Sunday, February 18, 2024

Rethinking Magical Metaphysics

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Leaping Laughter Anthesteria yesterday, February 17th 2024. It reworks and expands some of the previous articles I have posted on this topic here on Augoeides.

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.

Both 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 because it can hit someone, 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 fundamental nature of objective reality, 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 object permanence, 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.

As we change "things in themselves" by our actions - moving objects around, typing on a computer, or engaging 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, looks like this:

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. I 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 be placed in position V.

We can fine-tune this further by separating 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 it with my eyes. If I want to knock something over, it is easiest to use my hand rather than any form of psychic ability. 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 in cases where a direct physical link is not possible. Magick and psychic awareness work on this 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. They can effectively 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.

It should also be noted that spiritual hierarchies still work in Kant’s “flat” model of metaphysics. The difference is that they simply become maps of relationships that show which spirits have authority over others. This is easily explained by material world examples. At your job, you likely have a manager, and your manager has a manager above them. The business probably lays this all out in an organization chart. But the manager at the top of the chart just has authority over the individuals below them in the context of the business. There is no inherent spiritual or ethical value associated with the positions that different employees occupy. Spirits are the same way. They occupy the same metaphysical space even though some have autority over others.

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.

This means that we are neither spiritual beings having a material experience, nor 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.

If we are going to define values in this way, we must choose a heuristic by which they can be measured. 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. The only ladder is the one we create for ourselves.

For all the attention given to the Neo-Platonic model in the Renaissance magical tradition, and despite its adoption by the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley nevertheless did recommend Kant’s Prolegamena as the best introduction to metaphysics. It is easy to see how Kant’s fundamental focus on the perspective of individuals and how they interact with the world lines up nicely with the Thelemic perspective, in which each of us conceptualized as a star in the body of Nuit traveling along its own particular orbit.

The rejection of the material world that seems to flow naturally from the Platonic perspective has no place in Thelema. Crowley articulates this in description of the “Three Schools of Magick” found in The Vision and the Voice and Magick Without Tears. Crowley defined the three schools as follows:

The Black School (which is in no way related to “black magick” in the conventional sense) is based on rejection of the material world. Since the material world is seen as a place of suffering, the goal of the black school is liberation of the spirit from the bonds of matter. In spiritual traditions that belong to this school, strict renunciation practices are generally employed. The key goal of black school spirituality is Transcendence – the elevation of consciousness into what are considered higher spiritual realms to escape the bounds of the material world.

The Yellow School teaches that the material world and all the joy and suffering that can be found there should simply be accepted and acknowledged. to allow the mind’s true nature to emerge. In these systems the discursive mind is seen as a hindrance to spiritual realization because it insists on assigning meaning to experience. The assignment of meaning is an internal thought process that gets in the way of the pure experience of the world, and therefore it needs to be silenced in meditation so that higher levels of consciousness may be attained. However, it is not seen as inherently evil – it simply is, like everything else in the world. The key goal of yellow school spirituality is Awareness – shifting consciousness in such a way that it encompasses and is thus capable of comprehending both the material and spiritual worlds.

The White School focuses on perfecting both the self and the material world. A good example of this school is Western alchemy, with its focus on transmutation of material substances representing various states of consciousness and the Renaissance Hermeticism from which it arose. Hermeticism is a form of Gnosticism that differs from most forms of Christian Gnosticism practiced during the first millennium of the Common Era. Rather than rejecting the material world as evil, it treats the material world as something to be marveled at and explored this perspective gave rise to Natural Philosophy and eventually the practice of modern science. In spiritual terms, the key goal of the white school is Transformation – the evolution of consciousness towards realization and eventually mastery of the material and spiritual worlds.

In Magick Without Tears, Crowley writes that the Thelemic system contains the best parts of the yellow and white schools. Kant’s metaphysics is ideally suited to such a system. The distinction between the worlds of things in themselves and the world of appearances mirrors the concept of microcosm and macrocosm as found in the Hermetic system. Understanding the dynamics of perception that link the two is clear and straightforward in Kant’s metaphysics. Aristotle and Plato, though, fundamentally disagree on how this process should work and defy both reconciliation and experimental verification.

