Monday, September 30, 2013

Amplutihedrons and Probability Structures

Practical magick is all about the manipulation of probabilities. In order to accomplish any particular goal, the most effective path is to (A) take all possible mundane steps towards your objective and (B) use magick to further increase your likelihood of success beyond what can be done by mundane steps alone. While it may sound trite and New-Agey to talk about this latter effect being produced by the interaction of consciousness and the quantum realm, the idea gets touted so often because if magical operations can influence probability at all, that's pretty much the only way they could possibly work.

Parapsychologists of the last century managed to exclude every known form of energy as responsible for psychic effects. There is some ongoing research in China that suggests the healing effects of Qigong might be related to infrasonic waves, but otherwise the entire electomagnetic spectrum has been ruled out by methods such as testing psychics in Faraday cages and other similar methods. Furthermore, Princeton's PEAR group found that subjects could exert a tiny but measurable and statistically significant influence on quantum diodes, random number generators that were themselves isolated from all forms of electromagnetic radiation.

The reason everyone is sick to death of quantum physics being used as an explanation for paranormal phenomena is one of simple overreach. The fact that quantum effects are probabilistic in no way proves the existence of magick, psychism, or any other such concept. In fact, there are plenty of ways in which a non-paranormal universe could incorporate quantum uncertainty in a completely reasonable manner, and most quantum physicists interpret the data along such lines. The PEAR studies found that the influence of consciousness on individual diodes was practically negligible (.01% to .05%, depending upon the subject).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Jack Parsons Mystery

Most modern occultists know the story of Jack Parsons, rocket propulsion pioneer and leader of Agape Lodge of OTO from 1942 until his death ten years later. Parsons died in 1952 following a mercury fulminate explosion at his garage laboratory. Rumors that this explosion was a murder or suicide have been advanced over the years, but the official explanation has always been that he just accidentally dropped a vial of the highly explosive compound while working on a contract for a special-effects company.

In recent years, mercury fulminate has made an appearance on the critically acclaimed television series Breaking Bad. On the show, chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White blows up the office of a drug dealer named Tuco by throwing 50 grams of the material to the floor. An episode of the Discovery Channel television series Mythbusters set out to test whether this was possible, and the results were surprising to me and probably anyone else familiar with Parsons' story.

The busters then went big by building a replica of Tuco's office, complete with windows, desk and dummies. To prevent anyone from getting blown up in the name of mythbusting, star Grant Imahara created a robot with a throwing arm to play Walt, and programmed it to toss 50 grams of mercury fulminate (the same amount used by Walt) at a speed of 60 MPH so it would hit the floor at about the same speed the average human can throw. But there was no explosion.

Imahara then tweaked his robot to throw with "superhuman speed," and still, nothing. The gang then seriously jacked up the power and used 250 grams of mercury fulminate, and finally, the whole room came down. Unfortunately, all the mannequins perished in the explosion, leaving robot Walt, plastic Tuco and the minions dead.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BRAIN Initiative Takes Shape

As I covered back in February, a new brain mapping initiative modeled on the Human Genome Project is in the works. The project's totally appropriate acronym, BRAIN, stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.” Last week a report compiled by an advisory group was presented to the National Institutes of Health outlining recommendations for the project's overall approach.

The program should begin by generating a census of cell types and create structural maps of the brain, said committee co-chairs Cornelia Bargmann, Ph.D., a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, and William Newsome, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford University, in a teleconference. “We’re seeking an understanding of the dynamics of the brain: where signals come from and how they are related to internal states,” said Newsome.

Work should begin with animal models, but human research data could come from patients undergoing diagnostic brain imaging or monitoring or those receiving deep brain stimulation or other technological interventions, the group suggested. Key to the suggested approach will be development of new or improved technologies to record brain activity and to manipulate brain circuits.

