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July 27th, 2011

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01:01 pm - Magic and The Worlds We Live In
I've been thinking about magic a fair amount recently. It started with my musing on Alan Moore's ideas about magic, and then upon finding out that amberite would be leading a discussion about science and magic, I talked with teaotter with some of my ideas, which definitely helped to firm them up a bit.

I typically ignore and questions about how magic works, because it is so very easy to drift into pseudoscience and error when doing so, and I mostly do not care. I both care about what I can do and have done with magic and performing the best and most powerful and useful magic that I can, and also I am interested in what magic can do and what I have seen that magic has done. This got me thinking about the issue of what the limits of magic are. There seem to be three, or perhaps four interesting ideas about magic, and what interested me was what these sorts of ideas about magic would mean about the world.

  1. Educated Materialism: In this worldview, magic only affects the magician, these effects can be quite profound, sharpening focus, directing attention, and increasing skill and enhancing memory. However, it cannot be used to gain knowledge of some distant location of future event beyond what the individual already knows or can make educated guesses about, and it cannot be used to influence other people or objects except through the direct physical actions of the magician. A magician might bless or curse someone, but this blessing or curse has no effect unless the target learns of and believes in the blessing or curse and their mind shapes their behavior and perhaps even affects their health in accordance with this belief. In short, magic is nothing more than a useful and potentially quite powerful psychological tool.

    The World: A world in which this is the only sort of magic looks much like our own, in most or all ways it is indistinguishable from our world on all levels.

  2. Alan Moore's Realm of the Imagination: In addition to being capable of all of the possibilities of the previous option, there is also a realm of thought, dreams, and imagination where thoughts can meet and where human minds can contact and influence one another and also contact non-physical intelligences through non-physical or seemingly non-physical and so far unknown means. The dream or vision you have of someone happening to a distant person may be completely accurate, and a blessing or curse placed on someone can affect them even if they never learn of it, because the blessing or curse affects the target's unconscious, causing them to behave differently, and perhaps even causes their mind to affect their health. Under this view of magic, actual remote viewing of the sort where someone actually sees a distant location is impossible, but they may be able to perceive impressions left on objects or gain knowledge of a distant place from the mind of someone present in this location. This process is almost certainly less clear and more subjective than actually being able to see the location directly. Someone could also send a dream to a distant person or gain entirely new knowledge from a spirit. However, magic can have no direct affect upon the physical world – it cannot be used to light a fire or even to affect the flip of a coin or the path of a fall of a leaf. In contrast, it might well be able to affect the stock market or other complex human systems by affecting human minds and emotions on a large scale. This is presumably very difficult by not entirely impossible.

    It's also interesting to me that traditional magic is all about curses, blessings, love spells, healing, and spells to acquire wealth, as well as a host of spells relating to divine visions of various sorts all of which are at least moderately possible within these parameters. For example, a spell for wealth could encourage people to pay you on time or early, make mistakes when making change or writing checks, or look slightly more favorably on your job application. The result of even small changes in people's attitudes and perceptions would be more wealth. In contrast, flying carpets and physical transfigurations are far more features of myths and folklore rather than actual magic anyone was attempting to practice. In any case, for further information, here is a general overview of Moore's ideas and some of his thoughts about the nature of reality.

    The World: A world in which magic has a psychic reality, but no physical power looks essentially identical to a purely materialistic one. The only differences arise in what humans know and how they can influence each other. I am fairly certain that determining the difference between this world and a purely materialist one is very far from easy, and I do not think most people would notice if they lived in one and not the other. It's very difficult to determine why someone makes a particular decision, what the nature of subjective visionary experiences are, or all of the factors that go into someone's intuition. Unlike magic that has physical effects, this sort of magic leaves no visible traces, and can be proven solely by statistical "proofs", a situation that looks a whole lot like what we see when people attempt to investigate magic. If you also assume that it's a difficult skill that requires practice and dedication, then the results look even more our world.

    One interesting aspect of this type of magic is that this world even has room for things that seem like physical magic. No one can levitate, but a powerful magician might be able to make people see them appear to levitate. Of course, this levitation won't show up on film, and it may well work better on some people than others, but it's enough to keep people talking, since some people will see the person levitate, but there will be absolutely no physical proof of this levitation.

