Monday, August 3, 2020

Revisiting Magical Metaphysics

I'm finally starting in on the process of reworking my Operant Magick manuscript for publication. Back in 2006 around the time I started this blog I put the finishing touches on the original version and started sending it out. The occult publishers I sent it to jerked me around for years and never actually published it because it was "too advanced" for beginning readers. At the time I thought that was terrible - there was already plenty of beginner material and I was of the opinion that the market could use at least a few intermediate and advanced works.

When I finally got my Enochian books published and saw real sales numbers I started to understand the reality of the situation better. Magick is pretty much the definition of a niche interest. The reason that occult publishers favor beginner material over everything else is that there's barely enough of an audience to support that, let alone the subset of that audience who reads those books and then goes on to become more "advanced" practitioners. This of course creates something of a vicious circle - no advanced material means that there's likely to be less of an advanced market, and so forth.

But I will say that to some degree I'm glad the original version didn't make it out there. A lot of the ideas in that manuscript were good, and I've tried to elucidate those here on Augoeides. At the same time, the book suffered from working with brain science that is now twenty or more years old. Brain science moves fast - between 2000 and 2010 there are a lot of significant breakthroughs that Operant Magick version one would have entirely missed. Also, many of the ideas, while good, were not developed how I now feel they should be at this point in my magical development.

This post is one example. In the original Operant Magick I proposed a slightly modified version of Kant's metaphysics that I dubbed "Hermetic Metaphysics" as the metaphysical basis for magick. I wrote up a post about my "Hermetic Metaphysics" that you can find here. In revisiting the material, though, I found that in fact Kant doesn't need any changes at all to account for paranormal phenomena. I also am glad I didn't throw something out there called "Hermetic" that is about as "Hermetic" as The Kybalion, but that's a whole other conversation.

In some ways this has become a more significant conversation than it was back in 2006 because there are currently several of authors pushing Neo-Platonism as the proper metaphysics of magick. While it's true that the Hermetics of the Renaissance were mostly Neo-Platonists inspired by the work of thinkers like Mirandola and Ficino, there are good reasons to abandon many aspects of the Platonic system. Let's start by looking at the Platonic system and its main rival during the early Renaissance, the Aristotelian system.

Throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, metaphysics in the Western world was dominated by two primary currents of thought. The first and most significant in terms of its influence upon culture and religion was the school established by Aristotle, which was based on empirical study of the material world. Much like modern physical scientists, Aristotle believed that ultimate reality could be found in the behavior of material objects that could be observed and measured.  The second was the school established by Plato, who contended that ultimate reality could be found in the world of Ideal Forms, akin to the world of mathematics.  

Both Plato and Aristotle postulated that the fundamental building blocks of reality consist of Matter and Form. Matter refers to the actual physical substance of which objects are composed – atoms, molecules, and elementary particles. Form refers to how these particles are arranged, encompassing every manifestation of substance from a simple block of metal or stone to complex interrelated systems. Form is especially essential to living organisms – if a human body were broken down into its component molecules, the result would be mostly water and collection of complex hydrocarbons. Obviously, mixing these hydrocarbons and water back together will not produce a human being. While the matter of which the original person was composed is still present, the complexity of the person’s original form has been destroyed. Where the two schools disagree is that Aristotle taught that matter preceded form and was therefore more real, while Plato taught that form preceded matter and therefore form was the most real.
Aristotle's concept of the spiritual world was adopted by the Christian Church and elaborated upon by thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.  According to this model, the spiritual world follows the same essential rules as the material world – it is simply thought of as different place or realm through which the soul of the deceased could travel. Hell and Heaven are treated like actual physical locations, and based upon God's judgment of a person’s conduct in life they would be assigned to one or the other for all eternity. The Platonic vision, on the other hand, is based on apprehension of the true world of form and therefore describes a sort of progressive realization. As the soul becomes more pure and enlightened, it becomes more and more aware of the ideal forms that comprise the truth of ultimate reality. According to this model, Heaven could be considered as union with God and thus comprehension of the truth, whereas Hell could be considered as the state of ignorance in which the soul is cut off from God and unaware of anything beyond the “less real” material world. 

Both of these philosophical schools have their problems. Aristotle's worldview leaves little room for sciences such as psychology in which measurement is difficult, especially when examining the personal experience of spiritual awakening. Plato's worldview, on the other hand, can lead to the conclusion that if empirical data does not support a theory or set of equations, there must be a problem with the data because the theory is “more real” than the process it describes. Neither school can be directly refuted in any empirical manner – show a Platonist the mathematical formula that describes the motion of a falling body and then a ball dropped from the top of a building, and they will claim that the equation is more real than the dropping ball because the equation describes the general case that applies to all falling bodies. An Aristotelian, on the other hand, would claim that the dropping ball is more real, and that the equation merely describes its motion.

