Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Energy" as Magical Terminology

There are a lot of folks on the Internet who have various issues with the use of "energy" as a term to describe the degree to which magical rituals influence the exterior world. Believe it or not, even some "energy model" practitioners realize that this particular usage is problematic - it's just that so far, I haven't seen anyone come up with another term that's much better.

Magick could really benefit from some sort of standardized terminology, and I have no problem ditching "energy" as soon as something better comes along. What would be best would be a term that has no equivalent in physics, since one of the main problems with the use of "energy" is that it already has a specific scientific definition. "Psychic energy" or "magical energy" is something completely different from the energy of a particle, heat source, or object in motion. The trouble is that most of the words that people try to use instead also have scientific definitions. "Force" doesn't work because that's Mass times Acceleration. "Power" doesn't work because that's Work divided by Time. And the list goes on.

As a prime example of semantic confusion resulting from the use of "energy," witness the confusion produced by my article on the Arizona sweat lodge deaths. When I wrote the line "energy is more tangible than thought" I was talking about the inherent difficulties involved in thinking away an overabundance of infrared-spectrum photons, but sure enough a couple of readers read "energy" in the "psychic energy" sense, and chastized me for making a statement about the tangibility of such phenomena. I'm still not sure if that was my fault for being unclear or the fault of too many Internet commentators throwing "energy" around to describe almost anything paranormal.

Some people use terms like qi or mana to denote what magicians are trying to describe, but I personally would rather not bring in terms from other languages if I can help it because those terms have their own cultural contexts and may just introduce more confusion. Similarly, I would rather not be stuck making up completely new terms because that risks the creation of an artificial jargon-based language that nobody outside the community of magical practitioners will understand. So in my opinion we seem to be left with "energy," inaccurate though it may be.

If English had a word that described "degree of probability shift" that's what I would go with. I try to talk about probability shifts when I can rather than power or force or energy simply because that's the most accurate description of what magical rituals do - they alter the likelihood of specific outcomes in conformity with the will of the magician. Maybe we could work on adapting a term like "shift" - it refers to change in general and has no formal physics definition. However, it doesn't really work as an adjective. Would you replace "powerful" or "energetic" with "shifty?" Again, more connotative confusion.

So if anybody has a better set of terminology suggestions I'm willing to hear them. Maybe if we work together on this we can come up with a standard set of terms that will allow us to discuss different models of magick on a level playing field without resorting to arguing over definitions.

UPDATE: Rufus Opus weighs in on why he finds "energy" such a bothersome term for describing magical phenomena. He brings up one point that I hadn't considered, which is that many people interpret "energy" as implying that there's something that you "use up" when you work magick. I don't read the term that way, but I can see how somebody could.

Patrick Dunn, author of Postmodern Magic, also has an article up on the topic. He's been active in the comments here as well, and proposes "information" as a replacement for the colloquial usage of "energy" as he describes in his book. I can see some cases in which that could work, but as Jason Miller points out in the comments it's awkward for discussing aspects of "energy work" practices like Qigong.

UPDATE #2: After some discussion in the comments, it seems to me that even within the metaphysical realm "energy" is being used to describe two completely different things. That being the case, it's no wonder that some people use the term so sloppily.

The first of these is whatever is being increased by "energy work" - qi or prana or whatever you want to call it. Those words translate literally as "breath" and the "energy" that they describe is indeed worked with using various breathing exercises, although the two words have additional connotations in Chinese and Sanskrit that are not present in English. This usage of "energy" does correspond to energy in physics to a degree, in that increased oxygen in the lungs and increased firing in the central nervous system do relate directly to energetic chemical processes like the ATP cycle and so forth.

The second is the practical effectiveness of a magical ritual measured as a probability shift. This one is much more of a stretch, in that it's not clear that such shifts are related in any way to energy as it is understood in physics. Whether you model it as will acting upon the universe to produce an outcome or as consciousness selecting a particular potential reality something is going on, but it's something that's radically different from how energy works in thermodynamics.

Usually when I'm talking with someone who's being careful to make a distiction between the two what I hear is "energy" used for the first case and "power" used for the second. As in "we raised a lot of energy (usage 1) and the resulting ritual turned out to be really powerful (usage 2)." Thinking that usage over I'm warming up to "power" a bit more even though it is again pulling physics terminology into a metaphysical context.

I'll wrap this up by noting that with terms of this sort the key is to understand them in context without concretizing them. In other words, if you want to call qi energy, make sure that you don't make the mistake of assuming that once you do so you can safely assume that qi shares all kinds of properties with the energy of thermodynamics. Those are the kinds of assumptions that lead to serious errors in understanding how magick works in the real world.

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Patrick said...

