What Magic Can’t Do

There’s another important lesson to be learned from the way that ideas about magic ebb and flow with the tides of historical change. The various systems of magic we’ve surveyed over the last three months have all based themselves on differing ideas of where magical power comes from, but they also had different ideas of what magic can do, and what it can’t.

It’s astonishingly unpopular to mention this latter point—that there are things magic can’t do—in some circles these days. The psychological theory of magic discussed last month has as one of its corollaries that what you can accomplish is limited in part by what you think you can accomplish, and in the minds of the excessively enthusiastic and gullible, this gets stretched into the claim that what you can accomplish is limited only by what you think you can accomplish. That was the sort of thinking that drove the giddier end of the New Age scene into any number of failed prophecies: the logic was that if they all just believed strongly enough that the world would suddenly turn into the utopia whose imminent arrival they’d been fruitlessly proclaiming for decades, why, it would have to happen. Right?

I call this the Tinkerbell Theory of magic: you can do anything if you just believe! It’s a seductive notion for those who don’t know much about magic, because it happens quite often that we do limit what we can accomplish by our inability to believe in ourselves, and so people who embrace the Tinkerbell Theory whole hog do quite often find themselves able to do things they never thought they could. Unfortunately they then overgeneralize from that experience and try, for example, to make a real estate bubble inflate forever, and that sort of thing never ends well.

Thus it’s crucial to remember that magic has limits. There are things it can’t do. That seems to be true of magic as a whole, and it’s certainly true of any given system of magic, which has strengths and weaknesses that depend on the particular sources of power on which it draws, and on the technical means it offers for working with those powers. Every system of magic, unfortunately, also tends to be cluttered here and there with extreme claims that can’t be justified by experience; some of these are simple misunderstandings rooted in a lack of occult knowledge, while others are cynical sales pitches meant to extract money and other favors from the gullible.

The grimoire magic of the late Renaissance and the early modern era offers good examples of both kinds of unjustified claims.  This was in large part because the grimoires emerged in the middle of the western world’s first wave of mass market publishing, when letterpress printing for the first time made books widely available to people of fairly modest economic means. Since most of the participants in the new, greatly expanded market for books had the equivalent of a high school education, to begin with, the subtle philosophical distinctions common in earlier magical literature were routinely garbled, and magical effects that are actually quite easy to obtain got misinterpreted in a variety of absurd ways.

For example, quite a few of the spirits who could be conjured up by following the instructions in grimoires were reputed to be able to teach various academic subjects. The Goetic spirit Marax, for example, who is described in the Lesser Key of Solomon and a variety of derivative works, has among his functions the ability to teach astronomy.  I admit to a great fondness for the image of a classroom full of seventeenth-century undergraduates taking in a lesson on the moons of Jupiter from a demon who looks like a bull with a human face, but that’s not actually what’s being discussed here.

One of the things that magic can quite reliably do, in many people, is awaken an aptitude or talent for some particular field of study. In the Middle Ages, there was an entire branch of magic known as the Notory (not “notary”) Art, Ars Notoria in Latin, which was for the use of students and aimed at exactly this goal. The practitioner of the Notory Art would carefully draw out a specific, complex pattern in ink on paper, and then concentrate on it once each night while reciting an incantation. This process would awaken the sort of enthusiasm for, and intuitive understanding of, a specific subject of study that makes learning it an easy and pleasant task. Those of my readers who prefer a purely psychological theory of magic will have no problem figuring out how such a process can make use of known psychological reactions; those who prefer other theories can just as easily find their own explanations for why it works—but the important point is that it does work.

Doubtless that’s what invoking Marax was supposed to do, too. I’ve occasionally wondered, in fact, if the grimoire tradition may have absorbed at least some of its imagery from offshoots of the Notory Art. The ornate images of demons given in the Lesser Key of Solomon and elsewhere have a great deal in common with images from the old Art of Memory, which was used extensively by medieval and Renaissance scholars to memorize learning, and they’re also reminiscent of telesmatic images, which are symbolic forms constructed in the imagination for a variety of magical purposes. It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of magic that a set of images or practices invented for one reason was put to use later for some completely different end.

In much the same way, the powers of many of the other goetic spirits make perfect sense if they’re understood in context, and perfect nonsense if they’re taken with the kind of gosh-wow literalism that late Renaissance and early modern readers, like too many of their modern equivalents, liked to bring to the grimoires. If you want to summon the spirit Bathin to transport men from one country to another, or Malphas to build a tower, that’s certainly an option, but it won’t exempt you from having to pay for air fare for the men or laborers and building materials for the tower. The point of the magic is to set in motion the sort of cascade of favorable coincidences familiar to every operative mage, where obstacles remove themselves and everything falls into place, as people still say, “like magic.”

So much for the misunderstandings; let’s go on to the crassly cynical sales pitches. There were plenty of those in the grimoire literature, too, though most of them have vanished from sight—you’ll have to look long and hard these days to find a copy of Faust’s Threefold Harrowing of Hell, or any of the other fake grimoires mass-produced by unscrupulous publishers and sold to the clueless. Like their exact equivalents in modern New Age literature, these focused with laser intensity on getting demonic spirits to hand over cash: lots of it, right now, because I want it, that’s why.  Those of my readers who watched the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in their misspent youth, as I did, may recall Verruca Salt, the gloriously archetypical spoiled brat who gets turned into an oversized blueberry.  Her attitude is more or less the one found in these grimoires, and of course in their New Age equivalents as well.

That I know of, people who tried to conjure demons from the depths of Hell to become filthy rich using Faust’s Threefold Harrowing of Hell or its many equivalents didn’t get turned into giant blueberries. On the other hand, the results of their efforts were by and large about on a par with those of all those New Agers who plunged into the late real estate bubble, convinced that what they’d learned from The Secret would enable them to bully the cosmos into giving them money they didn’t earn. There are two things to remember about this sort of cheap manipulative pseudomagic; the first is that it doesn’t work, and the second is that it’s normally laced with doublebinds meant to trap the user in the psychology of previous investment, so that each failure simply becomes another reason to double down. I got to see that in action during the implosion of the housing bubble in 2008 and 2009; I suspect plenty of mages got to watch the equivalent during the economic crises of the seventeenth century, too.

The fact that Faust’s Threefold Harrowing of Hellhasn’t gotten much attention from occultists in recent centuries points up one of the features of magical history that materialists of the Neal deGrasse Tyson stripe insist cannot, must not, and therefore does not happen: occult traditions, like other fields of human knowledge and practice, discard claims that consistently fail. You’ll find plenty of people these days breaking out the Lesser Key of Solomon, using its incantations for a variety of purposes, and getting results. You won’t find many people insisting that they can conjure up the spirit Malphas and get him to build an actual physical tower, all by himself, without benefit of construction crews—and the very few people who make such claims generally find out in short order that the standard response from operative mages is, “Glad to hear it. Now show me.”

You do get extreme claims unhindered by such responses in what’s left of the New Age scene, which is why scientific materialists of the Neal deGrasse Tyson stripe love to talk about the New Age scene and finesse the difference between that and serious occultism.  It makes a great straw man, not to mention a great opportunity for the self-righteous preening they’ve borrowed from more overtly religious forms of fundamentalism. I’m not sure they’re aware that they’re going to have to find a new straw man before long, though.  The New Age movement managed to slam straight from The Secret into the 2012 fiasco, and the double impact sent it into the spiraling decline that normally swallows pop spirituality movements in this country; sales of New Age books, CDs, seminars, and so on have been dropping steadily now for most of a decade. Those of my readers who are familiar with the long twilight of Spiritualism and Theosophy will have a pretty good idea of what comes next.

The historical rhythm of serious occultism is rather different, and I’d like to bring in a narrative at this point from a different slice of magical history. It begins with Hiram Butler, a sawmill worker turned occultist in the late 19th century. He was a student of that force of nature, Paschal Beverly Randolph, who deserves much more attention than he generally gets these days, and will play a central role in my book on Victorian sex magic if I ever have the time, and a contract, to get that written. Randolph was the first African-American occultist to punch through the color line that dominated 19th century American culture; he was also arguably the most innovative occult thinker of the nineteenth century, the guy who invented the system of sex magic that’s central to Gardnerian Wicca, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and many less public magical orders and traditions as well.

Butler, though, apparently didn’t take to Randolph’s genial enthusiasm for healthy sexuality. What interested him in Randolph’s system was the idea that the force that manifested itself in sex was the fundamental force of the cosmos—our old friend the astral light, in fact—and also the basis of biological life. He chased this theme through a galaxy of occult traditions from around the world, and came to theorize that if the sexual force could be redirected away from its obvious expression, via strict celibacy along with other means, it could be put to use in a process of biological regeneration that would result in physical immortality. The only question was how exactly to accomplish the necessary redirection and transformation—and that, in turn, Butler and a circle of students set out to work out by the only available method, that of conducting systematic experiments on themselves.

Those of my readers who don’t know their way around early twentieth century American occult literature may never have encountered the theory that rigorous celibacy plus some specific set of disciplines will enable those who practice such a regimen to live forever. Those of my readers who do know their way around that literature, by contrast, will have seen that tune played in just about every imaginable mode and key. Many of the occult teachers of the era adopted some form of the theory, and pursued their own researches into the possibility of making it happen. Others rejected the theory, and more and more of them rejected it as it became increasingly clear that the theory just didn’t work.

Claims of physical immortality, after all, are subject to a fairly rigorous form of testing.  If you want to prove such a claim, you have to refrain from dying, and this the practitioners of Butler’s system in all its various permutations never quite managed to do. It was one thing when Butler himself died—after all, he was an early investigator of what everyone admitted was an extremely demanding and complex practice. It was quite another when the other members of his Esoteric Fraternity died one by one, and the members of other lodges and organizations that were attempting the same thing met the same fate, expiring in the ordinary way from old age and other natural causes.

The end of the road came in 1954. That’s when Paul Foster Case, the last major American occultist to embrace a variant of Butler’s theory, died anyway. Case’s version of the theory can be found broadly hinted at in the pages of his book The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order, and expounded in detail in the pages of the correspondence courses of the occult order he founded. His exposition was a bravura display of occult scholarship—but it still didn’t keep him from expiring in the usual way. As far as I know, every surviving esoteric order in the US that still retained elements of Butler’s theory either quietly dropped it thereafter, or stuck it in a series of lessons for advanced initiates with a cover note saying something like “This is a bit of traditional lore, make of it what you will.”

On the off chance that any scientific materialists know about Hiram Butler at all, they’re likely to see the tale as simply one more example of how silly occultists can be.  That evades an interesting point, because the process by which Butler’s theory was taken up, explored, and finally rejected is exactly the same as the process by which scientific theories undergo the same treatment. In today’s physics, string theory is pretty obviously completing the same trajectory. The darling of speculative physics a couple of decades ago, it’s being dropped by many physicists now for exactly the same reason Butler’s theory was dropped by occultists the better part of a century ago: it doesn’t yield the promised results. Another few decade and it’ll land in the same drawer of discarded theories as phlogiston or, say, all those land bridges that had to get animals and plants across various oceans in the days when continental drift was still dismissed as crackpot pseudoscience.

That is to say, occultism, like science, is cumulative in nature; it grows by discarding theories and techniques that don’t work and embracing those that do. To say that a field of study is cumulative doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere in particular.  As I pointed out in last month’s post, it’s high time to let go of the notion that the history of magic is some kind of arc of progress toward the one true unified field theory of magic, and I suspect sooner or later our scientists are going to have to deal with the fact that the history of science isn’t destined to end in a complete theory of everything, either—a point that was made by Thomas Kuhn a good many decades ago, but has been carefully ignored by true believers in the ersatz religion of scientism ever since.

A cumulative field of study is simply one that tends, over time, to correct many of its errors and build up a collection of useful technique and theory. It can also lose ground, if the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student is disrupted by outside factors and worthwhile things don’t get passed down.  As last month’s post noted, the occult traditions got clobbered by exactly this process in the wake of the scientific revolution, and we’re still putting the fragments back together. I’ve written in a variety of places now about the serious risk that the same thing could happen to modern science in a big way as modern industrial society slams facefirst into the planetary limits it’s ignored just that little bit too long.

One implication of the cumulative nature of magic is that a program of research can be successful in a broad sense even if its primary purpose turns out to be a dud. The geologists of the eighteenth century who spent their spare time combing Europe for evidence of the Biblical flood failed to find it—more precisely, the things they found, and mistook as traces of the flood, turned out actually to be abundant geological relics of the last Ice Age. Nonetheless their researches turned out to be of immense use, not least because once Louis Agassiz pointed out what moraines and other glacial features meant, all that data lined up in support of the new glacial theory.

In the same way, the occult research program that followed the announcement of Hiram Butler’s theory didn’t succeed in the narrow sense. As far as anybody knows, that is, nobody managed to avoid death by means of the procedure he sketched out.  In the broader sense, though, it yielded a bumper crop of knowledge about the way the nervous system and the endocrine glands respond to various magical practices. The resulting knowledge can be found in textbooks of occult anatomy such as Manly P. Hall’s Man: The Grand Symbol of the Mysteries; the resulting practices form an important part of the stock in trade of many current magical lodges and schools.

Another implication of the cumulative nature of magic is in some ways even more important: since most current magical techniques have documented origins and histories, it’s possible to check out their results. If you want to know what results you can expect from a magical system, in other words, all you have to do is find out what happened to other people who practiced it in the past, or are practicing it right now. A lot of the people who lost their shirts in 2008 and 2009 after sinking their net worth in real estate on the assumption that The Secret would make them rich would have stayed solvent if they’d taken the time to notice that the only person getting rich off The Secret was the author of the book. On the other hand, a teacher who lives up to his or her teachings, a school that’s largely staffed by people who lead sane and largely untroubled lives, or a tradition with a long track record of producing well-adjusted, capable, and creative initiates, is probably going to be able to teach you something worth learning.


  1. Very good to have another WOB post, and all the best to you for the solstice. I must apologise for the lowest-common-denominator question, but the “systematic experiments” run with some Goetic spirits have thrown up plenty of spooky and cautionary tales. Can I ask your view on the safety, advisabilty and the general whatsit of working with the kind of spirits that have gotten themselves labeled or perhaps mislabeled “demons”? I know you've promised to get in to magical ethics in due course, but I don't know if you mean to treat the subject in this way. For clarity I'm not seeking approval to go ahead – I don't practice magic at the moment and if I do take up practice I'd be very nervous of anything like that. I'd like to know your take on it is all.

  2. Aha! I see you have a magickal blog, too!

    There was a combination of “immortality” and “positive thinking” a few years ago, when New Age people claimed to be able to “ascend” after meditating according to some “secret” method after just a few workshops. Apparently, the “ascension” was very literal: you got a body of light and became immortal, etc. It sounds almost like a parody of “The Secret”! In classical Tibetan Buddhism, by contrast, attaining “the rainbow body” takes many life times and dangerous Tantric practices…

    I don´t frequent the New Age scene, but I´m glad to hear that its finally waning in its pop form. Where is the positive side of New Age these days, such as William Irwin Thompson´s attempts to get scientists, authors and alternative thinkers together? Or David Spangler´s refreshing criticism of spiritual narcissism, hybris and apocalypse? Hopefully, Spangler/Thompson can now stage a come back.

    Personally, I´m a kind of open minded skeptic, but that´s for another time… 😉

  3. I imagine that trying to corral the sexual impulse would have the result of producing some perpetually horny and anxious people who exhibit a diverse array of nervous anxious and physical disorders and maladies , or a group that are absolutely preoccupied with sex , much like Catholic Priests , with all the attendant disaster that goes with that …

    People have been asking here about the usual results of the Golden Dawn System , using the ADs test and looking at its initiates and their fates , it seems fairly obvious to me that the group shattered into a million little suns , all intent on burning brightly , some not for long , some succesfully and well and there seems to be plenty of creativity attendant with that mob . Like the results of Jungian analysis , i think ” individuation ” which restores to a soul the power of choice and authenticity will first of all separate one from the vast amorphous mass that lives its life unconsciously by a seres of narratives imposed by society , the market or some other director . Jung even noted in one of his books that the unconscious man will be repelled by the initiate and may even want to persecute him ( as in the case of Jesus H Christ ) , he will have an irrational aversion to him or her and wont even want to be in the same room . Hmmm , maybe , depends on how well initiate disguises him/ herself . Either way there can be a sense of being on the fringes and the odd twinge of wistfulness rather than loneliness , at being on the fringes of his/ her fellows , but the true initiate is never alone , living in a luminous universe populated by myriad beings and possbilities , never alone .

