Self and Reality.
For the purposes of this philosophical discourse, phenomena become defined by what they apparently do in relation to other phenomena. We cannot ever really know what anything ‘is’, we can only form ideas about what apparent phenomena do, what they resemble, and what they differ from, and with mathematics we can sometimes determine by how much.
Two data seem unarguable, we have a sense of Self, and we have a sense of phenomena outside of self that we can call the surrounding Reality. However the sense of a surrounding reality of course occurs inside our heads as well. Most of the more complex animals on this planet seem to share this and it seems a far more fundamental characteristic of life than the Descartesian ‘Cognito ergo sum’, ‘I think therefore I am’.
(Heck, did Descartes have one ‘I’ observing another ‘I’? My dog doesn’t do much abstract thinking so far as I can tell, but she surely has a sense of Self and her outside Reality. She thus at least shows considerable evidence of memory, expectation, and intent.)
We have no clear and exact idea of what Self and Reality consist of, or what they do, or how they work. We have only models drawn mostly from science and religion to describe these apparent phenomena. These models describe Self and Reality by analogy, by relating them to other sensory experiences and/or to mental abstractions derived from sensory experiences, and perhaps in the most challenging cases from abstractions derived from abstractions (see art and physics and political theory for starters.)
So beginning with the apparently fundamental experiences of Self and Reality we develop three different ways of describing ‘life the universe and everything’. Some people seem to use one description or ‘paradigm’ far more than the other two, some use elements of two. Rarely does anyone use all three simultaneously because they do not usually sit comfortably together, particularly in their hard-line forms where they tend to actively oppose each other.
1) The materialist/scientific paradigm deals with the relationships between reality and itself (i.e. between parts of reality).
2) The transcendental/religious paradigm deals fundamentally with the relationships between the self and itself (i.e. between parts of self).
3) The magical/esoteric paradigm deals with the relationships between self and reality.
At least two of the above propositions may sound completely crazy, blasphemous, or wrong to many people, so qualifications of terms will follow, together with longer exegeses of the overall argument.
Humanity has always enjoyed the three perspectives of Materialism, Transcendentalism, and Magic, or if you like, a belief in the powers of Common Sense, Faith, and ‘Intent plus Imagination’.
Materialism. Arguably we cannot experience reality directly; we can only experience what our senses tell us, or what our compatriots and our instruments tell our senses, and build up a picture of reality from these inputs. Importantly, we tend to use this picture of reality to interpret and to integrate (or ignore) further inputs.
Nevertheless it seems reasonable to assume that phenomena do occur outside of ourselves. The materialist/scientific paradigm concerns itself with the apparent behaviour of the physical stuff of the universe, the relations between the various parts of it. This approach or paradigm did not suddenly spring into existence with the advent of modern science. Even the fashioning of the simplest wood and stone tools requires some pretty acute appreciation of how stuff works.
Materialism depends on the appreciation of causality at work in the external reality, if only probabilistic causality; we rapidly learn to expect one particular phenomenon to usually follow another particular one.
Materialism never strays all that far from Transcendentalism or Magic either. Materialists regard the laws of the universe as effectively transcendental and they regard intent and imagination as essential in their exploitation of them.
However hard-line materialism cannot accept that anything other than complex physical processes can give rise to the apparent phenomena of the universe, living organisms, self and consciousness, and free will, or to the apparent effects of intent and imagination.
Materialism addresses Self only from the outside and then often merely as an epiphenomenon or a convenient illusion which it can manipulate either with purely instrumental morality mechanisms such as do this or don’t do that - because of the probable physical consequences, or by manipulating the physical environment of the Self. Thus in materialist cultures the Self can become fragile, without much in the way of inner resources.
Transcendentalism. All forms of religion and mysticism deal fundamentally with the relation of the self to itself. This may seem a belittling assertion about such a vast human endeavour but such a description actually elevates the transcendental quest beyond the confines of any particular faith or philosophy to the level where it addresses the great questions of how do we see ourselves, what images and beliefs and aspirations do we have of ourselves to ourselves?
The Self remains a tricky concept, like the universe it probably has no centre, does it consist of perception or of will? If we can become aware of Self, what becomes aware of what?
What boundaries does the concept of Self have?
How much of our view of Self derives from our experience of other people's apparent Selfs?
Probably quite a lot, we seem to develop ‘theory of mind’ firstly in relation to other people’s actions, we attribute mind and agency to them first, and only secondarily do we seem to attribute mind and Self to ourselves.
East and West supposedly have different views of Self, one apparently more socially defined, the other apparently more individualistic; leading to shame in one case and guilt in the other when conflicts arise between parts of Self.
In the west the monotheistic view has led to the view of a higher good self and a bad lower self, in the east the higher self supposedly corresponds to no-self, but in both cases non-selfishness becomes recommended as an ideal social attribute of Self.
All statements about gods and goddesses, Gods and Buddhas reflect humanity back to itself in aspirational form, so that we can believe in ourselves. They act as statements of Identity. They act as metaphors for Self. Naturally we imagine these Selfs as people, for we largely build ourselfs and our self-images from experiences we get from people, family, friends, peers, celebrities, culture and mythological heroes, saints and deities, and we engage in ceaseless internal debate about our ‘self-to-self’ images. Prayer and ritual and most entertainments function entirely to amplify some aspect of Self-self-image.
People worship and pray and perform rituals mainly to maintain faith in themselves and what they do, to reinforce their identities to themselves. If they pray for something outside of themselves that technically counts as Magic. (Well it counts as ‘low grade magic’ to those using the Magical paradigm, and as ‘attempted magic’ to those using the Materialist paradigm).