  3. Physical Magic: In addition to magic being able to accomplish the previous two options, it can also have direct and obvious physical effects – lighting a fire, perhaps only a small one, but fire from nothing, levitating or teleporting people or objects, bending keys, or knocking a book off of a shelf. Perhaps even cases of physical shape-shifting or animating objects. This is the realm of poltergeist effects and other séance standards that always turn out to be trickery when investigated, swift and miraculous cures for diseases, and similar wonders that always turn out to be a story that someone heard from someone else. I have encountered people who firmly believe magic can do this, but what I have not encountered is anyone claims to be able to accomplish this except for a few people who I have seen use trickery or exaggeration to attempt to enhance their credibility and perceived magical power. From anyone who I entirely trust, the best I have gotten is that they heard a story about physical magic from someone else, or saw something that might have been physical magic. I see the first as very little different from urban legends – twice or thrice-told tales easily become more fiction than reality with each new person relating events they did not experience, and eyewitness testimony is notoriously and vastly unreliable.

    The World: A world with this sort of magic must look superficially like our own, but it isn't. Instead, it looks more like the world of various urban fantasy novels and RPGs, where most people live ignorant of magic, but where a few powerful magicians can work incredible wonders. This is a world of secret magic. However, I'm an experienced occultist who has known dozens of other experienced magicians, and I've never met someone who can do any of this. If only one in 50,000 people can perform visible magic, I'd still almost certainly have met at least a couple in the pagan or otherkin community, and I haven't. I don't believe that I'm living in an urban fantasy novel, and that's essentially what it means to live in a world that looks like our own where visible magic exists. What I have seen is that small, local conspiracies can exist, but large worldwide one's don't – people simply aren't that good at keeping secrets.

  4. Affecting Chance and Subtle Systems: This is by far the most common option I have encountered among serious occultists. In addition to the possibilities of the first two options, magic can also affect subtle physical systems as well as purely psychological ones. So, magic can affect the roll of dice, the spin of a roulette wheel, the outcome of a lottery, or chaotic weather systems. Starting a fire with magic is impossible, but affecting how the fire spreads or a flame leaps is not. I honestly am not convinced that this sort of approach makes sense – magic can affect physical phenomena, but not very much. I've noticed a distinct lack of magicians earning vast sums of money playing roulette or craps. Also, the limits on magic would need to be exceptionally specific –a magician could tweak the roll of dice or cause a flame to flicker, but could not move a feather or light a tiny spark. Ultimately, I'm not at all certain that this type of magic or the world that it would require would be noticeably different from the world in option 3, and I simply don't believe in this world and have seen nothing remotely like the level of extraordinary proof that would be required to prove it.

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 28th, 2011 06:04 am (UTC)
Magic and science aren't that different. For instance in science there is set dogma, and anything outside of this would be seen as superstition - stuff in the realm of magic, until enough knowledge is gathered and the theories are accepted. You could take allergies and hypothyroid as an example, or celiac disease or fibromyalgia.
There are people suffering, and they end up turning to "alternative practitioners" for relief, and through nutrient therapy and diet restrictions progress is made, and some people claim it's allergies, others say candida, some say thyroid, and I'm not sure what is going on inside the black box really matters because that would call for resources no one seems willing to supply, like studies and tests, but the results- health and ability to function are priceless.
Environmental toxins having effect on people and fibromalgia used to be thought of as quack doctor fantasy, and now it's "main stream" - the average doctor probably has heard of it.

As for magicians making vast sums of money at gambling, they would have to be discreet or end up dead. I'm pretty sure the crime bosses own the casinos and anyone winning too much gets shown the door politely or not.
Also, what if ego gets in the way of the amazing magic? We have been programmed that it's impossible, and programmed that we are just people. I read some account of meditation that amazing things happen during meditation, but the true practitioner is not impressed because they are just distractions from mindfulness. Maybe the people that are capable of winning magically just wouldn't care.

I believe in physical magic, but think for the most part it's not practical. I did a really big working and as a side effect got some physical sparkle, but I don't think I could reproduce it like a trick pony. And who would really care.. I affected a few photons whoop whoop.
Seriously cheaper to get some glitter and glue. WE don't really NEED physical magic because we have so much stuff that can do it with less effort than trying to figure out a magical fix. Why dedicate your life to learning how to levitate when you can get a min wage job and save up for a plane flight? Would anyone really be able to dedicate their life to levitation when they have to hold down that job to pay rent?

[User Picture]
Date:July 28th, 2011 06:31 am (UTC)
As an ex-professional gambler I am very skeptical of 4. It would only take a tiny shift in probabilities to be able to make lots of money gambling. If you could win at craps 50.5% of the time or something you could make millions.

(Deleted comment)

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