy, and glory. To know how to wield this agent is to have disposal of a power like that of God; all real and effective magic, all true occult power is in it, and all the books of true [occult] science have no other end but to demonstrate it” (Dogme de la Haute Magie, ch. 11). 

“The astral light” is one of the terms commonly used in occult writings for the X factor we’re discussing. There are plenty of others, but this is the one I propose to use in these essays, not least because it carries a good deal less intellectual freight than most of its rivals.

“The whole of magical theory and practice,” the great English magical teacher Dion Fortune wrote, “turns on two points—autosuggestion and the astral light.” Over the months to come, we’ll talk about how these two factors work together to bring about change in consciousness in accordance with will. Before that can begin, though, it’s going to be necessary to spend a little more time talking about this mysterious X factor, the astral light—what it is, how it functions, and why even suggesting the idea reliably elicits foam-flecked tirades from the defenders of the rationalist status quo.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Fallacious Arguments: An Interlude

I'm not an enemy of science. It’s probably necessary to say that up front, given the theme I intend to develop in this month’s post. I consider the scientific method one of the half dozen or so truly great creations of the human mind, important enough that I’ve discussed at length in my other blog how best to get it through the imminent crises of our age into the waiting hands of the future. Even more to the point, I enjoy science as an activity and a subject of study; I’ve spent many pleasant evenings reading Darwin’s great treatise on natural selection and other classics of scientific literature; I’ve contemplated the structure of leaf tissues through my well-used microscope, run controlled experiments on the effect of soil amendments on plant growth, and crunched the numbers to see if the results were statistically significant. My first sight of the rings of Saturn through my own homebuilt telescope remains one of the defining memories of my childhood.

Nothing I’ll be saying here, in other words, is in any way meant to devalue the process of science, the richly human activity of testing hypotheses against quantitative measurements of some portion of the world we experience. That process, though, does not exist in a void. Alongside science as process, there’s also science as product, a set of detailed claims about what is and isn’t true about the world, some of which—though not all—have come into being through the systematic use of science-as-process. By and large, I have no objection at all to what science-as-product claims is true about the world. It’s certain of its claims about what’s not true about the world that I find problematic. 

The difficulty is partly a matter of repeated conflicts between certain claims currently part of science-as-product and my own experience, and partly a wholly personal dislike of a certain kind of dogmatism that’s become deeply entrenched among some of the people who claim to speak for science these days. There are far more pragmatic factors as well, but the way that science of both kinds, process as well as product, has been prostituted for the benefit of ideological stances and economic interests is a subject for my other blog, not this one. The point that’s most relevant here is that magic, the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, works with two distinct sets of processes. One of them is acceptable to even the most extreme materialists, but the other depends on something that, according to current versions of science-as-product, does not, cannot, and must not exist.

We could plunge into a discussion of that “something” right now, but an alternative approach will be more useful, for a curious reason. It so happens that these days, any attempt to raise questions about the claims of science-as-product inevitably fields a flurry of counterclaims, and all these latter depend on the same handful of canned arguments. What makes this all the more interesting is that the arguments in question are all based, in turn, on a set of classic logical fallacies. There’s a rich vein of irony here, since nearly all the people who trot out these fallacies like to present themselves as defenders of logic and reason, but we can let that pass for the moment. What I want to do here is look at the fallacies one at a time, see why they don’t prove what they claim to prove, and thus (with any luck!) get past the rehashing of canned arguments to the actual issues at hand when next month’s post begins talking about the relevant dimensions of magic.

The first of the arguments I want to consider here is the insistence, very common on the lips of today’s skeptics, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  That sounds reasonable, until you take five minutes or so to think about what it actually means. To begin with, what defines a claim as extraordinary? Does a claim become extraordinary because most people disagree with it? Does it become extraordinary because experts disagree with it? Does it become extraordinary because it violates “common sense”—and whose version of common sense are we discussing here?

The phrase “extraordinary claims” is thus highly ambiguous. In practice, to those who use this argument, a claim is extraordinary if they don’t agree with it, and ordinary if they do. The phrase “extraordinary proof” embodies a similar ambiguity:  in practice, to those who use this argument, a proof is extraordinary if they choose to give it this status and merely ordinary if they don’t. This is very convenient for them, since no matter what proof is offered, they can just keep on raising the bar and saying “That’s not extraordinary enough.” 

That is to say, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” is an example of the logical fallacy of petitio principii, also known as “begging the question.”  The essence of petitio principii is that the evidence and arguments for one side of a debate are judged according to a lenient standard, one that presupposes that they are correct, while those for the opposing side are judged according to a harsher standard that presupposes that they are incorrect. This is a great debating trick, but it’s lousy logic: among the most basic rules of fair reasoning is the principle that the evidence for each side of a question must be judged according to the same standards of proof.  Once any claim, however “extraordinary,” is expected to meet standards of proof the other side can change at will, what’s being offered is a rhetorical gimmick, not a reasonable claim.

The second argument I want to discuss here also depends on petitio principii. This one is a little subtler, though, and is best understood by way of an example.

Back in the early 1980s—I believe it was in the pages of Omni, but I can’t swear to that—I read a lively essay by the late Carl Sagan about near-death experiences, which were getting one of their periodic bouts of media exposure at that time. Sagan talked about some of the common features reported by people who underwent such experiences, especially the sense of rising up slowy through a dark tunnel toward light, and being greeted by a being on arriving in the light. He then proposed that there was a wholly material explanation for these experiences: people who underwent such experiences were having a flashback to the memory of being born; the dark tunnel was the birth canal, the light was the hospital lamp, and the waiting figure was the physician who attended the delivery. 