Well, I'm one of those people, ain't I, that has a bone to pick with "energy."

I propose "information," and explain why at length in my two books.

Scott Stenwick said...

You're one of them, yes. But certainly not the only one. There are many.

Which two books are those? I'm not familiar with your work and wasn't aware that you're an author. I'd be interested in checking out your explanation. Do you believe, then, that the amount or quality of information that a ritual can bring to bear on a situation is directly related to the external probability shift produced by the ritual?

I tend to think of information and shift or "energy" or whatever as the two components of a vector quantity, with the information describing the direction and the shift describing the intensity. I assume from your comments that you see it differently, and would be interested in hearing more.

Jason Miller, said...

I am also not fond of the term energy, but I havent found anuything better that does not rely upon foerign languages.

Probability shift doesnt really work, because the use of energy is one way to accomplish a probability shift - not the only way.

Think about making statements regarding the use of Prana or Chi in teh body saying things like "Concentrate the probability shift to the central channel and gather below the navel"

It doesnt work.

Neither does Information.

Scott Stenwick said...

Probability shift doesnt really work, because the use of energy is one way to accomplish a probability shift - not the only way.

Are you thinking "spirit model" versus "energy model" here? As far as that distinction goes, if I'm thinking of probability shift as "energy" then I guess I would say that magicians have "energy" and so do spirits. But it's awfully clunky.

"Concentrate the probability shift to the central channel and gather below the navel"

This is one more reason that I think we could use a better term, maybe keep "energy" as the direct translation of qi or prana and come up with something else to describe the degree of shift. For whatever reason, qi really does seem to work better if you conceptualize it as some sort of energetic substance regardless of what its true nature might be.

And you're right to point out that there's a difference between probability shift and the "energy" metaphor used in the various forms of "energy work." It's truly a term that suffers from overloaded definitions.

Jason Miller, said...

I only use magical energy to describe qi, prana, mana, roh, spiritus, etc.

The whole energy vs spirit model debate is so incredibly stupid that I dont even comment anymore. Its like arguing whether your car uses a battery or gasoline.

Scott Stenwick said...

Its like arguing whether your car uses a battery or gasoline.

That's a really good way of putting it. You should save that comment for your next book.

Patrick said...

One definition of information is, in fact, as a function of probability. i = 1/p, to be specific. Jason, I love your book Strategic Sorcery, and I appreciate your grasp of magic (and, in terms of practical magic, it probably supersedes mine), but energy has bupkis to do with probability.

Probability *is* a condition of information, specifically, what we call in day-to-day life, ignorance. Probability is merely information we do not yet have. You don't know what the next word in the sentence will fishsticks (you thought it was "be" didn't you), and so you make probabilistic guesses. The word "be" in that sentence contains very little information because its probability is very high; the word "fishsticks" contained a lot of information. (It contains very little meaning, but that's another matter) In magic, when we say "I want a new car!" that's a fairly quotidian request, a fairly possible thing, and as it has a high probability, it requires relatively little information (solve for p, to see why). If I want to be president, that won't happen, because it's so unlikely it requires much more information. It's easier to convey very little information than a lot of information, because of channel noise. And so on.

My books, btw, are Postmodern Magic and Magic Power Language Symbol, both available from Llewellyn and at fine booksellers everywhere. Ask for them at your local bookstore, and you'll be doing me and them a solid.

Patrick said...

I'll also point out, btw, that the words qi, prana, spiritus, and ruach all translate to "breath" in English, not to "energy." As in, the same breath that gives shape, for most human languages, to information in the form of language.

Scott Stenwick said...

My books, btw, are Postmodern Magic and Magic Power Language Symbol,

Oh, okay. I take it back - I have heard of your books. Your blogger profile didn't link to the Postmodern Magic blog so I assumed that you were a different Patrick.

I do see where you're coming from and probably have read some of the same sources that you have, such as David Bohm and Ervin Laszlo who discuss the idea of information as that which "informs" a quantum field how to shift. So from that perspective I can see how you could use information as a term that refers to both the direction and magnitude of a shift. But I'm still left wondering if that's really more useful than a set of terms that can address those two characteristics separately. Problems with either can impede practical operations, but the remedies for those problems can be quite different depending upon which characteristic is deficient.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure if you've looked at this or no, but Crowley defines "Energy" fairly specifically in "Little Essays" (the "Energy" chpt), which may or may not be in line with what you have in mind.

Unknown said...

"Qabalistic Dogma" may also speak to Crowley's idea of "Energy" as well.

Scott Stenwick said...

Thanks for the references - I'll have to check those out and see if I can glean any additional insights from them.

Patrick said...

I'm not interested at all in quantum mechanics. I sincerely doubt it has anything whatsoever to do with magic -- with matter, sure, but not with magic.