Even in the area of ethics, Kant’s system is in many ways similar to how they are addressed by Crowley. Kant’s ethical system is based on a formulation called the categorical imperative. William P. Alston and Richard B. Brandt, in their introduction to Kant, stated, "His view about when an action is right is rather similar to the Golden Rule; he says, roughly, that an act is right if and only if its agent is prepared to have that kind of action made universal practice or a 'law of nature.' Thus, for instance, Kant says it is right for a person to lie if and only if he is prepared to have everyone lie in similar circumstances, including those in which he is deceived by the lie."

Crowley took this concept and added an important innovation that as far as I know he has never been given credit for in the circles of academic philosophy. One of the first critiques of the categorical imperative involves lying to a murderer. Let’s say that a murderer wants to kill someone who you are hiding in your house and asks you if you are hiding them. Should you tell the truth so the murderer can kill the person they are after? The obvious answer should be no, since doing so will get the person killed.

Crowley’s solution is to flip the categorical imperative around (a “Copernican turn" of his own) and reframe the categorical imperative in the language of individual rights. Instead of evaluating actions based on their universality, he instead evaluates rights themselves based on their universality. This means that an ethical person should only claim and exercise the rights for themselves that they extend universally to others, and that it is unethical to do otherwise.

In the murderer example, it should be clear that as the would-be victim has the right to live and the murderer is seeking to thwart that right, lying to said murderer becomes acceptable and ethical. Those who seek to deny the rights of others have no right to protection under those same rights. In fact, as it is worded in Liber OZ, “man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.” In fact, it would be ethical to kill the murderer in this context, not just lie to them. Of course, as with the various rights outline in Liber OZ, this ethical system does not protect you from the consequences of exercising your rights, so if you killed the murderer the police would probably want to have a word with you.

In practical magick, too, using Kant’s metaphysics does result in some claims that can be tested. In Platonism the four Qabalistic worlds are treated like planes of existence layered on top if each other, from the most pure spirit in Atziluth to the most impure matter in Assiah. The implication there is that the dynamics of the four worlds mirror the process of creation and naturally flow into each other. Crowley alludes to this when he discusses the idea of solving any magical problem by “moving up a level” and working on the problem there. In other works, perform an operation in Yetzirah and it will naturally propagate into Assiah.

With Kant, the levels are more like conceptualizations that we place upon a basically flat universe. Modern science has taken this to the point of suggesting that matter is inherently unconscious, which to my way of thinking takes the idea a little too far, but chaos magicians in the 1980’s and 1990’s found that working with an essentially flat universe proved highly effective. In addition, having spent years experimenting with the notion of casting at “higher” worlds to affect “lower” ones, I am reasonably confident that the method just does not work. The Platonic model can therefore be refuted experimentally, or at the very least challenged.

I do not consider myself a materialist, as one might expect from a “flat universe” advocate like myself. As a holistic panpsychist, I am basically a “stuffist.” The universe is made of “stuff.” I need a better term, I know, but so far a really good one has eluded me. “Stuff” has matter/energy components, quantum information components, and consciousness components, all of which are fundamental to its makeup. A single particle is so simple that the “amount” of consciousness components it has are small, but they are nonetheless present. This concept resolves everything from the hard problem of consciousness, the observed workings of magick, and the morphic resonance experiments of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake. Morphic resonance in particular provides a mechanism by which manifestations of consciousness can resonate with each other across a flat plane of “stuff” without any need for breaking the components of said “stuff” into planes or levels.

If we truly plan to implement “the method of science, the aim of religion” I would suggest that Platonism, with its levels, ideal forms, and negative conceptions of the material world makes a poor basis for advancing the discipline of magick. As Thelemites, after all, we are told that “existence is pure joy” and to “enjoy all things of sense and rapture.” If the world in which we live is supposed to be a cave, or a prison, or a place of torment, how do those statements make any sense? If instead we approach the world like scientists, treating magick as a science that includes and involves consciousness, we are far more likely to arrive at our goal of accomplishing our True Wills, the Great Work, the Summum Bonum, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness.

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