It was (and is) an interesting hypothesis, but the way Sagan used the hypothesis was more interesting still. Those of my readers who know their way around the scientific method know that the first thing a scientist does, on coming up with an interesting hypothesis, is to think up as many ways as possible to disprove it. “How can I test this?”—that’s the question that drives real science, and makes it something other than a way to make the universe mirror our own ideas back at us. Yet this is exactly what Sagan didn’t do. Instead, he behaved as though the mere existence of a hypothesis that explained near-death experiences in terms conformable to his materialist worldview justified the dismissal of every hypothesis that didn’t fit within that worldview.

This is all the more fascinating because Sagan’s hypothesis is quite testable. It would be tolerably easy, for example, to survey a large population of individuals who have had a near-death experience, note which of them had the experience of rising up through a dark tunnel toward light, find out which of them had been born in the usual way and which of them had been born by Caesarian section, and see if there’s any correlation. If Sagan’s hypothesis is correct, people born by C-section should have different imagery in their near-death experiences.  If no such difference appears, and in particular if people born by C-section also have imagery of rising up through a tunnel in their near-death experiences, Sagan’s hypothesis would be disconfirmed by the evidence: that’s how science works.

What Sagan was proposing, though, was evidently not meant as a scientific hypothesis, as he made no attempt to test it, or even to suggest that it might be worth testing. Rather, it was an example of a common debating trick, the ad hoc hypothesis—a hypothesis that’s supposed to be accepted without proof, because it justifies the evasion of contrary evidence. Where a scientific hypothesis is meant to further inquiry, an ad hoc hypothesis is thus meant to stop inquiry in its tracks. Logically, it’s another form of the petitio principii fallacy, since it presupposes that any hypothesis that supports one side of a debate is automatically more likely to be true than any hypothesis that supports the opposite side of the same debate—which, again, is begging the question.

Thus it proves nothing to say, as so many of our current skeptics like to say, that an experience “must have been caused by” some natural phenomenon or other. In logic, “must” is a very strong word:  it can only be justified by strict logical necessity or overwhelming evidence, and if neither of these is forthcoming, it’s simply another rhetorical gimmick. Nor is it reasonable to insist, as so many of these same skeptics like to insist, that anyone who disagrees with their ad hoc hypotheses has to disprove them, to the skeptics’ satisfaction, while anyone who presents a hypothesis with which the skeptics disagree has to prove it, again to the skeptics’ satisfaction. Here the question isn’t merely being begged, but borrowed and stolen into the deal.

The third argument I want to discuss here is a little different, as it doesn’t rely on the fallacy of petitio principii; its roots descend into a different part of the realm of bad logic. This is the insistence that a phenomenon can’t happen if current scientific theory doesn’t include a mechanism that’s able to make it happen: “If the cause isn’t known, the effect didn’t occur.” Stated so baldly, it sounds preposterous—and of course it is—but that’s far and away the most common angle of attack taken by critics of the subjects central to this blog. Thus it’s tolerably common to hear claims that magic, for example, can’t possibly work, because currently accepted scientific theory provides no mechanism by which ritual actions can make things happen at a distance.

Now of course it’s not as though there’s been any significant amount of research aimed at finding mechanisms that might account for the effects of magic; quite the contrary, any scientist who seriously proposed such a research program would be kissing his career goodbye. Nor, for that matter, would most practicing mages agree that magical rituals all by themselves make things happen at a distance.  Magic, again, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, and all the effects of magic are mediated by consciousness. Ritual—symbolic psychodrama performed in quasimeditative mental states—is an important tool of magical practice because it shapes and reorients consciousness in reliable ways, but you won’t find many people in the scientific community who are willing to take the time to read books on magic by practitioners, or talk to people who have practical experience of the subject, and find that out.

That said, there’s also a logical issue here. The question “does X happen?” is logically distinct from the question “why does X happen?” Thousands of years before Newton worked out the theory of gravitation, people knew that objects fall when they’re dropped, and could make accurate predictions on the basis of their knowledge, even though they had no notion of the cause. For that matter, Newton himself famously refused to offer any hypothesis about what gravity was; his sole concern was to construct a precise mathematical model of the way that it appeared to work. Only the fact that heavy objects clearly do fall when dropped, I suspect, prevented the skeptics of Newton’s day from rejecting his ideas out of hand; after all, late 17th century physics hadn’t yet conceived of the curvature of spacetime, and so didn’t have a causal mechanism in place to explain the effects of gravity.

This latter point can be made even more forcefully, because most of the great scientific discoveries of the last three or four centuries would have been “disproved” by the arguments today’s skeptics use with such eager abandon. Let’s take Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an example. When it was first formally proposed in 1859, to begin with, Darwin’s claims were extraordinary by most standards, while the proof he offered to back up those claims was composed of ordinary scientific evidence, some of it the product of his own painstaking research, some published by others in the scientific journals of the day, all of it solid but none of it particularly amazing.  If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, as so many skeptics insist today, Darwin’s work should have been rejected out of hand by the scientific community of his time.

Furthermore, there was no shortage of ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the facts Darwin marshalled, without recourse to a theory of evolution. Some scholars in Darwin’s time argued that fossils were the bones of ancient animals that failed to find room aboard Noah’s ark; others insisted that, just as Adam had a navel even though he’d never needed an umbilical cord, the Earth was created miraculously in 4004 BCE with a complete stock of fossils, as though it had existed from measureless time; still others argued that fossils had been put there by Satan in an attempt to lure the unwary into eternal damnation. If it’s legitimate to use ad hoc hypotheses to dismiss possibilities that don’t conform to existing theory, it would have been equally appropriate to insist that the evidence for evolution “must have been caused by” the Flood, or God, or Satan, and dismiss Darwin’s theory on that basis.