  4. A Blessed Summer Solstice to all and a Happy Father's Day to your readers who are fathers! Veruca Salt was indeed a spoiled child, but her fate was not to become a giant blueberry. That happened to Violet Beauregarde. Veruca was judged to be a bad egg and fell down the garbage chute to the incinerator. Fortunately, she was rescued, but she left Willy Wonka's factory covered in trash. Just the same, her story remains instructive.

  5. JMG,
    First let me congratulate you on the one year anniversary of your “new” blog!

    Let me see if I understand you correctly: A particular system of magic is cumulative in some sense, but magic in general is an approach to a divergent problem, so different systems necessarily accumulate (as well as discard) differently. Recalling comments from last month, on the level of the individual, whatever knowledge and abilities you can achieve in one system don't carry over to another.

    What about the first of Schumacher's four fields of knowledge? Must you lose self-knowledge? Or wisdom?

    (Side note: I must have had a more misspent youth than you – it was Violet who turned into a blueberry. Veruca was a bad egg and went down the garbage chute.)

  6. Rumighoul, I don't practice goetic magic — the sort of magic that involves summoning demonic beings — and I don't recommend it. That's not primarily for ethical reasons, as it happens; on the one hand, the approach to magic I follow focuses on developing the capacities of the individual mage, rather than becoming dependent on other beings to do things; on the other, if you're going to work with nonhuman intelligences, a case can be made that the kind that are famous for lying, tricking, corrupting, and otherwise harming those who interact with them may not be the best choice! More on this in an upcoming post.

    Tidlösa, David Spangler told me once that he knew the New Age was in trouble right after Shirley MacLaine's book Out On A Limb was published, and all the interesting stuff on the intersection between science and spirituality got shoved aside in favor of a warmed-over rehash of tag-ends borrowed from Theosophy, Spiritualism, and 1920s New Thought. I'd be delighted if some of the stuff that got shoved aside by the rehash in question got a second chance.

    Kutamun, the Golden Dawn system is a very strong brew, and can leave those who aren't braced for the impact sprawled in the gutter in one sense or another. There are ways to make it more balanced and less likely to generate the usual problems, but that's an issue for another post.

    Pinku-sensei, of course you're quite correct about Verruca.

    John, likewise. Yes, that's pretty much how magic cumulates; the various bodies of technique in particular increase over time, and techniques from one tradition very often can be borrowed with advantage by others. As for self-knowledge and wisdom, those are always and irreducibly individual attainments, and we all start at the same point anyway.

  7. Thank you for this post. It strikes me that there is a useful connection between ecology (and whatever attempts, good or bad, we make to interact with/make use of all its “non-us” parts to fulfill our purposes), and magic, as you describe it. Other beings may have “niches” that they fill, in neither a good nor a bad way per se, but when we interact with them, we appraise them as “good” or “bad” for us – the bad being based on value judgments – like “weeds” or “vermin” or germs”… Perhaps in working with ourselves there may be benefit in learning to appreciate other beings in the sense of what they are when they follow and fulfill their own purposes, separately to the ways in which they may fulfill (or frustrate) ours.

  8. (Deborah Bender)

    JMG, you commented, “As for self-knowledge and wisdom, those are always and irreducibly individual attainments, and we all start at the same point anyway.”

    So, no such thing as an “old soul”?

  9. Scotlyn, excellent! Yes, and in fact — for reasons I plan on explaining next month — an understanding of magic based on ecology seems to me to be one of the critical requirements of occult philosophy in our time, for the reasons you've cited among others.

    Unknown Deborah, not in the pop-culture sense, no. We'll get into the traditional occult understanding of reincarnation down the road a bit; the short form is that each new life plops us face to face with the same enduring questions, which have to be answered in the context of whatever baggage we've brought along from the past. A soul who's been around the circle more times than others is thus more likely to be unusually troubled and conflicted than to be unusually wise. Think of the days when schoolchildren had to pass certain requirements to go from one grade to the next; a child who was taking sixth grade for the third time would probably not be unusually wise, wouldn't you say?

  10. I have some familiarity with Fairy Tales, and very little with what you call magic (save what I have read here). But I remember that Faerie Gold, by the light of the mortal world's sun, usually turns out to be a handful of dead leaves. Which implies there is no magical short cut to material gain.


    in the Bramblepatch
    Marrowstone Island
    Salish Sea

  11. I'm seeing a parallel here between your distaste for goetic magic and your ecological practices.

    Suppose all those Renaissance eccentrics trying to harness demons for less-than-noble purposes suddenly get a bright idea: 'hey, forget spirits, let's summon up some natural forces and put them to work.' So Bathin and Malthas are out the window, but vis viva and caloric fluid are flying every which way. Pretty soon Thomas Newcomen is crouched over the mouth of a coal mine commanding his infernal creature to pump, pump, pump, and before you know it James Watt is peddling the new goety by measuring its performance against the exhaustion of draft horses. Mix in a few dozen mathematicians for rigor, simmer for a century and a half in Baconian hubris, and you have the new occult science of applied physics, ready to explain and master the universe.

    Unfortunately those Renaissance meddlers never learned about equilibrium or blowback, and neither did their intellectual descendants. Your two blogs ARE intertwined.

  12. Hi JMG,

    Happy solstice to both you and Sara and may the blessings and energies of the spirits follow you in all that you do!

    It is hardly any wonder that extreme claims that can’t be justified by experience get toted around given that that is part of our day to day cultural living experience. What do you reckon about the sources of those claims? Some of the claims that get trotted out are just astoundingly weird.

    I've long suspected that if demons could conjure up material wealth on the material plane, then they'd do so and bother any further with the matter. I haven't seen much evidence to support that ability to conjure up wealth, but then I've seen plenty of Orcs and Trolls in my days wreaking havoc, but then they're not demons are they? The same sort of cognitive dissonance is at play with the world of financial planning because if those people knew what they were doing, they wouldn't need clients would they and yet no one seems to understand that point?

    There is something about the lessons that you wove into this post which reminds me of the business maxims: Mission statement -> Goals -> Strategies -> Implementation -> Assessment. Dunno, but the parallels are there and also Sun Tzu followed a more or less similar path but introduced the element of the seer before committing to action. Astrology may provide a similar role to that of the seer (or be the tool with which the seer uses)? Again dunno. Those modern mages are switched on to ask for evidence of the tall claims.

    Sorry to hear that they all died, but then dying is an essential part of living and Panda Bears apparently don't have that great a sex drive and they tend to die too. Good on that lot for trying the experiment on themselves too and I applaud that level of commitment on their parts even if I don't agree with them. Just sayin… I wonder whether at the end they were surprised by the imminent outcome?

    On the other hand, I've long suspected that setting limits on yourself and avoiding over-indulgence can provide available energy for other activities. I see this all around me with friends that indulge in food, drugs, sex, exercise, indolence and alcohol. Any activity taken to extremes will sap you of your life – anyway that is my take on it.

  13. There's been a lot of discussion of apparent physical manifestations of magic in the comments over the past two months, and this month's essay on the limits of magic and the tendency for some magical and spiritual traditions to make “extreme claims that can’t be justified by experience [whether] simple misunderstandings […] or cynical sales pitches meant to extract money and other favors from the gullible” seems like an appropriate place to bring in one of my own early experiences that overlaps into both of these topics.

    I was raised in the charismatic/holiness corner of Christianity (which many commenters have observed has a lot of overlap in the way it does things with various occult traditions), and so a lot of claims (justified and not) and actual happenings (manifestations of light, sound, or smoke; miraculous healings, etcetera) that I'd now refer to as “magical” were all a pretty standard part of my childhood. At one point in my teens, my parents got deeply involved in a church organization that became increasingly focused on the ideas of the “Prosperity Gospel” that is essentially evangelical Christianity's answer to “The Secret” basically taking Malachi 3:10 out of context, and turning the meaningful spiritual laws its expressing into… well… one of those cynical sales pitches you mentioned. I vividly mention one service in which the pastor waved his hand and a breeze swept through, taking everyone present off their feet. The pastor then told us all that we were marked with God's blessing, and would remain so as long as we remained faithful. And sure enough, everyone in the church who had given a tithe went home to discover that any fillings they had in their teeth had been transformed into brilliant yellow gold. It was as physical a manifestation as could be, not only had the color changed, but the taste and texture had as well, and it had happened to everyone in the church. Of course, nobody else outside that church we tried to show it to could see it, to them the fillings were still the same white or grey. As I grew, and began to doubt a lot of the teachings I'd grown up with, the color faded, and I remember my father continued to claim to see the gold fillings until he had a bad falling out with that church, partly over personal disputes, partly over theology, partly over the fact that he kept tything but didn't get the blessing he was promised, and partly over the corruption he saw in the church as the pastor grew rich and the flock grew poor. When the mark finally faded, he would go on to claim that it'd never happened in the first place. But I definitely know that it happened. It happened to all of us.

    Of course… it was a very sinister bit of magic… not a promise so much as an enchantment cast over the congregation… but it was also one that had a very physical manifestation, comparable to the much discussed discolored, smelly salts. Of course, if tests were done, there'd obviously have been no change in the chemical composition of the fillings, and even someone who didn't believe it had happened wouldn't be able to see them. What happened happened somewhere in the space between the object and our senses of it… somewhere on the windowpane of perception. And yet, it was as reliable as anything else the senses could pick up. It was like the fairy gold you read about in old folktales… real to all the senses until the spell is broken. It's not an experience I thought about one way or another much, but looking back at it from an occult perspective there are a lot of magical lessons to be learned from it.

  14. JMG,

    Your tale of Butler's theory of immortality reminds me of the old quip paraphrased from Max Planck, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Because Butler's theory was falsifiable, it was indeed science. Not good science (in the sense of being correct), but science nonetheless.

    I'm not sure bad ideas die so easily though. I mentioned Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the siddhis (supernatural powers) a few posts back. These sutras (scriptures) live on generation after generation. And in each generation there will be a handful of people who will earnestly attempt to develop these powers and, presumably, just as earnestly fail.

    The problem is that proving as fact something that is likely wrong (say “Unicorns do or don't exist”) takes a great deal more effort than proving as fact something that is likely correct (say “Energy is or is not conserved.”). Indeed, proving an initially promising theory wrong is all but impossible. One just gives up after a good effort. Finding unicorns or proving string theory come to mind. But people often forget the effort of others, while the erroneous theory/fact/legend lives on. There will always be a small lunatic fringe of unicorn hunter and string theorists.

    Butler and his followers certainly weren't the first, nor will they be the last, to attempt immortality. One cannot say for absolutely certain that future attempts will not be successful. One can say with some certainty that there will be future attempts. One can also say with even greater certainty that historical precedent is not on the side of a positive outcome of these future attempts.

    My point is that its often very difficult to kill a bad idea even if its falsifiable. Yes it dies with is proponents, but compelling bad ideas such as getting something for nothing, or living forever, have a strong tendency to resurrect themselves. Sometimes it doesn't even take a generation; witness all the Ponzi schemes our generation has seen. All that is required is a slightly different outward form: fracking not housing not dotcom not Saving and Loans not etc. All the same bad idea, just in different dress.

    So if clearly falsifiable bad ideas just won't stay in the grave, think how much harder it is to permanently kill bad ideas that are not clearly and unambiguously falsifiable. I think there is a strong correlation between poor or difficult falsifiability and the ease with which the idea (good or bad) can live on indefinitely with little need to reincarnate.

    From my point of view, magic is worth a modest effort to investigate in a spirit of honest and open inquiry. If we restrict the inquiry of the effectiveness of magic to the field of affecting consciousness, we are already in an arena not known for clear falsifiability. You see the problem for the neophyte.

    I found divination a good entry point since, if done correctly, it is indeed very falsifiable. I will have to see for magic proper. I'm thinking the old adage, “If at first you don't succeed; try, try again … then give up … no sense making a fool of yourself!”

  15. “…sales of New Age books, CDs, seminars, and so on have been dropping steadily now for most of a decade.”

    Do you know if that is also the case with books and so on about western magic, the occult and so on? If so, part of the problem, I dare say, is that a lot less people read books than before, and rely on Wikipedia abstracts and youtube videos for a lot.

  16. Dear JMG,

    With regards to your response to Unknown Deborah, what exactly did you mean by “the circle”? Did you mean embodied life in general or life lived in a certain way? You seem to hint that a soul's journey through embodied life is like a child's journey through grade school. And getting into the next grade depends how we answer the questions life throws at us. But if so, why do we end up with the same enduring questions each time? That's not what happens to children in grade school.

    Thanks and much appreciate this very vital education.

  17. So I gather that Magic is not going to reverse my Neuropathy or declining vitality and health due to aging. Well I never really had the expectation that Magic could do that. I do hold out the hope (probably foolishly) that the Alchemy taught in the Celtic Golden Dawn system may provide a bit of help for the body as aging progresses. If nothing else then perhaps changes in my consciousness and attitudes as I deal with the decade of so of life left to me in this incarnation. I wonder if Magic might be of assistance when that day arrives when I pass thru that veil.

    On another note, I am just about ready (within the week) to perform the Self Initiation for the Ovate grade. Perhaps you could suggest an auspicious date for that initiation?

    I notice the number of comments seems to have tapered off for this posting; or you are too busy with other projects to give it your attention at the moment.

  18. Eric S,
    No offense to JMG, but it is comments like yours that bring me back to this blog as much as blog posts. Amazing stuff and so well described.
    On a separate topic, I have seen string theory mentioned a few times in other comments. As I understand it, the problem with string theory is that it relates to such high energy physics phenomena that it has become untethered to the experimental side of physics. That is to say there is no way to directly test most of its results or features, or to distinguish it from other theories. In a sense it is like pure mathematics masquerading as physics. You have to be able to do experimental tests to call something physics or science in general.

  19. Hi Mayhawk , there is no doubt harbouring complexes or “demons” in your didgeridoo often requires enormous amounts of energy ” life force ” or what have you to hold them in the unconscious and prevent them from rising up and swamping ” the ego ” . You know those people ” the stress has aged him ” , ” he looks old and tired despite his youth ” , or conversely ” she looks amazing for her age ” . I imagine this would be difficult to quantify scientifically as the effects would vary so widely from person to person .
    On the question of immortality , i think many people like to think of this as some sort of conscious ego immortality …anyone that thinks this might be a good idea should read Simone De Beauvoirs “all men are mortal ” , which suggests that after a hundred or so years the immortal iddy will end up curled up in the corner in the foetal position , no longer able to bear the pain of contact with mortals who are sure to die and make p.iddy suffer the pain of loss yet again , which accmulates in intensity with each passing instance ..horrible !
    Good authors , on the other hand achieve the only sort of immortality that would be worthwhile , in my view . As i am not an author , and i Dont have kids , i have made my peace with the concept of gently and graciously sinking back into the fecund humus of my home orb , and being absorbed by her , to wander and travel no more , to allow myself to “become nothing at all ” , as Rob Dougan sang on his ” furious angels ” album

  20. Your comment to Deborah is very interesting. A few months back I had a detailed astrological reading done for me by a trusted friend. Many people would dismiss such a thing as a flight of fancy and 'fortune telling', but what he told me resonated and I felt it to be true. He implied that before I was born I had not wanted to 'go round the circle' one more time, but that I had been more-or-less talked into it because I wasn't done yet with contemplating paradox. This rung true to me. It was an 'aha' moment – the idea that this particular node of consciousness had a particular job to be getting on with.

    Sorry if that sounds incomprehensible.

