Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Of symbols and Chaos Magic

Doug Muder has an interesting article in the UU World entitled Assembly of a lesser god , and discusses it further in his blog . The concepts he uses are, as he notes, Pagan, derived from Choas Magic . The question is whether there is anything to it, or is it all New-Age gobbledygook that should be disdained any rational modern?

I am a Pagan and, amongst other things, an animist. I believe that we, and everything around us, is made of the stuff of gods, (and vice-versa), and that everything has (to whatever minimal extent it might be) a soul and a level of understanding. And no, I cannot prove it; it just feels right- I know the difference between faith and fact. But I do know that good things come from behaving as if it were true.

One part of such animist belief is trying to understand things as their own souls perceive themselves. People have noted that cats seem to have an affinity for me. Perhaps that's because I perceive them differently than many, as I explained in a post I wrote for Ms. Kitty : "The lesson is to learn to love things as they are, not as we would like them to be. Cats are not small dogs, nor fuzzy children, nor animated stuffed toys- they are the most ferocious killing machines Mother Nature has ever unleashed into the underbrush, their ecological niche. We must remember that their affection for us, while genuine, is a perversion of their pack (pride?) instincts- we haven't tamed nor civilized them, we have merely stepped into one or more roles that would otherwise have been filled by elder cats in a pride."

The same holds true for "inanimate" objects; you have to find what a tool "wants" to do. I once had a pocketknife that I liked, even though it wasn't good for anything. It was awkward and near useless whittling; I couldn't even cook with it. (Yes, I use pocketknives and a small hatchet for cooking rather than kitchen cutlery- I learned a lot of my cooking outdoors, ok?) Then one day I got frustrated while trying to sculpt "The Hound of the Baskervilles"; it was going nowhere, and in my anger I threw the sculpting tools across the room and drew my pocketknife... and it came alive in my hand. Every stroke was sure and true, smooth and accurate, without hesitation. This was what the knife was meant for- I never used it for mundane cutting again.

How does this relate to Doug's article? Many Pagans will search for a deity with a known affinity for the subject they're addressing (I often appeal to Calliope), just as I searched for the proper role of that knife. A Chaos Magician may decide to create such a deity, imbued with the attributes needed, and appeal to that god(dess)- like Doug's Olly. And it works, if he can control his perception. Why? Because none of us- not Pagan nor Christian nor Muslim nor Jew- addresses the true deity; we address what our mortal limits allow us to perceive.

It's a political axiom that perception is reality. They mean that cynically; Chaos Magicians- and many other Pagans- mean it literally. Materialists dismiss that claim as self delusion; there is only objective reality and fantasy. But what is "objective reality"?

A physicist will tell you that we don't live in Newton's world; we live in the universe of Einstein, Schrodinger, and Dirac. That is "reality". But in truth, unless you're a nuclear physicist or a former citizen of Hiroshima, you do live in Newton's world. Everything you will ever do or see follows his rules; even the supersonic jets and missiles that would deliver an atomic bomb obey his laws- that, too, is "reality". You could build a rocket and send men to the Moon without ever doing business with Einstein.

It is also "objective reality" that anything dealing with the human equation- which is virtually our entire lives, even if you're an engineer- is dealing with human perceptions and human understanding. All our loves, hates, happiness, despair, success, failure, joy, misery- everything that matters- is utterly dependant upon how we perceive and understand our world... and those perceptions and understandings are controlled by our symbols. Manipulating those symbols- even your own- means controlling those perceptions- even your own- and thereby controlling your reality. Is life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.", or is this "the best of all possible worlds", with any hardships being just a foible in a thing of beauty, like getting a flat tire on a Lexus? Both are equally true, for by believing them, you make them so.

As Doug noted, followers of Rita really do find parking places, and followers of placebo really do get well. And, as Doug also noted, one can create all kinds of explanations as to why that might be so. If you demand a definitive answer- "Do witches and magicians affect objective reality or not?", I will quote Louis Armstrong: "If you have to ask the question, you wouldn't understand the answer." But I will note one thing in passing: Rita's followers are happy when they find a parking spot; aggressive atheists like Dawkins find happiness in proving everyone else fools- I know whose company I'd rather keep.


Robin Edgar said...

