Monday, October 22, 2018

More on Magical Experiments

In last month's post on magical experiments, I discussed how I go about testing techniques and recording results, and why that approach to magick is superior to blindly following a tradition or trying to reconstruct techniques from centuries ago and somehow fit them into how we now live in the modern age. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about how we might go about verifying the effects of magick using the formal scientific method.

As I've said before, we're not quite there yet as far as practical magick is concerned. At this point research on mysticism is actually a little further along. The idea that spiritual practices can trigger specific altered brain states is a little more palatable to mainstream scientists, as it does not necessarily require a new metaphysical model to explain how it works. Neuroscientists have been very interested in meditation since the 1990's, and have conducted various studies with both novice and advanced meditators. The Buddhist tradition has been especially open to meditation studies, with the Dalai Lama going so far as to say that if the science doesn't match the teachings of the tradition, students should go with what the science tells them.

What we have been able to determine so far is that even with practice lasting only a few weeks, basic "mindfulness meditation" - a simplified non-sectarian method of meditation similar to shamatha and zazen - a physiological process dubbed the "relaxation response" is activated. This results in reduced stress and anxiety and improved attention. With advanced meditators, we have been able to identify a sort of "brain signature" related to the mystical state of samadhi or absorption which consists of high gamma brainwaves in certain areas and suppressed firing in others. As I see it, this work could be extended into practical magick by testing whether or not operations performed in these mystical states have a higher likelihood of success.


There are apparently people out there in the occult and esoteric community who argue that magick cannot really be tested or explored using scientific or scientific-like processes - which makes no sense at all to me. It is true that consciousness is one of the variables involved in all magical operations and we have yet to develop a model of consciousness and/or an effective way to measure it, but the brainwave studies with meditation do provide at least a "one-off" type of measure. If we can look at brainwave signatures as directly related to consciousness - an assumption that most neuroscientists will agree with, regardless of their opinion of esotericism, it gives us a path forward. The point would be to establish, among other things, the following:

1. P(N) < P(M). That is, the probability of a normal event N (that is, an event uninfluenced by a magical operation) is less that the probability of a magical event M (that is, a similar event influenced by a magical operation). This is the point where the hardcore skeptics get stuck, and to me this has become a pretty boring argument. All the data I have accumulated suggests that this is a true statement. I'm long past the point of second-guessing myself about it the way some newbie magicians tend to do.

2. When P(N) > P(M), a certain brainwave signature is observed. We would need to work out a way of measuring this in a general fashion and compare it between individuals and operations. The converse also should be demonstrated - when our target signature is not found, we should see something along the lines of a chance distribution in the data. These are both testable conditions. It is possible that magical effects happen whether or not a particular brainwave configuration is present, which basically means we're back to the drawing board for something that behaves like a consciousness measure.

Where the data could be messed up a little is that not everyone is equally good at magick, so random subjects won't cut it. What we need to do is treat the brainwave signature as part of the similarity of an operation, along with both mundane factors like physical conditions and esoteric ones like astrological conditions. Nobody has ever tried to do a study like that because it would be very long and expensive and the scientific establishment in general considers parapsychology and the like a waste of time. That brings us to the next point.

3. S varies by individual. S represents the relative strength of an individual magician, measured as maximum probability shift. This is really only controversial because of New Age teachers going on about how "we're all psychic!" and "we're all magical!" While this is true up to a point, magical strength (like all human skills and abilities) is based on both natural aptitude and training. A person without the aptitude could train for years and years and never accomplish much, whereas natural talents can sometimes get solid results on their first time out - and subsequent training will improve their results further.

It would be especially nice if during the course of (1) we could identify a particular brainwave signature that goes along with high aptitude. Then, if we want a study that will be especially convincing to skeptics we go with only subjects with the "high aptitude" signature. We should see higher probability shifts there than we would with randomly selected subjects. Trying to prove that "anyone can do this" is largely a fool's errand - it would be like trying to prove that anyone can be trained to run a forty-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. I and most other people are not athletic enough to do that with any amount of training.

These three experiments would work together to establish a sort of baseline for testing magick. If we can establish that all of these are true (which is by no means a given - we need actual empirical results) we can move on to other areas of testing. For example, one of my observations that suggests to me that spirits are external entities is that P(M) seems to always be less than P(M + S) (that is, P(M) representing an operation done using my own power and P(M + S) representing an operation done using my own power in addition to that of a spirit. Really validating that one, though, is a ways off. I need more magicians, more trials, more of everything really to say with any degree of certainty.

My real point here is this. Anybody who says that scientific investigation of magick is flat-out impossible is just wrong. Those three points above are testable with a large enough sample size and modern brainwave measuring equipment. And anybody who says it isn't useful is just being shortsighted. One of the problems with the traditional grimoire do-everything-by-the-book approach it that it doesn't really allow for any "debugging" of your procedures when things don't see to be working. An understanding of how magick works on a deeper level will provide that flexibility and allow us to optimize our procedures for better results.

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1 comment:

Matt Van de Ven said...

Love your work Scott, if only all Thelemites were as nuanced and systematic as you in their practice!