Monday, January 28, 2019

Intent and Procedure

Intent without procedure - Soviet psychic Nina Kulagina

This Magick Monday article was prompted by a discussion over on the Ceremonial Magick School group in response to what I consider to be kind of a silly discussion elsewhere on Facebook. The discussion was over whether intent or "protocol" (that is, procedure) is "more important" in magical operations. People bring this sort of thing up all the time, and what tends to happen is that it breaks down into camps where one side is saying that intent is what matters and the other is saying that procedure is what matters.

It should really be a no-brainer to see that both are important, and that arguing over which is objectively "more important" is generally a huge waste of time. Again, obviously, it depends on the practitioner. Since both aspects are important, if you're having problems getting results with your magick you should work on whichever of them you are weaker at. But I'm going to take a look at both perspectives and see if I can clarify what each of the "sides" is saying.

Intent is the foundation of magical work. In other words, before you go about trying to change anything, you need to figure out what you want to change. This is your intent. As Karl Popper pointed out, all scientific investigation starts with a problem to be investigated. You need to know what you are looking for or trying to do ahead of time, so that you can properly evaluate your results. It also informs how you design your charge, including the injunctions (what you want to happen) and limitations (what you don't want to happen).

Much like I talk about how the "Lesser" GD ceremonial rituals should really be called "general" or "foundational," I think that the way intent works as a foundational component is sometimes overlooked. It's not that you can't get some sort of paranormal effect without it, but the point of magick is not generating essentially random paranormal events. You want to generate paranormal events that serve your intent, or as I would put it in Thelemic terms, your will.

I heard a story years ago about a group of chaos magicians in London who decided to perform a "magical operation" that consisted of running around to various places in the city and pointing and laughing at Big Ben over and over again. I don't know if the story's true, or if some of my facts are wrong, but that's not really important for this example. Apparently on that day some sort of problem happened with the clock that nobody had seen in decades or longer. The story was related to me as though it was supposed to be impressive.

And my response was basically, so what? I'm not a newbie magician who needs to be convinced that spells work and can produce paranormal effects. I know that. How does causing a problem with a clock cause anything? For that matter, I've also seen this issue with "phenomena junkies" who basically play around with evocations just to see some random paranormal thing happen during their operations. Again, so what? If I'm coming at magick from such a skeptical perspective that I need it "proved" to me, I probably am not going to have much success.

I've done evocations where stuff happened and evocations where it didn't, and I can tell you that what happens during your operation is completely unrelated to how powerful the spell is in the real world. Maybe you can make a case that there's a connection with rank newbies who don't know how to do magick, because they can't always make the spirit show up - and paranormal stuff happening during the ritual means they did that part right. But otherwise? Once you have even a small amount of experience you can just sense the spirits without anything dramatic going on.

During the whole ritual intent is important as well. Single-pointed concentration seems to be important to get any sort of practical result, whether you're working with spirits or not. You don't want your mind to be divided against itself - that is, you don't ever want to do an operation half-heartedly or when you have mixed feelings about the outcome. Usually that doesn't work. Your mind needs to be coherent, at least while you are performing your operation.

At the same time, though, an intent-heavy model of magick has its own problems. The biggest of these is "New Thought" which is what "The Secret" and "The Law of Attraction" are based on. New Thought proposed that physical reality is actually composed of thought, and therefore can be manipulated as easily as you can manipulate your imagination. One would think that a cursory evaluation of this idea would uncover its flaws, but there are magicians (and a lot more New Agers) out there who believe it in.

It should be obvious to any practicing magician that thought can influence physical reality to a degree but that it falls far short of deterministic control of events. The biggest problem with New Thought is that it takes the observation that thoughts have some influence over physical reality and interpret it to mean that thoughts have total control of physical reality. So if you got mugged walking down the street, the only possible explanation is that you were thinking "I should get mugged" thoughts - which is a bunch of victim-blaming nonsense.

The problem with an intent-based model is that it can lead you into the same trap. I cast a spell and got some effect, but not quite what I wanted. The only reason it could have possibly failed is that I "didn't want it bad enough" or some nonsense, regardless of all the other factors that can influence the success or failire of a magical operation. The truth is that even if you cast your spell perfectly with totally pure intent, the physical world pushes back.

The probability shifts magick can produce are small in comparison to practically anything in regular Newtonian physics. That's one of the two main reasons that it's hard to demonstrate magick according to the formal scientific method, the other being that consciousness - which we currently have no way to measure - is one of the key components. That's an important observation, though, which doesn't support the idea that magick is procedure-only. If consciousness wasn't a variable, we could certainly probability shifts even at the level magick can produce.

Some practitioners are convinced that all magical power comes from spirits, which maybe makes sense until you consider that a lot of chaos magicians get good results with sigils and the like, that natural psychic abilities seem to exist, and that some people just can't do effective magick no matter how hard they work at it. A better model seems to be that magical power comes from certain configurations of consciousness which include the minds of both humans and spirits.