As I've mentioned before, I don't see consciousness as some sort of epiphenomenon of brain activity as many neuroscientists do, but I'm in agreement with the advisory group that this is exactly the right approach. While I'm convinced that there's more to consciousness than internal brain states, I believe that there is a substantial overlap in activity between mind and brain. Since our current tools measure the brain rather than the mind, understanding the physiology is where we have to begin this research.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Church for Atheists

One of the most common complaints I see from atheists online is that religious people often fail to understand that a lack of belief is not a religion. As I covered awhile back, nonbelievers exhibit the same range of personality traits found among the religious, and as such cannot be considered to constitute a monolithic group. Still, a new organization called "The Sunday Assembly" is now essentially billing itself as a "church" for atheists. The group started in London back in January and has been attracting members ever since.

Yesterday, The Sunday Assembly—the London-based “Atheist Church” that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over—announced a new “global missionary tour.” In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.

The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.

All churches boast a high growth rate when they're just starting out, so it remains to be seen if the group can keep up its momentum. To me, frankly, it seems a little silly - not going to church is one of the advantages of not being Christian. Furthermore, for people who actually want a church experience without any theistic dogma, Unitarian Universalism has been providing that for a long time. So it's hard to see where this new group expects to fit. What seems clear, though, is that they've gone a long way towards muddling the distinction between religion and nonbelief. It will be up to the larger atheist community to decide whether this is a good thing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Drunken Exorcism?

I never thought I would come across an exorcism story that would make me wish the Teen Exorcist Squad was performing it instead of the actual would-be exorcist, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. A Florida man was recently arrested for performing a two-day exorcism on his girlfriend while so drunk he later claimed not to remember any of it.

The alleged exorcism began on Monday when Benes held down his girlfriend and tried “to get the devil out of her.” He then took the batteries out of her phone to keep her from calling for help. After, he took her car keys and “dismantled” the garage to prevent it from opening. Then, somehow, the victim fell asleep.

When she woke the next morning, the alleged exorcism began again and when the authorities arrived (the woman somehow managed to call 911), they found the bruised and scratched woman sitting outside the home crying. Benes was on the couch and “too drunk to remember what happened.” He then told the officers his girlfriend started the fight because “she is crazy.”

Kudos to police for getting this drunken exorcist off the street. He sounds like a deeply stupid and abusive fellow, not to mention a problem alcoholic with the blackouts and all. One wonders what on earth prompted him to think he would be able to perform an effective exorcism in the first place.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

More Reasonableness from Pope Francis

In a perfect world the fact that the leader of one of the world' largest religious denominations said something reasonable wouldn't be news, and in fact in his first year Pope Francis has excelled at making such statements. His latest is a pivot on emphasis that I find long overdue in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church's policies on sexuality are well-known, so its seemingly monomaniacal obsession with them for so many years always confused me. Jesus said almost nothing about sexuality in the Gospels and a whole lot about compassion and charity for the poor, but listening to the statements of previous Popes it would be easy to assume that those teachings were the other way around. Francis is different, sounding more like a genuinely spiritual man than a mere moral scold.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he told La Civiltà Cattolica. “This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Following up on comments he made in July, Francis said LGBT individuals had told him they felt “socially wounded” by the Church’s oftentimes vitriolic denunciations of homosexuality. He said this was something the Church should not be doing.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told La Civiltà Cattolica. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.” Francis’ words do not deviate from official Catholic teachings, but his tone towards LGBT individuals is notably different than his predecessors. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, said same-sex marriage threatened the future of humanity itself.

As a Thelemite I'm not going to find myself in agreement with Roman Catholicism any time soon, but I appreciate the Pope's recognition that other issues are far more central to the mission and teachings of Christianity than the condemnation of private sexual behavior between consenting adults. Now if only certain Evangelical Protestants could figure out the same thing.

