Thursday, June 22, 2006

Hermetic Metaphysics

Western philosophy generally recognizes three schools of metaphysical thought, those of Aristotle, Plato, and Immanuel Kant. Platonic metaphysics contends that the ultimate reality can be found in the world of ideal forms, or in modern terminology the mathematical relationships that form the basis of our understanding of the physical world. Aristotle's system, on the other hand, contends that ultimate reality rests in the physical world and material objects, and that mathematical forms are merely descriptive. These two schools dominated Western philosophical thought for more than a thousand years, until Immanuel Kant attempted to resolve the contentions between the two schools in the Eighteenth Century.

European Renaissance Hermetics also developed a system of metaphysics that receives a lot less attention in academic circles, but in fact this system includes many ideas that are similar to and predate those found in Kant's system - with one extremely important difference.

Kant's approach to metaphysics was very clever - rather than working on the problem of metaphysics from a position that he imagined to be objective, he turned his attention to how the mind receives information and built his metaphysical system starting with the subjective world of the mind and working outward to see what was really knowable about the objective world. His eventual conclusion was that we can only directly experience the subjective world of the mind, which he called the World of Appearances. The objective world, which he referred to as the World of Things-in-Themselves, is on the other hand fundamentally unknowable because sensory data is interpreted by the mind. He avoided the problem of solipsism by stating that even though we cannot experience the objective world directly, we can infer that it exists in its own right because the law of cause and effect seems to hold regardless of the observer's state of mind.

These ideas have much in common with Buddhist philosophy, and would not be out of place in an Eastern sangha. Buddhism teaches that our experience of the world is maya, usually translated as illusion, because we cannot escape our subjective perception of events. Therefore, we cannot take our perceptions to have inherent identity because our experience of them is constructed by the mind. Nonetheless, karma, the law of cause and effect, still holds the objective world together, which is why material objects cannot be manipulated at will according to the whims of the subjective mind. Vajrayana Buddhism does teach that karma can be purified and eventually transcended by the enlightened mind, so karma is not considered by Buddhists to be as immutable as Kant believed the law of cause and effect to be. This is one key difference between Kant's system and Buddhism, but when applied to mundane reality as experienced by those without some degree of enlightened realization the two systems are practically identical.

Hermeticism is a philosophy that arose during the European Renaissance based on the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, currently believed to be a mystic or group of mystics who lived sometime between the second and seventh centuries AD in either Greece or Egypt. At the time of the Renaissance, the Hermetic writings were thought to be much older, predating Christianity. The second-century Gospel of John does incorporate some ideas that also appear in Hermeticism, especially the primacy of the Word or logos as the basis of Christian doctrine. In fact, the writings of Hermes Trismegistus are essentially Gnostic, though the resulting theology is much more world-affirming than that of many Gnostic sects of the period in which the Hermetic texts were written.

Many Hermetics during the Renaissance were scientists and magicians in addition to being philosophers, and they seized upon the world-affirming but nonetheless Gnostic aspects of Hermetic philosophy to support their endeavers. Hermeticism is often considered Neo-Platonic with its emphasis on mathematical relationships and "ideal" structures such as the Tree of Life, but in fact its metaphysical foundation is more sophisticated. Hermeticism divides the universe into subjective and objective realms referred to as the microcosm and macrocosm, doing so centuries before Kant, and proposes that correspondences can be found between these two realms. The famous Hermetic maxim "As above, so below" reflects this model of reality.

The important difference between Kant's metaphysics and Hermetic metaphysics is the way in which the objective and subjective interact. Both systems propose correspondences between objective and subjective reality. Kant's system implies that these correspondences exist as a function of the mind reflecting objective reality, since the objective realm influences the subjective realm where reality is experienced by the mind. Hermetic metaphysics also proposes that this influence is present, but it also postulates that the relationship between the objective and subjective realms is reciprocal. As the objective realm influences the subjective, the subjective realm also influences the objective.

In Kant's system material reality influences thought, but thought cannot influence material reality because the subjective does not influence the objective. This assertion perpetuates the Mind-Body Problem, which asks how the non-material mind can influence the material that makes up the body in such a way as to will an action to occur. The reciprocal Hermetic model resolves the problem easily, since it includes the assertion that subjective thought can and does influence objective material reality. This allows for effective magick in addition to willed actions, and perhaps this is related to Crowley's statement that any intentional act is a magical act. Researchers at the Princeton Engineering Anomolies Research Laboratory have detected highly statistically significant influences on quantum-based random number generators that seem to originate with the thoughts of experimental subjects, and while these influences are very small they may still provide some evidence in favor of the Hermetic model.

For me, the best evidence along those lines is my own magical practice. In my experience, thought can influence objective reality when directed in the right way, and I have had many ritual successes that cannot be explained by wishful thinking or statistical anomolies. This means that Kant's system is incomplete and the Hermetic system appears to hold the missing piece. Hermeticism is therefore a more accurate metaphysical model for magical practitioners, in that it reflects the way in which ritual operations seem to work.

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