Monday, April 25, 2016

More on Linguistics and Magick

So my comments about linguistics in my article on Qabalah have prompted a larger discussion on Facebook. I suppose it's to be expected; I did slip a hyperbolic statement in there with my comment "linguistics as a discipline is not only overrated by magical practitioners, but furthermore has practically nothing to do with magick as it is commonly practiced."

That statement clearly is not literally true, as I would guess the majority of practitioners probably do make use of at least a few linguistic models and concepts in their practice. I want to be clear that in no way was I telling anyone to stop doing that. My first rule, above all else, is that if it works it works. As it says in The Book of the Law, success is your proof. I do think, though, that if those models and concepts are held up as essential to effective magical practice, it fails to take into account real differences in cognition among the human population.

I suppose, then, that this is the "Linguistics is Overrated" post I mentioned wanting to write for years, or at least part of it. The entire conversation is much longer and more involved than anything I can do justice to in a format that anyone would be willing to read, as like the science of cognition itself, it touches on many different disciplines. But I'll do my best to be concise.

When I was a kid I read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and was absolutely stunned that anyone could believe the idea behind "Newspeak" - that by eliminating words from the language, the Inner Party could control people's thoughts. I just figured it had to be satire, Orwell commenting on how stupid the leaders of the Party really were. Because, obviously, language is how you talk to other people, not how you think. It took me years to realize that there are people in the world who think like that, and after that I no longer knew whether Orwell meant the concept to be satire or if he found it plausible.

I imagine verbal thinkers are the exact same way, wondering how somebody could possibly think without using words or symbols. I've been told by more such people than I care to recount that obviously I must think in language and my direct perception of my thoughts has to be wrong - though how they could possibly know, I have no idea. My guess is that they're operating from the same "generalizing from self" fallacy that I fell into when reading Orwell.

Now I would normally just chalk all this up to individual differences and leave it alone, except that in my opinion generalizing a linguistic model of magick can create more problems than it solves.

Back in college days in the early 1990's, I ran into a number of people in linguistics who were involved in the field of cognitive science. Without exception, these individuals were smug and self-assured that all computer scientists needed to do in order to build a genuine artificial consciousness was to get the internal language right - because obviously thoughts are just made up of words and/or symbols. But this symbolic AI concept has never succeeded, and few serious researchers work with it anymore.

What I took away from those experiences, and following the fields of consciousness research and artificial intelligence over the next several decades, was that (1) verbal thinkers tend to be drawn to linguistics, and (2) the discipline of linguistics is their metaphorical hammer, so every problem looks like a corresponding metaphorical nail. By that I don't mean to imply that studying how people communicate provides us with no insight into how they think, but rather that I believe it provides a lot less than most linguists think it does.

Looping back around to magick, at its most basic any magical operation is a series of states of consciousness activated in a particular order. Even when working with external entities such as spirits, it is necessary to align your consciousness with the "wavelength," so to speak, on which that spirit communicates. The base of all that is pure consciousness, the point of awareness that we perceive in deep meditation. It's not a word, it's a thought - or rather a sort of meta-awareness that transcends the bounds of regular day-to-day cognition.

Now that being said, words and symbols do play a role in magick. The reason that magicians work on memorizing correspondences is so that we can create conditioning loops related to those sets of symbols. Those conditioning loops help us to reach appropriate states of consciousness at each distinct stage of ritual work. But I am absolutely convinced that the symbols themselves have no inherent meaning divorced from the meaning created by the activity of an observing consciousness. Bringing spirits into the picture makes this messier, as spirits can act as observers as well. But I still believe that the general principle holds.

What that means is that it should make no difference what system of symbols you use to organize your mind so long as you actually organize your mind and create conditioning loops that reinforce the states of consciousness necessary for working magick. When communicating with others, magicians and spirits alike, it can make a difference because you need a common language to communicate. But that doesn't mean you necessarily need any sort of language to think. Thoughts may contain words, or reference words, but at their most basic level they are not words.

Operating under these basic assumptions, it's hard for me to see how linguistics can be particularly relevant to magick. If you, say, create a conditioning loop associating the word "red" with fire, does working out the etymology of the word "red" really give you any insight into the physical or spiritual nature of a flame? I contend that it doesn't. You could just as easily associate the word "orange" with fire - which, after all, is the most common color of an actual flame - and get identical results. How, then, is the etymology relevant? The words "orange" and "red" don't have much in common at all from a linguistic standpoint.

Even more dangerous is "sounds like" etymology across multiple languages. Kenneth Grant is huge offender in this area. If you don't believe me, take a look at the first half of Nightside of Eden. While the second half of the book in which he enumerates the attributions of the Qlippoth is good material, the first half is a mess. The reason is simple - there is no evidence whatsoever that particular sounds carry inherent meaning. You can, of course, build systems of correspondences for them. That's what language is, after all.

Again, let me stress that if words are what inspire your work, and act as the best and most effective trigger for the states of consciousness you experience, there's no need for you to stop doing what you're doing. If it works, it works. I just think that you need to be careful about treating linguistic methods as absolute. I've come across a couple of examples where they have led practitioners to incorrect conclusions.

One of those involved myself, Jason Miller, and Patrick Dunn back in 2011 right here on Augoeides. Dunn, in Postmodern Magic, proposed a new model of magical operations based on the principles of communication. The basic idea is a good one. The problem was that because Dunn is a linguist, his idea of "information" comes from semiotics rather than information theory. Applying semiotics to "magick as communication," Dunn concluded that energy work is ineffective in terms of producing magical results.

The thing is, though, most practicing magicians know that this isn't true. Trying to transform "energy" into "information" leads to big-time metaphorical confusion. So I put together this post with my thoughts on how a communication-based model could still incorporate the concept of energy work based on more inclusive information theory. The model presented treats the "energy" of the operation as the signal strength of the carrier wave and the "information" of the operation as the content being transmitted. I later extended it to include the concept of external spirits.

So my model of magick has some communication-based elements, as on the whole I think the approach is good. The problem is not with the general idea, but rather with taking a linguistic approach to it. And that's just the most prominent example that I've encountered over the years. As in artificial intelligence, the approach is reasonable as far as it goes - but if misapplied, it can lead to some serious misunderstandings and bad predictions.

Just to be clear, though, I want to reiterate once more that if language is the medium that inspires your consciousness in a way that makes your magick work well, I'm not suggesting that you change your approach based on my description of how my mind happens to work. If you find deep linguistic analysis especially compelling, by all means keep it up. Just be aware that not everyone out there thinks like you do, and be careful when trying to apply linguistic analysis to cognitive or for that matter paranormal phenomena.

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