Finally, Darwin’s theory required two things for which the science of his time had no causative mechanisms at all. The theory of heredity as understood in the middle of the 19th century argued that the traits of each parent blended completely with the other, and so provided no way for individual characteristics to be passed down unchanged to offspring—that didn’t enter the body of science-as-product until the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work in the early 20th century. What’s more, 19th century physics provided no mechanism for the Sun to keep shining for the immense periods of time needed for evolution to work, and so physicists in Darwin’s lifetime insisted that life on Earth could only be a few million years old. Evolutionary biologists ignored that, because they were confident that a mechanism that would provide billions of years of sunlight would be found, and of course it was. If it’s reasonable for observed phenomena to be rejected if no causal mechanism capable of producing them is known, though, Darwin’s theory should certainly have been tossed in the trash.

Fortunately, that’s not the way science worked in 1859. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was assessed on its own merits, not dismissed out of hand because it contradicted the science-as-product of its day.  The body of ordinary evidence that bolstered Darwin’s extraordinary claim was recognized as quite adequate to the purpose; the various ad hoc hypotheses brandished about by critics were recognized as such, and mocked merrily on that basis in the scientific and popular press; and the absence of crucial causal mechanisms, far from causing The Origin of Species from being tossed in the nearest dustbin, encouraged researchers to go looking for those mechanisms, and find them.

In Darwin’s time, science was still in what last month’s post described, in deliberately mythic terms, as a Phoenix phase:  less gnomically, a phase in which human thought was more or less midway along its trajectory from concrete images to abstract concepts, and the flight into abstraction that characterizes the next step in the process, the Dragon phase, had not yet gone anything like so far as it’s gone since then. As I noted last month, it’s typical of the Dragon phase for a civilization to become so convinced of the truth of its abstract conceptual models of the universe that any gap between those models and the universe of human experience is argued away with rhetoric, rather than being used as an opportunity to correct the model. The arguments surveyed here are good examples of the type.

Such defensive maneuvers are probably unavoidable at this point in the turning of history’s wheel, and they also serve a valuable function in their own way. Limits are as necessary in the ecology of thought as they are in every other ecology, and the hard defensive shell around the basic presuppositions of an intellectual creation such as modern Western science is what allows those presuppositions to be taken as far as they will go. In the case of classical logic, which completed its own journey through this same process around seventeen centuries ago, the same rigid exclusion of inconvenient realities helped drive inquiry into those fields where logical method could accomplish the most—for example, mathematics—and kept it away from those fields, such as natural history, to which the methods of classical logic were very poorly suited.

In much the same way, the exclusion of such phenomena as consciousness from scientific study in the modern world is almost certainly a good thing, because the methods of scientific research simply aren’t that useful when applied to such topics; the energy that might go in those directions is better used elsewhere, on topics better suited to quantitative analysis and reproducible experimental designs. Just as classical logic was taken up in later centuries as a fully developed system and put to uses the ancient Greek logicians couldn’t have imagined, in turn, modern science will doubtless be taken up by civilizations in the future, and put to work doing things that would baffle or horrify today’s scientists. That’s in the nature of cultural recycling: since every human culture evolves its own set of values, what seems like the obvious and natural thing to do to people from one culture generally looks pretty bizarre from the standpoint of any other.

It would be pleasant if today’s would-be defenders of science and reason were to see things that way, and recognize modern science as a culturally bound phenomenon, one of the supreme creations of the civilization that came to birth in western Europe and now maintains a brittle and fraying hegemony over most of the rest of the planet. From that perspective, the fact that some phenomena are not well suited for study via science-as-process, and are thus poorly represented in science-as-product, would not inspire the sort of furious, fist-pounding denunciations you so often see from today’s “angry atheists” and the like. Still, it seems to be essential to the ripening of an intellectual system in a Dragon era that many of its proponents see it as the royal road to absolute objective truth about everything, and I take sufficient delight in the discoveries of science that to my mind, at least, the misdirected tirades that result from this necessary habit are a small price to pay.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Dragon

Last month’s post explored the modes of consciousness that blossom and fade at different stages in the rise and fall of civilizations. I want to go a little more deeply into those modes, because they have a great deal to teach about how magic works, and also about why it is that magic reliably falls out of fashion at a certain point in the historical cycle, and comes back in from exile at another point later on.

In order to pursue that exploration fruitfully, though, a couple of points need to be sorted out in advance. First of all, it’s crucial to get away from a certain bad habit of thinking that Vico and Barfield, the writers surveyed in last month’s post, both imposed on history: the notion that we can know what human consciousness was like at the very beginning of things. What the ancient Egyptians called the First Time exerts an extraordinary magnetism on the human imagination, and can make it very easy to forget just how long our species has been on this planet, and just how many changes it  passed through before its earliest historical traces first come within our view.

Vico and Barfield both lost track of that, and claimed to be able to see how human beings must have thought in the First Time. Both of them, to be fair, had reasons for that mistake. Vico lived before modern geology had broken the grip of Biblical literalism, and the best historical scholarship accessible to him indicated that the world was less than six thousand years old. Given that assumption, it was entirely reasonable for him to assume that Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations were literally the first ever to arise on Earth, excepting only the antediluvian culture described early on in the Book of Genesis; the fact that he was dead wrong thus really wasn’t his fault.

Barfield’s case was somewhat more complex. By his time some sense of the real age of humanity and the planet had become fairly widespread, but ethnology and anthropology in the years when his ideas were formed still insisted on a linear model of cultural evolution every bit as rigid as the Biblical scheme that Vico used. In 19th and early 20th century European scholarship, all human societies, ancient and modern, were assigned fixed places along a line of progress that led straight up to modern white European men. In this scheme, all of the tribal societies in what’s now the Third World were put at the bottom, lumped in together with Neanderthals and the like, and sweeping pronouncements about “the primitive mind”—always in the singular—were drawn up on wholly ethnocentric grounds and imposed on every society, and every person, who had been assigned to the lowest rung of the ladder.

