The psychologizing and scientizing of magic aka “Prove it”

Posted on May 14, 2010
Filed Under Magic, occult culture, Taylor Ellwood | 7 Comments

I’ve been reading some different posts in the blogosphere about magic, psychology, and atheism, and I’ve been mulling over my response to what I see as a trend toward trying to psychologize and scientize magic in order to make it legitimate, at the expense of writing off other perspectives that aren’t rational and thus don’t fit in a neat little scientific box that can be conveniently labeled and explained. I mention Atheism, because I’ve noticed that most of the posts have been written by atheists. And just to be clear, I don’t have anything against atheism per se, but I do have my own perspectives and observations to offer, which run counter to their perspective.

There’s this prevailing attitude that believing in gods or spirits as real entities in their own rights is out of fashion and not really tied into the experience of the numinous and that it’s to perceive them as psychological constructs or archetypes that can be interacted with as metaphors, but not treated as real entities. And that may work for some people, but I think that when you exclude the possibility that such entities could be real, you also exclude some possible avenues of manifestations. I wonder how much the denial that an entity could be real is based in trying to find comfort that such beings are just psychological constructs as opposed to real entities that could effect a person’s life.

It seems to me that by psychologizing magic, it makes the entire experience into a mental masturbatory routine, with little substance to add beyond mental confirmation of one’s dysfunctions or lack thereof. By trying to explain a magical experience or result as a psychological or even psycho-physiological result what avenues of possibility are being written off because they can’t be explained or if they are it’s written off as irrational beliefs?

The effort that goes toward scientizing magic, ends up treating science as the holy grail that can be used to explain and categorize magic. Science is treated as an objective truth or knowledge that can be used to disprove the irrational aspects of magic, while focusing in on the privileged rational explanations, which usually tend to be focused on an anthropological or psychological explanation.

What’s forgotten is that even science is a subjective experience. A theory in science is never considered 100% percent fact or true because scientists recognize that there can always be some information that’s missing that would change our understanding and consequently disprove a theory. More importantly, however, and what is less acknowledged is that science is ultimately derived from human observation and experience, neither of which is objective. This means that any information we have is ultimately derived from a subjective experience that could be disproven at any time.

The on-going trend to scientize magic, to get rid of the irrational comes at a cost that is rather steep, in my opinion. It comes at the cost of utilizing non-rational perspectives, which while not rational, are nonetheless valuable because the suspension of disbelief can open doors that a more rational perspective would write off because it doesn’t fit within a scientific or psychological explanation. The other issue that occurs is that magic is relegated to a mental feel good phenomenon, with no tangible results. It’s something people do to find comfort, as opposed to being a methodology that produces real, tangible changes.

While I won’t deny that a lot of where can magic occur is in the mental or conceptual phase, I will also say that I’ve manifested very real, tangible physical results for myself and other people that weren’t just based on psychological or scientific perspective, but utilized non-rational perspectives as a means of accessing possibilities I’d have otherwise written off if I just relied on a psychological or scientific model of magic. I do find value in deriving some of my methodology from science or psychological perspectives, but I don’t think they even begin to accurately describe, define, or otherwise provide a full and coherent explanation of magic, nor should they.

Also just because I rely on irrational perspectives and approaches doesn’t make me any less skeptical. However I’ve found that such perspectives have proven themselves time and time again. Writing them off in favor of a rational explanation purely because that rational explanation says it isn’t possible seems at best foolish and at worst dogmatic.

What it really boils down to is that while I my derive some of my techniques and methods from a scientific or psychological perspective, I wouldn’t use either to try and label or define magic, because in doing so I unnecessarily limit what I can do. Likewise I wouldn’t use magic to define or explain psychology or science because the magical perspective wouldn’t adequately describe, define, or demonstrate a coherent understanding of such disciplines.

I recognize that for the atheist magicians these perspectives are useful for explaining magic, but I find their definitions to be rather dull and useless. There is something lacking in such approaches. I suppose they could say I was a superstitious fool, but magic will never just be in my head, nor will the entities I work with just be archetypes, and I’m perfectly happy with that perspective.

