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August 2nd, 2010


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03:23 am - Musings on Magic, Imagination, and the Physical World
Thinking more on both this post about magic and Alan Moore and also this post about some of my own magical beliefs, I began thinking about spiritual beliefs and cosmology. To me, the single most fundamental aspect of being any sort of mystic, magician, or other sort of metaphysical seeker is a belief that minds, thoughts, and imaginings have some sort of independent existence that goes beyond the boundaries of a single person's head. Call it the collective unconscious, astral space, faerieland, or whatever, the overall idea is the same – there is effectively some sort of realm that is home to thoughts, dreams, creations of individual and collective imaginations, as well as various non-physical entities like gods, angels, demons, fae creatures, ghosts and other non-physical beings, of various levels of power and intelligence, and we exist at least partly in this non-physical realm and can learn to visit it more completely and become more aware of it.

Visionary experiences of the past and future and of distant locations, possession, divine visitations, mental communication, dream sharing, and a multitude of similar experiences all follow naturally from this single belief. I firmly believe in all of this – I have had extensive experience with this sort of thing and am as certain of the reality of this realm and my own experiences as I am of the existence of the computer screen in front of me. For me, the existence of that sort of realm and the inhabitants of it nicely explain (in a variety of ways) gods, being otherkin (including this fascinating and accurate-feeling explanation of the phemonena), as well as most of the sorts of more practical magic that I have performed or prosperity, luck, or other purposes.

However, none of this implies is that any aspect of this visionary reality can directly affect the physical world, except through the minds and bodies of physical beings who experience it and who affect or are affected by it. Looking at magic in this fashion, there's a world of difference between non-physical acts like gaining information from some astral messenger or influencing someone's thoughts and emotions with magic, and acts of physical magic like being able to light a candle or directly influence the roll of a single die. Obviously thoughts and emotions are powerful stuff, even from a purely materialist perspective, they can drive people to kill, they can seriously depress or boost someone's immune system, and cause people to be more likely or notice or miss opportunities in their environment.

So, what about affecting the weather or the spin of a roulette wheel? I know a number of magicians and mystics who are firmly convinced that magic can directly affect the physical world as easily as it can affect thoughts, emotions, dreams, imaginings, and astral entities. However, I also realize that when the emotional tides of my materialism rise, this in particular is what I doubt. Also, either all or at minimum almost all of the various events that I firmly attribute to my own magic and luck can be explained even if magic has no physical effects at all. I'm not certain that I have ever seen evidence of magical phenomena that have had direct physical effects. I'm also not certain that I haven't, there are a number of cases that are profoundly unclear. However, I can now rather easily divide magic into non-physical and physical aspects, one of which I believe in, the other of which I am definitely uncertain about.

In any case, this piece by Alan Moore about his experiences with entities living in the collective unconscious (or whatever you wish to call it) makes much sense to me and matches my own experiences with such entities
"As I see it there's a glossary of imaginary beings. My experience with demons suggests they are a very different category of being than gods. It's something to do with complexity, and it's something to do with emotions. The demons that I have seemingly encountered, and this is probably complete hallucination, or schizophrenic episode, whatever, have recognisably human traits. They were different to us and Other than us. But you could see that they liked to show off, had vanities, rage, closer to us than the couple of gods I seem to have encountered, which are a different level of complexity and have no recognisable human emotion at all. They are more complex, they are higher. Some entities I've encountered seem to be completely stupid, they're like astral fish. Spectacular, but they're not there for much. Not very intelligent, they have their properties and peculiarities but they're not that interesting."

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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From:shadowandstar
Date:August 2nd, 2010 12:39 pm (UTC)
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I'm still in the process of figuring out what magic can (and should) be used for. I'm studying ritual magic with a teacher who is very firmly of the opinion that the purpose of this path is inner work: changing who we are, not influencing the outer world. The change in the outer world comes as a consequence of changing ourselves. I'm not always sure I agree with her.

I'm being taught that in magical ritual the work is done on the inner/upper planes, and the results of that work cascade down the planes into manifestation in the material world. That can take time or be startlingly quick. I can't see this type of magic impacting a particular roll of the dice on short notice, although perhaps it could as part of a larger working. The rule tends to be: be very clear about what you want, do divination and/or meditation to be sure its in line with the will of the Divine, and then work for the desired effect without being specific about how you want it to happen.

But as I said above, this is still very new to me. My studies have been having a significant impact on my inner self, but I'm not showing any signs of being able to effectively use magic as a problem solver externally. But then again, I've also never felt much desire to do so.
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From:tangyabominy
Date:August 2nd, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
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This is actually really interesting to me, as someone who has an interest in alchemy (where inner work and outer work are meant to mirror each other: as Above, so Below, and all that). I think what you're saying here is giving me a more precise handle on how that Above to Below thing flows. Specifically, it's making me think that perhaps the most important thing to bring to any attempt at physical magic is the higher work, first. Once you've got the momentum going from that flowing down into the physical stuff, you can then ride off that momentum and take what you learn from physical workings to ride back up into self-change. But you have to start from the top, maybe.