That imaginary “primitive mind” is the source of Barfield’s “original participation;” the ethnologists he cited in the pages of Saving the Appearances accepted the scheme I’ve just outlined, and so did he.  That’s why, for example, he took cultural categories that don’t make sense in 20th century English terms—to name one of his examples, a special relation between a white cockatoo and the sun that was in some sense more important than the relation between a white cockatoo and a black one—as evidence that the people who thought that way must be engaged in some strange, primitive, pagan kind of thinking. Had he been so minded, he could have used this same example as evidence for just how powerfully the process of figuration shapes the universe of our experience, and just how arbitrary some of the culturally constructed aspects of human figurations can be; he could then have applied that logic to the habitual figurations of 20th century Englishmen, with useful results.

But he was not so minded. He was committed to a linear view of history, and in particular to the kind of linear view, still very popular today, that placed modern industrial humanity as the vanguard of the species, moving ahead of anyone else through the gateway that led to the final consummation of human destiny. By definition, therefore, every other culture has to be somewhere back along the route that leads to us, and no other culture could possibly have gotten to where we are before we did. That landed him in difficulties we don’t need to discuss here; the crucial point is that his “original participation” is a phantom, a projection of ethnocentric misunderstandings on the inkblot patterns of the distant past.

The same is true of every attempt to imagine the way human beings thought and felt and understood the world more than five thousand years ago. The stunning diversity of the human cultures that have risen and fallen during the relatively brief window since writing was invented should warn us against any attempt to impose a rigid scheme on the hundreds of millennia of forgotten societies before that time. Somewhere back there, a very long time ago, our ancestors evolved out of some older species of hominid which may not have had spoken language as we know it; somewhere even further back, the hominid lineage itself evolved out of something not that different from chimpanzees. We don’t know, and almost certainly will never know, anything about the stages and transformations of consciousness that accompanied that immense and prolonged process of evolutionary change.

Thus any description of what human consciousness was like in the early days of our species is a fable, not a fact. That’s one thing that has to be understood to make sense of the cycles I hope to describe here. The other thing that has to be grasped is that any description of where humanity is heading, along the lines of Barfield’s “final participation,” is equally fabulous. There’s a definite point to such fables, and it’s been traditional for a good long time to use them as a teaching tool in occult schools, but it always needs to be remembered—to quote a famous passage from Dion Fortune’s contribution to the genre—that these things are intended “to train the mind, not to inform it.” 

The habit of mistaking fables for facts, and thinking that their value depends entirely on their truth or lack of same, is a common barrier to understanding what they have to teach. Often, furthermore, it’s a deliberate barrier, meant to function as what one of my teachers irreverently called a “flake filter,” a device for chasing off people who aren’t suited to occult training. It so happens that the same purposes can be accomplished by narratives that can inform as well as train the mind, and it’s been my repeated experience as a teacher of these matters that “flake filters” are easier to find than they once were—in particular, expecting students to study and understand a few dozen pages of text about, say, the shape of time is usually quite adequate. That’s why I’ve chosen to use the ordinary cycles of history as the frame for these essays, and why I plan on using the ordinary workings of ecology as a similar frame in a related context—but that’s a discussion for another time.

The key to the magical dimension of historical cycles lies in a detail of history that Vico and Barfield both grasped firmly: the fact that human beings don’t think the same way at one stage in the historical process as they do at other stages. Barfield’s claim was that all of humanity passes through a single process of change in consciousness, starting with his hypothesized “original participation” and ending in his equally hypothetical “final participation.” Vico’s, far more troubling to the modern mind, was that each nation goes through predictable changes in consciousness, and that modern societies are repeating the same stages that can be traced in the classical world. It’s always possible to claim that Barfield is right on the largest scale, since it’s possible to claim anything at all about that without risk of disproof, but in terms of time frames that are subject to verification, the facts support Vico instead.

There are various ways to talk about “the course the nations run,” the cycle of consciousness through which each society passes over the course of its history, but I’m going to use a few of Vico’s own examples here. As mentioned earlier, the earliest law codes in any civilization are specific, concrete lists of crimes and their punishments.  The final law codes in any civilization you care to name are intricately crafted tissues of abstract reasoning. That movement from the concrete to the abstract, from the richly sensory image to the richly intellectual concept, is among the consistent features of the history of a civilization—and so is the collapse of abstraction in the final era of a civilization and its replacement by a newly concrete consciousness rooted, once again, in sensory images.

The movement from concrete to abstract consciousness that both Vico and Barfield understood in their own ways, and it’s one of the things that makes Barfield’s Saving the Appearances and his works on the history of language worth reading despite the Procrustean bed of linear time into which he forces his data. Take any word in modern English that has an abstract connotation—for example the word “abstract” itself. English got that word from Latin, and in Latin, its original sense is clear: ab- is a prefix meaning “from, away from, out of,” and traho is a verb meaning “to pull.” (A tractor, similarly, is something that pulls.)  An abstraction is thus a set of perceptions that have been pulled out of their original setting amid the other details of everyday life, and turned into a concept. Put another way—and this will be crucial for our further work—an abstraction is a model of experience, created by cherrypicking certain features of that experience and treating those as the things that matter, while dismissing every other feature as secondary or irrelevant.

That’s a necessary process. As Aristotle pointed out indirectly a very long time ago, human beings reason in categories, and the process of figuration discussed in earlier posts is largely a way of fitting the data of human sensation into whatever set of categories the individual in question has inherited from his or her biological, cultural, and personal past. Still, not all concepts are created equal. There are some concepts that are very close to sensory experience—“child,” “tree,” “sun,” “walk,” “quickly,” all refer back to things that can be perceived directly by the senses and can be called to mind in the form of clear mental images:  that is, representations in the mind of remembered or imagined sensory experiences, visual or otherwise. There are also concepts that are much further away from sensory experience—“meaning,” “relationship,” “therefore,” “existence,” “consciousness” all refer to concepts assembled from other concepts, categories of categories.