"But I do know that good things come from behaving as if it were true."

What about bad things aka evil things Joel? Can bad things come from behaving as if it were true?

Joel Monka said...

Bad things happen because of or in spite of any belief system- just for starters, everyone dies, regardless of beliefs.

Bad, however, is not synonomous with evil. Hurricanes are bad, but not evil. I, and every other Pagan I know personally, believe in the existence of evil, but a number of UUs and members of other liberal faiths do not.

Chalicechick said...

Mostly, I don't mind this line of thinking, but it makes me slightly nervous that when someone DOESN'T get something they need, the response will become "You must not have wanted it enough."


Joel Monka said...

Agreed. I have no respect for "The Secret" because of that.

Robin Edgar said...

Glad to hear that Joel. Unfortunately some U*Us seem to be quite taken with 'The Secret'. Which brings me back to my original question. . .

ogre said...

My own working hypothesis is essentially animist. It's that what we experience as consciousness is a characteristic of matter--or of the essential stuff of the universe. Or if you prefer, a result of an inherent character of that stuff.

Animate beings are "simply" a place where that characteristic is expressed in a complex form and with the ability to act.

Anyway... the idea that the placebo effect is a baseline is actually illogical. It assumes that the mind-body link isn't effective, and we know that's wrong. Believing that something will make us better... has an effect. Effect, however, isn't certainty. And there's some limit to what an effect can do. (Which deals with the guilt/blame for not wanting something enough. You do your best...)

However, wanting things outside of one's own mind-body connection is clearly more challenging....

Still, weird shit happens. I know a UU, an atheist, who really doesn't believe that there's a reason that he can always find a really good parking space--even in the midst of holiday crush chaos. But... he acknowledges that it happens--and that it happens to him when he drives and that he has a number of family members who take advantage of the repetitive implausibility (cue: opening scene of the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are dead). He teaches logic, and doesn't believe it has a cause (he... thinks), but... it happens.

As for "The Secret," the same old crap gets peddled in new wrappings. Generation after generation after generation.

Joel Monka said...

While of course the effect is erratic, placebo has produced some remarkable results. There was a MASH episode, based on a real incident, where an aid station ran nearly out of morphine. The staff tried an experiment- the gave their patients injections of what they told them was a new, experimental drug. They said it was really powerful, and asked the patients to tell them of any dies effects, etc., really sold it. The injections were only saline- but enough of the patients were relieved of pain to allow the remaining morphine to be stretched out among the others for whom it didn't work. Remember, we're talking about post-operative pain here... and it worked.

Chalicechick said...

There are UUs who are into "The Secret"?

I guess there are UUs who are into any given thing, but that seems weird.

My readers who commented hated it and my understanding is that it has been widely mocked in UU ministerial circles because it contains a bunch of quotes that are supposedly from Emerson but are all made up.


Don Berg said...

I wrote an article entitled "Positive Attitude in Reality: Good Thoughts, Delusions, or a Self-Controlled Mind?" in response to The Secret, although I don't mention it.

I propose that the central tool of the Secret, positive attitude, can be "properly understood ... [as] a process of developing control over your states of mind and aligning the social, economic, ecological and political systems in which you are embedded to assist you as you navigate towards optimal states of mind.

"The ultimate positive attitude is about always learning and always connecting with both the people around you and your world."

What both the Secret and many of it's critics seem to miss is the fact that we are embedded in reality. The new agey stuff makes the mistake of taking the internal world of the mind to be the ultimate cause of reality. On the other hand the critics tend to make the opposite mistake of assuming that the ultimate cause of everything is outside the mind. The truth is that reality for living things is the interaction of mind and world. So it's both.

What Doug Muder's article talks about are some basic techniques for gaining mastery over your own states of mind using rituals. The rituals change the nature of the relationship between the internal milieu and the external milieu. The result is a different kind of interaction.

The true challenge of living a good life is not just changing the internal components of your mind (thoughts and feelings) but to align both the internal and the external world to enable you to have free access to optimal states of mind, regardless of your circumstances.

That is what I believe Victor Frankl was really getting at when he talked in his book Man's Search For Meaning about attitude as the final freedom that no man can ever take away from another (based on his concentration camp experiences.) Those who have access to optimal states of mind are truly free.

Don Berg