Comments

7 comments
sara s
sara s

Thank you! I feel uncomfortable when magicians compromise their view of magic to fit the scientific. Science is a paradigm, a way of viewing the world, not the only one and it has its limitations. Magic is another one. There is no particular reason to measure one by the other.

TaylorEllwood
TaylorEllwood

Glad I could put into words some of what you were feeling. Thanks for commenting.

Playpretty
Playpretty

Thank you so much for putting into words things I have only been able to feel

Take care,
Jae

DarkArckana
DarkArckana

Samhain, in many cases it's the spirits that summon the person, not the other way around. Also, objective entities can be brought into physical manifestation. I recommend the book "Ceremonial Magic & The Power of Evocation" by Joseph C. Lisiewski. If you're really serious, seeing as though you have some experience, I strongly recommend the book "Urban Voodoo" by Christopher S. Hyatt and S. Jason Black. Many of the experiences with spirits are the same as the "boiling water", they're universal all across the board. Also, there are things that can only be accomplished with their help. They can give ancient knowledge and teach magickal knowledge that are either non-existent in today's world or have never been put down in words. This knowledge expands beyond the range of the Magician's paradigm but may still inherit touches of the magician's personality.

Not all Magicians practice simply to get a result. Many practice due to their curiosity about the nature of the Universe, not much differently than science.

"... as far as the practice of magic goes exists somewhere between unnecessary to harmful. Now there in my opinion is actually a compelling argument to avoid belief in them." Interesting insight, but I would like to add that belief in objective spiritual entities is not always a matter of practicality. Sometimes, there's just simply no way around it. If you're seeing visible manifestations that can range from weird lights and flashes to an actual tangible materialization, how do you explain that? What if other people see it, too, as Phil Hine points out in "Condensed Chaos"? I agree that there is no reason to believe in objective spirits without a basis, but if you have that basis, then why deny it just to coddle someone else's reality?

DarkArckana
DarkArckana

As someone who uses the Scientific Approach to Magick, I agree with you 110,000%!! Not only is attempting to pass off "Magick" as "Psychology" or saying that "Objective entities cannot exist because the status quo says so" limiting to Magickal Experience, it's also completely irrational and at odds with the genuine study of science. The scientific method starts with a hypothesis and looks for evidence to support it before it ends with a conclusion of the hypothesis. These Atheist "Magicians" are doing it wrong (according to the genuine study of science). They're just starting with a conclusion ("Objective Entities Don't Exist") and looking for evidence to support that conclusion, completely ignoring the hypothesis. Isaac Bonewitz has done a great job of pointing out the next set of details that will be further discussed. In his book "Real Magick" he talks about how science by definition is "any organized body of knowledge" and that there are no specifications for how that knowledge should be organized. Furthermore, the Scientific Method does not give specifications for how an experiment should be conducted. "Rigid Controls" can be useful, but are not necessary to be considered "Science". I would also personally include that one does not need instruments that work a specific way. A Pendulum is just as much of a machine as a EVP Recorder and in the right hands a HECK of a lot more reliable than even the most "sophisticated" set of electronic gadgets available in today's world! Isaac also discusses the science of "Astronomy" and how for a loooonnng time, the only thing Astronomers could do was observe. The technology to experiment with the phenomenon observed by Astronomers was not available at the time. Does that mean that Astronomy was not a science at that period in time? Besides, from a purely objective standpoint, all that exists, exists at the same time. It doesn't wait for humans to discover them, in fact, in order for humans to discover them they have to exist in the first place. Rather than say "they're not real" the scientific thing to do would be to say "we haven't the means to experiment, but countless personal testimonies from individuals worldwide bring it to our attention that it may be something worthwhile to look further into". Much of what is called "rational" or "logical" by Atheists is nothing more than a cultural bias that gives lip service to rationality and logic.