I'm an object-oriented software developer by profession, so that's my frame of reference for the following metaphor. I think it's a pretty good one, though. In object-oriented programming you deal with classes and objects. An object is an instance of a class. So let's say you have a class called "InsuranceRecord" that includes defined fields of information about an insurance policy. In the code, you do something like this to make use of the class in the context of the policyholder:

InsuranceRecord MyInsuranceRecord = new InsuranceRecord(Person);

Then you can set the fields and so forth that your program needs in MyInsuranceRecord, not InsuranceRecord. You don't work with the class, you work with the object that is an instance of the class.

I'm convinced that something similar happens when you work with spirits. Aleister Crowley was a little flummoxed by this when he published his version of The Goetia and wrote in his introduction that the spirits must be parts of the human brain because each magician could conjure their own version of each spirit. He later went back and forth on that and these days the only people who really believe it are people who believe that all spirits are basically psychological.

But I'm confident that if object-oriented programming had existed in Crowley's time, he would have seen this immediately. Let's say I'm conjuring Michael. There's a "class" out there in the spirit world called Michael, which is the objective macrocosmic version of the spirit. When you do the conjuration, you conjure your own "instance" of Michael. So you get something like this:

Michael MyMichael = new Michael(Me);

Your magical operation is done with MyMichael, not "the" Michael. The key point here is that the magick your perform partakes of both your own magical power (S1) and the "class" Michael's power (S2). The resulting probability shift should be derived from S1 + S2. Also, if S1 is too low you won't get any result because you need a small amount of magical skill/ability/power to create the instance of Michael in the first place. This S3 = (S1 + S2) value is dependent in part on your intent - that is, your state of consciousness - and in part on how you perform your ritual.

And that's a good segue into procedure. Magick is a technology, and that means there are methods that work better and methods that don't work as well. So procedure is also important. You can do certain kinds of small effects with just a strong intent and minimal procedure, which I think it where the idea that "it's all intent" comes from. However, what I observe is that what I can do on my own without much procedure is never as powerful or effective as when I am working with procedures that involve conjuring an external spirit.

To my way of thinking, that fails to support the "intent-only" idea but also the idea that spirits are just psychological projections. It doesn't fully disprove them necessarily, but it implies that something more is going on than the convenient anthropomorphizing of psychological processes. Thanks to neuroscience we now know that the "unconscious mind" isn't a real thing, in that unconscious brain processing doesn't organize itself into anything resembling a mind. We know that the Freudian "iceberg model," in which huge portions of your mind are always running on an unconscious level, is also wrong.

So there would seem to be nowhere for all these spirits to "hide" when you're not working with them. Again, this doesn't prove the contention - a psychological + psychic power model of magick is hard to tease out from a personal power + spirit power model. But it does suggest, at least to me, that the latter is more parsimonious and logical. Otherwise I would have to propose that the psychic faculty runs in some part of your brain that is not normally experienced as part of your consciousness and which requires the abstraction of "a spirit" to access it.

Incidentally, the significance of procedure undermines another argument that I have seen on the Internet - that "science" has nothing to do with magick. Maybe if by "science" you mean James Randi and his buddies I would agree, but the scientific method is not a religious belief. So far it is the best means we have of understanding how the world works and removing individual bias to the greatest degree possible. It is not perfect, of course, but nothing is.

If you find, over and over again, that a particular set of ceremonial forms works statistically better, you should go ahead and use it. That's what I've done with the operant field, the order of elemental operations in my initiatory articles, and so forth and I stand by it. It makes no difference to me that that my methods don't precisely conform to what is taught "in the tradition." I tested the different versions out and I have empirical data.

The problem with a traditionalist approach is that it denies the concept that magick should be a progressive science. Until the twentieth century magical technology was largely secret, and kept behind the closed doors of orders and secret societies. The refusal of magicians to share their empirical data is one of the reasons that the study of the so-called paranormal is so far behind the physical sciences, which have enjoyed rigorous peer review for centuries now.

What I'm going to ask about this discussion is what point it really serves. You need an intent to know what to do with magick in the first place, and to focus your operation. You need a procedure to get the best results because that's the whole point of technique and everything that goes with it. On top of that, you need an approach that is as scientific as you can make it under the limitations imposed by magick so you can debug both your intention and your procedures.

It seems like deciding to go with either "side" here is a problem. If you decide that it's all procedure, you neglect the development of your will. If you decide it's all intention, you neglect to develop procedure. Either way you're worse off. So maybe what folks should do is quit arguing over what is "most important" and get on with doing the work - because, really, "most important" doesn't matter when you have a discipline that needs both. And I think there's plenty of data out there that suggests you can't easily dispense with one or the other and still cast effective spells.

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Unknown said...

This is my favorite post of yours in ages. Really nicely done, my friend.

