Though it can’t quite be called a raging academic throw-down, I was interested to read the discourse* between Heterodoxology’s Egil Asprem and the new Tyromanteia blog about psychological and scientific methods of analyzing magic. While I am at no place in my own academic career to significantly address the points raised, there are some things I want to contribute to the discussion within this context, namely the inclusion of studies into non-locality and mystic frameworks of experience.
First off, we need to understand that most academia operates within an Enlightenment framework and embraces Enlightenment ideals in its processes. By Enlightenment ideals, I mean that there is an emphasis on scientific, rational and empirical observations. Fuzzy things like intuition, feeling, and subjectivity need not apply. The thinking goes that once the Enlightenment happened, people were freed from their irrational superstitious. Straight off, we can see the problem this poses for magic.
My understanding is that much scholarship is devoted to understanding how, in a rational, enlightened world the phenomena of magic continues to persist. What Asprem clarifies in his post are the two main ways scholars try to understand magic. The first suggests that magic is not an objective experience, but a psychological, subjective one. The second is that, by applying scientific methods to magical operations, there is an attempt on the practitioner to imbue the practice with rationality. As Asprem observes –
“The late-19th century ‘occult revival’ has, for example, variously been seen as a reaction to a “crisis of faith”, or alternatively as a reformulation of older systems of belief and practice in terms and ways of thinking which make them seem compatible with a ‘rational modernity.’”
Trying to reconcile magic, an apparently subjective experience, with rational values is a puzzle fraught with many issues, not the least of which is, in my opinion, using Enlightenment frameworks for understanding in the first place. But I’ll get to that later.
Let’s look at these two methods first, before picking them apart. On the one hand, we have the psychological model of magic. This suggests that magic is a mental and emotional operation, whose validity is subjective—and that’s ok. Even more so, that’s the point. By engaging with magical archetypes consciously, one somehow effects change internally. Angels, spirits, rituals are all tools to aid the psyche. This idea is explored more fully by Alex Owen, who contextualizes the occult revival of the 1900’s within the nascent psychology movement. The criticism, according to Asprem, is that this is escapism, not just in the sense that the rational faculties are suspended when engaging in ‘psychological magic,’ but also that it sidesteps the issue of rationality by claiming subjectivity as a starting point. It purposely ducks the question of rationality.
The other approach is grafting science onto magic. We see this most evident with Crowley, and his saying, “the method of science, the aim of religion.” The idea here is that spiritual pursuits can be reduced to a scientific experiment. It can be measured, tested, improved upon, and replicable. Applying scientific principles to non-scientific areas was big in the Victorian era. For instance, in her book Pleasure Bound, Deborah Lutz notes that such zeal for quantification was applied to everything from books, to porcelain collections, to sex. That magic should fall under the sway of rational inquiry is not a surprise.
However, the question we have to ask is how effective are scientific means of apprehension to magical and spiritual goals? I want to bring in some examples to illustrate the dissonance in this area and to further show the distance between the entrenchment of Enlightenment standards and magic.
We spent some time in my sociology class discussing non-local means of social cohesion. Non-locality is just a fancy way of saying ‘out of the ordinary’ and includes things like psychic phenomenon, intuition, and other quirky or paranormal (supranormal?) experiences. One case we looked at were the so-called “dream teams” researched by Robert L. Van de Castle at the University of Virginia. In his experiments, the subject would have a problem they needed help with, and a group of people (the ‘dream team’) would focus on the person without knowing what the problem was. The next day, they would gather to compare notes from their dreams and see if they could figure out what the issue was. These experiments presupposed that (a) telepathy existed; (b) this telepathy could be directed and (c) that multiple people could telepathically ‘tap-in’ to the same information.
Here’s where things get weird. The dream teams were highly accurate in their diagnosis. On multiple occasions. In a controlled setting with group randomization.
That sounds a lot like science.
So I asked the obvious question, if these experiments adhered to scientific standards and could be replicated, why weren’t they accepted as factually as other scientific experiments? The answer: Because they cannot be seen or touched and thus measured. The Enlightenment, it turns out, craves tangibility.
Obviously, there appears to be a giant flaw with applying the tools of the Enlightenment to non-local activities. When rationality is the standard, anything that appears irrational is immediately discarded as false, even if it conforms to accepted processes. It begs the question, what is the standard of rationality?