From a spiritual standpoint the Platonic model is more appealing to magical practitioners for obvious reasons. Aristotle's system leaves little room for the results of spiritual practice, especially as articulated by the church. In fact, the medieval church taught that systems like Hermeticism were heresies because they were based on the idea that a person could become closer to God or more favorable in God's eyes through their own efforts. The whole point of Platonism, though, was to deliberately engage in spiritual practices and through them progressively realize the fundamental truths of the universe, which fit easily into the Christian framework as the realization of God and Christ - heretical though such realization theoretically was.

In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant set out to develop what he described as a “Copernican turn” in metaphysics that he believed could resolve some of the difficulties with both schools. Instead of attempting to define the nature of objective reality as a whole, Kant directed his attention to the perspective of the individual and how reality is perceived. Kant proposed two levels of reality, the world of “things in themselves,” or objective reality, and the world of appearances, or subjective reality. He further proposed that objects of awareness must conform to our mode of awareness, meaning that information from objective reality is taken in by the senses and interpreted by the mind to construct a personal subjective reality. As this subjective reality is what individuals actually experience, the objective universe is not directly knowable. Nonetheless, Kant asserted the existence of an objective reality on the basis of principles such as the law of cause and effect, and thus avoided the idealistic position of philosophers who contended that only those things that were observed existed and that no objective things were necessarily real or present.

When I originally wrote the Operant Magick manuscript, I believed that the fundamental issue in Kant is the assertion that the world of "things in themselves" influence the "world of appearances" but the relationship does not go the other direction. You can make a simple diagram of how I was reading Kant like so:

I surmised that the issue with Kant was that no connection existed in his model linking III. and I. But that's really not the case if you look at this model from the standpoint of taking actions as we go about our daily life. As we change "things in themselves" - move objects around, type on a computer, or engage in whatever hobbies we enjoy, the senses are constantly providing feedback about what we are doing with our motor skills and capacities. The full model, therefore, actually looks more like this:

And once we're at this point, it becomes clear how the psychic and paranormal abilities can be fitted into the "Copernican" model without any changes. We simply propose that psychic awareness is an additional sense that humans possess to varying degrees, placed in position II. as part of the overall sensory apparatus. Likewise, the paranormal ability to shift probability is an additional "motor capacity" that humans possess to varying degrees that should go in position V.

We can fine-tune this further, for example breaking out the links joining I. and II. and V. and I. into categories. Strong links are Physical links. If I want to read something, it's easiest to read with my eyes. If I want to knock something over, it's easiest to use my hand. Contagion and Resonance links are the two kinds of  magical links. They are much weaker than physical links, but can influence "things in themselves" to some degree even in cases when a physical link is not possible. Magick and psychic awareness work on that very principle.

Intelligent spirits can be represented the same way. The difference is that spirits are less material so they are generally less capable of using physical links and must rely more on contagion and resonance. They do seem to have some ability to affect the world physically, but to nowhere near the same degree as material objects, living or nonliving. So they can just be treated like other individuals sharing the same world of "things in themselves," but with a less material form. The physical aspect of a spirit is usually energetic, but we still are talking about matter in relation to form. Energy and matter, as modern physics shows us, are fundamentally similar and either can be transformed into the other.

There are several advantages of this approach over the Neo-Platonic model - which really, was only new in the sense that the teachings of Plato were mostly unknown before the discovery of ancient Greek texts at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. Rejection of the material world is an endemic problem to many forms of spirituality, and the Platonic model posited that the material world was unimportant or least occupied an inferior position to the world of mind and spirit. But in fact, according to the modern panpsychist view, consciousness - that is, spirit - infuses everything in the physical universe.

So we are not spiritual beings have a material experience, or material beings having a spiritual experience. We are beings with both material and spiritual aspects, and these are aspects that are largely inseparable. There is no "ladder" from impure or degraded matter to pure and perfect source. Spirit exists. Matter exists. These aspects fall on a continuum from the material to the spiritual, but only from the material to spiritual. This continuum behaves like a dimension such as length. An object of a particular length occupies space, but no individual point along that space is superior to any other.

In order to define values in that way we must choose a heuristic by which they can be measured, and the beauty of the "Copernican" model is that even the selection of this heuristic is left up to the individual. You can decide, like Plato, to privilege form over matter, or like Aristotle, to privilege matter over form. What you cannot do, though, is enshrine your selected heuristic as the "one true way." You get to choose for yourself, but not for others. We each have the right to live by our own heuristic - that is, our own law. And the only ladder is the one we create for ourselves.
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