In any case, I'm working on a scientific model of Magick and it's very thorough and in depth. Obviously, there's a working principle behind using "irrational" methods and still get an objective result. However, the purpose is to take the art, science and technology of magick beyond anything it's even been in the modern world. For this, I'm using the model of Ontological Naturalism, which according to Peter J. Carrol is an approach suited for objective Magickal Study [http://www.chaosmatrix.org/library/chaos/texts/aeonics.html] and it's working quite well. I've outlined many of the principles I've observed but I haven't completed the work just yet. When I'm ready, let's get together and talk business. I would like for you and Mr. Coughlin to forward my book and to help me to get it out there. When it's done, it'll be the "Abramelin" text of the 21st Century. I don't even consider it a book, but a distance learning course in the form of a book. I don't even plan on including a table of contents, since skipping ahead could be dangerous. However, it's structured in a way and teaches in a way that's better than any table of contents and makes a table of contents not only unnecessary, but also counter productive.

TaylorEllwood
TaylorEllwood

Hi Brian,

First thanks for the very thoughtful critique. I think you raised some really good points and while I suspect will ultimately agree to disagree, I also think its good to bring in other perspectives. In regards to other posts, a couple of them are lj friendslocked, so if you haven't seen them, I can't help you on that one, but I've also seen writing from you and Psyche and others on the matter.

In regards to your point about science, the same could be said of magic We pass down techniques and other people can try out those techniques and verify whether or not they work. The interesting thing though about science is that most people take it on faith, They don't go and test every science fact to prove it and as you and I know science does change because inevitably there are new discoveries that show previous discoveries were not completely accurate, but all of it is derived from human experience and observation, which means it is subjective to the human experience. I don't think we have nearly the full view of the universe and how it "works" through science as people might like to believe. As for anecdotal evidence, take a grimoire do the ritual and then tell me the results. There is your verification process for magic, and not all that different from science.

I'm probably one of the handful of people you know who doesn't believe in summoning entities and forcing them to do something or believes that an entity deserves worship. I prefer to work with entities on an equal exchange basis. Seems to work for me. I don't work with entities out of a deep seated needed for religion or to feel special or even out of control. I find working with entities efficacious because they provide an alternate perspective and can sometimes provide some insights on something I'm working on. They aren't bound by my perspectives or biases, just as you aren't, so like you with this conversation, they can offer perspectives I might not consider otherwise.

I don't disagree on drawing on other disciplines to inform how one approaches magical work. I certainly draw on a lot of different disciplines in my work and always will do so, because of the perspectives it provides.

While I can respect your reasons for adopting atheism, I would also tell you that my own beliefs on magic, entities etc has provided me the same efficacy and focus on practice that all too often is missing. Granted I don't spend much time in theological debates preferring to focus on refining and improving my practical skills, but my work with with entities has benefited me in that direction. I don't perceive them as unnecessary or harmful, but I also don't rely on the traditional extreme beliefs of summon and command or worship. It seems to me that the real problem isn't the existence of entities, or lack thereof, but rather the reliance on hierarchical relationships which structure the interactions. I don't like hierarchy, never have, and so my relationship with a given entity is non-hierarchical and focused more on working together. I wonder, then, if that particular approach was more widespread how that might change some of the dynamics you mention above. Alas, I can only speak for myself and say I find my belief in entities to be efficacious to my practice of magic.

sammhain
sammhain

Being an atheist magician myself I'm sort of curious as to where these articles are. It's a perspective that is on the whole underrepresented in my estimation.

Before I get into the more magic oriented observations I did want to point out something you said that appears to be a misunderstanding of science on your part; that because human experience things subjectively all science is therefore only subjective. The objectivity related to scientific inquiry is not about one person's subjective experience but the ability of that person's claim to be tested by others. Water will boil at the same temperature for both of us. The temperature at which water boils is not a personal unverifiable subjective experience; it is something we can know about the objective world outside our heads.