    On another note, over here in the UK the BBC is currently running a lavish TV period drama that revolves around the British government's use of magic around the time of the Napoleonic wars. The two central characters are both mages – one convinced that magic can be used in a nationalistic manner to win wars, and the other more interested in 'ancient magic' to raise the dead, amongst other things. It's called 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' and is based on the book by Susanna Clarke. There's a dash of Harry Potter magic in it, but most of it focuses on creating illusions, summoning entities and other nefarious practices. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see a more mature consideration of magic entering the realm of mainstream entertainment.

  21. JMG,

    Concerning the theme that the toolkit of magic techniques that have been tried and found to work can be cumulative (despite an overarching theory of magic not being a convergent problem):

    Siddhartha’s reported experience of trying most of the known meditative techniques of the time comes to mind. He (the historical Buddha) is reported to have learned each technique, determined its effect, and found it wanting with respect to being a means to attain full enlightenment.

    One has to admire the cheek of this spoiled son of the local thug tripping in (after passing on a promising career in a life of violence – the family business) and sampling the techniques that were expected to take years of practice before attaining any real results; only to decide in short order that none of them were up to snuff. In other words, he didn't waste too much time but he did at least give them all a whirl.

    The cautionary part of the tale of Hiram Butler and his followers (and string theorists and unicorn hunters) is much the same: don't invest too much money, time, and effort in an unproven theory. One can admire their persistence; but persistence in the wrong direction is simply foolishness.

    But then again, how does a theory become proven if someone doesn't make the initial effort and risk being wrong … perhaps very very wrong? The sad act is that the vast majority of cutting edge science, especially applied science, goes nowhere for the simple fact that there are far more ways to be wrong than there are ways to be right. Yet one has to pay the bills.

    In Siddhartha’s case, he had gone pro and come up with nothing. Its at that point of extreme that he is reported to have attained enlightenment. A good thing too as his options were rather limited at the time. Then again, maybe he just faked it.

    There is the whole psychology of previous investment at work here as well as other traps in thinking. I can imagine Hiram, Siddhartha, or any number of nascent string theorists, unicorn hunters, seekers of enlightenment, psychologists, economists, scientists, medical researchers etc. starting off with the greatest enthusiasm and honesty. But as the years dragged on, and results were not clearly forthcoming, both the enthusiasm and honesty would wane. One probes into the literature of one's chosen field of knowledge and finds it, like any medical doctor or theologian or scientist today would, full of fraud. A cynicism may begin to darken one's soul. One had followers, a position of sorts, books in print, perhaps a blog or too. Heh, its a living. It could be worse … one could be working for Goldman Sacks.

    What to do?

    The honest thing to do is stop and reflect. Though most fields of knowledge do in fact have breathtaking amounts of fraud, few fields (yes … even economics) are completely fraudulent. Take stock of what you know to be true from your own experience and start working again from there. I understand you did this at some point. Its for this reason I give what you have to say a hearing. Of course you could still be wrong, but in that case, at least I hope you would be honestly wrong.

  22. (Deborah Bender)

    Agent Provocateur, about the falsifiability of divination, that would depend on the nature of the question and upon the degree of subjective choice required to extract an intelligible answer from the readout.

    I'm not expert in any divinatory system, but I have been consulting the Tarot and the coin oracle of the Wilhem/Baynes translation of the I Ching for decades. I can't remember the last time I asked a question like “Is such-and-such going to happen?” I tend to ask whether a particular course of action will lead to the desired result, or the best way to handle a situation within an organization (the I Ching is great for this).

    What I look for as confirmation that I'm not simply employing a randomizer to support a decision I have already made is that the answer contain specific details relating to the question or the situation from which the question arises. When the I Ching text seems to be reading my mind, that indicates to me that the intelligence of the oracle, whom I imagine to be a Confucian scholar retired from a senior post in the imperial bureaucracy, is speaking directly. One must take his cultural outlook into account; he really does not want to be bothered with questions about romance from women.

    Both forms of divination are based on methodology that has a lot in common with the way government agencies make predictions about the near term weather. The National Weather Service takes an extremely detailed look at real time data, then applies algorithms to calculate probabilities of conditions in the present and recent past developing according to patterns that have occurred before. Your standard Celtic Cross card spread works exactly the same way.

    Questions about romance and personal relationships generally are stock in trade for the Tarot, which I don't think has a particular indwelling intelligence. I think the Tarot works by amplifying, organizing and projecting information already in the reader's mind (the functional equivalent of satellite photography). Therefore Tarot is more dependent on the reader's psychic ability than is the I Ching.

  23. Agent Provocateur: “Though most fields of knowledge do in fact have breathtaking amounts of fraud, few fields (yes … even economics) are completely fraudulent. Take stock of what you know to be true from your own experience and start working again from there.”

    Well put. Yes, I think that life after disillusionment is possible and well worthwhile. You can find yourself wrong about many things and still carry on doing the good work you've seen proven. Seeing people older than me do this, working through heartbreak and working to change themselves, has been hugely helpful to me. It doesn't reassure me that the quest for authenticity will be easy, but that it will continue and can yield cumulative results. Cynicism is important, but it's a way station where a lot of people get stuck.

  24. Deborah Bender,

    R.e. Divination

    I was thinking of restricting questions to “scorable” questions of the type “Will x happen by time y?” I.e. A question with a “Yes” or “No” answer and an objective criteria to determine if x did in fact occur. If the key you are using is balanced (meaning statistically as likely to give a “Yes” as a “No” answer) you can keep score. If your score exceeds a standard deviation of 1.65, you have a statistically significant score (p<.05). A more stringent threshold to use for acceptance of the "alternative hypothesis" is "power of test". This ensures your number of trials is sufficient to be a worthwhile statistical sample. Questions of the type “Should I do y?” Aren't scoreable in this sense. This is not to say such questions aren't valid; only it's better to have an objective criteria and a very simple yes/no answer if your are seeking to test the accuracy of an oracle by statistical analysis. Of course, if you are happy not to bother, hey by all means do what works for you. Everyone is going to have a different threshold for what constitutes proof to them. The approach I implied above is one that is commonly applied in the social sciences and medicine. It is by no means foolproof, but at least it is considered a scientific standard.

  25. (Deborah Bender)

    A.P., the method that might work best for answering questions of the type, “Will x happen by time y?” might be the taking of omens. Yes if the bird flies right, no if she flies left. That's just a guess, not something I have tried.

    Flipping a coin is a time honored random number generator.

    Apart from those, it seems to me that the kind of simple statistical test you propose is only going to be a fair test if a) the system of divination produces a limited number of patterns, numerical outputs or the like, and b) you can look up the answers in a table that will give you an unequivocal “yes”, “no” or “maybe” as the value of that particular answer. This is popular fortune telling. I would be surprised and interested to hear that any system of that sort scores much better or worse than chance– unless you go beyond mechanical generation of the answers, by meditating on the question or by making an offering to the ruling spirit of fortune before each cast. Either of those would of course introduce an element of subjectivity which would ruin your experiment.

    JMG wrote a book on Western geomancy, which is a system that generates a finite number of patterns by mathematical procedures. The Chinese system of divination I referenced is also mathematically generated and produces a defined number of patterns. Either satisfies my first criterion, but there remains the issue of interpretation.

    I don't know how well suited geomancy is for answering the sort of question you propose. The I Ching, at least the way I consult it, is a book of advice on strategy. In extreme situations it says walk or don't walk, but most of the time it rates your probability of success and tells you where your aid and opposition will be.

    One can get yes-or-no answers out of a Tarot deck by drawing three or fewer cards, but then you might as well just throw dice and count the spots.

    The forms of divination I'm familiar with probably won't do what you are asking them to do. I'll shut up now.

  26. Hi,

    I was wondering if there are any books you might recommend that contain much of the same content as Hall's Man: The Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, yet are generally available a bit more cheaply?


  27. Deborah Bender,

    I have applied the test I indicated using geomancy. I agree that some sort of mental, physical, and/or ritual preparation is likely essential. Otherwise you might as well flip a coin and expect results no better than chance.

    In geomancy, the Judge can be though to represent the entire matter. This I used as my key for Yes or No. I thought of the eight figures potential for Judge as each having a default interpretation of Yes or No with the corresponding “mate” for a particular Judge has having the opposite default meaning I.e. No or Yes. Now you have a balanced key with 4 Judges giving Yes and the paired mate or opposite of each of these Judges giving No. In the event that the default meaning of a particular Judge should be reversed, so will the corresponding opposite Judges meaning be reversed. This way the key is still balanced. Before one does the divination, the key should be settled in the diviner' mind I.e. What reversal of meanings should apply.

    With this method, I've had a standard deviation in excess of 5 for more than 50 divinations. Of course statistical proofs are never completely conclusive, but these result are enough to convince me to proceed further.

    The technique I've just outlined washes out much of the subtlety, and so power, of this or any other divination technique by design so as to remove ambiguity. So the technique is useful for proof, but less so for many practical application of divination.

    I expect a similar process could be applied to other divination techniques.

  28. (Deborah Bender)

    Since our host is indulging this conversation–

    Sounds like a reasonable protocol, though I have no practical experience with geomancy. A longish run of answers not reverting to the mean (if that's the correct description; my intro to statistics class was not recent) is interesting.

    Better than chance, worse than chance, just chance is testable. It bypasses various explanations of divination being perceived as useful w/o returning answers more accurate than chance. E.g., send the hunters out in all directions, not just to where they found game last time. Or that the process of doing the divination causes you to pay closer attention to overlooked information. [Or that the process of divination affects the outcome of the event being predicted–has anyone figured out how to test that?]

    As for applying the protocol to other divination techniques, the first thing that occurred to me was making one up. After all, somebody made the ones we know of up.

    I'm curious, what sort of events are you predicting? Stock market index closing price odd or even?

  29. AP
    I guess you meant it rhetorically “But then again, how does a theory become proven if someone doesn't make the initial effort and risk being wrong … perhaps very very wrong?”

    My take is that theories do not get 'proven', though they may become tested to the point of being pretty unassailable in the face of a reasonable grasp of all the evidence.
    Even when we get a different set of evidence, most of the previous reasoning might still stand. Just means there is no end to the road I suppose.

    I am toying with the idea that 'perceptions' is what we are granted – not 'reality' – and that clarifications provided by 'reasonably' consistent reasoning are themselves valid perceptions and encourage us to put our imaginations to better use – insight and 'truth' ringing like a bell if you are lucky.

    I am still, like Physdoc, trying to absorb Eric S tale of the golden teeth. Now you see them, now you don't!

    Phil H

  30. I have to admit that quests for immortality and eternal youth have always seemed very peculiar to me. Do you have a sense of why it was an important question for Butler? It seems a similar lesson can be learned from George Orwell's life.

    I have a broader question that keeps coming up in my current studies and seems related to how ecology and physics weave themselves in and out of your work. How did thoughtful people talk about momentum before Newton?

    Deborah Bender and readers with working knowledge of the I-Ching and other divination systems. One of the recently celebrated teachers in the quilting world Sherri Lynn Wood has made quilts using the I-Ching. I am wondering if anyone has thoughts about the possible effects of such an undertaking. It is quite intriguing to me to think about a question/divination taking up so much personal time and then living as an aesthetic blanket in someone's house. Are there any other examples of a divination reading being given a more permanent form?

    Best to everyone at the high summer/winter mark. (Still thinking about Ulysses walking off into the mountains/desert with a paddle on his shoulder.)

    best. Stacey

  31. Deborah Bender,

    Last reply so as not to strain the patience of our host ….

    Agreed that divination results could have value even just as “ink blots” to clarify and focus one's thoughts and bring in information not normally accessible From that point of view, doing better than chance is not the criteria for success.

    To answer your question: The events I'm predicting are generally those relevant to me personally. So issues with friends and relatives (what they may do), illness and death of loved ones, inheritance issues, success in hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, and beekeeping, the weather, if repairs have been effective, when items ordered will be delivered, success in gardening (yields), as well as some world events such as the economy, wars, and disease.

    I did find myself in one failed prediction that, in retrospect, was a Cretan Liar situation. I asked if a hive would succeed to a certain date. Getting a positive reply, I did not check it further. It failed. Had I got a negative reply, I would have checked the hive and may have been able to rescue it. Hmm, not the best best test in that case. One has to think these things through a little better.

    Though the numbers to date are impressive (with no reversion to the mean as should happen if the effect is spurious) (n = 99, x = 87, z = 7.538), one caution is that to date, I still get about 13% wrong. The problem is the same as advertising …. 90% is a waste of money … One doesn't know which 90% though. So getting any wrong means the divination one is working on may be wrong too. What then? Again, do you really act on the info and if you did, would this involve one in a Cretan Liar double bind situation? And if one is not going to act on the info, why does one seek it?

    It's all good fun until someone loses their bees!

  32. Stacey,
    Pre-Newtonian physics held that the natural state of an object was at rest. Any motion required a force. This concept originated from the Greeks (Aristotelian physics). Newtonian physics is subtly different in that it states the natural state of an object is at rest on in constant motion (velocity). A net force causes an object to accelerate not maintain its constant velocity. One problem with pre-Newtonian physics was how to describe motion after the initial force was removed (e.g. cannon ball after leaving the cannon). In Medieval times the concept of impetus was introduced as a kind of internal force that kept the object moving until it was used up. This is similar to momentum, except the idea that it dissipates gave a wrong prediction in the case of the cannon ball. The prevailing idea in Medieval times was that ball would continue to travel in a straight line until the impetus was used up and then it would fall down Wiley Coyote style. Newtonian physics on the other hand gives the correct answer. Forward momentum and velocity is constant and vertical momentum and velocity is altered by the force of gravity resulting in a parabolic (curved) trajectory. Not sure why nobody noticed that the motion was not Wiley Coyote style. Maybe they did and did not want to rock the Medieval physics boat. Anyway I hope that answers your question sort of.

  33. @Jason Heppenstall

    Like you, I have evidence that I did not want to be reborn but had to be persuaded into it. However, the main thing that intrigues me about your post is that you say you were reborn because you hadn’t done with “contemplating paradox”. You do not explain what you mean by that, but it is just possible that a book I have written might be relevant.

    The main subject of the book is the relation between consciousness and the universe (and yes, JMG, it does have some resemblances to Schopenhauer, although the differences are greater). In this relation paradox plays a central role, as I show how it is inherent in the way human beings understand the world. The book is entitled “Creating the World” and was written under the name of my alter ego John Downie. It can be downloaded free of charge from http://www.animata.omnia.co.uk.

    Warning: although I tried to keep the language simple, much of the book will be tough going for people who are not used to reading philosophy. Second warning: in the book I claim that we create the world. That does not contradict what JMG teaches, because we cannot create it however we like. We have to create it out of the raw materials given to us, but our very idea of what those raw materials might be is also our own creation, as they, too, are part of the world. That is one aspect of the paradox.

  34. I don't know about other methods of divination, but I think it is highly unlikely that the I Ching would want to co-operate with someone who is trying to test it.

  35. @ Agent Provocateur / Deborah:

    I think that divination can be very useful even if it should be beased on pure randomness. In fact, that's why I use it. However, my approach is not “what will happen?”, and I don't ask verifiable questions at all. Rather, I use it as kind of brainstorming with questions of the sort “what about this issue?”. The randomness then helps to get some “out of the box” thinking, i.e. to look on the issue in question from different angles. That is the kind of associative, not logic thinking that you experience in dreams.

    With the I Ging, the coins might flip randomly, and actually, all of the texts are generic enough to apply to one's life in some point – but it is the reader who attributes meaning to the text. You can read meaning into randomness. Now that sounds like “explaining away magic”, but I mean it the other way round – I just don't see the need for more than randomness in order to successfully use divination, and thus I don't see the need for statistical /scientific “justification”.

  36. You are right about P. B. Randolph, of course. But one of the most heart-breaking cases of magic not working was the utter failure (at least in our outer reality) of the Tibetan working against invading Communist Chinese army in 1950, elaborate ritual done according to the best principles of shamanic Buddhism. But still, you need an army of your own.

    Make yur own analogy.

  37. I am intrigued, Jason and Doug, at your suggestions around a “choice to be born.” One of the three powerfully metaphysical experiences I have had in my life related to the night on which (I am certain of this) our firstborn was conceived. I had a very clear sense of *someone* announcing their intention to come to us, to be born… I can't describe this in more detail, it is simply indescribable, but this happened.