UPDATE: Slate has an article up today analyzing additional statements from Francis in which we find even more reasonableness. As has been noted by a number of commenters, the policies of the Church remain as backward and oppressive as always, but the new Pope sure puts a good spin on the religion. We'll have to wait and see the extent to which he's willing to take up the mantle of reform and implement real doctrinal changes to match his reasonable rhetoric.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Esoteric Book Conference 2013

Late yesterday evening I got back from the 2013 Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle. This was my first time attending the event and I enjoyed it a lot. Last spring I submitted my "Ministering Angels" presentation to the conference, but it was not accepted. There are limited slots for presentations because the conference is two days with only a single programming track, and they also give precedence to authors holding book releases at the conference. On the other hand, the advantage there is that unlike the OTO conventions I also have attended I was never stuck choosing between two presentations that I wanted to see - which was nice.

The presentations were in general quite well done. The most relevant one to what I've currently been working on in my own practice was on consciousness and astrological timing, which covered in detail the differences between natural and conventional time in the context of vedic astrology. From that talk alone I picked up a method for working with planetary hours that I had never seen before. Also, my OTO brother David Shoemaker launched his new book Living Thelema with a concise presentation on the magical system of A.'.A.'. and Thelema in general. The entire presentation schedule can be found here.

While I could tell that one or two of the presenters had limited public speaking experience, the material of the talks was nonetheless excellent. I found it kind of amusing that the most polished presentation turned out to be the one I personally found the silliest, on Michael Bertiaux's "Zothyrian" system. Personally I've never gotten the appeal of Bertiaux's work - it strikes me as tailored to twenty-somethings who think running around in gothy clothes makes them sorcerers and that anything scary and hard to understand is by definition deep rather than incoherent. Still, I will say that it was the best explanation I've heard of that particular system.

At any rate, in addition to the presentations the conference had plenty of breaks for perusing the assorted vendors, mostly book dealers and smaller "talismanic" publishers - though Inner Traditions, a much larger outfit, also had a big display. Red Wheel Weiser was on the list of vendors but as far as I can tell didn't show, and Llewellyn was completely absent. Unfortunately for me so was Pendraig, but I'm hoping that I might be able to convince them to attend next year. The selection of books was quite good, and I came across a number of very nice limited edition books that I had never heard of previously.

The conference also included an art fair with a variety of original pieces, many with alchemical themes. Esoteric art occupies kind of an odd space in the mainstream art world, so it was nice to see the conference provide a dedicated venue for it with a highly engaged pre-selected audience. I don't know how many pieces wound up selling, but I know that if I were an esoteric artist a venue like the conference would be just the place to display my work. In addition to the original pieces beautiful prints of other works with similar themes were also available.

I decided to attend in the first place to promote my upcoming Mastering the Great Table, and found quite a bit of interest in Enochian magick among the attendees. Saturday evening the conference held a performance at which I hoped I would be able to do a lot of networking, but the way that the venue was set up made doing so impractical. While I found this disappointing, fortunately the closing reception Sunday evening totally made up for it and I was able to make some good connections.

All in all I had a great experience attending, and hope to be able to make it back there next year. If you have an interest in esoteric books as a collector, magical practitioner, or both I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Know Your Trade

Half the folks on the blogosphere have been all over this one already, but in the interest of completeness I'm going to chime in on the latest exploits of the Teen Exorcist Squad, who are now heading to the UK for some serious demon-bashing across the pond. On the heels of their recent documentary, the squad is now filming a reality television series covering their efforts to drive Satan and his supposed minions from the world. According to the exorcists, Britain is apparently rife with demonic activity because of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

"Every single country has a specific kind of demon," says Tess, 18, who loves music and reading. They believe that the UK in particular is a hotbed for "witchcraft", because of the popularity of J K Rowling's Harry Potter books.

"The spells and things that you're reading in the Harry Potter books, those aren't just something that are made up, those are actual spells. Those are things that came from witchcraft books," says Tess.