Anecdotal evidence is not evidence which is verifiable by others and therefore is inadmissible as the kind of evidence science deals with. While it is true, and not something that anyone who has ever taken a college level biology course would deny, that no scientific theory can be honestly asserted as 100% proven there is a stark difference between how a scientist uses the word theory and how you are using the word theory in relation to magic. For example evidence which is verifiable by multiple sources and which is not anecdotal exists for the theory of evolution while there is no such evidence for your belief that supernatural entities exist. You have at absolute best an untestable hypothesis. Investigating ideas like confirmation bias and pattern recognition is a good idea in my estimation, and one as I’m sure you know that is advocated by RAW in ‘Prometheus Rising’. I’ll touch a bit more on this idea in a bit. On a practical level I’d note that just as I need not be a mechanic to drive a car, I need not have a theory of the mechanics of magic to engage in the practice of the art. In fact where magic is concerned I’d say improvable and in my estimation extraneous conjecture into theory interferes with actually practicing and getting something tangible from the practice of the art of magic.

As far as your conjecture about denial on the part of atheists, I'll say first that there are people who would claim your denial of Jesus Christ as the one true savior is also a product of fear and denial. I suspect you would be as unmoved by that line of thought as I am of it and yours. However to take things a step further and grant for the sake of argument that these entities do exist I would say that raises significant ethical questions.

For example I would declare as abhorrent any entity that felt the nature of its existence and powers granted it a right to interfere in any way, positive or negative, on my life without my consent. Likewise I would be opposed to any system where the magician coerces a spirit to do something for the magician. When it comes to entities in magic these are the two predominate attitudes. I can count on one hand the number of people I've ever met who were not either begging favors or coercing the spirits, or gods they trafficked with.

Even more to the point, I submit that there is no result that can only be obtained by working with a spirit in some way, and from this assertion I ask to what purpose is there in dealing with them at all? You claim that one might be shutting off avenues of possibility. In my experience however, the reasons people deal with spirits in magic have less to do with efficacy and more to do with things like religious leanings, deep seated needs to feel special or chosen, and of course a deep need to have some kind of control that they feel is absent from the rest of their life.

I could raise any idea or belief from the absurd to the historically practiced that could in theory contain the slight possibility of tipping the scales further in your favor that you do not and likely would not engage in for a number of reasons, and would not be persuaded to engage in just because someone told you it made them a better magician or gave them supernatural powers.

The desire to seek out aid and the romanticism of extra-physical agency can be achieved without resorting to conjecture about gods or demons. My own work with future, past and alternative selves serves this function but has the added benefit of not being a religious idea, not being prone to the idea of coercing, and if it were observed that it was all in my head, that would be a statement I could gladly accept as these other selves are not regarded as truly separate in any event. Their usefulness is not a product of their reality but of the process involved, this holds true for the very few supernatural images that frequent my work.

To shut of the rational mind does harm rather than benefit. Just as I would argue treating (or legitimizing certain kinds of treatment from) supposedly sentient entities in an unethical way does harm to one’s ability to address things ethically independent of the reality of those spirits. Saying that magic is an art that permeates and changes one’s life and potentially the lives of others is not an irrational statement even if the experiences that make up the practice are sometimes irrational, or not a matter of either rational or irrational thought. In the latter of course is where confrontation with the numinous is found. There is also present especially in literature the observation that the creative process affects our lives like magic, and these observations even though they are anecdotal come from people who are not occultists and predate ideas like the hypersigil. There is a value there that supersedes the shop talk of magicians…in terms of improving the efficacy of magic it is far more useful to study what has been said by folks who find this process (and confront the numinous) in other ways than it is to focus almost solely on the presuppositions of the remarkably conservative ideas and traditions of occultism.

From a magical perspective my adoption of atheism was useful in stripping away the masks I had hung on the numinous experience, it was a way to experience the mysteries without filters. It's not a fashion statement, but an attempt to be honest with how little I can say about the experience, an attempt to establish if there is a consistency between my practice and the verifiable world outside of my head. It is above all an admission of reaching a place of pure experience where reasons whether they are as improbable as the idea of a supernatural spirit or as seemingly rational as jungian archetypes are not directly relevant or at least not of primary importance. It forces focus on the practice.

Despite the often cited criticism of atheists as absolutists I would argue that what the atheist magician actually says is that there is no reason to act as though spirits exist, not that that they do not exist with 100% certainty. From here the observation can be made that belief in them, as far as the practice of magic goes exists somewhere between unnecessary to harmful. Now there in my opinion is actually a compelling argument to avoid belief in them.