Hm, I really don't know how to describe what I mean, and I guess this is just personal rambling. Stuff that's too liminal for real words. Your comment made me think, though.

I'm curious, randomly, when you say you've never felt a desire to use magic for physical change. Myself, I've always wanted to be part of this stuff for the sake of being part of it: for the connection to something grander, for the sake of plugging more firmly into the universe, being one with it. Being able to do something externally would be a nice confirmation of that connection, but it's really just to be part of that that I want. I wonder if you feel the same.

I think I might get along with your teacher, incidentally.
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From:shadowandstar
Date:August 8th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
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Sorry for the delay in responding. It's been a busy week, and since I obviously didn't express myself as clearly as I should have the first time, I wanted to be sure I would do better in replying.

Hm, I really don't know how to describe what I mean. It made sense to me!

Being able to do something externally would be a nice confirmation of that connection, but it's really just to be part of that that I want. I wonder if you feel the same. Yes, that about sums it up for me.
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From:heron61
Date:August 2nd, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
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But then again, I've also never felt much desire to do so.

Do you know why? I find that idea to be utterly & completely baffling.
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From:shadowandstar
Date:August 8th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
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My lack of desire to do magic to solve external problems arises primarily from my mystic orientation. I've always felt like prayer and connecting directly to the Divine through meditation/contemplation was at least as effective as "doing magic" when seeking change. Also, for most of my life I've been reasonably content and I haven't felt much desire for more/other than what I had. (The last few years are a pretty intense exception.)

However, on reflection (and being more awake after I read your comment than I was when I wrote my initial comment), my attitude has been shifting over the past few months. In fact, I have considered that kind of use of magic, and my teacher has told me that what we're doing is not intended to shape external conditions. It's intended to shape the magician herself. It *can* shape external things, but it has to be done with care and only after being sure such an act would be in harmony with Divine will.
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From:heron61
Date:August 8th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
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*nods*

It's intended to shape the magician herself.

There's a lot of that - I don't know if that's everything or merely a large part, but it's a big deal. I remember performing the first of the rituals that I did to gain long term romance (back in 1992), and most of the changes that happened were changes in me to help me be able to do that. I was ready by 1994, a year and a half later, and I went through some major changes during that time.

It *can* shape external things, but it has to be done with care and only after being sure such an act would be in harmony with Divine will.

My own take on that is to simply avoid anything obviously vile (largely avoiding attempting to harm someone else) and to trust my considerable luck to deal with the rest in a way that minimizes harm and maximizes benefit (especially to me :) - but also to everyone else. A good recent example that was some mixture of deliberate magic and luck (mostly luck, which is as I mentioned much of my magic) was getting the house we are now in - Becca and I decided we really wanted one, we did a little bit of ritual work on this, so we get kicked out of our apartment one month before the real-estate crash and this event sufficiently horrifies my parents that combined with the somewhat lower property costs, they were willing to buy us a house. Harsh at the time, difficult for a while, but we were living in a very nice house within 8 months. I don't know how much of this was magic, but if most of it was, it can all be explained by a mixture of excellent timing and very mildly directing the reactions of others in a non-harmful fashion.

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From:tangyabominy
Date:August 2nd, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm really loving this post series. Also, it always made sense to me that the gods proper would not be petty and of the type to struggle with human emotion. Such things seem too low, for the kind of thing I consider to be godly, the raw force and direction that spun out millions of years of evolution into the world.

I will say that my experience of magic has been such that while there's been nothing physical that I would call inexplicable, it's hard to account for the fact that when I'm feeling most magically attuned and "in that zone", the whole influencing-probability stuff has seemed to work a lot better, with strings of "coincidences" that I couldn't pull off at any other time.

But I also agree that it's a little beside the point. Magic is dealings with a realm that's not our own. If it has no physical effects at all, that ultimately matters much less than that it reveals to us a world in which it can have effects.

And, I'm realising as I write this last sentence, it's when I've abandoned seeing true meaning and reality in that world and insisted on everything mapping to the physical one that magic has felt further away from me. And the closest I've ever felt it is when I've let my fictions be real. There's got to be something to that.
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From:heron61
Date:August 2nd, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC)
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I will say that my experience of magic has been such that while there's been nothing physical that I would call inexplicable, it's hard to account for the fact that when I'm feeling most magically attuned and "in that zone", the whole influencing-probability stuff has seemed to work a lot better, with strings of "coincidences" that I couldn't pull off at any other time.