Scott Stenwick said...

Patrick, as far as quantum mechanics goes, I have a hard time coming up with any sort of mechanism that could explain physical probability shifts produced by magical rituals without that mechanism at least touching on some aspects of quantum mechanics. How do you explain those sorts of phenomena using your model?

Patrick said...

I don't really see the need for a physical mechanism. I'm not a materialist and I see consciousness as more fundamental than matter. Doing magic creates (or probably more accurately, selects) a narrative in which our magical desire is fulfilled. We begin to exist in that narrative. Part of all narratives is the consistency of physical laws, so it appears to be "coincidence" every time.

It's worth noting that the words "information" and "probability" mean something very different in quantum physics than they do in ordinary speech. One of the problems with using quantum mechanics as an explanation of magic is that most people using it thus -- indeed, most people period -- don't really understand it in depth.

Scott Stenwick said...

Doing magic creates (or probably more accurately, selects) a narrative in which our magical desire is fulfilled.

Hmm. That would still seem to touch on the "many universes" interpretation of quantum physics. Casey Blood wrote an interesting book called Science, Sense, and Soul that models consciousness from what sounds like a similar perspective. But anyway, rather than continuing to hash this all out in comments I should probably just pick up a copy of Postmodern Magic and review it in detail at some point.

One of the problems with using quantum mechanics as an explanation of magic is that most people using it thus -- indeed, most people period -- don't really understand it in depth.

Well, I do agree with you there. Quantum physics by itself is no explanation at all for paranormal phenomena, even though a lot of folks seem to think otherwise.

ChandraNova said...

To parapharse Wikipedia, the word energy derives from the Greek energeia, which appears for the first time in the work Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle in the 4th century BC.

I therefore propose that we just call dibs on it based on prior usage that arguably more closely meets the current occult use - and tell the scientists struggling to understand the universe using their sledgehammers and other clunky tools, to deal with it...

Scott Stenwick said...

ChandraNova, that's an interesting observation. I wonder if we might be able to pick up energeia from the Greek and apply it as an English term related to occult phenomena.

A lot of English words have Greek etymology so that wouldn't be quite as alien as, say, adapting qi from Chinese, and it's different enough from the physics term that there's a clear distinction. I've also pushed for doing that with Greek words like metanoia in the past.

ChandraNova said...

I'm game, I certainly don't think terms like prana, qi, mana etc have the same broad reach as that does, and also as mentioned are often genuinely technically incorrect.

I often work with people who are not educated practicing occultists, they just want me to sort something for them, and that makes me lean towards a more neutral and easily accessible term in describing my work, at least.

Other people's needs may vary, and I appreciate that.

Patrick said...

Chandra, I have one thing to say about your comment, and that is . . . AWESOME!

:) To be honest, I agree that we need a broad term for that felt sense we have that something is moving, and that "energy" isn't a bad placeholder as long as we recognize it as such. My only objections are: 1. it's not, and we need to make sure that people realize that, literal scientific energy and 2. if we're going to explore how magic works and advance the art, we'll need to explore different models; this one is tapped out, from a hardcore theoretical perspective.

wb said...

Interesting article. I read down to your first update, and noticed you said in reference to one reader of yours, "He brings up one point that I hadn't considered, which is that many people interpret "energy" as implying that there's something that you "use up" when you work magick."

Crowley himself seems to feel this way. I forget the book(s), but in studying his work, he mentions the only goal of the initial aspirant is Knowledge and Conversation with their HGA. He refers to any deviation in this regard to be Black Magick... his response to why (again I'm searching for the reference) was that any use of magick uses up power ... power/energy(whatever we call it) that is required to gain K&C and cross the Abyss. He even gives an example that if one has the ability to use magick ritual to heal someone, it may not be a worthy cause as it could use up this power/energy from completing their (the magickian's) great work.

So to Crowley it must be that he felt there was a limited supply of force/energy/power that the magickian has use of. At least that's my interpretation of his view from his writings.

My involvement with the Golden Dawn however, was different. They seem to have an "unlimited" supply model of energy/power. They see the supreme source as an ulimited Diety/God/Source. Hence GD orders perform regular healing services, use magick for mundane reasons... etc. They may perform a Tarot reading to divine if the use of the ritual should be performed - but the idea of the power (or energy) being limited is not in their world view, from what I witnessed.

While I respect Crowley, I do come into contention with his view of limited energy/power/force for us to work with. I believe it would have to be an unlimited supply.

So going back to your article and the update... There are perhaps some Magicikians who believe that the (for lack of a better term) "Energy" is in deed used up. For such, they might prefer the term Energy as it is in harmony with that concept.