Scott Stenwick said...

You are very welcome!

Sampsa said...

Great reading, thank you. Can you elaborate or share a link or two on this:
"Thanks to neuroscience we now know that the "unconscious mind" isn't a real thing, in that unconscious brain processing doesn't organize itself into anything resembling a mind. We know that the Freudian "iceberg model," in which huge portions of your mind are always running on an unconscious level, is also wrong."

Scott Stenwick said...

That is an interpolation from several different observations, but here is the gist. We know that memory is not indelible and it also is not "all in there." Memories actually fade out if you don't access them - they aren't "repressed" in some way that makes them entirely present but still unavailable to the conscious mind.

Every time you remember something, your brain rebuilds it using a combination of base assumptions and a few key data points. The more often you remember something, the more likely it is to be accurate. But there is an enormous amount of data now showing how easy it is to induce false details and entire false memories.

The "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990s depended almost entirely on the idea that memories could be "recovered," but subsequent medical testing identified all sorts of things that alleged survivors remembered, but which were entirely impossible. The FBI debunked the whole thing in 1991 and I think you can still find the report online.

More recently evidence has come to light that Freud falsified many of his clinical case studies so that they would fit his theories. That adds a whole other dimension to what may or may not have been going on while he was developing psychoanalysis.

The Freudian model absolutely cannot survive without persistent memory and the repression effect. If memory is not persistent, it means that you don't need a sort of "psychic censor" to explain why we all don't have photographic memories. Without the psychic censor, the tension that is supposed to arise from repression and create neuroses doesn't exist. And so on. The whole thing falls like a house of cards.

Other key pieces of evidence - in controlled scientific studies, psychoanalysis performs no better than "sham therapy" which involves meeting with subjects and talking about nothing in particular. Also, what we know about PTSD completely contradicts the Freudian model. Psychoanalysis would propose that PTSD sufferers should be unable to recall traumatic memories because of the psychic censor, but in fact the usual problem is the PTSD sufferers can't stop remembering the trauma they experienced.

Scott Stenwick said...


To clarify a bit, your brain does do a lot of unconscious processing. But none of is really self-aware or fully coherent in the same way that our conscious minds are. Nearly all autonomous processing is unconscious, with the partial exception of breathing (which can be both consciously manipulated and autonomous). Likewise, the conditioning system is unconscious until a conditioning loop activates. But again, not a mind.

If you study Behaviorism you can quickly find all the rules that the conditioning system uses to create links. All it does is signal you to repeat behaviors for which you have been rewarded in the past whenever a situation comes up that's similar enough to one you previously experienced. That's it. Even if your condition system is pushing you to do ineffective things, it doesn't "want you to fail." It doesn't "want" anything - it's basically little more than a simple computer that slavishly runs programs.

The conditioning system can push you to do ineffective things precisely because it has no real awareness or capacity for reflection. Situations change, but conditioning loops keep running. Compare this to the idea in Buddhism about how attachment causes suffering because of impermanence. I'm convinced that describes the same issue.

Another useful piece of data. In the same set of experiments that found psychoanalysis no more effective than sham therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy DID show improvement over the sham condition. That probably is because unlike psychoanalysis, it directly addresses conditioning loops from the standpoint of classical and operant conditioning.

Neuroscience has exploded over the last twenty years. I'm pretty sure you can Google just about anything in this comment and find some supporting data. What I find especially weird about psychoanalysis is that it so thoroughly has permeated our culture even though it has no scientific basis whatsoever and is probably based on outright fraud.

Freud should still be given credit for the idea that patients could get better if you talked with them instead of, say, chaining them to walls and spraying them down with fire hoses. But really, that's a pretty low bar. Maybe he thought that exaggerating his method's effectiveness would help end some of those abuses or something like that - which I have to say, I wouldn't entirely fault under the circumstances.

But we are long past the time when psychoanalysis should be considered serious mental health treatment or used as any sort of cognitive model. There are still people who want to treat it as some sort of model for magick, which is hopelessly misguided. You might as well base your magick on phrenology.

RobL said...

Can you answer me a question?
Scott, I have several planetary petitions coming from successful rituals, but some of them already have a lot of time.
Is there a generic ritual that I can lightly recharge on all of these petitions at the same time?

Scott Stenwick said...

Offerings are always helpful, if you are working with planetary spirits. Alcohol of whatever sort generally makes a good offering. You can pour out a cup of whatever and dedicate it out loud to the spirit that is doing the work.

You can also do some work with the ceremonial forms. LIRP/LIRH (the "invoking field") is good for boosting ongoing operations. You could do that for, say, a week, following it up with the Greater Invoking Ritual of the Hexagram for the planet attributed to the day. Bonus points if you can do it in the hour as well, though sometimes that isn't practical.

You can also do both - precede your offering for the day with those forms. You should see at least a bit of a power boost for your ongoing operations, likely more than a bit.