  38. I've been mulling over this post for some time, not sure what it was about it that I was trying to understand. I think I've figured it out now. It's becoming more clear to me that science is a child of occultism – at this point a rebellious teenager who is disowning one of its parents. Remembering that scientists like Newton also practiced the occult arts, could it be that science itself got its emphasis on verifying through experimental evidence from occult practice? So when someone like Neal deGrasse Tyson dismisses non-material aspects of existence, denying science's connection to the occult arts, not only is he acting in a rebellious way, but he's also forgetting that both the occult arts and science have verification in practice as a key part of the art, and that scientists could use that to explore how the occult arts work if they were so inclined. (But they'd have to become adults and re-connect to their elders to do that, of course.)

    Thinking back, too, to something we discussed a few months back – the successful efforts by scientists to expel vitalism from scientific practice – that would make it expedient to adopt a machine analogy to explain how the world works. Could this, then, connect back to the insight you described in your post to your other blog this week? Once you've expelled vitalism from science, deadened the world, and used mechanical analogies to explain how the physical world and all in it it work (including humans), that opens the door to treating other people as machines. Kind of like Descartes at his most extreme, denying life and response-ability to everything but yourself.

  39. Hi JMG,

    Accumulation of knowledge creates its own problems. If you have too many results, then some of those will be strange, problematic and there might even be results that seem contradictory. Then you need to restructure and sometimes even change the paradigm on which your (magical) worldview is based. (I know it smells like progress, but sometimes it happens).

    In science such paradigm shifts actually occur. In magic I expect this situation too result in a split, much like what usually happens in religions.

    I think one can speculate and interpretate that christianity came out of judaism and that buddhism came out of hinduism as paradigm shifts. In both cases the founder of the new religion seems to have been well aware of the strong and weak points of the old religious paradigm. Somehow they came up with a new religious paradigm, which they actually believed to solve some problematic aspects of the old paradigm. But they have not managed too convince everybody that their new religious ideas where better or more useful than the old ones. So a split happened and we have both the old religions and the new ones.

    Part of the reason why a split happened can be explained by the fact that religious worldviews concern divergent problems, but there is also a psychological part. Many psychological biases (like denial, confirmation bias etc.) function in such a way that they stabilise the worldview one has. They are like noise filters that reduce cognitive dissonance. But these same mechanisms also make it almost impossible to change your worldview, even if the new one solves all kinds of problems the old one has. So then a split happens where some people adopt the new paradigm and others stick to the old one.

    Science has not (yet) split. This is because the problems it solves are probably convergent and there are mechanisms in place that should make it possible to evaluate different paradigms. These mechanisms basically avoid the psychological problems.

    In a system of magic somebody might actually come up with a new magical paradigm in such a situation (of seemingly contradictory results). But I expect that he will not be able to convince everybody. So the result then will be two magical systems. One based on the old paradigm an one based on the new paradigm.

  40. Agent, Deborah, Delach…

    Since you brought I Ching into account, I feel I can speak a little bit about this: First, trying to make questions of the type “Will X happen by time Y” might be a bit self defeating, though Agent seems to have done a very creative solution to make that work with geomancy. But for what I know about IChing, this is not at all what it's about.

    (I am going to make affirmative statements in spite of being just a dabbler, but please let me do so. If I hedge everything I write this comment will go on and on. Just put “AFAIK” before every sentence of mine, and take it with a grain of salt).

    First, I-Ching divination is not at all at predicting the future. You might end up doing that, indirectly… but the idea is that you are trying to figure out the 10 Thousand Mutations. Those are the infinite combinations and of the basic Yin and Yang principles. You don't try to divine “where will I be tomorrow”, but “where am I now and in what direction am I moving”. So, you can extrapolate, but certain outcomes are at best hard to pin down.

    Second, I-Ching divination focuses not in events, but in relationships. You get this symbols called hexagrams, which are some kind of archetype narratives that you can use to better understand your situation. Because they are archetypes, you can use the patterns there to uncover what are the forces at play and decide a course of action where the likely outcome is more likely to be positive to you. It is sort of a filter of reality that let's you focus on some aspects and ignore others, but there always exist the possibility that something will hit you from the blind side.

    Third. the I-Ching hexagrams come in pairs, the first hexagram tells you what is your current situation, the second tells you towards what other situation your life is moving, given the forces at play right now. You cannot (or at least are extremely unlikely to) go from any one symbol to any other… the wisdom of the oracle's creators is encoded in the rules that tell how to produce the second hexagram from the first, so this state of flow connects likely causes to likely consequences. It also represents a paramount aspect of the Yin-Yang theory, which is that everything is in a constant state of flux all the time.

    As a matter of fact, if you get the same hexagram twice, it is considered a bad omen, meaning not necessarily that something bad is about to happen to you, but that you have got yourself stuck in whatever situation represented by the archetype. It is not malfeasance what's to fear, but stasis. Also, as Deborah mentioned before, the oracle is temperamental; it can give you the same hexagram twice if it does not like your question (happened to me a couple of times, actually). I have read this is its way to tell you “Shut up and listen, this is the way things are and that's it.”

    So, I am far from sure it's possible to cajole this ancient oracle into giving you an straight answer. Maybe it is just me and my ignorance, but it seems designed as a tool to turn introspection into decisive action. Complaining it does not give you falsifiable hypothesis feels a bit like being annoyed with a horse for not being a very good helicopter.

  41. (Deborah Bender)

    Replying to Stacey Armstrong's question, the Tarot is pictorial and people have made all sorts of visual art that references the Tarot trumps. There is a ritual theater piece called The Living Tarot which ends with individual mini divinations for members of the audience.

    I would make a distinction between works of art that refer to or incorporate images and concepts from a divinatory system system and a work of art that preserves or refers to a particular act of divination. We are used to photography and sound recordings which capture the fleeting moment and preserve it, but it seems odd to me that anyone would choose to do that with a divination, unless, perhaps, it's a monument for a king intended to overawe.

    If one were to do that, I suppose the impulse would be to take a particularly fortunate result and turn it into a kind of amulet, in hopes of making good luck last. Another reason might be to commemorate an event like a wedding or the birth of a child by reproducing the pattern of a divination done at the time. Come to think of it, I own an example of this kind of art. A deceased friend of mine was an astrologer. She made beaded necklaces that were representations of one's natal chart.

  42. Hi JMG,

    You are very busy with the other blog which is a truly fascinating discussion! Thanks for starting it.

    The question which popped into my head this morning is: Whilst magic is a very useful tool, why do societies and cultures fall into the trap of using magic in times such as these – given its limitations?



  43. JMG,

    Towards a comment more relevant to your post:

    I had undertaken to test the efficacy of geomancy in a way that allowed statistician verification/falsifiability. This could only be done by seriously limiting the types of questions posed to the oracle. My ultimate aim was gain some confidence (or otherwise) in the underlying magical worldview that most any divination implies.

    Based on your more recent posts here, it has finally dawned on me (I'm slow on the uptake … frequent repetition helps … keep it up 😉 ) that there may be no such thing as an overarching “magical worldview that most any divination implies”. Hmm.

    If magic is a divergent problem, what you get is a variety of potentially mutually exclusive worldviews, each useful for the application of a unique set of magical techniques related to a specific worldview. The obvious analogy in science is wave/particle duality. One is required to pick carefully the question you wish to ask the universe within the content of a given worldview (e.g. subatomic stuff is mostly particles) and then be content to accept the answer it gives on those terms (e.g. you get a good fix on position but sacrifice a corresponding fix on momentum).

    Another example in science is the worldview of the celestial sphere. Good for questions of your position on Earth but not so great for determining celestial distances.

    Other examples involve looking at the levels of reality accepted by mainstream science. The most relevant “laws” (habits of nature?) that feature at the subatomic level, atomic level, chemical level, level of single cell organisms, level of complex lifeforms, level of communities of species, level of ecosystems, planetary level, solar system level (no need for the 2 big fudges of dark energy and dark matter just yet), level of galaxies (oops … need dark matter), level of local clusters (damn … another fudge required … dark energy), level of super clusters, level of all space and time (crap … another fudge … cosmic inflation anyone?) etc. are all different and sometimes mutually exclusive.

    But wait … there is the idea of levels. Here there is no agreement about how many or what exactly each does or governs, but there is a common idea, in (most?) magical and (current) scientific worldviews, that the universe is composed (or can be productively understood to be being composed) of levels of reality. I think you suggested neoplatonic ideas as a possible overarching theme. I assume you meant this in the sense of the universe emanating from some transcendent “One” reality (read “vacuum state” in physics and the “Brahma” in Hindu philosophic traditions) through various levels to what we perceive as “concrete” reality. Most philosophic schemes involving this idea also imply some sort of return to this source.

    The limits of what magic can do is then determined by the particular magical system/worldview and the constraints it implies. This is much the same as the limits of say chemistry being determined by its area of application (you are not going to create nuclear fusion by strictly chemical processes alone). Limits in magical effect are not the result of limiting beliefs as such (e.g. “I can't conjure that effect only because I don't believe in it”) but because the effect sought is outside the relevant level the specific magical system works on.

    Close enough for now?

  44. JMG,

    One further question:

    Why does “non-inkblot” divination work and how?

    In divination, one is creating meaning out of what otherwise would be considered random responses from the universe by first creating a scheme of meaning (the divination “key” or legend – in the map sense of the word) and such meaning then seems to correspond to “objective” events if the divination is conducted with sustained intention and attention. This fact (if one can call it that) suggests something very deep about the way the universe works. What exactly, I haven't figured out yet.

    Do you have any ideas on a “very very general theory of divination” given a “universal unified theory of divination” is almost certainly not possible for the reasons already discussed?

  45. Mr. Greer,

    Thanks you for another thought-provoking post.

    The question that comes first to my mind is this: if occult philosophy and crafts (ritual workings, divination) were considered part of education is there Notory Art dedicated to acquiring aptitude in them?

    Second, could it be turned into positive feedback loop? When ever-greater talents fuel more potent workings of Ars Notoria?

    Ps. is there modern source/book on Ars Notoria? Art of learning and efficient skills acquisition is one of topic I am interested. I know from experience that autosuggestion works great and is recommended even by mainstream psychologists.

    Second question is, of course, about the things that magic can do. What lies in the twilight zone between effective use of placebo and impossibility? Which of widely reported phenomena such as clairvoyance, telepathy, long-distance hypnotic influence, dream sharing are achievable by dedicated training and experimentation?

  46. John Roth,

    Part 1 of 2

    Ah, well … I understand JMG is very busy right now. While the cat is away, the mice will play;-) ; so:

    Re. your “Why the presumption that the input to the divination is random?”

    I'm not sure I do make this assumption. Basically I'm testing for randomness not assuming it exists.

    A more detailed answer follows:

    When conducting a statistical test, there are generally two hypotheses: the “null hypothesis” (H0) and the “alternative hypothesis” (Ha).

    In this case, H0 is that there is no correlation between divination results and the respective objective events being predicted.

    Ha is the opposite: that there is a correlation between divination results and the respective objective events being predicted.

    In the case H0, one effectively assumes the results are no better than chance i.e. that they are “random” (without looking too closely at what this really means right now). Thus one would expect a string of hits and misses (recorded say as a string of 1s and 0s). If the divination key is balanced, in a long enough string (equal to the total number of divination conducted and designated as “n”) one would expect about half to be 1s (and so the other half 0s). The number of 1s is designated as “x” in an string of n trials.

    The standard deviation (sigma) from the mean (mu = n/2) in this case is sigma = SQRT(n)/2

    The number of standard deviation from the mean (z) is given by z = (x – mu)/sigma
    or if you prefer z = (2x – n)/Square Root (n). Z is used to compare different sets of trials to each other. Any given z value represents a given probability of x or less being hits out of n total trials. A z of 1.65 means there is a 95% chance getting x or less hits out of n trials. This means there is a 5% chance of getting greater more than x trials correct purely by chance (known as p < 5%). This is a common threshold for statistical significance in the social sciences. An easy way to think of all of this is in terms of flipping a coin. Lets say I flipped a coin 100 times. (n = 100, mu = 100/2 = 50) and got 60 heads (x = 60). For a coin, (sigma) = half the square root of 100 or 5. The number of standard deviations from the mean (z) is (60 – 50)/ 5 = 2. We could compare this result to flipping a coin 64 times (n = 64) and getting 40 heads (x = 40). In this second case, the number of standard deviations from the mean is (40 – 64/2)/4 = 2 as well. Both results have the same number of standard deviations (i.e. value of z) and so both results have the same probability of occurring. So “random” results consistent with the null hypothesis assume (by convention) that the results should be such that x is about equal to n/2 and in any case no further to the right than z = 1.65 (i.e. p < 5%). If the results are not “random” (as I have just defined it in the last paragraph) i.e. we get a z > 1.65 or maybe z >> 1.65, then we have results strongly suggestive of rejecting the null hypothesis and so strongly suggestive than we should accept the alternative hypothesis.

  47. John Roth,

    Part 2 of 2

    Now you asked about the “input” to the divination. I assume you mean the figure or immediate result of the divination and not the objective event I am testing such correlate to.

    To be clear there are really two inputs or events in a particular divination. There is the event that is the result of the oracle (a figure, card, direction of flight of a bird etc.) signifying “Yes” or “No”. Let me call this E1. And (as I have been applying it) there is the objective event that E1 that may or may not relate to i.e. the predicted event itself. Let me call this second event E2. Its too comes in a “Yes” the event actually occurred or “No” it did not.

    Strictly speaking, I am not testing the randomness of either E1 or E2 (both “inputs” of sorts). I am testing the correlation between E1 and E2. They could both be “random” or not. I'm testing if they “walk together” 95% of the time or better.

    One could assign probabilities to E1 and E2. The probability of E1 occurring, p(E1 = 1), should be 50% (i.e. the divination key is balanced) to ensure (under the null hypothesis) p(hit) = 50%.

    This is not immediately obvious so let me explain.

    p(E1 = 1) must be exactly 50%, because the exact value of p(E2 =1) is generally unknown despite usually being nearer to 50% than the extremes of 0 or 1 (otherwise why conduct the divination; you are already reasonably certain of the answer).

    So, more formally, given H0; p(hit) = p(E1 = E2) = p(E1 =1)*p(E2 = 1) + p(E1 = 0)*p(E2 = 0).

    If p(E1 = 1) = 50% then p(E1 = 0) = 50% since, by definition, p(E1 = 1) + p(E1 = 0) = 1

    Also p(E2 = 1) + p(E2 = 0) = 1 by definition; so the equation above simplifies to:

    p(hit) = 50% (under the null hypothesis)

    So, given p(E2 = 1) is largely unknowable, we can avoid having to define it or know it at all by ensuring the divination key is balanced i.e. p(E1 = 1).

    I want p(hit) to be 50% so I have a fixed standard to measure my results against. If my actual results after many trials give a p(hit) > 95%, I know I have a statistically significant result and so the null hypothesis is likely incorrect.

    Ultimately, I make no assumptions about the inputs and randomness. I just conduct the trials (divinations) and see what falls out; trying all the while to avoid confirmation bias and other common errors.

  48. Well, the cat's been away a good deal longer than he wanted to be, and thanks the mice for playing such a lively and good-natured game while he was out caterwauling.

    Glenn, fairy tales are a superb resource for magic, since most of them took shape at a time when magical ideas of causality were much better understood than they generally are these days. I should do a post sometime soon on why using magic to get laid and get rich almost always blows up in the would-be mage's face.

    Dylan, excellent! Yes, and I'll be making the parallel even more exact in this month's post.

    Cherokee, oh, granted. The usual maxim in old-fashioned occult circles is that moderation is better than chasing either set of extremes; unpopular, I know.

    Eric, that sort of thing can be done quite readily by a competent hypnotist as well as by a mage. Do you remember the discussion earlier in this blog's history of figuration, the process by which sensory inputs are assembled into a world? The pastor hijacked that process to get you to figurate your experience of your own teeth through a filter that made them look, feel, and taste like gold. The fact that nobody outside the church could see it is the giveaway here.

