Esoterica - Frequently Asked Questions
Version 0.4 - Last Updated on 5/4/2021
One of my interests is studying esoteric knowledge in a variety of forms, and I regularly get questions about it. This FAQ is my attempt to answer some of these common questions with my up-to-date opinions and answers.
It should also be noted that this FAQ is an ongoing work in progress that reflects the present state of my research and personal beliefs in this domain, and many of my positions here are likely to evolve as I uncover new information. I take great pains to make it clear where I don't have confidence in my assumptions, when I'm speaking from theory or logic rather than direct experience, and when I simply don't have a good answer. The FAQ is a tool for me to clarify my thinking in a structured way and address common questions people pose to me, and thus should not be read as a source of true claims about the world or about magick. Read it and draw your own conclusions.
You can read all of my published writing on this topic on Liminal Reflections by browsing my Esoterica tag.
Section 1. General Questions
I. What do you mean by esoteric knowledge or esoterica?
I'm using the term esoteric here not to refer to any particular movement or philosophy, but rather in the literal dictionary sense of "intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest." My interest in esoterica has a distinctly occult and spiritual flair to it, and my research covers an extremely broad range of topics including general spirituality (most major religions), magick, divination, parapsychology and psi studies, meditation, supernatural phenomena, trance states, near death experiences, theoretical physics, psychedelic substances, and neurobiology.
II. So... you're studying magick? And a bunch of other fringe stuff?
Kind of. It's all related and it's complicated to explain why and how in a single paragraph or tweet. Saying I'm studying "magick" or "occult topics" is the easiest and fastest shorthand way to give most people a high-level summary of what I'm interested in, but it's also completely wrong because of the popular culture baggage associated with those terms. Unfortunately, this area of study is brimming with nuance and complexity that isn't covered well by standard formal education, and everyone comes into it with their own unique baggage, beliefs, and misconceptions.
Unless you take the time to really try to grasp what I'm talking about, you're going to misunderstand what I mean. Reading this entire FAQ is a good start.
III. Why do you want to do this? What are you hoping to find?
In addition to simply enjoying the subjects and process of my research, I've had a number of personal experiences that I have a very hard time explaining to myself by conventional means, and I'm curious by nature. I like to know how things work, and I find it extremely irritating to both have personal examples and numerous historical examples of phenomena that don't fit with how we usually expect the world to work. As my research has continued, I've come across more and more cases persuading me that something weird is happening here that we don't understand.
With my research, I'm hoping to answer some of my own questions to my satisfaction and find new tools and methods for exploring and understanding these phenomena. I have also previously written more about the motivations that got me started down this road in this post.
IV. What do you mean you're doing "research"? You don't have a PhD, aren't associated with any institutions, and don't seem to be publishing any formal papers.
I mean precisely that: I'm doing independent research. I'm curious about the nature of reality and interested in understudied and overlooked areas of human experience that appear to offer novel mechanisms for engaging with it. Because I care most about answering my questions to my own satisfaction and can self-fund this inquiry, I don't see much point in investing time or energy into formal organizations which might introduce unwanted complexity to my investigation or inject unwanted status and social drama into my life which would be a distraction from my research.
My process involves identifying key study areas and digging up the most credible scientific research, theories, and first-hand accounts of people who claim to have experience with them, and then looking for commonalities and constructing theories to explain what might be happening. In pursuit of this goal, I both do my own primary research via reading and experimentation and also pay an independent team of researchers to annotate historical books of interest to me so that I can quickly survey them for interesting information without reading the many thousands of pages that would otherwise be required myself.
The research team is partially funded by selling the summarized notes of these books under my Alden Marshall brand on Amazon.com. I use a combination of Roam Research and annotated PDFs and eBooks to document my personal notes and theories.
V. How can you draw any good conclusions when you're not subjecting your theories to rigorous testing via the scientific method in a lab?
I'm not really interested in proving anything except to myself, so I'm content to present theories that seem plausible to me as a result of my research and let others perform more rigorous testing or validate the theories for themselves via their own inquiry. I do my best to keep an eye on my own biases, to corroborate ideas from multiple sources, and to approach the research first from a lens of rational materialism to keep myself grounded in existing science as much as possible, but it's challenging to explore this space without going into philosophy, theoretical physics, and metaphysics because we may not have the right tools or methods to make sense of the phenomena with our current unified models of reality.
