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.