    Agent, of course! In magic as in science, very little is ever formally disproved; one set of ideas simply turns out to be more interesting and more productive of good practices than another, and ousts it in very nearly Darwinian fashion. Thomas Kuhn's model in Structure of Scientific Revolutions applies just as well to the history of magic as to that of science.

    Jeffrey, I haven't been able to find good data on occult books, because it's so small a share of the market! Still, I think it's more than the usual effects of the internet — the use of online resources or the very widespread theft of copyrighted materials via the net. It seems to me, based on my experience, that fewer people are interested than were into it in the peak of the Neopaganism boom a decade or two ago.

    Shrama, that's going to take a whole post of its own, and possibly more than one. Stay tuned…

    MayHawk, any day is the right day for the Ovate ceremony, and any place is the right place. I mean that quite literally. As for whether magic might benefit your health conditions, for legal reasons — since I'm not a licensed health care provider — that's not a subject I can really discuss.

    Jason, it's not incomprehensible at all; that sort of thing is common when occultists talk about reincarnation. I'm familiar with the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — didn't know that it had been turned into a miniseries, though!

    Agent, with any system of magical or spiritual practice that's already been done for a while, you have another resource: what are the people who practice it like? You need to observe as wide a range of practitioners as you can, of course, but if everybody you meet who practices a particular system has lousy health and a dysfunctional life, or is an intolerant fanatic, or has some other behavioral tic you don't want to adopt, don't pursue that system unless you want to end up the same way.

  49. Mooncalf, I don't know of any, no.

    Stacey, I have no idea. A lot of people get very bent out of shape at the prospect of dying, but I don't know enough about Butler to know if that's what motivated him. As for momentum, that was a major issue in physics from Greek times straight through to Newton, and there were many proposed ways of talking about it; any good book on the history of ancient and medieval science will walk you through the controversies.

    Chas, to my mind that's a classic example of what used to be called confounding the planes. Magic didn't help the Lakota at Wounded Knee, either.

    SLClaire, exactly! There's a skeleton in science's lab closet, and it wears a tall pointy hat decorated with moons and stars. I expect science and magic to find common ground again, but it won't happen until science is driven underground the way magic was — which will almost certainly happen in the centuries ahead, all things considered.

    Dadaharm, interestingly enough, this isn't what happened historically. In the Western world, from classical times until quite recently, all magical theory tended to converge on the basic Neoplatonist theoretical model; schisms happened all the time, but they came either from minor differences in theory or (more often) differences in practice, and tended to reunite with the mainstream over time. Magic really does work like science in historical terms.

    Cherokee, very often people turn to magic when they've tried everything else, and have no other options. Not a good idea, but a profoundly human one.

    Agent, definitely close enough! Yes, that's a very workable way of talking about the limits of magic. As for non-inkblot methods, I rather like the proposal that, beyond the quantum level, there are no truly random events in the cosmos, and so every event communicates information about every other event taking place at that time, or unfolding from patterns in existence at that time. Still, the starting point needs to be the fact that such methods do work; the theory is simply an attempt to provide a model of the universe that makes sense of that fact.

    Changeling, that's certainly a possibility. Unfortunately I know of no published edition of any of the classic Ars Notoria texts. Someone would have to go to one of the European libraries that have copies, get a good set of photos, and translate a lot of medieval Latin — and so far, to the best of my knowledge, nobody's done that yet.

  50. (Deborah Bender)

    Ha, now I can ask a question that's actually on topic. JMG, you wrote, “Chas, to my mind that's a classic example of what used to be called confounding the planes.”

    I've been told that before, and I don't fully understand why it should be so. I think that the theory of magic I use has points in common with yours but is perhaps not identical.

    In my general understanding of what planes are, from the human POV all the planes are continuously present and interpenetrating, they are in us and we are in them. Also every class of entity has a plane that is its home base and that is the plane where the entity finds it easiest to act and fully manifest itself. I take it (tentatively) that human beings have a mixed nature, and while our material bodies live and act primarily in the physical world, some parts of our being are at home on/in other planes and can act with intention and effect on those planes.

    But since the planes interpenetrate, surely action in one plane can reverberate in others?

    I can see practical reasons to refrain from political magic in most circumstances and the theory I use has explanations for why it frequently doesn't work.

    Reasons not to do it: 1) when done outside the auspices of the Powers That Be, it's viewed by others as sneaky and unfair, and this leads to suspicion and persecution of magical practitioners generally, regardless of what kinds of spells they are doing; 2) history is fraught with examples of unintended consequences and collateral damage from mundane political acts. Even doing preparatory divination and consulting a deity or tutelary spirit for advice is not sure protection against “be careful what you wish for.”

    I might well toss those scruples to the winds if my country were being invaded.

    Why even under conditions of a highly motivated and single-minded group of people providing power to a spell directed by experts using tested techniques, your nation is overwhelmed by superior numbers and weapons, or the crazy extremist political party overruns all the institutions? I would attribute that to disproportionate force. The opposition is not inactive. Focused, concentrated minds can accomplish a lot if they have a point of leverage, and it helps greatly if that point is something that the other side isn't paying attention to. But just as you can't reason with a drunk, I expect a whacking great army pumped full of blood lust or revolutionary enthusiasm is serious opposition on other planes besides the material one.

    In the dire circumstances faced by the Tibetans and the Indians of the Plains, would it have been more effective to work magic that their people hold together and the most important parts of their cultures survive? Perhaps their shamans and medicine people did that very thing? It seems, to some degree, to have worked.

  51. Claire and John, a young promising scientist opening that closet by accident might decide to wear the pointy hat again. That would make for an interesting story.
    Speaking of stories, you should check this issue's cover of Asimov's, one of the few remaining SF paper-printed magazines. I haven't read it yet, so I cannot say which of the contents inside drove to the choice of that illustration… But the fact that this particular magazine did choose to issue that particular cover does resonate eerily with the current state of world affairs. It is also a very dark and graphical manifestation of the binary thinking about the future which sems to pervade a lot of the media coming out of the USA lately. I am European, and when Asimov's starts publishing zombie stories, I'll unsubscribe !
    The same sort of binary thinking applies to the divide between science and magic, or between organic predictability and supernatural exactness and unreliability of machines, as is dealt with in the last Archdruid's report.

  52. Unknown Deborah, the issue here is that, as the traditional saying goes, the planes are discrete and not continuous. While they do influence one another, they do so very inefficiently — I've sometimes thought that it would be possible to work out an analogue of Carnot's theorem to discuss the losses in effect that happen when you try to transfer magical force from plane to plane — and through relatively limited and easily disrupted channels. Political magic can work extremely well if you've got the necessary tools and knowledge — the history of the Nazi party from 1919 to 1938 is a clear case study in the effectiveness of political magic — but as the Nazis found out the hard way, once you take things to the battlefield, you've entered a realm where raw material force is much more effective than magic.

    Political magic also takes quite a bit of lead time and a good practical knowledge of the political system you're trying to influence. I'm not sure if the Tibetans had the latter, but the Lakota certainly didn't, and I'm not sure either side got to work far enough in advance to matter.

    Jean-Vivien, I hope it happens, but the scientists I know of who practice magic are very, very quiet about it for fear of having their careers terminated with extreme prejudice.

    Brother G., good. Glad to see that somebody's paying attention.

  53. Excellent blog, as usual!

    I do think with magic(K) as with “The Secret” folks want output to vastly exceed energic input. Something very like the rules of thermodynamics seem to function in magic. Maybe the Trobriand Islanders were/are right when they equated magical and social power to the ability to grow different varieties of yams, and rise to the top of the social ladder by giving it all away. The Trobrianders understand that well- there are only so many yams, so much garden space, and growing each variety requires effort and specialized knowledge.

    Something I have noted (as an anthropologist) is that many tribal societies can and do calculate loans with interest tacked on. None of them have developed the sort of financial “instruments” that caused the crash in 2008. Maybe they don't do it because it is an intrinsically unstable and unpredictable mechanism?

    Back in 1976 when I entered DLI (Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, there was definitely a large population of people engaging in magic stationed there. I knew of more than one person who attempted to supplement their language learning capabilities with Goetic magic. It worked some of the time, but seemed to have emotional penalties or cause personality changes for those who got it to work. 8 hours a day of learning a truly foreign language doesn't come free-that much investment over a year or 37 weeks is sufficiently brutal for most of us to not want to tinker with the deeper machinery of the mind in an unattested fashion. Which is not to say that we didn't sleep with books or tapes under our pillows. 🙂

  54. Good Morning.
    Jean-Vivien, I never thought that this would be a story worth writing, nor that anyone would be interested in reading it. On the other hand, I also happen to have been thinking quite a bit of the synopsis of a story along those lines. I even have bits here and there, laid down in my “infinite spare time”.

    But there is always the question, as John Michael pointed out, of how to deal with the “coming out” of our little hero. For now, I tend to think that it might be based on the fourth power of the Sphynx. Why stand up in front of a train ? The outcome, as heroic as the stand might be, is still just a messy splash without any real impact on the trajectory of the train.

    On that aspect, I have often, and more and more wonder if the fact that so few psy experiences don't work is not in large part due to the fact that those who show up for those tests have “motives” more than real power. If I was a real wise wizard, I think that instead of showing up and trying to prove in a set experiment set to disprove it all the Might of Magic, I would spend my time tending to… my affections and finding a nice place in the sun to sleep.

    Of course, maybe our little hero, once older and wise, might end up doing things quietly. Until one day, maybe, an other “promising scientist” might just show up and ask him “I have been wondering… When this thing happened… Were you involved ?” … “And… ahem… could you.. ahem… maybe… show me how it's done ?”.

    Maybe there is a story to be written, after all…

  55. Agent Provocetur:

    My one line comment was intended as a rhetorical question, with the implied rhetorical answer that it isn't random.

    If you look at JMG's book on Geomancy or delve deeply into Horary Astrology you'll find techniques that can't possibly work if the input is random.

    Apropos of the same subject, I was amused to note that the current issue of Sky and Telescope has as its back page article a note on why astronomers should know something about astrology. It's taking the approach that the input is, indeed, random, and that the effect is to force “out of box” thinking. As JMG has said a number of times, that's the only possibly approach that a died-in-the-wool hardcore materialist can take, and it is, of course, completely dismissive of the need to know anything about the subject.

  56. I have a couple of comments regarding practicing magic as a scientist.

    (i) First regarding your career being terminated I think it depends on how strongly you declare your mage tenancies and how public a figure you are in the scientific and/or lay community. An operative scientist like myself (e.g. engineer) would have little to fear by casually mentioning that I am also a druid or witch or …, but a public figure in climate science would be committing suicide.

    (ii) Second I know quite a few scientists who are Christians. Believing in the literal interpretation of the bible or even the general assumptions of Christianity is as wacky (from the standpoint of conventional science) as the concepts found in occult practices. These scientists/engineers do not, I think, find any strong opposition as a result of their beliefs.

    (iii) Relating to point (ii) our culture often associates the occult with evil so declaring that you practice magic, once the occult elements are revealed, tends to have different connotations than coming out as a Christian for instance.

    (iv) Regarding the occult, I thought the word itself implies covering up or concealing so why would you mentioned it in the first place. I guess ones private practices can always become public.

    (v) Finally there are examples of some scientists who have been associated with occult/paranormal interests and it has not dramatically affected them (e.g. although somewhat dated, the famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli who was friends with Carl Jung).

  57. ” A soul who's been around the circle more times than others is thus more likely to be unusually troubled and conflicted than to be unusually wise. Think of the days when schoolchildren had to pass certain requirements to go from one grade to the next; a child who was taking sixth grade for the third time would probably not be unusually wise, wouldn't you say?”

    That was disheartening! But a child who takes 3 years to pass 6th grade is an outlier, one not progressing within the norm. But if we are normal, average students, wouldn't it stand to reason that we gain wisdom after more lifetimes?

  58. So I'm reading the other blog, and reading this one, and the comments on both, sometimes by some of the same people, and I'm beginning to wonder about neo-Platonism and its relation somehow to trying to escape (ignore) limits, and bending the living earth to human will for human profit, along with goetic magic–which I feel very uncomfortable with, by the way.

    It seems to me that somehow a post-Platonic world would be one in which magic would have to be practiced in a way similar to the way one practices practical ecology, and magic thus could possibly be called practicing spiritual ecology. You can't get away from nature. We're in it and of it. So there is a sense of limitations governed by the way systems behave and no separate Platonic “realer” reality. Actually everything woven together, inter-related, inter-functioning. Maybe “The Secret” as you describe it (haven't read it, don't know much about it) is somehow a debased-coinage form of neo-Platonism? So, to follow, causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will would be somehow involved with strengthening one's connectedness with the interconnectedness and ecological functioning of everything else. And spiritual entities, gods, elements (in the druid sense) and so on would all be part of this too.

    But how does this square with the idea of discrete planes, and where does the astral light fit, which is perhaps a neo-Platonic concept? Oh dear. To me, what I call the light seems to interpenetrate everything but one has to train oneself to be conscious of it and it somehow seems to be connected to that big “is-ness” one feels mostly when outside, which brings one away from asceticism right back to ecology. H-m-m-m. I'm going outside to think little more now.

  59. Nwlorax, well, of course the Trobriand Islanders get it right! Their culture has been around long enough to learn what limits mean. I think half the problem we face in modern industrial society is that industrialism is so very recent that its practitioners haven't yet had the chance to get a clue. As for magical laws of thermodynamics, why, yes, and we'll be talking about that down the road a bit.

    Seb, yes, I think there's definitely a story to be written there. 😉

    PhysicsDoc, all I can say is that I know of a number of people whose academic careers were terminated with extreme prejudice when word got out that they were involved in magic or Pagan spirituality. What makes occultism secret, by the way, is that it deals with the occult (i.e., hidden) properties of the cosmos, rather than the obvious ones, which ordinary science deals with; Cornelius Agrippa, who played a central role in introducing the word, makes that point very clearly.

    Onething, as I was taught, it takes most souls a fairly modest number of lives to learn the lessons of human existence, ripen into self-knowledge, and move on. Those who've obviously been around a good long time — who have, for example, conscious past-life memories, and the other marks of being an “old soul” — are pretty much by definition those who screwed up comprehensively at some point, and had to spend life after life after life digging themselves out from under the consequences of a cascade of really bad decisions.

    Adrian, excellent. You get tonight's gold star for catching a good solid glimpse of one of the places I want to take this conversation. Stay tuned!

  60. I am eagerly following this business about post-platonic magic! When I first started reading your other blog I was not at all open to magic and the like, except perhaps as a psychological phenomena of some usefulness. Most of my reasons for this, if I can recall at all fairly, had to do with issues I had with platonic idealism, which of course I assumed was a prerequisite for being anything but a materialist atheist.

    The gut feeling I have in all of this is a comfort with Natural Gods, but a profound difficulty with Supernatural or Ideal Gods. Perhaps everything Ideal feels to me to be unchanging and fixed in the realm of tautology in a way that is so hard to reconcile with 'personality'. Even mathematics and logic can only be grounded in the intentions of the rules selected to limit the game. And yet even with out these grounds there are real limits, it turns out you cannot have a logical system with rules X Y and Z which can perform function A. But even those 'real limits' just follow from the nature of the rules they apply to. That is to say there is nothing other worldly even in the realm of possibility, it is human, all too human.

    And yet not human persay. For example the evolution of the eye happened many times it seems, and I think this is because of something that obviously transcends our fondness for light. It was an innate possibility bound to be expressed by life? Maybe, maybe even the 'form of the eye' was a dependent on the limits that define biotic life on our planet just as much as the form of the syllogism was dependent on what kinds of abstractions the classical civilization was eager to play with.

