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Naturalistic magic?

February 18, 2012

There’s something interesting going on over at altmagic.com.  Could this be a naturalistic form of magic?

When the site started, I was extremely skeptical.  It’s the work of Drew Jacob, and it’s no secret that he’s a good friend of mine (not to mention an HP contributor).  Yet despite our friendship, I’ve been quite reluctant to mention his new business.  Selling magic scrolls online?  Um…  Even I have a hard time stomaching that one.  It’s hard to imagine a more blatant way to exploit naïve believers in the supernatural.

That’s why it’s been such a surprise to see his work.  He calls himself an “honest magician”, and makes good on that claim by stating flat out he doesn’t know why or even whether his magic works.  Beyond that, he’s publishing a series of articles that call bullshit on supernatural explanations, and present scientifically-sound research toward naturalistic explanations of certain “magical” phenomena.

Where is this going, and will it ever be able to justify ordering magic scrolls from a website?  I don’t know.  Honestly, I have my doubts.  But I’m looking forward to finding out.

As for Drew’s magic, let me just say this:

Getting me to actually take seriously a site that sells magic scrolls? – well, that’s magic enough for me.

Here are a few particularly interesting articles so far:

  • The Honest Magician – Here’s where he calls out other magicians for dodging the question of whether magic works, and puts forward his vision for a different approach
  • Skeptic Tests – Here he acknowledges that hundreds of well-designed tests of a variety of magicians have all failed to confirm results, without exception.  But what about tests of traditional tribal magicians?
  • Three Magic Spells That Work – This one presents scientific research toward naturalistic explanations for tumo, vodou zombies, and death curses.
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13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2012 3:00 pm

    Magic, if by that we mean that endeavor by which certain talented and inquisitive sages spend hours of study and practice unlocking the secrets of the universe in order to harness special powers – then magic is real, and our magicians have revolutionized the world, growing ever more powerful each passing century. The problem is that no one thinks of it as magic anymore and takes it very much for granted. The bottom line is that it takes a lot of education and hard work to be a knowledgeable magician, and studying the arcane language and logic of nature can get tedious and boring. It’s more fun to imagine one can control nature without putting in that work, so we prefer and romanticize earlier primitive forms of magic that required less work and study, and we ‘poopoo’ modern magic as being ‘souless’. But, nevertheless, I have used the products of our modern magicians to heal my sicknesses, fly through the air at amazing speeds, predict the future, and commune with people on the other side of the planet. That’s naturalist magic – pretty cool stuff.

  2. Jonathan Blake permalink
    February 19, 2012 7:23 pm

    My take on naturalistic magick is summed up in two related concepts:

    1) “Magick is the art of causing changes in consciousness in conformity with the Will.” (Dion Fortune)

    2) Just believing a future event will happen can cause it to happen, if the event depends on human behavior.

    I see naturalistic magick as changing human beliefs and attitudes in order to open the way for a desired outcome.

    So does magick work? In the domain of human psychology, it works, especially if you believe it works. Can it change the weather? Maybe if it motivates you to get in a plane and seed the clouds, or in the longer term, if it motivates you to reduce your carbon footprint. Can it help you find money? Maybe if you’re not paying close enough attention to financial opportunities that arise naturally. Love potion? If it gives you the confidence that you’ve been lacking. And so on.

    I’m a neophyte to magick, but that’s my working theory. I’m currently working on the Neuromagick program which is amenable to naturalistic worldviews.

  3. February 20, 2012 6:12 am

    Chapter 1 of David Abram’s book “The Spell of the Sensuous” is called ‘The Ecology of Magic’ … pretty good stuff.

  4. February 20, 2012 6:11 pm

    Let’s set aside the issue of whether magic works (which I don’t believe it does incidentally). Let’s say I can use a magic spell to levitate an object or increase the chances of someone falling in love with me. The problem is this … it’s too much work for too little result. How much preparation and mental sweat must go into trying to get something to levitate? Just pick it up from Christ’s sake! Want someone to fall in love with you. Maybe you can increase your chances with a spell. But I guarantee you’ll have better luck either going out and interact with other people in a normal fashion, or if you are incapable of that (due to some social phobia or because your an asshole — either of which is probable if your trying a love spell), then go out and getting some psychotherapy — and then go out an interact with people.

    This reminds me of something from one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. In his fantasy world, he describes how magic works, but also much effort goes into conjuring a naked and willing virgin for yourself. He says something like, by the time you learn all the spells and get all the ingredients, you’re so old you’ve forgotten what to do when the virgin appears. In another place, he describes how levitating something with your mind is like using your brain for a cantilever, with the result that you can end up squeezing your brain our through your ears. Too much effort, for too little result.

    And then just taking a look at the 3 examples of magic that works is telling: Tumo (being able to tolerate extreme cold), zombie curses, and death curses. The problem is, when am I ever going to want to make a zombie? Or stand naked in a blizzard? Can you make a spell that gets rid of that weird clicking noise in my HVAC ducts? Can you make a spell that will get my kids to brush their teeth without having to be reminded every night? No? Sorry, these are the things I need, not walking on hot coals.

