Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Why We Need Skeptics

A lot of people in the magical community have a particularly low opinion of skeptics like James Randi and the folks who run The Skeptical Inquirer magazine. The feeling is mutual - skeptics have a pretty low opinion of people who work with any sort of magical or spiritual practice. Apparently anyone who believes in the effectiveness of ritual magick either (1) doesn't understand statistics or (2) believes in his or her paranormal abilities because of selective memory.

Robert Anton Wilson had some choice words for the skeptic movement in The New Inquisition, and I think that much of his assessment is accurate. A truly skeptical individual is open-minded rather than reactionary, and the idea that "fundamentalist materialism" is the end-all, be-all of human knowledge is itself a belief rather than a self-evident truth. Nonetheless, despite all of the skeptic movement's flaws, we need them.

From News of the Weird:

Of the 25,000 children homeless in the streets of Kinshasa, Kenya, more than half are believed to be there because their parents have disowned them as suspected "witches," according to an August Los Angeles Times dispatch. Said one 10-year-old: "They say I ate my father. But I didn't." [New York Times, 8-12-06] [Los Angeles Times, 8-29-06]

I've argued with a number of people over the years about whether or not it would be a good thing for mainstream science to recognize the effectiveness of magick. I know that my spells work - I have a degree in experimental psychology and have done plenty of statistical work assessing the effectiveness of my rituals. However, I think magicians are much better off if we are dismissed as harmless cranks as opposed to what I'm pretty sure that we are - people capable of shaping reality, at least to a degree.

In societies that accept the reality of magick there is a great deal of fear and distrust of anyone who might be involved in anything occult. Really, this is for the most part rampant paranoia. A person may be born with high magical aptitude, but the idea that a child could be a powerful and dangerous magician is laughable. It isn't that easy to influence others with spells, and most of us need years of practice and diligent training in order to make it work. I've been practicing in one form or another since I was 12 or 13 years old and it took me something like fifteen years before I could influence people and events reliably. Aptitude is only as good as the training that develops it, and that training takes a lot of time.

I've considered taking the "Randi Million Dollar Psychic Challenge" from time to time over the years, and I've even come up with a couple of experimental protocols that the Randi Foundation would probably accept. I might even be able to pass them, but I'm not really sure that doing so would be such a good idea. What would the effects be if I were to win Randi's million dollars and set in motion a series of events that would lead to a new round of witchcraft trials? Would the government decide that they needed to license magical practitioners, so that I wouldn't be able to engage in my spiritual path without their approval and oversight? I'd rather keep the mobs of peasants storming my "castle" in the old horror movies, thank you very much.

Honestly, I worry about people who seem obsessed with proving to the scientific community that magick is effective - what do they really hope to gain? In my experience too many of them are simply insecure about their practices and want some sort of external validation for what they feel like they should be doing. Honestly, in my opnion people who are that filled with doubt shouldn't practice magick - it's unlikely to do them any good.

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