There's a whole lot to mock in the article, but for once I'm going to play this one completely straight and ask a simple competency question. If your exorcists don't know the difference between fake spells and real ones, what makes you think they know anything about real demon possession, or for that matter how to properly perform an exorcism? If I were interviewing a computer programmer who claimed to have developed software for WOPR (the fictional military computer system from the film Wargames) or Gibson mainframes (from the film Hackers), I would know they were lying their asses off and would never hire them in a million years.

Apparently nobody subjects exorcists to this same level of scrutiny, though they probably should before spending any money on their services.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mythic Versus Historical Jesus

Every so often the "Mythic Jesus" hypothesis is advanced, usually by members of the esoteric community. The hypothesis goes like this - no such person as Jesus ever really existed in history, and instead the purported founder of Christianity was a mythical creation fabricated by later proponents of the religion. It's easy to see the appeal of this idea to non-Christians who have been told over and over again that Jesus is real and their gods are fake; it turns the tables quite nicely on univalent idiots. However, very few scholars accept it, as laid out in this article from Quora.

Scholars who specialise in the origins of Christianity agree on very little, but they do generally agree that it is most likely that a historical preacher, on whom the Christian figure "Jesus Christ" is based, did exist. The numbers of professional scholars, out of the many thousands in this and related fields, who don't accept this consensus, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Many may be more cautious about using the term "historical fact" about this idea, since as with many things in ancient history it is not quite as certain as that. But it is generally regarded as the best and most parsimonious explanation of the evidence and therefore the most likely conclusion that can be drawn.

The opposite idea - that there was no historical Jesus at all and that "Jesus Christ" developed out of some purely mythic ideas about a non-historical, non-existent figure - has had a chequered history over the last 200 years, but has usually been a marginal idea at best. Its heyday was in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, when it seemed to fit with some early anthropological ideas about religions evolving along parallel patterns and being based on shared archetypes, as characterised by Sir James Frazer's influential comparative religion study The Golden Bough (1890). But it fell out of favour as the Twentieth Century progressed and was barely held by any scholars at all by the 1960s.

The whole article is quite detailed and very much worth reading. One of the factors that complicates the issue is that there are significant differences between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of Paul, Christianity's main promoter who never met Jesus in person. Even in the Gospels the nature of Jesus changes substantially, from the itinerant preacher and healer of Mark (~60 CE) to John's logos of the entire universe (~130 CE). Furthermore, during that same period Christianity was borrowing ideas from other popular religions of the time such as Mithraism and transforming itself from a radical Jewish sect to a potential world religion in its own right.

Regardless, as the article explains none of these points demonstrate an absence of Jesus from history. They do imply, though, that if he were to return and examine the state of modern Christianity he would be unlikely to recognize many elements of the edifice that has been erected in his name.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Careful Who You Rent To

These days many Masonic lodges are in financial trouble. The golden age of secret societies was over a hundred years ago now, and while back then most men belonged to some sort of fraternity those times are long past. Nowadays it's not uncommon for lodges to rent their buildings to non-members for various events, but as this Michigan lodge found out you need to be careful who you rent to. Because this is not the sort of publicity any lodge wants to see.

'Charlie' a Freemason spokesman, said the man renting the lodge told the Freemasons he would be hosting a dance party. The Freemasons said they checked on the party about 1am on Sunday and found nothing suspicious. However, when officers arrived a little more than an hour later, they found debauchery, police sources told WWMT.

City officials say they are considering fines and charges, both against the party promoters and the Freemasons who own the building. The report from WWMT does not specify whether drugs were found or seized. A summary of a police report printed in the Battle Creek Enquirer newspaper mentions only the naked women dancing on stage. Police said they told the women to dress and to leave the premises.

Now I suppose there are those who will say that this is exactly the sort of recruiting lodges should be doing if they want younger members. I expect that others will see this as proof that the Masons are part of the evil Illuminati who are so secret that they get mentioned in every other music video. But the reality is that this lodge simply failed at due diligence in terms of screening its renters.