Some theories presented about these phenomena also suggest that inconsistency, evasiveness, and an inability to apply them for consistent and practical military or financial applications may be an inherent feature of their purpose in the world, which would largely prevent the type of bounded and controlled lab-based research to which we are usually accustomed. While this possibility is often dismissed immediately by strict materialists, there is no logical requirement for phenomena whose scope, attributes, and purpose we don't yet understand to adhere to a level of consistency or work with methodology we're currently using and comfortable with. Elements of these phenomena which appear to defy common sense or violate causality may simply reflect a misunderstanding of what is actually occurring.
VI. What are your goals when you present or discuss the results of this research?
By forcing myself to clearly state my ideas for a public audience, I'm both ensuring that there's a publicly-critiqued level of consistency and logic to what I'm saying and also deepening my own understanding of the material through a secondary, written synthesis of the concepts.
In addition to this, there are three major issues I see with the most common methods of studying magickal theory that I am attempting to correct via the presentation of my work:
- Without appropriate context in the domain, it is very difficult to know which books, sources, or teachers are a worthwhile investment of one's time and which sources present false or misleading information. A glut of misinformation has been created by the marketability of magick as a popular concept and the status which can be derived from a person successfully masquerading as an expert with mysterious, hidden powers. To an initially curious person who suspects it's all nonsense but wants to learn more about it anyway, the works of charlatans can look remarkably like works that actually contain useful truths, and there's no good way to differentiate the two classes of information upon initial contact with the topic.
- Many of the "classic" texts of magick that are claimed to contain useful truths by credible sources, even if you find your way to them, are very unapproachable for people without a lot of domain-specific conceptual scaffolding in place. They tend to be written with extensive use of jargon, symbols, and metaphors and do not adequately explain what is metaphor and what is meant to be taken literally. This approach to conveying information is often (apparently) intended as an exercise to train the reader in working with logical contradiction and expanded modes of thinking about reality, which it may well do, but it also tends to confuse and mislead people genuinely seeking basic and verifiable knowledge. A new reader will frequently bounce off of the material, concluding that it's all nonsense, because they don't have the appropriate context to appreciate what's being said (which is entirely the fault, or intent, of the author).
- Many practitioners of magick are bad teachers even if they possess the actual necessary experience to teach and have good intentions, because most people simply aren't naturally skilled teachers who take the time to communicate clearly in ways that will resonate with their student. This is made worse by the tendency of some practitioners to intentionally provide misleading, confusing, or self-contradictory answers to sincere questions, either to serve their own purposes or conceal their inexperience. Because of these problems, questions are rarely answered clearly, accurately, and directly in this domain in a way that allows new entrants to build good mental models for operating in the conceptual space.
These three issues contribute to a large inferential distance between a person who has never seriously considered magick as "real" before and an entry point for serious consideration of magickal theory. Many magicians also make the claim that this barrier to entry is intentional and desirable, but the reasons given for this are often highly questionable and appear to be more about keeping the discipline shrouded in mystery and intrigue (providing status to current practitioners) than to actually being the most effective way to initiate people into a safe and effective exploration of magickal theory and experimentation.
I personally value epistemic clarity and enjoy sharing information, and I feel strongly that serious inquiry in this field is held back by the three factors outlined above. Furthermore, I also believe that there is value in clearly outlining both the risks and the benefits of magickal study and practice in common, easy-to-understand language, so that people can make well-informed decisions about whether it's something that they want to spend time pursuing.
One of the key goals for my research and writing is uncovering practical and applicable information behind all of these layers of obfuscation and then building clear, methodical, and universal tools to bridge the inferential distance required to understand this space. My hope is that by providing a thorough and well-reasoned framework with clear language and definitions, I can accelerate the process of internalizing the conceptual scaffolding necessary to allow a wider audience to seriously examine magick from a position of direct personal experience.
VII. Why are you wasting your time on this when it's unfalsifiable and obviously fake to almost everyone who's educated or smart?
- Magick is not obviously fake. The idea that magick is "obviously fake" is a biased and untrue fallacy unique to certain intellectual circles which are closely tied to academia and materialist/atheist perspectives of the world and which tend to reject most forms of spirituality that don't fit into that worldview. People who hold and express this belief tend to have not thoroughly examined any amount of evidence and are taking it on faith, having heard it secondhand from someone else or absorbed it from their culture. This belief completely fails to account for extensive and well-documented reports of phenomena which might be described as "magick", which we can't explain today, and which stubbornly persist in spite of the claim that they're "not real."