Those centred in the Transcendentalist paradigm naturally regard Self as more fundamental than Reality, thus for them some form of Self must have created reality and must presumably survive the demise of Reality. Materialists and Magicians tend to regard such ideas as misguided and open to abuse, as they can lead to somewhat problematical attitudes to material reality, on one hand contempt for material conditions, and on the other the idea that material success somehow validates particular transcendental ideas.
Magic. The territory of magic often seems ill-defined as nearly all transcendental enterprises and religions embody magical or miraculous themes, and many practitioners of magic have used religious ideas to structure their activities. To magicians, all esoteric phenomena from gods to demons to spirits, spells, and divinations consist of relationships between Self and Reality. Magicians use these phenomena to embody will or perception on a material or parapsychological level to change the relationship of Self to Reality and to change Reality, all else counts a mere mysticism if it leads to no tangible result.
Thus somewhat paradoxically, religious practitioners believe in external deities and spiritual agencies in order to perform internal Self- to-Self-identity manoeuvres, whilst magical practitioners believe in internal deities and spiritual agencies in order to perform external Self-to-Reality interactions.
Materialism and science have never entirely separated from magic. A strong tendency has always existed to see some form of intentionality, if only blind intentionality, in the workings of nature. We have no clear idea of whether the mysterious wave-particle quanta of nature individually embody the laws of the universe, or whether these laws arise out of relationships between quanta, or whether they somehow impose or evolve themselves globally.
As Materialism has evolved away from the idea of ‘sentient-intent’ in apparently inanimate matter and energy towards a less panpsychic model of blind-‘intent’ based on immutable physical laws and emergent phenomena, it has tended to regard Self and Free Will as no more than convenient and probably necessary psychological illusions.
Nevertheless, despite doubts about the Nature of Self in the materialist world view, the Primacy of the Self becomes a cornerstone of its philosophy and psychology. Human will and imagination become revealed as the authors of our destiny, within limits which we can explore and challenge. Properly this aspect of Materialism counts as a Magical doctrine. Whilst Materialism may decry magical thinking when practised overtly as such, materialist psychology openly acknowledges the power of positive thinking, role models, imagination, visualisation, placebo effects, and self-belief; even if it usually denies that these can also have parapsychological effects or ‘spiritual’ effects..
Thus although the Materialist, Transcendental, and Magical paradigms offer three radically different ways of looking at and experiencing Self and Reality, none ever appears entirely absent from the human endeavour. The three paradigms have fought with each other throughout recorded history and probably since the first sentient organism drew a distinction between the experiences of Self and Reality. Indeed, drawing such a distinction probably equates to achieving sentience in the first place.
Of the three paradigms the Magical one often proves the most challenging in the contemporary world, but its practitioners would argue - also the most rewarding.
All three paradigms evolve and update themselves over time and in response to changing circumstances. Religious ideas, despite their frequent reference to the sanctity of antiquity, tend to change fairly quickly, and most religions regularly change flavour and emphasis within a few generations or a few centuries. Materialist and scientific ideas tend to change even faster with most scientific ideas having a half-life of only half a century.
Now as Magic deals with the relationships between Self and Reality it has tended to draw its vocabulary and symbolism from the ideas we have about them.
Thus Magic can often look like an aberration of religion and magicians who have failed to achieve much in Reality have often diverted into Transcendentalism to avoid complete failure. However the idea that Magic consists of a subset of Transcendental and religious ideas simply doesn’t work because magic can have effects not only within any Transcendental framework but also within non-transcendental and Materialist paradigms.
Magic can also look like an aberration of Materialism and Science. In the early days of Natural Philosophy the two subjects had a much closer relationship but today we tend to draw a sharper distinction between phenomena that apparently arise from the laws (or ‘intentions’ and emergent effects) of supposedly inanimate matter and the phenomena that apparently arise from the will and imagination of humans.
Stage magicians of course rely upon confusing these issues to entertain us. In the past magicians would sometimes resort to such trickeries to make their clients more open to the possibilities of actual magic. Magicians always used to put a dead rabbit into a hat before pulling out a live one, often to prepare clients for a session of healing by magical intent or suggestion.
However the habit of magicians of describing magical phenomena in terms of physical analogies has led to a ridiculous amount of confusion about how Magic actually works and to widespread derision and disbelief in it.
All the gods, goddesses, spirits, demons, elementals, unicorns, dragons, spells, and instruments that magicians may use have no real meaningful existence outside of the magicians head, (even though they may make physical representations of them to aid in their internal willed perception of them). Materialists would of course say exactly the same thing about the entities that religions focus upon, however a profound difference of application prevails.
Religious practitioners believe these phenomena to have independent existence and they appeal to them primarily to modify their self-images. Experienced Magicians on the other hand do not generally accept the independent and autonomous existence of these phenomena, but regard them as tools created for interaction with physical reality.
However when people of a basically religious or materialist persuasion try to depict magic in fantasy novels or films they usually end up falling back on depicting magic as arising from ‘visible imaginary phenomena’ like dragons, spirits, unicorns, demons, and lightning bolts having direct physical effects, but of course it doesn’t work like that. This seems rather like having Newton’s abstract equations of gravity or motion to appear onscreen and somehow ‘causing’ objects to move, or as tongue in cheek as having the monotheist’s God appear in person in a business suit and hand out halos.
So Magic suffers from a bit of an image problem in the popular imagination and it constantly struggles to update that image by borrowing analogies and descriptions and symbols from the realms of what we conceive of as the territories of Self and Reality, for it has only a simple (and much disputed) vocabulary of its own, and an even simpler message: -
Will and Imagination can accomplish extraordinary and sometimes impossible things.
That to me constitutes the real romance of sorcery.
And another thing....Yesterday the Dutch found the courage to give the EU monster a slap in the face in their mini-referendum.
Let us hope that on June 23rd that we can see it off for good.