However, this can also suggest the tool and subject are significantly at odds. Like trying to view distant planets with a periscope, the tool will only confirm what it can measure, yet that does not necessarily preclude non-existence. Rather, you’re in need of a different kind of lens that can be applied to the matter at hand. The hypothesis isn’t necessarily broken if the tools used to investigate it are inadequate.
So my first point: Trying to gauge magic by Enlightenment standards may be a fool’s errand which is ill-suited to the subject itself.
The second point I want to question is the idea that applying the scientific method to spiritual attainment is a response to rationality. For this, I want to turn to the general area of mysticism and also draw a bit on Crowley’s above stated theory.
Apsrem suggests that Crowley is “an example of an influential modern magician who, quite to the contrary, emphasizes that magical experience should always be quantifiable, testable, and subjugated to the hardest possible criticism by a group of peers. In the evaluation, scientific methods should reign supreme, and one should take care to avoid any sources of errors in testing magical efficacy, and extirpate biases.” He contrasts this with the psychological view by saying that Crowley was not trying to escape reality through visualization, but rather engage with it in a concrete, measurable form.
But Crowley wasn’t the first to do this. Interestingly, Gershom Scholem, in his discussion of mysticism talks about the dangers associated with being a lay mystic without a guru. The dangers will be recognizable to anyone who’s studied magical thought: the belief that attempting to achieve alternate spiritual states can be mentally and psychologically dangerous (18). The solution that mystics have come up with is the notion of the guru, the person who guides the aspirant along the path, providing correction and inspiration as needed. Scholem sees the function of the guru as superficially “primarily psychological” but also as a tool to hedge up the existing tradition. In other words, to make sure the student doesn’t step too far from accepted norms. But that’s another story for another day.
Like our Victorian occultists, the gurus, too, have a ‘scientific method.’ According to Scholem, the guru “[prepares] his student for what he may expect along the way and at the goal” (18). This suggests that the mystical experience fits a template; that enlightenment is no different than a paint-by-numbers artwork. This squares with Crowley’s assertion in Book Four that there is a systematic timing to the attainment of various states through meditation (37, 40). Enlightenment is not a mystery, rather it is easily reduced to operative formula.
To illustrate this view more fully, Scholem uses the example of Ignatius of Loyola’s mystic handbook Spiritual Exercises. Like the magician intent on producing results in a controllable and replicable manner, the manual “shows exactly what the novice has to expect at every step, and sets out to produce the phenomenon it promises” (18). Again, there is the idea that mystic states are entirely predictable and can be reproduced by different persons using the same technique to similar effect. However, unlike the Victorian trying to cram magic into Enlightenment forms, Loyola prefigured the Enlightenment by 200 years. The idea that there is a systematic method of mystical attainment is cyclical in nature, rather than lineal.
My second point: The attempt to quantify mystical experiences is not a reaction to the Enlightenment, but has existed contemporaneously with and as adjunct to the mystical experience.
This is not to say that these two views—the scientific and the psychological—are without merit when discussing occultism. Certainly, if we want to come to an understanding of modern magic, these lenses can be applied with relevance. Furthermore, those involved at the time were very much responding to their historical context with the tools available at the time. So exploration along these lines can yield much fruit.
Rather my comments here are to prod the underlying assumptions used to engage magic academically. I think it is all too easy to see magic (and other fuzzy topics) as a reaction to some phenomenon (the enlightenment, secularization, etc.) and it may be worth a gander to pursue an analysis that is post-enlightenment. That said, I have no idea what such an analysis would look like (Embrace of scientific results for non-scientific subjects, such as our super dreamers above? Attempts to understand those who claim an objective experience of magical phenomenon within their frame of reference? An openness to cyclical notions of time as a basis of inquiry?). However, maybe it’s time to move post-enlightenment and discard some of the shaky assumptions which are coming into question in other contexts. After all, if the rise of religious fundamentalism can jar the foundations of the secularization thesis, perhaps we should also consider alternative ways of understanding the persistence of magic in the modern world.
*Ugh. I think an angel loses its wings each time an academic uses “discourse” unironically.
Image by Stuck in Customs.
Asprem, Egil. “On “Scientific Illuminism” and the Psychologisation of Magic.”
Crowley, Aleister. Book Four.
Lutz, Deborah. Pleasure Bound.
Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment.
Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism.