Saturday, June 21, 2014

Explaining the World

When Merlin wasn’t busy trying to teach common sense to the young King Arthur or bailing knights of the Round Table out of their various difficulties, according to the old stories, he could be found at  the Well of Galabes, far from Camelot, where he could concentrate on his magical work undisturbed by the wars and quests that occupied so much of his public life. It’s a common habit among mages to take a hand in the collective events of their time; still, the business of a mage is magic—the traditional craft of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will, to lightly revise an old definition—and that’s a discipline in its own right, not simply a convenient toolkit for helping an assortment of knights and damosels in distress.

Over the last eight years, by way of my blog The Archdruid Report and a variety of other venues, I’ve followed the usual custom and tried to do something useful about the crisis of the industrial age, with more success so far than I expected. For a while now, though, I’ve wanted to set aside a refuge of sorts for writing about magic on its own terms, without having to limit the discussion to those aspects of magic that bear directly on the crisis of our time—or, for that matter, to those aspects that won’t cause too much consternation to readers who know nothing about magic and believe what they were taught in school.

That’s the point of this blog. For the time being, I plan on posting here once a month, on or around the time that the Sun passes into a new astrological sign—for those that aren’t magically literate, that’s around the 21st of each month. As that timing might suggest, I’m not going to limit the topics of discussion here to those that fit comfortably within the lowest-common-denominator worldview of early 21st century industrial society; more generally, those who like their realities prechewed and predigested may not find this blog to their taste.

Mind you, it’s only fair to say that much of what I’d like to discuss here will be unfamiliar, and quite possibly unsettling, to those who’ve studied magic in its standard modern forms. That can’t be helped. Too much of what passes for occult philosophy these days consists either of rehashing metaphors from the Renaissance that have been stripped of the context that once gave them meaning, on the one hand, or adopting pop-culture notions of magic and trying to make them work in the real world, on the other. For reasons I’ll discuss down the road a bit, neither of those approaches seems particularly useful to me, and I propose to take a different approach instead.

I want to begin by explaining the world.

It’s a far from irrelevant point here that the word "world" originally meant something rather different, and much more specific, than it means to most people nowadays. In Old English it’s weorold or werold, wer meaning "man" or "human being" (as in werewolf, literally "manwolf") and old meaning more or less what it means in modern English. The world is the man-old, the time of men or of human beings, or more precisely a particular time defined by a particular humankind, a particular culture or kind of people; we’ll get to that in a future post.

That same habit of using one word to mean "world" and "age" isn’t restricted to Old English. The Hebrew word olam, the Greek word aion, and the Latin word saeculum, just for starters, also have the same double meaning—or, to be a bit more precise, the same single meaning that we, in the modern industrial world, split into two fragments. Most people nowadays think of the world as a static reality, over which time flows like water over the rocks on the bed of a mountain stream, and to this way of thinking the rocks and the water are both "out there," existing by themselves without reference to any human beings who may or may not be observing them.

The interesting thing about this sort of thinking is that scientists pointed out a long time ago that it’s wholly incorrect. The world you experience is not "out there;" what’s "out there," as any physicist will tell you, is an assortment of subatomic particles and energy fields. Your senses interact with those particles and fields in idiosyncratic ways, triggering electrochemical flows in your nervous systems, and those flows produce in your mind—we’ll discuss what that last word means later on—a flurry of disconnected sensory stimuli, which you then assemble into an image or representation.

That image or representation is your world. It’s not the unimaginable reality of particles and fields "out there," it’s a representation of that reality, constructed by your mind out of the raw material of sensation according to patterns that come partly from biology, partly from culture, and partly from experiences you’ve had over the course of your life. When you pick up a coffee cup, you don’t see the coffee cup as it is:  the coffee cup as it is, again, is a whirling chaos of particles and energy fields. What you see and feel is a representation of that whirling chaos, pieced together in your mind out of fragmentary sensations—this flash of color, that sense of pressure against a bit of your skin, and so on. The sensations are given to you; the representation is yours to make.

The map is not the territory. If it’s going to be of any use, the things on the map have to match up to the equivalent things in the territory; the little symbol that means "bridge" may not look at all like the actual bridge you want to cross, but everywhere the bridge-symbol appears on the map, there needs to be an actual bridge in the territory. In the same way, whenever your world contains the representation of a coffee cup full of coffee, the whirling chaos of particles and fields you encounter needs to be the kind of whirling chaos that will produce the sensation of hot coffee in your mouth if you lift it to your lips and sip from it. If the representation’s a good match for reality in this sense, you can treat it as reality—and of course most people do exactly that; they treat the representation they experience as though it was "out there," a reality in its own right, and most of the time they get along just fine.

They get along just fine because your sense organs and nervous system embody two billion years of evolutionary time, in which your ancestors’ representations of reality were just that little bit more useful in the struggle for survival than their competitors’ representations. As long as you’re doing the same sort of things that other mammals do, you’re unlikely to get into too much trouble.  It’s when you start doing things that human beings do and other mammals don’t that things start getting tricky.

To help us fumble our way through the universe of new possibilities opened up by the last million years or so of hominid evolution, we’ve got two additional sets of representation to draw on, and both of them tend to be a lot less thoroughly debugged than the biological set we all get handed to us by our ancestors. One set comes to us from the culture in which we grew up; the other is the product of our own personal experiences in this life. At the risk of oversimplifying, our cultural representations can be seen as a set of modifications of the underlying biological set, adapting it for the particular conditions and experiences our society throws at us; our personal representations, in turn, modify the cultural set, and thus affect the way the latter reworks the biological set.

What makes these processes problematic is that most of the time—in fact, nearly all the time—they’re not conscious. There are occasional exceptions to that rule; when you wake up in an unfamiliar room, you may stare at the half-seen shapes around you for some moments before your muddled mind finally manages to transform the sensations into representations you recognize as furniture, or what have you. Under normal circumstances, though, your mind assembles sensations into representations so fast that you don’t notice it. That’s necessary; you couldn’t respond to the ordinary pace of life if you had to build up a representation consciously out of each flurry of sensations you encounter. The problem creeps in when your representations stop doing a good job of representing the underlying reality.

That rarely happens with the biological level—again, you’ve got two billion years of accumulated experience helping you out there. It’s on the cultural and personal levels that we tend to get into trouble, because our experience of the world is defined by these factors to a much greater degree than most of us ever quite manage to realize.

You can see how this works by looking at a visual art such as painting. Most human cultures paint pictures of things, and in most cases, to members of the culture in question, the painting looks like the thing it’s supposed to portray.  Pay close attention to the way paintings in different cultures portray the same sort of thing, and you can catch a glimpse of the extent to which cultural factors shape the representations we call the world.

The example I have in mind is borrowed from Oswald Spengler, and it has the immense advantage of absolute simplicity: the representation of distance. In Western painting from the Renaissance straight through to the present, art that attempts to look like what it portrays—realist art—represents depth by way of linear perspective. The shapes of what’s being portrayed are canted and slanted, angled and foreshortened to fit our way of representing space; lines converge on one, two, or more vanishing points that represent infinite distance. Learning how to draw those lines and fit images to them is an important part of becoming a realist artist in our society, because to us, an image that doesn’t follow the rules of perspective doesn’t look real—that is, it doesn’t represent reality the way we do.

This all seems very straightforward until you notice that no other civilization in all of human history has used linear perspective in its visual art.  The traditional painting styles of China, Japan, and other east Asian societies use a different kind of perspective—atmospheric perspective, which works by fading out colors of distant objects—and so get a different sense of depth, one that people from Western societies find exotic. Most other traditions of visual art don’t use any kind of perspective at all, and many of them—the art of ancient Egypt is a good example—avoid the experience of depth entirely. Look at an Egyptian tomb fresco, and you see a flat slice through life with no third dimension at all, and some of the visual conventions look forced and awkward to Western eyes—just as forced and awkward as as our visual conventions would have looked to the eyes of an ancient Egyptian.

The Egyptians had the geometrical chops necessary to lay out a scheme of linear perspective, and they certainly had the artistic skill to do it. That’s just as true for the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and all the other cultures around the world who developed rich, realistic, highly capable traditions of painting but never saw any reason to use our kind of perspective. Art historians by and large flounder when they try to explain why it is that something that’s so obvious to us eluded the eyes and imaginations of so many other people for all those millennia, but the reason’s quite simple, really: people in these other times and cultures didn’t see distance the way we do, because the representations they created in their minds didn’t look like ours. They didn’t inhabit our world, our man-old; they inhabited their own, and it didn’t look the same as ours.

To you and me and nearly everyone else in the more-or-less globalized industrial West, the things we see around us exist in three-dimensional space, which extends straight out to infinity in all directions. That’s not just how we think about the world; that’s how we see it, because that’s the mental framework into which our minds automatically fit the glimpses our senses give us. People in other ages and cultures didn’t see the world this way.  They didn’t see space stretching limitlessly outward; some of them didn’t see space at all. To the ancient Greeks, empty space was an impossibility—the ancient philosophers agreed on that—and classical Greek and Latin accordingly have no word for “space” in our sense of the term; when our way of seeing distance emerged in the Renaissance, words had to have their meanings manhandled in order to provide labels for it.