That has been my own experience, but it's difficult for me to tell if it's actually altering probabilities or merely my own confidence and knowledge as well as changing the attitudes and reactions of people around me.
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From:seika
Date:August 2nd, 2010 05:13 pm (UTC)
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So, what about affecting the weather or the spin of a roulette wheel? I know a number of magicians and mystics who are firmly convinced that magic can directly affect the physical world as easily as it can affect thoughts, emotions, dreams, imaginings, and astral entities. However, I also realize that when the emotional tides of my materialism rise, this in particular is what I doubt. Also, either all or at minimum almost all of the various events that I firmly attribute to my own magic and luck can be explained even if magic has no physical effects at all. I'm not certain that I have ever seen evidence of magical phenomena that have had direct physical effects. I'm also not certain that I haven't, there are a number of cases that are profoundly unclear.

I can really relate to this.

I think... the dilemma that I feel is that if we expect magic not to have physical effects at all, for it to be wholly incapable of it, doesn't that kind of leave out a part of what everyone knows that magic really is? Why, then, would we call it magic and not simply spirituality? And yet I do think physical effects are very much not the point. Except perhaps that they awe us.

(That is why I personally get so easily tired of fantasy that insists on being very realistic about how predictable rule-based magic would change how everyone lives their daily lives. It makes practical sense, and yet it seems to profane magic by missing the point-- and it stops feeling like magic to me. I also see how these sorts of stories can be technical, engineerish fun, though, so I don't really blame anyone who does like them. I might like them if it weren't that the worldview makes me feel like magic is empty, and that is absolutely deadly to feel. /tangent)

Incidentally, I think part of the whole question may be the "predictable, rule-based" thing I threw into that first sentence there. We keep wanting something to be consistently reproducible, to soothe our scientifically trained minds that want to be able to really prove it. But the whole point is that magic can't be reproduced like that. If it could be reliably reproduced like that, it'd be an undiscovered scientific principle, by definition. And then we would not have a qualitatively different kind of awe and wonder going on at this magic than we do at really cool science stuff. Therefore, it would lose the point of being, specifically, magic rather than being really cool science stuff. So of course it won't be reproducible. Wanting it to be is like choosing an apple from the fruit basket and then wanting it to have been a banana instead-- it's not; it's an apple and that's why you chose the apple.
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From:tangyabominy
Date:August 2nd, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
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Yeah... yeah. It's like, on the one hand, you want it to be able to do amazing physical things because that's part of how we know it for what it is, that's part of what our deep-held concept of magic tells us it should be (and I think we wouldn't be drawn to that if it weren't significant). On the other hand, those amazing physical things must be to a certain extent out of our control - perhaps to a certain extent gifted from on high, because if we were able to push the button and get the bacon on a consistent basis then it would be us controlling the universe and not anything grander out there.

Perhaps part of what makes magic magic has to be that it comes from something greater than us and is not solely within our control, otherwise it is just like any other science.
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From:heron61
Date:August 2nd, 2010 10:19 pm (UTC)
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because if we were able to push the button and get the bacon on a consistent basis then it would be us controlling the universe and not anything grander out there.

Part of my own answer to this lies at the heart of my transhumanism - that we could both also get in touch with grander entities and ultimately become grander entities in the process of becoming able to control the universe in more impressive and amazing ways.
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From:heron61
Date:August 2nd, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)
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Why, then, would we call it magic and not simply spirituality?

Spirituality doesn't include voluntary or involuntary possession by external entities, gaining accurate knowledge through non-physical means, altering the perceptions and reactions of the people you are dealing with and all of the other aspects of magic that I have seen evidence of.

That is why I personally get so easily tired of fantasy that insists on being very realistic about how predictable rule-based magic would change how everyone lives their daily lives. It makes practical sense, and yet it seems to profane magic by missing the point

I both see what you mean and somewhat disagree. I'd love for magic to be like that. I'd love to be able to magically tinker with the physical world on all manner of levels, and while that's not how I've seen magic work, it's definitely and idea I enjoy.
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From:seika
Date:August 3rd, 2010 12:13 am (UTC)
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Spirituality doesn't include voluntary or involuntary possession by external entities, gaining accurate knowledge through non-physical means, altering the perceptions and reactions of the people you are dealing with and all of the other aspects of magic that I have seen evidence of.

By some definitions, it does? I mean... all of these things are, just as an example, in the Bible. And I think many people who take Christianity seriously do not take it in a terribly magical way, but also believe in these as miracles. I think it might really depend on what you classify as "spirituality" and what you classify as "magic".