We can call the first kind concrete concepts, and the second abstract concepts. There’s a continuum connecting them, created by repeated abstraction—that is to say, repeated construction of categories that moves further away from the concrete experience at its root. “Sally,” “girl,” “human,” “primate,” “mammal,” “animal,” and “life” are all descriptions of the same child playing in a sandbox; each movement further into abstraction allows something to be said about wider and wider circles of other concrete phenomena, which is what gives abstract thinking its power; at the same time, it allows less and less to be said accurately about those phenomena, which is what gives abstract thinking its vulnerability to delusion.

Now it so happens, as already pointed out, that civilizations start out thinking in concrete concepts. That’s true of their law codes and their literature, their political institutions and their practical arts, and every other dimension of their lives. In the earliest stage, the stage Vico called the barbarism of sense, those concrete concepts aren’t related to one another in any compelling way, and the result is chaos—mental chaos, but also cultural, social, and political chaos, because people who can’t assemble a meaningful world in their heads aren’t going to be able to do so in any more concrete sense either.

What puts an end to the barbarism of sense is the emergence of a pattern that reduces the cognitive chaos to order: not an abstract pattern, as the capacity for abstraction is just beginning to develop within the newborn culture, but a set of concrete mental representations charged with emotional force. The social form that gives context of this emergent pattern is a religion—one could as well say that the religion is the emergent pattern. North of the Mediterranean, for example, the representations around which a new society crystallized in the wake of Rome were the core images of Christianity.  Images, not abstract concepts: what mattered in the post-Roman chaos was not abstract theology but the tremendous images of God born in a stable, wandering with his disciples in Galilee and Judea, dying a brutal death on the cross, emerging alive from the grave, and rising miraculously into the sky.

Thinking in the early stage of a civilization always centers on some such set of emotionally charged representations that bring order to the cognitive chaos of a fallen civilization. Such thinking differs in important ways from the sort of thinking that’s common nowadays, or more generally in the last centuries of any civilization. We think abstractly, analytically, sorting out our perceptions into one or another scheme of categories; people in dark ages think concretely, synthetically, relating their perceptions to one or another set of compelling images. Thus it never occurred to medieval authors to suggest that Christmas should be celebrated at the time of year when shepherds in Judea actually keep watch in the fields, as the Biblical narrative specifies.  To the medieval mind, the birth of Christ and the winter solstice, when the first slight northward movement of the sun’s apparent path in the sky announces the return of light and life to the world, belong so self-evidently to the same synthetic pattern of imagery that mere history had no power to separate them.

The transition from the numinous, emotionally charged images that surround a civilization’s cradle to the finely wrought but passionless abstractions that gather around its deathbed takes place, broadly speaking, in three stages. It so happens that very often, those three stages are assigned distinct names by historians, which makes the process easy to trace. In the modern Western world, those three stages are called the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Era; in the history of ancient Greece, they were the Archaic period, the Classical period, and the Hellenistic period, and so on. I propose to give them more general names, and since this is a blog about occult philosophy, I don’t propose to limit myself to the sort of dry nomenclature historians think they have to use these days.  The names I’ll use for these periods are the time of the Unicorn, the time of the Phoenix, and the time of the Dragon.

Let’s take them one at a time. The unicorn, as I trust all my readers know, is the most elusive of beasts as well as the most magical. It moves silently through the greenwood, leaving only the very occasional mark of its cloven hooves to tantalize hunters, charcoal burners, and stray princesses. Here it represents the first phase of the life cycle of a civilization, which is similarly reticent about leaving records and other detailed traces in the soil of history, and is similarly full of magic. Unicorn Time is the age when emotionally charged representations of the sort just described dominate human consciousness, and as at least some of my readers will have guessed, such representations are central to the art of magic.

The phoenix is also a magical beast, but it is far less silent and elusive. There is only one phoenix at a time, and after a lifespan of five centuries or so, it builds a great nest in one of the desert cities of Egypt or Arabia, fashioning it out of scented woods and resins. Once it has finished the nest, it settles into it and waits for the rising of the Sun, which ignites the nest and burns nest and phoenix alike to ashes. In the ashes appears a worm, which eventually becomes the next phoenix. Phoenix Time is the age when concrete representations and abstract concepts are both strongly present in human consciousness, interpenetrate each other, and produce an exuberant cultural and intellectual flowering, which promptly burns itself out in a most phoenix-like fashion and gives way to the next phase.

The dragon is not a magical beast, except insofar as it enjoys adding magical objects to its hoard. In theory, a dragon could do just about anything it happens to want to do, but in practice, what it wants to do is gather a great heap of treasure and lie on it, sleeping or drowsily counting and sorting every last gold coin. It is a truly fearsome beast in its prime, capable of gulping down any number of second-string heroes, but despite the claims of certain popular songs, dragons don’t live forever, and sooner or later someone is going to leap boldly past the flames and drive a sharp point into its heart. Dragon Time is the age when abstract concepts, heaped up like gold in a dragon’s hoard, dominate human consciousness and suppress magic—for a time.

Take a few minutes to think about these three mythological images, and to relate them to the historical periods to which I’ve assigned them; among other things, you might just begin to grasp some sense of the power of emotionally charged mental representations as a tool of thinking. A unicorn has nothing abstract in common with the Middle Ages, say, or the Archaic period of ancient Greece, or the comparable periods in the histories of every other civilization: the heroic age, the age of legend and myth, where facts hide themselves in the deep forests and only the occasional track of a story or a place name shows where they passed by. Connect the two in your imagination, call upon the unicorn as a means of evocation, and you’ll find that certain aspects of the medieval experience are easier to grasp and remember than they otherwise would be.