    • February 25, 2012 6:56 am

      >when am I ever going to want to make a zombie? Or stand naked in a blizzard?

      Good point. The one about standing naked in a blizzard is worth exploring deeper. Would you want to do it, just for the pure practical sake of enduring the cold, when you could just as well put on a parka? No, probably not. I suspect the real function these sorts of powers serve is awe and amazement. The audience of the magician is awed and thereby gives greater respect to the magician or the tradition to which he belongs. Or, forgetting the crowd, the magician herself is awed by this amazing new experience, and finds reward in expanding her view of reality and personal accomplishment.

      Zombie making and death curses take awe into the realm of absolute dread and terror. They are despicable practices (but I think Drew was only using them to make the point that they can have verifiable naturalistic effects).

      I would hope that the Responsibility aspect of the Fourfold Path would preclude such despicable practices in any form of Humanistic Pagan naturalistic magic. At the same time, magic aimed at inspiring wonder would be very much in the spirit of HP.

      “Magical” abilities discovered might provoke the same thing as accupuncture currently. If you doubt the existence of chi and meridian lines, then it is not clear how it works, but empirically it does seem to work. That, to me, is a stimulus for amazement and wonder. Any naturalistic magic that really seems to work would provoke the same, I should think.

      • Jonathan Blake permalink
        February 25, 2012 10:06 am

        We can view some forms of magick as harnessing the placebo effect.

      • March 3, 2012 5:16 pm

        In the case of tumo – the “standing naked in a blizzard” technique – it’s used for practical effects.

        Himalayan ascetics frequently take retreats in isolated areas of the mountains, or even live there long term. It’s not uncommon to become snowed in. If fuel can’t be gathered or delivered, tumo can actually save your life.

        I won’t deny the showmanship aspect of it, since they hold contests to show off their ability. But it is a practical technique. (Which, honestly, should be rather obvious – people pay significant money for things to keep them warm in the winter, and the utility of being able to do without is rather self-evident.)

        But yes, as BT states, these were just three particularly striking examples to make a larger point.

    • February 25, 2012 1:40 pm

      Levitating objects requires breaking what for all practical purposes are natural physical laws. Making oneself more attractive to a love interest doesn’t. It’s unreasonable to consider those things together as if they are equivalent on some level. Clearly they’re not.

      Now, doing magick to enhance ones attractiveness is a reasonable thing to do in my opinion, but that comes from an initial understanding that, in part, magick is an additional effort to what everyone else does for that purpose, not a replacement. People who try to replace typical efforts with magick efforts for common goals tend to be disappointed with their outcomes.

      With that understood as a starting point, you, John, are asking about the cost/benefit ratio. Does doing magick provide enough advantage to justify the effort? The answer I have for you, given some 35 years of experience, is a qualified yes, and the qualification is detailed below.

      People who read instructions for doing a “spell” and then follow the instructions aren’t actually doing magick at all. They’re engaging in superstitious folklore and nothing more. The alternative to a superstitious engagement of magick stems from the fact that what makes magick effective and useful is practicing it as general lifestyle, not unlike a Christian tries to live a Christ-like life. That is, the Christian’s studies and habits of routine prayers, etc., shapes the way they view the world and has a direct impact on the things they tend to notice, and the ways in which they tend to respond to the ongoing events in their lives.

      Similarly, the practice of magick as a lifestyle is akin to a routine habit of mediation, yoga and/or tai chi. The effects are similar to the Christian lifestyle, in that the practices tend to shape ones world view, their perceptual and interpretive cognitive processes, and their behavioral tendencies. So when a lifestyle magician does a “spell” to enhance their attractiveness or whatever, the effect is to fine-tune their perceptual and behavioral tendencies accordingly, enhancing their ability to detect and appropriately respond to opportunities as they arise, thereby enhancing potential for achieving their goal.

      You’re correct to realize that establishing an entire lifestyle to the degree necessary to make those dynamics actually work is a huge commitment. So, is it worth it? The answer can now be given in very simple terms. Yes, it’s worth it but only to people who have a natural proclivity toward doing magick-related things in the first place. If one really doesn’t like doing the activities that constitute a lifestyle practice of magick (again, comparable to a habit of daily meditation, yoga, and/or tai chi), then it’s not going to be worth it to them.

      Magick isn’t the only way to improve ones chances of achieving their goals, it’s one among many ways. If you like doing magick, it’s a good way for you. If you don’t, then it’s not.

  5. Riverwolf permalink
    February 21, 2012 12:27 pm

    So glad someone is addressing this topic. Myself, I tend to go back and forth between harsh skepticism and desperate faith.

Trackbacks

  1. 100-Word Challenge, Day 312 | My Writer's Cramp
  2. magic words: the secret codes of symbolic language « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality
  3. Magic in the 22nd Century, by Drew Jacob « Humanistic Paganism

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