I'd love for magic to be like that. I'd love to be able to magically tinker with the physical world on all manner of levels, and while that's not how I've seen magic work, it's definitely and idea I enjoy.

I'd like to do that as well, but making it the primary focus seems to miss the point, to me. If I focused on seeing physical results, my relationship with the divine might not be the highest priority, and that is what seems profane. Like taking advantage of something primarily for what it can do for my daily life, when it's meant to be about something more important.

My problem with fantasy like that isn't so much "oh dear, you used magic for a practical purpose!" but rather "why act like it's just a humdrum addition to your daily life whose greatest purpose is to get stuff done, when its real purpose is something more meaningful than that"?
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From:heron61
Date:August 3rd, 2010 12:49 am (UTC)
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I think it might really depend on what you classify as "spirituality" and what you classify as "magic".

Very true. I tend to consider the difference being whether or not you are actively doing something rather than just asking for it to happen to you or accepting what happens. As a very strong proponent of the first, I definitely consider myself a magician.

My problem with fantasy like that isn't so much "oh dear, you used magic for a practical purpose!" but rather "why act like it's just a humdrum addition to your daily life whose greatest purpose is to get stuff done, when its real purpose is something more meaningful than that"?

Absolutely. One of the primary reasons for my fascination with magic as technology (with Exalted being my favorite instance of how that was handled) is that it's both - just as our own technology is both incredibly miraculous and simultaneously exceptionally mundane. In part, this is simply an issue with familiarity. IME, anything can become familiar with sufficient repetition, even numinous wonder. I love the idea of effectively re-enchanting the mundane and the day to day, but there are also psychological limits to how much of that is possible.

In any case, to make all this more clear, what I'd like to see more of is high tech technomagic that was explicitly animist. Your tools and devices are either people or perhaps in many cases, domestic animals, with personalities and desires. Karl Schroeder did a wonderfully technological version of this in his novel Ventus

Also, despite being a magician and a wacked out transhumanist otherkin, SF is my primary love and my primary paradigm, and so tinkering and a desire to see what you can use something for always leaps rapidly into my mind.
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From:seika
Date:August 3rd, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC)
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Ahh. *nods* See, I do like SF and exploring ramifications of concepts. But I get that via SF. When I read about magic, it pulls out the fact that I want magic much more... And I find it dangerous to my thought processes to start thinking of magic as just another kind of technology. I lose track of something important when I do that.
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From:bodlon
Date:August 3rd, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
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It's funny you should post on this. I've been spending a lot of time banging around in my skull trying to come to good conclusions. It's all philosophy and not observation at the moment, but...

Well, it's like this.

I believe in supernatural beings because I've had experiences of them, and the argument from my own experience is sufficient for me to make that leap. I don't always know what those experiences MEAN, and probably get a lot of it wrong, but that's a work in progress and I'm good with that.

I want to believe (but have not yet proved) that these beings may be able to influence things through subtle channels. I likewise want to believe (but have not yet proved) that by certain techniques, I can also influence things through subtle channels.

Throwing a fireball? Yeah, no. Using tools and ritual to gently adjust causality so that a fire occurs? Maybe, though it's more practical to just use a match.

I hit a roadblock, though, when my politics get involved. See, there's no scientific way to 'test' for witchcraft. If I believe individuals can (either themselves or through the assistance of supernatural beings) affect their environment, isn't it possible for someone to curse somebody's cattle? Shouldn't it be acceptable for an injured party to seek recourse? But I get angry about this when people act this stuff out in real life.

So. It's a thing.
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From:seika
Date:August 3rd, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
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Shouldn't it be acceptable for an injured party to seek recourse?

Legal recourse? I don't know that this is a problem specific to magic. People hurt each other in so many ways, interpersonally, that there is generally no legal recourse for. You can't do anything about someone being a liar and breaking your heart. So... expecting there to be legal recourse for every ill is a larger problem that has to be resolved within your politics on its own, not only noticed when it impacts cattle-cursing. (Kind of a tangent, but.)
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From:bodlon
Date:August 5th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
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Well, I hadn't quite got to anything quite that specific. Mostly right now I'm just chewing on "if I believe people can affect the world through extraordinary means, what are the practical implications of that? How does that intersect with my belief that people being harmed/prosecuted for 'witchcraft'?"
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From:nancylebov
Date:November 13th, 2010 09:38 am (UTC)
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I wonder whether the public resistance to the idea of effective magic (even if there's a good bit of private belief in it) is an intuition that societies where everyone believes in malevolent magic are worse places to live.

It wouldn't surprise me if there's a hidden history where a good bit of what happens between nations is a result of magic attack and defense between them. I'd like to believe that what's been going on in the US is the result of a fairly subtle attack on our luck and judgment rather than us completely doing it to ourselves.

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