Such representations and their effects on consciousness, as already noted, are central to the art of magic. That’s why magic always flourishes in a Unicorn age, intellectualizes itself in a Phoenix age, falls into disrepute in a Dragon age, and then springs up again with renewed vigor as the Dragon perishes on the Unicorn’s horn. Religion follows much the same trajectory, and for much the same reason: the meanings at the heart of religion are easy to communicate by way of emotionally charged concrete representations, and all but impossible to communicate by way of abstract concepts. Magic and religion are thus both dismissed as nonsense at the zenith of the Dragon’s reign, because neither one makes sense to minds that are trained solely in abstract modes of thinking.

Interestingly enough, that difficulty doesn’t work both ways. Concrete representations are inclusive to the point of tolerating incoherence—you can take things that are mutually contradictory and relate them to the same mental image without any sense of contradiction—while abstract concepts are exclusive precisely because they demand rational coherence. Thus the image of the world in Unicorn Time tends to be complete but inconsistent, while the image of the world in Dragon Time is consistent but incomplete:  the monks of the Middle Ages, for example, had no difficulty making logic a part of their curriculum of study, while many scientists today can be reduced to spluttering fury by the mere suggestion that anything outside the strictest canon of rationalism has any value at all. The flexibility inherent in the monks’ attitude is one reason why Unicorn Time sees civilizations rise, just as the rigidity in that of the scientists is one reason why Dragon Time sees them fall.

A crucial shift in focus underlies this distinction.  The characteristic thinking of every civilization’s Dragon Time becomes far more concerned with the relationship of abstractions to each other than it is with the relationship of those abstractions to the world of concrete experience. Where gaps open up between abstraction and experience, in turn, the thinkers of the latter years of Dragon Time tend to be more interested in explaining away the gaps than they are in adjusting the abstractions.  A corpus of standard arguments typically evolves to help believers in the currently accepted set of abstractions argue away any experiences that might fail to do what they’re told.

Our age is as well equipped with such a corpus as any Dragon Time has ever been. In next month’s post, we’ll examine some of the standard arguments, as a prelude to the next phase of our exploration into occult philosophy.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Course the Nations Run

There’s a fine irony in the fact that most of the modern thinkers who’ve tried to grapple with the history of human consciousness have fallen into exactly the sort of uncritical embrace of industrial civilization’s worldview I critiqued in last month’s post. I could cite any number of examples, some of whom will probably be familiar names to my readers. The one I want to discuss just now, though, is a little less widely known; his name was Owen Barfield, and he was a peripheral member of the Inklings, the Oxford literary club that orbited the twin stars of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the years before and during the Second World War.

Those of my readers who are familiar with Barfield’s short but fascinating 1957 book Saving the Appearances will have recognized that something like half the points I made in this blog’s first two posts are restatements or reworkings of the arguments from that book’s first chapters. The crucial difference, of course, is that Barfield deployed those arguments in the service of exactly the claim I rejected in last month’s post:  the notion that our habitual ways of constructing the world in modern industrial civilization have some kind of privileged place in human history.

To give him credit, Barfield didn’t fall into the sort of simplistic thinking you so often get from today’s scientific pseudoskeptics, the boneheaded literalism that treats the highly idiosyncratic modern way of constructing the world as though it were objective reality as such.  He started, as I’ve done, from the fact—proven repeatedly by modern science—that the world we experience is constructed by our minds out of the raw material of sensation, which itself is a bundle of electrochemical reactions set off by a literally unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time. He then argued that a sort of half-conscious awareness of the participation of the mind in the world that it experiences is the normal condition of human consciousness, and was universal in prehistoric times.

Now it deserves to be pointed out right here that we have precisely no idea how people’s minds worked in the prehistoric past, for much the same reason that nobody’s yet managed the cognitive testing of allosaurs I joked about in last month’s post. It’s been fashionable for a couple of centuries now for people in the industrial world to think of cultures with less sophisticated technologies than ours as living fossils of our own past—to say, for example, that hunter-gatherer tribes in today’s world are “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you.  That’s very popular nonsense these days, but it’s still nonsense; the hunter-gatherer peoples still clinging to existence in isolated corners of the planet are just as much a part of the world of 2014 as you and I, and just as many millennia have reshaped their cultures and consciousness since the end of the last Ice Age as have reshaped ours.

So we don’t actually know whether human beings in prehistoric times shared a common condition of consciousness.  Nor is it reasonable to assume that this same condition is also to be found in today’s less technologically complex societies—or, more exactly, in the distinctly biased interpretations made by early twentieth century European ethnologists of the thinking of what were then still labeled “inferior” or “savage” peoples, on which Barfield based his argument. Nor, for that matter, is it justifiable to take those same speculations and apply them to every civilization in human history before ancient Greece and the ancient Hebrews, and skip over a great deal of documentary evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and so on, in order to make this claim stick. I’m sorry to say that this is what Barfield did, though it’s only fair to admit that it was a common enough mistake among European intellectuals in his time.

There’s an additional wrinkle in Barfield’s argument, though. This hypothetical common condition of consciousness in prehistoric times, which he called “original participation,” isn’t simply a vague sense of the participation of the human mind in constructing the world of experience. It also includes the sense that when human beings look out at the world of experience, the world of experience is looking back at them. To Barfield, original participation is a state of consciousness in which the world is full of living, conscious presences who aren’t us. He toys with a variety of terms for this view, but his last word—literally the last word in the book—is this:  “the other name for original participation, in all its long-hidden, in all its diluted forms, in science, in art and in religion, is, after all—paganism.”