    I ramble, but hopefully clearer thinkers can find something worth playing with in this mess. The notion can be summed thus, giving up on finding one expression of an absolute ground for being, and seeing that physical, logical, imaginary, potential, or what ever other kinds of beings have not a common ground of being but a particular niche of being; yet those niches are connected to one another in ways that are beyond any particular epistemology I can now imagine. Ecosystems, being diverse systems which can learn, offer a good object of study for finding metaphors of this process; but they are limited because the species which make up any particular ecosystem are very very very very VERY similar to one another compared to the total diversity of the Cosmosystem. Worms and lions have much more in common with bacteria than any of the three have with my conception of '3'.

  61. JMG, Ok thank you for the clarification regarding the meaning and application of the word occult. I am curious to know what fields the academics were in that were terminated. It is not that I don't believe you, it is just that I am surprised by the strong reaction to their occult practices, It seems disproportionate.
    I will go out on a limb and say that I think the fields the academics were in was not physics, but then I have a strong bias.

  62. Nano, that's a bit complex. The idea, broadly speaking, is that the sort of intelligence that humans have (and that other beings have, have had, and will have — it's by no means unique to our species in space and time) is an inflection point of sorts, the place where each soul has to pass from being shaped and educated by outside forces to taking responsibility for its own further development; the awakening of self-knowledge and reflective awareness is how that happens, and when that's proceeded far enough, the soul passes from the Circle of Abred, where the soul exists within and is formed and influenced by the body, to the Circle of Gwynfydd, where the body exists within and is transformed and guided by the soul. There are at least as many modes of existence within Gwynfydd as there are within Abred — and in Druid thought, Abred includes everything from single-celled organisms on up; Gwynfydd is, if you will, the adulthood of the soul, where Abred is its infancy and childhood, and just as adults have many more options open to them than children do, souls in Gwynfydd have a dizzying array of options. The Druid cosmos is in no way “one size fits all.”

    Ray, exactly. We'll be talking about ecology as a model for magical philosophy sometime fairly soon — probably in this month's post.

    Physics, you're quite right. One was in history and one was in German language and literature — though I know another person who was a professor of electrical engineering, and concealed his identity under a double pseudonym to keep his job. I know an astrophysicist who practices magic, but I have no idea how public he is about it.

  63. JMG, fascinating. I have heard that academic faculties can be quite political with much back stabbing and jostling for positions etc. Such information could be used by some not so scrupulous professors and faculty members. I happen to work in industry, and the large parent company I work opening declares that it follows Buddhist beliefs. On a recent trip to Japan I was invited to a company ceremony that involved much chanting, singing, a Buddhist Monk, and an incense lighting ritual that I was asked to take part in (honoring ancestors and such). It was quite moving and definitely had parallels to occult rituals. It was great to see this in a high tech company leading in its field.

  64. (Deborah Bender)

    @PhysicsDoc–I'm going to venture an answer to the question you just asked JMG. The less firmly established a field is as a scientific discipline, the less tolerance it will have for practitioners who show a personal interest in religion, the paranormal, or anything labeled occult. Because the scientific standing of the field is shaky, it's necessary to police its boundaries lest outsiders stop taking it seriously.

    I suppose that if a working chemist or professor of chemistry in this day studies alchemy in her off hours, or attends services at a charismatic church, it would be seen as a harmless eccentricity. The methods and theories of chemistry are so firmly established that other chemists will not worry about her outside interests bleeding into her work. The more so in the case of physics, which apparently doesn't hold it against people if they use psychedelics/entheogens as an aid to model making.

    This boundary policing is analogous to the way that in a class stratified society, members of the upper classes can get away with transgressions that would ruin the reputation of a middle class person. The friends, relatives and colleagues of the middle class rule breaker will gang up on her and cut her off, to avoid being contaminated by association.

  65. Good Morning.

    On practicing magic in a scientific background…
    There is, at least from my prospective, a difference between “thinking about magic” and “practicing magic”. Thinking about magic, especially in terms that are half psychological, and half related to how the mind works, how models are or are not Reality is something that can be done without too much problem, at least in the circles I know about. You can get people that dismiss the discussion as non interesting, but also people who find even some of the vocabulary of magic useful.

    For example, I once was in a discussion about the electron where I proposed that an electron and the Archangel Gabriel where both as real and was able to defend it and convey my point without being shot down. It has to be borne in mind, as it was pointed out to me, that this is probably because I am “part of the tribe”. Being an institutional scientist helps in getting such points through to an other fellow scientist, while someone who “doesn't have the scent of the tribe” might get only an angry snarl.

    Practicing magic is a completely different issue. Meditation would be fine, but it is part of those things you don't really talk about in public. Studying “chi” as a useful way to describe how to make a move would also be fine, even though as a friend of mine once said, speaking in such terms at the lab cafeteria “feels like farting in a church”. Practicing divination on the other hand, or a daily ritual, those are things that would get one a “certain label”. As long as it remains private, one could get by with it, with the same kind of reactions than if a rumor spread about him “visiting some, ahem, *adult culbs, you know…”. Then of course, depending on how verbal one is, and how he present it, the label can go from “slightly weird” to “potentially dangerous pervert”.

    But the full sledgehammer would fall if one was to make it really public, and speak about magic using his scientific credibility. If one thinks about it, it is not so different with a gay coming out in the 80's: if no one knows about it, you are fine but have to leave with keeping it completely secret. If you get public, something smelly will inevitably hit the fan.

    And of course, you can also read some in the elliptic way I phrase my answer 😉

  66. Thanks, JMG, I appreciate the gift. 🙂 What I really appreciate are the blogs you write and the robust discussion they engender (and all the commenters who take the time to think things through and offer such well-considered comments)–profound thoughtfulness all around and such an opportunity to learn and think about things in new ways.

  67. JMG, I find your comment on old souls having had to be taught the same lessons over and over again very unsettling, because it's always seemed to me and those around me that while I look younger than my age, I feel and act far older. And there's no doubt that I feel heavily conflicted about living a life in this time and place of uncertain chaos and all-too-certain oppression. So how do I figure out if I took on an extra duty to help, or if I'm just an extra-large eff up? How do I figure out where I might have gone wrong in the past so I don't have to repeat this same tedious and painful lesson again?

  68. Hello, I wanted to quote one of the comments on the Archdruid Report blog :
    “Denys, exactly. The only way to replace a dysfunctional narrative in somebody's mind is to present a functional narrative that's more appealing. That's one of the basic skills of magic, by the way.”
    This is also one of the basic skills of show business. And also one of the problems we face in the future ahead : even the realm of manual skills has been hijacked by our culture into a realm of show-business narratives, see all the TV shows about becoming a chef or a master craftsperson… Replacing the TV narratives with real-life narratives is certainly one of the achievements magic can strive to reach, and a crucial one at that.
    But since this post was primarily about what magic can do especially regarding non-human entities, I would like to ask, in which way the narratives we adopt do affect our relationships with those non-human entities ? In other words, what does narration have to do with worship ?

  69. About the discussion of reincarnation, old souls etc., I've read Ian Stevenson, Jim Tucker and some others who investigate past life memories, and I've never heard any of them say those who remember past lives are overall more troubled through their lives. It seems like for most of them, the memories pass and they live pretty normal lives, not unusually wise but not unusually problematic either, although Stevenson has mentioned a distinct minority of cases where the memories seemed to negatively affect their whole lives. One thing that is more common (but not universal) amongst those people is more sudden or violent deaths of the remembered past life, so I could see the troubles from that life being worse, but where does the idea that people with these memories have made tons of bad decisions come from?

    I've alwaysbeen interested in the topic of reincarnation, never had any specific memories but remember as a child repeatedly having thoughts of “Why can't I remember anything before this?” Reading the reincarnation research has convinced me there is indeed memories and personality traits being passed through immaterial means from one person to another, but I also have skepticism regarding any of the specific theories on how reincarnation works that I've heard. People who receive organ transplants can sometimes inherit personality traits and even memories that seem to mostly be subconscious but specific accurate memories can also come out in dreams and such, in the first person much like past life memories are felt. Some element of the donor's personality and memories are passed along, but nobody would say the receiver “was” the donor. That makes me wonder what exactly is reincarnated, whether the one with the memories actually was the previous person or just got some fragment of their personality and memories, perhaps through a collective consciousness. I don't claim to know the answer, but to me it points to the big question of what exactly is the “I”. I've considered the possibility that some of theany different fates considered for the ” I” after death may be from different concepts of what the “I” actually is.

    Also, I think the cases of birthmarks corresponding to fatal wounds of the past life person deserves more consideration than just as evidence in the case. It shows that whatever is reincarnated not only affects mental phenomena but also physical as well.

    As to the comparisons of life with school, I admit to always having been very turned off by that metaphor, due to negative connotations having to do with school in my own mind. I've found that thinking of life as an experience to be had rather than a stage that has to be gotten through to get to somewhere else has positive results in my own life, and my own desire to learn and become more self aware feels more authentic when it's coming from a place of having a fuller experience of human life in this world now. I'm still interested in your perspective too, if I ever happen to find myself in the circle of gwynfydd it may become useful.

  70. Since the topic of reincarnation has come up with several people, I’ll just say that, as a student of the Michael Teaching, the notion that “older souls” are ones that have screwed up doesn’t resonate. I agree with Ozark Chinquapin that the purpose of incarnation is to gain experience with life on the physical plane, not to get through a “school” of some sort. There is a great deal of structure (including karma), but Essence can take as few as 35 lifetimes and as many as several thousand pretty much as it pleases.

  71. JMG, My own suppositions of reincarnation, including Abred and Gwynfydd, are rather similar to what you have laid out. I was somewhat aghast when I heard that Buddha saw himself having had 500 prior lifetimes. So, I've been trying to adjust to the idea that it might be many more lifetimes than I had thought.

    But I thought that prior life memories don't indicate much of anything. Some people have more psychic ability, some lives ended on a horrific note, sometimes something may go awry with the forgetting process. When I think of an old soul, I think of someone who has wisdom, patience, isn't gullible, has or can acquire some self control, etc.

    I don't know how you would tell the dunce from the young soul.

  72. Osark said “People who receive organ transplants can sometimes inherit personality traits and even memories that seem to mostly be subconscious but specific accurate memories”

    That's a fascinating topic! Probably one that will be avoided like the plague by formal science, no matter how falsifiable the hypothesis.

    Something modern science has been able to discover about the human mind is that, in spite of the subjective perception of there being a distinctly unique self within our skulls, there are actually a bunch of independent processes. It is a side effect of the Ego integrating them together what gives us the illusion.

    But then, this is something that has been known since long ago, though not expressed in those terms. The Chinese, by example, talked about there being five spirits in the human mind. There was the Shen, which depending on context can either mean the totality of all five put together or just the conscious aspect that in the West is know as the Ego.

    There is also the Hun, the ethereal soul, which is responsible of the dreams and the creativity of the person. This loosely corresponds to the Subconscious, or perhaps to the Shadow from Hung's. According to the ancient Chinese, this is the part of the human soul that carries on after death and goes into the Afterlife.

    And then, there is the Po, the corporeal soul. From my readings I just learned that this is a part of the soul that remains with the body after death, and returns to the Earth as the corpse decomposes. I have always related this aspect with the muscle memory, the habits, and other aspects of automatism that guide our behavior during most of our day… but hearing the part about personality traits being transmitted through organ donation… this might be much more than that!!!

  73. I've got an MSc in synthetic organic chemistry, and a PhD in physical organic chemistry, so I've got a fair amount of experience with the world of science. The chemistry department at Emory was pretty thoroughly Jewish, to the point where people would for the most part be gone by 3pm on Fridays – and come back in to work on Sundays. Others were Christians of one sort or other, and quite a few were atheists, but no one really talked about it. At The University of Florida, it was a much more Christian place, with the usual smattering of atheists, and again, no one spoke about it. No one I knew of practiced or talked about *any* sort of magic or paranormal anything, except for the leader of the Quantum Theory Project, a member of the Nobel Institute, who produced a few interesting papers on the subject of quantum states in consciousness, and introduced me to the writings of David Bohm – who may have given a talk there. But that's pretty much it. As to the general receptivity of the world of science to non-materialist ideas, there's the example of Rupert Sheldrake, Brian Josephson, and Benveniste, each of whom was (or is) consigned to scientific Coventry.

    As long as we're talking about Coventry, there's Matti Pitkanen, who is a pariah in the world of science, who has some interesting ideas on planes of consciousness/existence: http://www.tgdtheory.fi/public_html/pdfpool/cognic.pdf He might be on to something, though…

  74. “from where the soul exists within and is formed and influenced by the body, to where the body exists within and is transformed and guided by the soul.”

    An interesting variation on “pointing at the moon”. The fetus in the womb is nourished and has some sensory function:touch, pain, perhaps hearing. Could even be aware of “mother”. Beyond some traumatic experience called “birth” there are incomprehensible, indeed unimaginable, possibilities. Umbilical cord is replaced by “eating” and “digesting” and even “defecating”. “Sight and “smell” and “taste”. Relating to “mother” in a whole new way! No longer inside. What are we getting into?

  75. @onething what if what one “is”doing when recalling past lives “is” simply tapping into the astral light memory banks?

    Or maybe with enough focus at the moment of the death, the Kia is able to take some sort of useful memory about the body it powered?

    What if, at the moment of death what one believes crystallizes into reality?

  76. I've always enjoyed uncle bobs quotes. Thought this one appropriate.

    “Maybe consciousness resides in the nonlocal domain of quantum mechanics, “beyond,” “beneath” or “behind” the space-time continuum? Local [ego] consciousness then represents the aspects of the nonlocal filtered thru the local tribal reality-grid as imprinted in neuro-circuits. Looking for consciousness in the brain then resembles looking for Jay Leno in the TV circuits..”

  77. Splendid post, JMG!

    JMG, Adrian et al, since the subject of confounding the planes has arisen, especially with respect to war and politics, I would like to mention something. Though I am not widely read on the occult, I have come across several tidbits regarding WWII such as Dion Fortune and her colleagues participating in a “magical battle of Britain”, the creation of the “V for victory” hand gesture (signifying Apophis and Typhon) being attributed to Aleister Crowley, and the Indian sage Aurobindo psychically impersonating a spirit frequently summoned by Nazi necromancers during séances to convince their army to invade Russia – Aurobindo knowing full well that such a move would ultimately prove to be suicidal. It is interesting to contemplate the role that these, and perhaps other, magical activities played in defeating the Nazis at the psychic (not physical) level – on top of the fact that the Nazis probably “did themselves in” psychically by playing with forces and symbols (e.g., the sacred Swastika) that they did not understand well. Any comment on this would be greatly appreciated, perhaps in contrast to the failures of the Tibetans and Lakota in this regard.


  78. JGM and friends; Thank You. I'm finding this essay and discussion even more relevant and helpful than this week's ADR discussion.

    Sorry, this is more of a personal reaction, probably not relevant to anyone else, but just in case, I'll post it anyway.

    RE: old souls, past lives: My first stunned reaction is “Oh Cr@p!” I've always been told I am 'an old soul', and have had 4 epic and very visceral, memorable dreams, (possibly memories?) of other lives. Serendipitously, yesterday, I was in a light Facebook (i.e.: written, not spoken) conversation with an old friend about the idea of reincarnation, past lives, etc.. She told me hers, and I told her of these 4; so there in black and white type, I could finally, clearly see the similarities of these lives that have such a personal resonance with me. (Regardless of whether or not they are true memories or just imaginings that resonate).

    Now reading this: it looks to me, like I've gone around and around, flunking the Cosmic 6th grade for centuries! If these dreams are really memories and I am an old soul, I'm battling reconciling sloth and acceptance of the way life is and industriousness and the need for some sort of progression. I am now wondering if souls have an intrinsic nature and that's OK; or if the goal should always be to progress (from 6th to 7th grade, metaphorically). What if you're ultimately content in 6th grade?

    Incidentally, the metaphor of 6th grade is also resonant to me, as the school I teach at only goes up to G6. I can also really relate to and empathize with the fear and reluctance to leave our little cocoon, that many of my students exhibit.

    Also incidentally, Yes, I see the connection of themes and topics in this blog and the ADR. They definitely compliment each other. This conversation actually kind of answers my comment there, For anyone reading both, who may have thought to reply – no need. Kindly disregard. Or maybe do reply, no matter how blunt or seemingly rude; Good grief! it may help get to 7th grade!!