That’s the secret of the ancient Greek image of the cosmos, with its nested spheres carrying the planets around and the sphere of the stars like a shell around the egg.  Modern people who encounter that image inevitably ask whether anybody in ancient times wondered about what was outside. The ancient Greeks didn’t think that way, because their world, their man-old, didn’t work that way. Empty space wasn’t part of their representations.  To them, if you got to the end of the stuff that constituted the universe, the universe stopped, and there was no “outside.”  That seems bizarre to us—and our way of constructing representations out of the raw material of sensation would have seemed just as bizarre to the ancient Greeks if they’d encountered it. It takes an immense effort of the imagination to recognize that a world with no empty space at all was just as much a matter of plain common sense as a world in which everything exists in space is to us.

What I’m suggesting, in fact, is that people from different civilizations could look at the same thing and see different worlds. If you and an ancient Greek—we’ll call her Artemidora—could stand side by side looking down a straight road, you would see the sides of the road drawing together with distance, heading toward the vanishing point at infinity. Would Artemidora see the same thing? To judge by ancient Greek art, not to mention the considerably body of ancient Greek scientific writing on the nature of vision, the answer—unsettling as this may be to our sensibilities—is no.

Now of course Artemidora lived in a world that didn’t fashion its built environment to reinforce our way of seeing distance; her built environment reinforced her cultural habits, not ours.  Our cities have cubical buildings with lots of straight lines, set cheek by jowl along straight streets radiating out into the distance; our rural landscapes have long roads zooming off to the horizon between fields planted in long straight lines and divided by long straight borders, all of it  reinforcing the sense of space our culture prefers. Look at photos of traditional Chinese landscapes from before the 1949 revolution and you’ll see a totally different landscape, in which the eaves of roofs and the lines of streets and roads curve and flow to avoid producing the straight lines we prefer, and the sense of distance is the same as you’ll find in a Chinese painting:  it doesn’t zoom off to infinity, it fades out into mist. Look at the ruins of ancient Greek architecture and you’ll find forms shaped and placed so that they produce no sight lines at all; each building in what’s left of the acropolis in Athens, for example, simply is, with no relation to anything around it.

I’ve used the example of the representation of distance partly because it shows how something that seems like plain objective reality can be a cultural construct, automatically mapped onto sensation by mental habits we learn in infancy and can get past only with immense difficulty. Partly, though, however weird it might be to think of people in ancient societies quite literally seeing distance in a different way, that thought is less emotionally charged than many of the other things our cultural representations impose on our experience. The crucial point is that our world, our man-old, is as much a product of our cultural and personal history as it is a mirror of what’s actually around us; its raw material comes from sensation, and much of the pattern into which that raw material is arranged is handed down to us from the evolutionary history of our species, but the pattern also embodies a huge number of value judgments, personal memories, cultural commonplaces, and habits of thought and feeling, most of which we never notice at all.

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s essential not to notice these things on a moment by moment basis, so that we can get on with living. The problem, again, comes in when one or another of the cultural or personal habits of representation we’ve internalized comes into conflict with what’s actually out there in the universe our mental representations are trying to describe.  That universe is a reality in its own right; our representations, our experiences of it, can be more or less complete and more or less useful; and it’s perfectly possible for our personal and cultural habits of representation to get so far out of step with the reality out there that we can fail to see sources of frustration, misery, pain, danger, and death, until they suddenly pop up out of the blue and clobber us.

What do you do, in turn, when your habitual representations are out of step with the reality they’re intended to describe? It’s appealing to the vanity of the contemporary mind to suggest that you can just replace one set of habits with another in some conscious, reasonable way, but that rarely works in practice. You are as much a part of the universe as anything else real, and so you don’t experience yourself directly—you construct a representation of yourself, subject to all the usual caveats, and trying to tinker with that representation doesn’t necessarily have much effect on the underlying reality. (This representation of the self, by the way, is called the ego; we’ll be talking about it in more detail later on.)

What you need is some way to get in under the hood of the mind, and reshape the habits of thought and feeling that provide the framework onto which you assemble your representations of the world. You need tools that work with the deep nonrational structure of the mind on its own terms, which means among other things that those tools don’t have to make rational sense to do their job. It so happens that every human society on record has such tools, and most complex societies assemble those tools into a detailed system of thought and practice that serves, when its practitioners are allowed to do their job freely, to help individuals whose representations conflict with reality—and in at least some cases, to do the same thing to communities and whole societies.

In the modern industrial world, the name we give to our version of that system of thought and practice is “magic.” How that system works, what it has to offer, and what blind spots it reveals in our culture’s habitual representations of reality, will be the core theme of this blog.