Oh, the horror! And of course that’s exactly the point. Barfield was a Christian philosopher, and like a certain class of Christian philosophers, he was concerned to discourage people from checking out the competition. He also shared a belief, common to many Protestant thinkers, that the presence of life, mind, and meaning anywhere in the cosmos outside of human brains somehow risks distracting people from God. Thus, as Barfield explains in the last chapter of Saving the Appearances, what makes the scientific revolution important in human evolution was that it finished the job of freeing us all from slavery to original participation, so that we could finally realize that the cosmos is actually dead, mindless and meaningless, and any life, mind and meaning we find in it are all put there by us.

Or, rather, they’re put there by man. Barfield makes a point of insisting that the collective noun “man” isn’t simply an abstraction, but that this being called man has his own history, which is distinct from that of individual men (and presumably individual women as well, though he doesn’t get around to mentioning them in his argument). Man’s journey up from his early bondage to original participation, in Barfield’s view,  is destined to pass through our unparticipated scientific state of consciousness until, taken up by Christ into God, man consciously and freely puts meaning into a wholly inert and passive cosmos under some sort of divine guidance  This state of affairs Barfield calls “final participation,” and it’s his abstract but explicitly labeled version of the New Jerusalem, just as original participation is his Eden, complete with pagan snake.

I’ll have something to say about this being called “man” a little later on in this post, and I’ll have quite a bit to say in future posts about the biophobia and noophobia, the stark shivering terror of life and mind, which industrial civilization inherited from certain trends within historic Christianity and has deployed in a variety of more or less secular forms ever since. Here, though, I want to focus on a different point, which is that the odd historical gaps and evasions that run all through Saving the Appearances probably aren’t there by accident. Behind Barfield’s book looms the shadow of a considerably more significant thinker, whose ideas are the foundations on which the argument of Saving the Appearances is built, whose conclusions that argument is pretty clearly meant to refute, and whose name, curiously enough, Barfield never mentions in that context at all.

Giambattista Vico was a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Though it’s generally conceded by scholars these days, to borrow a phrase of Anthony Grafton’s, that “Vico bestrides the modern social sciences and humanities like a colossus,” he spent his life in comparative obscurity, and his most important book—Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, which is usually and understandably abbreviated to The New Science—is far more often mentioned than read. Those of my readers who might consider turning its pages should probably be warned in advance that it has nothing explicit to say about magic at all, and it takes close study and reflection to catch the revolutionary insights it offers into the nature of magic and the history of human consciousness.

Those insights came from a simple but crucial recognition. In his studies of poetry, rhetoric, and law, Vico noticed again and again that the cultural products of the oldest strata of Greek and Roman culture had many features in common with equivalents from the post-Roman dark ages, and that the trajectory from those beginnings followed the same patterns. He noted, for example, that the oldest Roman and Greek law codes, like the oldest law codes from dark age Europe, were simple lists of crimes and their punishments—“if a man steals a loaf of bread, let him be beaten twelve times with a birch stick”—and that each legal tradition proceeded from these utterly concrete beginnings into greater and greater levels of  abstraction, finally culminating in an elaborate theory of law. He noted similarly that the Greek epic poetry traditionally attributed to Homer has an enormous amount in common with such early medieval works as The Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied, and that classical and European literature both went through similar transformations on the way to the abstract, reflective, mannered prose that his age shared with, say, the prose authors of the early Roman Empire.

The crucial point, to Vico, was that the passage away from what Barfield called original participation and he called the heroic mind was not a journey that all of humanity makes together. It was a journey that each human society traces out in its own arc through time.  The modern world, far from filling the role of grand turning point of the ages that its cheerleaders so often assign it, is simply one more example of what Vico calls “the course the nations run,” going through the usual stages in the usual order on its way toward the usual end.

That end, as my readers will probably have guessed already, is not Barfield’s final participation, though the two concepts have certain wry parallels. Vico was as devout a Christian as Barfield, but he rejected Barfield’s notion—which is of course far from unique to Barfield—that the workings of salvation somehow have to be shoehorned into the course of ordinary history. To him, theology was one thing and history was something else entirely. In words that had a certain degree of fame a few generations back, Vico refused to immanentize the eschaton: to confuse, that is, the supernatural entities studied by Christian theology with the material and historical realities of life in this world. The idea that historical changes in consciousness would bring about the arrival of the New Jerusalem was as absurd, to his way of thinking, as the claim that somebody could draw the abstract idea of a circle on paper with a pen.

Thus the endpoint of the historical process as Vico understood it was not the transcendence of history but a return to the common starting point. To see how this works, and begin the process of applying it to the work of the operative mage, it’s helpful to extract Vico’s thought from its original eighteenth-century metaphors and follow his cycle in twenty-first-century terms.

Imagine, then, the survivors of the collapse of a civilization—not a fast collapse, since this would leave them with all the mental furniture of their former society, but the long and ragged arc of decline and fall that’s the standard mode of collapse in actual history.  Our survivors, as they huddle together in whatever makeshift shelters they’ve been able to contrive, haven’t simply lost the material trappings of the fallen civilization. They’ve also shed the philosophies, sciences, and ways of understanding the world that the dead civilization developed, partly because educational and cultural institutions are usually among the first things to go when a civilization begins to implode, partly because watching a civilization wreck itself doesn’t exactly inspire trust in its habitual ways of thought. As the survivors have children, and the children grow to adulthood in a harsh and mostly empty landscape, the last scraps of the old civilization’s way of understanding the world give way to something new.