  79. PhysicsDoc, that makes sense. Japanese culture has been comfortable with religious diversity for a very long time, and of course the business world is generally more tolerant than the snake pit of academe.

    Seb, thanks for the data points!

    Adrian, you're welcome and thank you.

    Dammerung, it's impossible to give general advice that's relevant to so personal a situation. About the only thing I can say is that the learning in question takes place on the level of character — you stop screwing up by becoming the kind of person who won't make the same mistake again — and so all you can do is do your best, and accept the consequences as part of the trip.

    Jean-Vivien, brilliant! Of course that'll take far more than a brief answer — you're asking, basically, why religion is connected to mythology. I'll see about leading the discussion in that direction in due time.

    Ozark, if the teaching I mentioned isn't something you want to work with, then by all means don't use it; dissensus rules here as elsewhere. Past life memories, for whatever this is worth, tend to surface by themselves (i.e., without hypnosis) when people engage in daily practice of certain spiritual disciplines, especially discursive meditation, and in my experience — as well as accounts from within some of the traditions I work with — that's where the idea that “old souls” have been around for a long time due to lots of mistakes comes from: people who remember the mistakes, and their consequences, after appropriate training and practice. (Now of course it's also the case that people with a lot of tangled past lives tend to be drawn to intensive spiritual practice, out of a partly conscious desire to get their (ahem) together, so it's arguably a self-selecting sample!)

    John, as I said, that's the teaching within the tradition I follow. It's not the Michael Teachings, obviously.

    Onething, the Buddha may have had 500 lifetimes because that many mistakes were needed to get to the point he finally reached! As for the patience and wisdom of the old soul, that's what happens when the school of hard knocks teaches you patience and wisdom, because the alternatives just finally hurt too much.

    John, funny.

    Stream, that's the sort of thing I was thinking of, yes.

    Brother G., a very useful and traditional metaphor!

    Nano, he's always worth reading, though sometimes it's for the horse laugh.

    Ron, that's a subject for an entire post all by itself. You'll notice, though, that Britain wasn't limited to magical means for its defense; it also had the Royal Navy, a lot of aircraft, an empire to provide raw materials and cannon fodder, and of course, an alliance with the United States. The Tibetans and the Lakota just had magic.

    Caryn, the thing is, the learning that takes place is on the level of character, not that of knowledge; you pass out of sixth grade by becoming the kind of person who belongs in seventh grade, and some of us mess up on the way there and may have to cycle back a number of grades in the process. It's not a race, and there are no prizes or punishments for faster and slower students: you can take just as long as you want to; and the exams happen every moment of every day, so if you flunk this one, you can always pass the next.

  80. Ron,

    I think the Swastika in Norse mythology has a different meaning to that in Hindu. I believe it symbolizes a spinning lightning bolt of Thor.

    Then again, the Soviet Union's flag incorporated the Hammer of Thor, the scythe of Death, and a Pentagram symbol of Geburah on a blood red background. Some very obvious “don't mess with us” symbolism there.

    During the war, the USA constructed a giant five-sided altar to Mars in Washington DC. Mars is the deity that most Americans worship, btw – they just think they worship Jehovah. This is why the primary American longing, both individual and national, is for righteous retribution.

    Also during the war, Gerald Gardner constructed a giant beam of light to persuade the Nazis that Britain was inviolable. Difficult to prove that it didn't work, of course.

  81. I usually never feel like I have much worthwhile to add to the fascinating conversations here, so I'm delighted to be able to share a story which is both at least a little bit on-topic and also relevant to the conversation between Agent Provocateur and John Roth regarding whether or not divination inputs are truly random. I've now seen compelling evidence that they are not always, in fact, random in a mathematical sense.

    About a year and a half ago I felt a strong connection to a particular divination card deck (Brian and Wendy Froud's “The Heart of Faerie Oracle”) and I began starting to use it quite often. One way I practiced using it was to first take a single card each day, and then flip a coin to see if the “spirits of the deck” wanted me to have a slightly longer reading. If heads, I would draw another card; then flip the coin again, and if heads, draw another; and so on, stopping only when I flipped tails. I also kept a record of my results (not that I expected they would pass peer review or anything).

    I was quite tickled that I was consistently flipping heads far above what would be expected by random chance. In fact, within a few weeks, soon there were occasions that I flipped heads 9, 10 times in a row– results you would mathematically expect to see only once every two or three years.

    The climax came a couple of months into the daily ritual. One morning, I flipped heads sixteen times in a row. 2 to the 16th– that's a 1-in-65,536 chance, a result normally only be expected once in about 180 years of daily flipping. It was a pretty “wow” moment for me, I have to say.

    Afterwards, I decided, okay, fine, I'm going to change the polarity and see what happens if I make tails the decider instead of heads. Well. I should have remembered what happens when you stop believing in fairies. The Tinkerbell Theory may not work as a Unified Theory of Everything, but the Tinkerbell Corollary (“You can't do very much if you *don't* believe”) certainly applied in this case. From that point forward, the coins flipped a good old 50-50 percent chance. (Not heads more often.) Slightly dispirited, I ended the daily coin tossing within a couple of weeks. (Still do a daily draw, though.) Clearly I'm a fair-weather experimenter– I shouldn't require Pavlovian cues to continue. But I hope at least some fairies got a good laugh from it!

  82. Again, I'm exploring the middle territory between your blogs, but comments here spurred me to catch up on the past month's ADR posts, and you mentioned your current research into the origin of the idea of the machine in Western thought.

    I think you're familiar with Ivan Illich- Holocaust survivor, student of both science and alchemy, Catholic priest, historian, and subversive social critic, among other things. In his essay “Research By People” in the book “Shadow Work”, a cautiously optimistic appraisal of the Appropriate Technology movement written in the fateful year 1980, he traces the Western fascination with the machine back to the theological debates of the twelfth century.

    Later, in “Ivan Illich In Conversation” with David Cayley, he suggests that the Sacraments of the Church, as a set of rituals which have a specific and consistent effect, were the prototype for our idea of a technology. To borrow your words from a recent ADR post, each Sacrament was created to do what the priest wants, when he wants it, and nothing else. This from a man vested with the authority to administer those Sacraments (until his political views ticked off the Vatican, of course).

    As Spengler says, and I hope I'm not paraphrasing too roughly, each culture develops a unique science directly from its religious worldview. If Western Christianity is the institutionalized expectation of a specific, as-yet-unfulfilled promise for the future (salvation), and if you can arrive at the modern worldview by replacing the word in brackets with 'progress', as you've pointed out, then simply trace the physical machinery of Progress back to the ritual machinery of the Church and you may have a fruitful line of inquiry. As someone involved in ritual R&D you may be uniquely qualified to explain this evolution, and I'd be curious to hear your take.

    In beginning to practice the Sphere of Protection daily, I have the sense that in Druid magic there are many ritual effects I'm only partially aware of, if at all. I would hazard to say that a different sensibility is at work here.

  83. Nano–

    “@onething what if what one “is”doing when recalling past lives “is” simply tapping into the astral light memory banks?

    Or maybe with enough focus at the moment of the death, the Kia is able to take some sort of useful memory about the body it powered?

    What if, at the moment of death what one believes crystallizes into reality?”

    Q1. I'm not exactly sure what you're contrasting here. Meaning a past life memory might be random and not one's own? Memory is an interesting question, because it seems that extensive research has been unable to find a locus of memory in the brain, which is quite shocking, but then the more I think on it, the more it seems a bit strange for memories to actually reside in the brain! I mean, there are just millions of them, and of what material substance could they possibly consist? So, some now think that all memory exists in the ether/akasha.
    Q2. This may be why a bad death carries over into a next life. I know one person who is absolutely nervous around knives. Others fear heights. I fear being trapped and smothered. I don't think it is instinct because only some people have each one.
    Q3. I suspect that this is at least partly the case! Especially if the person is very convinced about what they think they should see. It might fade after they get time to adjust.

    My mother died in 2008, a Christian. But she had her doubts and was a thinker. On her deathbed she said to me that we just don't really know what will happen. I had prolonged and profound experiences with her both before and after her death. One of them was a dream, and in this dream she made a comment that had me worried that she didn't understand that she was dead. So, I wanted to reorient her to reality, but I chose my words deliberately, with her belief system in mind. I said, “But mom, you died and went to heaven!” At that, she got a very impish grin on her face, and said, “Well, not exactly…..”
    I only wish humanity were in the 6th grade. I'd say it
    is more likely preschool.
    JMG said

    “About the only thing I can say is that the learning in question takes place on the level of character — you stop screwing up by becoming the kind of person who won't make the same mistake again”

    This is wisdom.
    I've long thought that it makes no sense to “give” someone salvation based on a contract if their character is not reliable. Albeit, repentance and humility are very good for cleaning up a soul.

  84. @quin

    I may be way off on my “theory of magic,” but I suspect that your intention shifted midway through from “should I add another card to the reading” to “how many heads in a row can I get.” If so, I'm not surprised at the result.

    To expand on what JMG said in an essay a couple of months ago, paying attention to the “vibe,” that is, whether it feels like the reading is complete, might be an interesting way to go.

  85. Thanks, JMG, for the reply. Agreed –psychic warfare cannot be waged against weapons but upon the minds of those who wield the weapons (or better yet, upon those who command those wielders of weapons).

    Thanks, Phil, for further information on the subject. I did not know the specifics about the Norse conception of the Swastika, but I wonder that since the Nazis used the Sanskrit word “Swastika” rather than its Norse equivalent, the Hindu associations of the symbol with the Sun and the auspicious energies that have been cultivated through that symbol by millions of Hindus over thousands of years somehow conflicted with the Nordic conception and ultimately forced the symbol to fail in its intended use (then again, maybe I am overthinking things). Thanks also for your reflection on the symbols on flags (I’m so glad my country’s flag has an arboreal symbol – appropriate for one with Druid leanings). Interesting about the American alter to Mars in WWII. I assume the “Pentagon” is no accident, either. Ever noticed that Gustav Holst’s composition “Mars” (composed during WWI) is set in 5/4 time?

  86. Quin,

    Interesting. I don't have any personal experience with fairies, but I do hear they are capricious 😉

    I'm not completely sure what to make of your experience. From what I can gather from your comment, you weren't really looking to keep flipping heads; but once you started to get long strings of heads, you attached a meaning or significance to that fact. Your initial interpretation was simply that heads indicated the “spirits of the deck” wished you to draw another card. In that frame of reference, clearly the spirits wanted you to continue, most likely with the full knowledge that doing so gave you some confidence that the oracle was working.

    In any divination system, I imagine it is important to be reasonably consistent with the process and interpretation key for any given divination i.e. these are set before you conduct a divination. I see no problem changing either the process or key, as you did, for the next divination so long as one doesn't change in mid-divination.

    In the frame of “what the spirits want”, the spirits of the deck clearly didn't think you needed longer reading once you switched the key for drawing another card from heads to tails. The question is “why?”. Perhaps they felt they had made their point and enough was enough. Note that the change took place exactly when you changed the key. That is significant. Clearly they have no intention of making extreme exceptions to the rules of chance for extended periods. So there is noting to be disappointed about. Apparently that just the way fairies are 😉

    In contemplating randomness:

    Notwithstanding John Roth's question was rhetorical, it, and JMG most recent essay on his other blog, got me thinking beyond my immediate (excessive) reply to John Roth. I went back and checked how the “raw input” (default meanings I attributed to the geomancy Judge figures) fell out. As one would expect, these turned up 50/50 fortunate/unfortunate. Once I applied the reversal of default meaning as the situation required (the only element of interpretation I allowed myself), the ratio was 57/43; still less than statistical significance so basically still about 50/50.

    In other words, the basic input (the oracle's answer with or without my interpretation) was not much different than pure chance. The desired objective event also fell out at close to 50/50 i.e. half the time I got what I wanted and half the time I didn't.

    This too is completely as one would expect. One does not normally conduct a divination on an event that is certain (to occur or not occur) … what would be the point given one knows the answer already. Further, the universe has no compulsion to give one what one wants all the time nor is it so perverse as to seldom provide what is desired. There is a question selection bias at work here such that the objective event I desire to occur is likely to occur nearer to half the time than seldom or frequently i.e. about 50/50.

    What was statistically significant was that there was a very good match between the oracle's response and the objective event.

    How randomness or chance play into all of this is hard to say. Both “inputs” (E1 and E2 in my response to John Roth) look random when viewed separately. What does not look at all random is their correlation. The weird thing is that this correlation is purely a function of my imposing meaning on the apparent randomness of the universe … cue spooky music and fade to black.

  87. Ron,

    The Pentagon is the five-sided altar I was talking about (it was constructed between 1941-43).

    I think that what the US needs to do is to build an equally large four-sided altar (e.g. a Centre for Peace Studies or similar) to Chesed/Jupiter on the West Coast in order to balance it out (although the pair would kind of be the wrong way round).

    Ideally also a six-sided temple to Tiphareth in Austin, Texas – this could be for the National Institute for Solar Energy or something equally appropriate.

  88. (Deborah Bender)

    JMG–So many commenters have mentioned the Sphere of Protection as part of their personal practice that I'm wondering whether I would benefit from it, and how it
    compares to, for example, the LBRP. In which of your books are instructions for
    the Sphere of Protection to be found?

  89. (Deborah Bender)

    @Phil Knight–I've been thinking along the same lines. The USA has three or four gigantic monuments to national virtues: the aforesaid altar to Mars, the Lincoln Memorial which can be construed as a monument to reconciliation, Liberty Enlightening the World in New York Harbor, and the colossal monument to Competent Leadership at Mt. Rushmore in the northern part of the center of the country.

    These are all important virtues which America requires, but they aren't the full set and are unbalanced geographically and energetically. We definitely need a strong and conspicuous statue, shrine, altar or monument to Peace on the West Coast. We've got a lot of small monuments to peace here, all put up by the Japanese, but those don't do the job for obvious historical reasons. The US could benefit from an altar either to Flux and Flow, or to Divine Providence, which was frequently invoked by our leaders and thinkers during the first century or so of the nation's existence. I'd also like a shrine to the Land Wights, but perhaps our national parks collectively amount to that.

  90. I have a lot of questions whirling around in my mind regarding the discussion on reincarnation. Perhaps my ignorance is hiding the answers, but the best way to get answers is to ask, so here goes. Why do so many here think that we must have a reason to be reincarnated, and that reason must be to work towards some goal? And why do we assume that this goal is to become better humans, to be wiser, to grow in character, to get to grade 7, or something along those lines? Is this peculiar to us today? Have all human societies believed that the ultimate goal of life is to grow in character? Do dogs, or trees, or stones worry about whether they will become better dogs, trees or stones? That the goal is to achieve some sort of perfection of dogness, treeness or stoneness?

    I've just started reading Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. At the beginning, he states:

    There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
    A finite game is played for the purposes of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
    The rules of the finite game may not change; the rules of an infinite game _must_ change.
    Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play _with_ boundaries.
    Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful.
    A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.
    A finite player consumes time; an infinite player generates time.
    A finite player aims for eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.
    The choice is yours.


    Working towards a goal is a finite game, because it ends when we have “won”/achieved it (in this case perfection.)

    I'm wondering if our idea of needing to progress to a better human/soul through many lives is a result of our being stuck inside this finite life we live, and maybe once we die, we will see it for the boundary/finite game rule we set ourselves while alive on earth.

    So I'm thinking maybe the gods got together and said, “Let's play a game!” And they made a really gorgeous board game (the universe) and anyone can play that wants to play (by choosing a game piece, such as a human, a dog, a tree, a dolphin, an alien on another planet, etc.) There are rules to this game, but the gods can change them if they want to. Once playing, we cannot. From their point of view, the goal is not to win, but to continue the play. Once into the game, though, we can play all the finite games we want. And best of all, we can play the game again as often as we want.

    Good strategies include:
    Take good care of your avatar/game piece. Eat right, get sleep, etc.
    Don't wreck the game board.
    Respect other tokens/game pieces because you really don't know whose game piece that is. Could be someone really powerful that will give you what's coming to you once you revert back to a spirit. (That includes game pieces that often get bashed like women, blacks, the poor, non-human beings, etc.)
    Don't get caught in the trap of working to accumulate stuff, because it all has to be left behind in the game.
    Concentrate on forming bonds with other players because you get to continue those after you are taken out of the game. (Imagine a cosmic punch bowl around which players who have newly finished the game get to talk and laugh about it.)
    Have the pleasure of experiencing life and enrich your existence for the sheer fun of it.
    Laugh a lot.

    What if the point is to play, not to studiously work towards something, such as a PHD in perfection, which sounds like the protestant work ethic meeting Eastern mysticism.

    I rather like the thought that we have reincarnation wrong because we can only see it from inside the game. But the gods are closely watching the game unfolding, and having a lot of fun. Or maybe they're getting really pissed off at the players. That punch may be spiked.

  91. Quin, well, there you are. Divinatory intelligences — and we can leave that term undefined for the moment — don't tend to be too sympathetic to that sort of thing.

    Dylan, fascinating. Yes, that would make a certain amount of sense; as I understand it, the theology of the sacraments doesn't support so mechanical a view, but it can easily be debased into that sort of thing.

    Onething, exactly. Repentance and humility are useful exercises when you've done things to repent and be humble about — as of course we all have. It's the change in character that counts, though.

    Unknown Deborah, er, in what way is this relevant to the theme of this month's post? That's not a rhetorical question; if it's relevant, please do say why. If not, though, I don't want to encourage the habit of posting random bits from other blogs here.

    Ron, exactly — and even then, it needs time and helpful circumstances to work well, and the best way to be able to get those is to have the capacity to fight back on the material plane as well.

    Unknown Deborah, it's covered in quite some detail in The Druid Magic Handbook.

    Myriam, when an acorn becomes an oak tree, is it playing a finite or an infinite game?

  92. (Deborah Bender)

    JMG, since you ask me directly, I think my linked blog entry has at least some relevance to this month's discussion in the comments about whether a professed interest in occultism or magic would be a career killer for scientists and members of other learned professions. I believe you wrote that one such person whose career was hurt was a historian.

    The late historian Frances Yates, historian Ronald Hutton, and some of the other scholars mentioned in the linked blog post have been working to make the studies of esotericism and pagan religions major topics in intellectual and cultural history. Hutton has been overt in his intentions in this regard. As the blog post reported, they have gotten farther with this effort in the UK that in the US. I would think that when academics are known to be studying these matters in non-reductive ways, interest in them will regain respectability among the educated classes.

    However that connection wasn't in my mind until you pressed me. My reasons for posting the link were that it was a much briefer item than I usually post and therefore didn't require massive justification; many of the readers of this blog would be interested in the information; most of them would not be likely to run across it anywhere else; and it has some relevance to the subject matter of this blog as a whole.

    I don't think I have a “habit of posting random bits from other blogs”. I don't post very many links at all. I shall however police my link posting more strictly from now on.

  93. JMG, I expect you have read the Seth books by Jane Roberts, though I have never seen them mentioned on this blog. I myself have not read them for some time, so what follows is a bit hazy in my mind.

    Among many other topics, Seth presents a very complex concept of reincarnation and the “afterlife”. I put that word in quotes because the spirit experience of time he describes is very different from ours, so that from the spirit point of view all our lives are in a sense concurrent and interact with each other.

    Interestingly, according to Seth, the spirits go to great lengths to ensure that the immediate afterlife experience is relevant to the expectations of the newly deceased. Thus a Roman Catholic would see the sort of thing a Roman Catholic would expect to see and a Muslim or a Hindu likewise.

    I found the Seth books remarkably convincing, though sometimes difficult to read, but since they are so complex it would be difficult to discuss them here. Nevertheless I would be interested to know if you have any views on them.

  94. Hi John,

    You said: When an acorn becomes an oak tree, is it playing a finite or an infinite game?

    Thanks for the challenge to keep thinking about this.

    After growth to maturity, comes death and decay. Unless we want to say that the soul will also cease to exist when it has reached perfection, then I hope the soul and the tree are playing different games. And if my soul doesn't want to cease to exist, it's a good incentive to stay in grade 6.

    If they are playing different games, then the game the soul is playing is infinite, but it accepts to play a finite game while it is a tree, with it's full cycle of acorn to mature tree to death. In much the same way a human will accept to play a board game with very specific rules, goals, and timeline.

    I like to think that trees have spirits, as do stones and other things, because I have felt them many times. However, the spirit in a particular tree may not only ever be a tree spirit. It may be a human next reincarnation. And I would not say that it's a question of moving up or down some cosmic scale of merit. Just that a different game-piece has been chosen by a soul. If humans are nothing special, life as a tree is as worthy as life as a human.

  95. Myriam:

    I have always suspected we assume reincarnation having some forward momentum, some impetus of improvement or refinement of the character because this is what we experience in our own human lifespans. We definitely like to think of ourselves as having grown in wisdom and maturity from our actions and thoughts as children to teenagers to young adulthood to middle age to old age. This maturation is not just a deluded wish for most. Many of us really do learn, change, grow with age and experience.

    Perfectly possible that the 'game' is infinite and only meant to be played and enjoyed – but then that kind of reduces our lives to a hedonism with no purpose. Purpose seems to give us the most satisfaction. Maybe the question is why do we need purpose in our lives? And hey, maybe this need for purpose is the root of our dogged pursuit of 'progress', however misguided our conception of said progress might be.

    Also, I have no credible basis for this supposition, but I've also always thought, if we are reincarnated, we are not stuck within one species, philum, kingdom or life form. We may choose to have a bit of a rest and simply be a flower in one life, a human in the next, maybe a lap-dog or an octopus or maybe one gets very tired and just wants to be an oak tree for a gooooood looooong restful existence for awhile. Who knows? But why would we be?

  96. @ JMG and Myriam

    I lived pretty deep in the head space of James P. Carse during my college years, it is interesting to see him make an appearance here. He does some very good stuff, I especially recommend the section on… do I remember this right?.. the garden and the machine in relation to recent musings concerning the nature of a Machine. One thing that may be a bit of a fnord for a druish thinker is the habit he has of exploring matters by splitting them into dichotomies; though as far as that habit goes he was generally mindful about how the pairing complimented each other.

    I feel that the acorn becoming an oak it as example of the infinite game, but infinite play is something the meaning of which pours out from the creativity of play, so I could imagine an acorn whose existence has bee largely pulled into the context of a finite game (like part of a tree farm, grown to effectively produce fire wood) but I think that a whole life of an oak tree is far far to free of a happening to be completely taken into a finite game. Basically you have to ask a tree, the impression they give me implies infinite, but I suspect your treeish is a little more practiced than mine.

    As for the cycle of life, I think that Carse steps very close to saying (but I don't remember him actually putting his foot in it) that Life (big L) is the infinite game, and that all finite play is contextualized by it. So if we assume that the great big event of Life and the reincarnation has a particular end that the souls are being driven toward, with failure creating losers which can be contrasted with the winners then we would have to say that it is a finite game. If Life is a process that is discovering ends to play toward, but which discovers new ends before any set of possible ends is completely exhausted, where play is limited by the limits that have already been decided to being into play, then it would seem likely that it is infinite, but in that case completion would not be a consistently defined state.

  97. JMG, fair enough- I'm not too familiar with Catholic theology myself and don't have Illich's books on hand at the moment to follow up on his more nuanced statement of the issue. You've motivated me to do so though- the myth of the machine sends a shiver down my spine whenever I contemplate it.

    I'll look forward to seeing where you take the discussion in the upcoming post.

  98. Myriam,

    Many interesting thoughts! Me, I tend to find the ongoing inhumanity of man, the ignorance of what's going on that leads to fear and anxiety, and for that matter, cruelty to animals, rather disheartening. So, it seems like it would be good to grow out of all that. It also seems to me that if one is sincere and paying attention at all, growth in wisdom comes with the territory of living.

    I often imagine how grand it would be though, to incarnate for the fun of it. That would require less fear and anxiety, however. On the other hand, if we were completely unafraid, we might not take the game seriously. And yet, we take it too seriously…and then again, not seriously enough.

    Anyway, games do have goals!

    Playing a finite game does not preclude its being part of a larger, infinite game. Which I think it the case.

    A long game can have many levels. And the beginner levels might not be as much fun. That's where I think we are, and I'd like to get to higher levels of the game. Very likely, our helpers of various sorts are doing just that.

  99. Actually, Myriam’s idea isn’t as crazy as it might seem at first blush. I have come across the same idea from several different sources, including certain strands of Vedic and Sufi metaphysics and in the science fiction novels of John Dalmas, including “The Reality Matrix” and especially The Regiment series.

    Dalmas said he got the basic idea for The Regiment from medieval Islamic military history and Sufi philosophy.

    I came across The Regiment when I was in high school. I have always been a huge science fiction and fantasy buff and when I saw a copy of The Regiment on the bookshelf at the local supermarket, I knew I had to read it. At first, the novel starts out as a conventional military adventure story about a young journalist covering a Vietnam War style counterinsurgency campaign. He is assigned to do an investigative report on a mysterious regiment of alien mercenaries who have been hired by the imperial power fighting the insurgents.

    He soon discovers that things are not as they seem to be and that the alien mercenaries have a very interesting philosophy and system of metaphysics that makes them the ultimate mystic warriors. He also finds that this alien philosophy has also become popular with certain members of the imperial elite as well and one of the sub-plots of the series is how the more enlightened members of the elite are using this philosophy to transform their society from within.

    The series has had a huge influence on my thinking in a great many areas and I would recommend the series highly to anyone who is a science fiction fan or is interested in philosophy and metaphysics. There are a total of five books in the series. They are well worth reading if you have the time and the books aren’t too hard to find in used book stores or on sites like Amazon.

    Personally, I believe that both Myriam and Dalmas are on to something…

  100. Unknown Deborah, no, you haven't displayed the habit of posting random bits from other blogs, which is why I asked. If you did have that habit, I'd have simply deleted the thing out of hand. As noted on the text above the comment box, I'm interested in comments relevant to the current post, not in the sort of endless rehashing of other blogs' discussions that's made the Neopagan blogosphere the self-referential echo chamber that so much of it is.

    Doug, I read several of Jane Roberts' Seth books back in the Seventies, but wasn't really in the market for channeled revelations so haven't read any of it since.

    Myriam, okay, then we have very different concepts of what the soul is and how it relates to the experience of embodiment. Nothing wrong with that, but the difference is a real one. Yes, growth and maturity is a process of ripening toward death and decay, and death and decay are a process of ripening toward birth and growth. As for your preference, do you think the universe is obligated to give your soul what your personality happens to want for it right now?

    Dylan, good. That shiver is a sign worth paying attention to.

    Fabian, I don't think Myriam's idea is crazy at all. I disagree with it, which is by no means the same thing.

  101. @JMG
    “I read several of Jane Roberts' Seth books back in the Seventies, but wasn't really in the market for channeled revelations so haven't read any of it since.”

    I'm disappointed that you haven't taken the Seth books more seriously. I'm not particularly interested in the “channeled revelations” aspect of them either – a channeled entity is not necessarily any more reliable than your next-door neighbour – it's the content that interests me. It seems to me that anybody who takes the idea of reincarnation seriously needs to investigate them, particularly in view of the way they tie in with modern physics (of which Jane Roberts knew nothing).

    However, they are too complex to discuss here without a detailed exposition, so I shan't mention them again.

  102. “theology of the sacraments doesn't support so mechanical a view, but it can easily be debased into that sort of thing.”

    And perhaps magic could be conceived in a merely mechanical/pelagian manner. Too much non-linear synchronicity in the system/world/werold for that to last long.

  103. I was on the road and otherwise occupied much of the last month, so I am just showing up at the last minute to throw out my thoughts on the reincarnation side thread (so late in the cycle that no one will probably even see them)…

    I feel that progressive, hierarchical, and/or individualistic notions of reincarnation are linked to similar notions in evolution and ecology. They have a strong tendency to to place human-like qualities (e.g. “intelligence”) high up on the ladder, and they are heavily vertebrate-biased in their concepts. When an Aspen tree sprouts up another tree from its roots, do they share one soul? Does the new sprout get a new soul? Where in the comingled root mass does the division between the souls occur? What about when an amoeba divides? Which daughter gets the original soul? The branch separated from the mighty oak by the windstorm is still alive and metabolizing for quite a while after it is severed; what soul resides in it? If I root a cutting from that fallen branch, which grows into another mighty oak, what about its soul? Did I create a new one? Did I divide the existing one?

    A living being is a flow, not a discrete entity. Matter and energy are constantly moving through it; every atom in it has been part of countless other things in the past and will be part of countless more in the future. There's an oxygen atom in your bloodstream that was once excreted out into the North Atlantic by a Blue Whale. When I die my body is dispersed into the ecosphere to become part of an avogadro's number of new and different things. Why should I expect that my soul will somehow remain discrete and move on as a single unit to inhabit another one of these swirling vortices we call individuals? Much of this also smacks of a wish (by the individual ego) to hold on to the identity of the individual ego.

  104. Bill,

    Fascinating analysis, and one I'd be very tempted to agree with. There are, however, three lines of evidence — from NDEs, mediums, and reincarnation cases — that suggest that something like the individual ego does survive death and even transmigrate to other bodies.

    What I'd suggest reconciles your points with the evidence I've mentioned is if the soul, once it has found a coherent identity through inhabiting more and more complex bodies, tends to want to hold on to that identity. We don't really know what kind of selection pressures souls face, but it strikes me unlikely that they face the full-on Darwinian struggle to survive that makes reproduction — which is indirect immortality for the gene — rather than direct immortality the better option.

    You see this, I think, in the sense of identity that nations build. The point of a nation isn't to reproduce and create new nations, but to enhance its own power and longevity.

    I suspect this dovetails with what our host said in the other blog about civilization and barbarism. Civilization is an artificial environment, and one of the implications of that is that it cuts people off from natural selection pressures. As a Type I diabetic, I'm personally alive only because our particular civilization has managed to do this so effectively. Perhaps part of the reason humans love building civilizations and finding our identity there is that our souls want to make our physical environment more like our spiritual environment?

  105. James —

    I don't personally find “past life” memories to be very strong evidence for individual reincarnation. The fact that I have access to memories of people who lived before does not in any way mean that I “was” those people. It just means that I can access other people's experiences, living or dead. Mediums are the same thing — just because they can connect to a deceased consciousness and construct a model of what that consciousness might say or do in the present-day does not mean that the individual deceased consiousness still “exists” in any coherent whole. Actors do that sort of thing every day. Macbeth has been haunting theaters for centuries. NDEs only indicate that individual consciousness persist for a short time after death (not that this is insignificant — any spatiotemporal decoupling of mind and brain has drastic implications about the nature of both!). Many beliefs about death and dying are consistent on this. And many, including NDEs, feature a sense of a barrier which when crossed is a point of no return. I wonder if this point is where the “drop” of the individual soul touches the “ocean” of universality from which it was drawn and to which it returns.

    Mind you, this all comes from someone who has regular interactions with a man who died 18,000 years ago… so I wont' claim full internal consistency!

  106. This question actually has more to do with today's Archdruid Report, but it seems to fit here better.

    Do you think the energy potentially available to spirit beings is finite, or infinite? I talked to a Hare Krishna once and the topic strayed to sex, because, well, that's a subject of universal interest, right? And they believe that sex depletes the spiritual energy available for use. I thought it was just the opposite. It seems to me that the more you use, the more becomes available for use.

    I dreamed I was in Las Vegas gambling and drinking with friends a few nights ago. Today I'm being driven to distraction asking myself if there were diodes in the LED lights in the dream or not. They had the appearance of being typical lights but I didn't bother getting close to check, not having thought to ask a question like that while experiencing dream consciousness. Is stuff in the spirit world – made of STUFF? Or is it just an appearance? Do people in the afterlife live a pastoral, ecotechnic lifestyle or do they live in sprawling metropolii? Both? Neither?

    I guess this works up to the question – does it all come down to Douglas Adams' “Whole Sort of General Mish Mash” or are there enduring islands of stability?

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