The realities that define the postcollapse world, Vico points out, are not conceptual abstractions but concrete sensory experiences. Those are the things that matter. Abstract theories of law that presuppose vanished social institutions and conditions don’t matter; what matters is setting up clear and specific rules that anyone can learn and follow: “if a man steals a loaf of bread, let him be beaten twelve times with a birch stick.”  Abstract rational theories about how the world works don’t matter; what matter are clear, lively, memorable narratives in which colorful figures act out the things that people need to know—and since it’s much easier to memorize speech if it’s full of rhythms and repeated sounds, the myths and legends that emerge from this process are always transmitted in the form of poetry. Three themes—religion, marriage, and the burial or other disposal of the dead—become the anchors around which communities coalesce, because these define, in concrete, sensory terms, the relationships that matter: religion, the relationship with the nonhuman environment; marriage, the relationship with mating and children, and thus with the future; burial, the relationship with ancestors and thus with the past.

Over time, as communities begin to prosper and interact with one another, the concrete and sensory becomes the foundation on which the first reappearance of abstract reasoning begins to build. Vico devotes many of his pages to showing how that process works out in the political development of societies, and we can let those examples pass for the present. The point that matters here is that abstract conceptual thinking starts out as a way of expanding and embroidering the original stock of concrete sensory experiences that define the new culture’s world; as social conditions change and education becomes more general, it shifts focus to that of explaining traditional images that no longer quite make sense; finally, the rising conflict between image and abstraction is settled in favor of abstract rationality, and the society has its Enlightenment, enters on its Age of Reason, and begins to suffer from the liability discussed in last month’s post, the confusion between culturally acceptable representations and the reality they represent that eventually brings the society down in flames.

Thus, in Vico’s scheme, each civilization passes through three broad and loosely defined ages in the course of its history. He borrowed a scheme from classical literature, and called these the Age of Gods, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Men: gods, because religion is the dominant social force in the first age; heroes, because aristocracies that claim descent from heroic forebears are the dominant social force in the second age; men, because humanity in the mass becomes the dominant social force in the third age. The first age begins in what Vico calls “the barbarism of sense,” a state of cultural and mental chaos in which the concrete sensory images that fill consciousness haven’t yet been brought into a meaningful relationship to one another; the third age ends in what he calls “the barbarism of reflection,” a state of cultural and mental chaos in which the abstract intellectual concepts that fill consciousness are no longer brought into a meaningful relationship with one another. Put another way, the cycle of history as Vico understands it begins in brutality and ends in madness.

As noted above, though, the barbarism of reflection, the madness at the cycle’s end, has an ironic similarity to Barfield’s final participation. In the twilight of what Vico calls the Age of Men, the rising flood of abstraction makes it harder and harder for people to recognize that the world and its contents might have any meaning or value other than what certain human beings, on the basis of one abstract consideration or another, happen to want to assign them. This has certain predictably horrific results. When the barbarism of sense reigns, a band of warriors can slaughter the inhabitants of a village out of sheer raw bloodlust; when the cycle swings around to the barbarism of reflection, a village, an ethnic group, or the population of an entire country can be exterminated because a midlevel bureaucrat somewhere, without the least trace of passion or any sense that moral issues might be involved in the process, signs a directive that renders their continued existence null and void.

That’s not the outcome Barfield seems to be imagining when he discusses final participation, to be sure. Still, it’s far from uncommon for the fantasies of intellectuals to work out in a sense much less pleasant than they anticipated, once they’re applied to the world of everyday experience, and now and again it’s possible to use Vico’s kind of logic and recognize when a common mistake is about to be made for the umpteenth time. When Barfield talks about man as a being distinct from people, and claims that man puts meaning into the world, that sounds like a harmless abstraction, but this particular abstraction is one of the classic places where the lie wriggles in and rots the apple from skin to core.

If those who don’t believe in the existence of a god are atheists, I must be an ananthropist; I don’t believe in the existence of man. I have no doubt whatsoever about the existence of people, of the whole motley assortment of our species, but I don’t believe that there’s a being called “man” who is distinct from people, and can engage in such actions as putting meaning into the world all by himself. One of the reasons I don’t believe in this alleged being is that whenever some ideology talks about man doing this or that, what that means in practice is that some specific person or group of people get to take on that role, and a great many other people get excluded from it, usually to their serious disadvantage.  

I hope I don’t have to list examples from the history of the last century or two to show how often the claim that man and man alone puts meaning into the world turns out to involve horrific consequences to whomever man’s self-appointed spokesmen don’t happen to like. Of course that same habit of assigning meaning to the world on the basis of abstract considerations rather than close observation of what actually seems to be happening also tends to impose serious consequences of its own: when those who claim man’s right to decide what matters don’t happen to notice that infinite material growth on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster, for example, it’s a safe bet that an Age of Men is going to give way to a new Age of Gods in fairly short order.

All this may help to explain why it is that the magical traditions of the world, especially those that emerge or revive in the latter phases of Vico’s cycle in each civilization, tend to insist so forcefully on exactly that sense of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos Barfield insisted that humanity had to jettison. Is this sense of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos something that we put into the mix in the process of constructing our worlds? Of course—but so is the opposite sense of the cosmos as dead, mindless, and meaningless. Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation into the representation or mental construct that each of us calls “the world.”

It’s one of the more common modern form of doublethink, as I commented in a previous post, to allow that of course the universe we experience is a mental construct rather than an objective reality, and then to turn right around and insist that some currently popular features of that mental construct—the deadness, mindlessness, and meaninglessness of the cosmos, for example—are objectively real truths, while features of mental constructs that our culture doesn’t encourage—the presence of life, mind, and meaning in the nonhuman cosmos, for instance—are just plain wrong. We’ll be contending with that sort of doublethink over and over again as this discussion continues.

For now, I’ll simply point out that experiencing the world as a community of living and thinking beings leads to one set of behaviors and attitudes toward the rest of the universe, while quite a different set of behaviors and attitudes follows from experiencing the world as a dead and mindless mass of raw material that has only whatever meaning and value certain human beings choose to give it. Which of those behaviors is more useful in the present predicament of industrial society is another point worth considering, and we’ll be discussing it, too, as these posts proceed.