Furthermore, if you press people on their actual views and experiences, the vast majority of living people either have beliefs or experiences that don't nicely mesh with an atheist materialist perspective grounded in physics as we understand it. Because we have no unifying framework to even define what "magick" is supposed to encompass, no two people tend to mean exactly the same thing even when they appear to agree at a surface level that "magick isn't real."
Your own, limited perception of what's meant by "magick" may be getting in the way of your ability to understand the concepts surrounding unusual phenomena, and until you get specific about what you mean and examine the associated evidence, you can't confidently make any claims about it.
- Magick may be falsifiable. Our understanding of the mechanisms by which magick or other supernatural phenomena may be occurring are incomplete, and thus it is premature to claim that it's non-falsifiable as a class. As we develop better models of the mechanisms underpinning our reality and become more precise with our specific theories and predictions, we may develop better tools to be able to prove those theories in a manner that would satisfy strict materialists who lack the personal experience with unexplained phenomena commonly associated with belief or interest in this subject.
- Our understanding of reality is not static. Our best models to describe how reality works routinely change in the face of new discoveries and evidence. Newtonian mechanics don't consistently work with Quantum mechanics. The Earth is round instead of flat as we once believed. We no longer attempt to explain the world in terms of classical elements. Concepts we now take as common sense, such as the idea that washing your hands reduces the transmission of disease, were widely ridiculed and discredited when first suggested.
The point is that assuming that something must be untrue because modern science doesn't recognize it in a mainstream way is foolish and hubristic, not to mention that such a perspective directly violates the actual spirit of scientific inquiry. Poking at phenomena that don't "fit the model" and trying to understand what might be happening there is the essence of science, and that's what I believe I'm doing here.
- I'm not wasting my time. I enjoy my research and get a lot of personal value out of it in ways I couldn't possibly have anticipated when I began to study these phenomena. My studies contribute to novel ways of seeing the world, provide additional tools to enhance my psychological well-being, and increase my level of connection with both other people and the world around me. Even if I come to the end of my life with no unified model of magical theory that produces independently verifiable results, I'll have enriched my own life in the pursuit of it, and I'm already seeing the benefits.
VIII. I heard that you're a van-dwelling "desert witch" who thinks tarot and cryptozoology are real and that you allegedly bought a bunch of souls. Why should I listen to anything you say?
This is really just a fun exercise in how words shape your perception. That's certainly one way someone could describe me, but it would be both wrong and incomplete.
I prefer the term "sorceress" to "witch," but either way I'm an amateur practitioner at best and much more of an independent researcher. I currently live in a lovely Class A recreational vehicle which I use to travel around the country while I conduct my research and manage my small publishing business, and I have a permanent home base on a 40-acre plot of property in the Arizona desert where I like to hang out in the cooler months when I'm not visiting friends. My views on cryptozoology and tarot are complicated and better explained further down this FAQ and in my other writing, but I make no definitive claims about either and simply present observations and theories.
You don't have to listen to anything I say and I don't really care whether you do or not. The soul purchase thing is totally real, though.
IX. What evidence is there for the non-materialist worldview that seems to be required to entertain many of the ideas in this FAQ?
I don't think a non-materialist worldview is required to consider the ideas present in this FAQ because I've constructed it in such a way that I don't make any concrete claims without evidence tied back to a materialist understanding of the world. Where I'm working with speculation, theory, or subjective experiences, I say so. Where I don't have any idea how a thing works, I say so.
My chain of logic is rooted in the observation of inconsistencies I noticed in the mechanics of how I was taught that the world works, and then I try to unpack what might be happening using internally consistent logic while looking for as much evidence as possible to either validate or invalidate my models. If there is an overarching system governing the phenomena discussed here, and the phenomena do occur, it shouldn't actually be a violation of the laws of nature. It simply means we don't yet have the tools to describe what's happening well at this time.
All that's required to engage with the concepts in this FAQ is to be able to consider novel ideas from a rational perspective, grounded in your own experience, as an invitation for further exploration on this topic.
X. Given that you're both a fiction writer and financially profiting as a result of this research, why should I believe that anything you're saying is true, rather than an attempt to make money or build a platform for status or attention?
You shouldn't believe that anything I'm saying is necessarily true. I'd prefer you engage with the ideas and evidence on their own merits, with an open mind and your faculty for reasoning, and come to your own conclusions (whether or not they match mine).
As for whether I'm simply making up lies for money or attention, all I can say is that I'm not, and offer you these points as evidence:
- I don't make enough money off of this to have a strong financial motivation for it, and I already have a sufficient level of income from my consulting engagements and my business to live comfortably and spend as much time as I want doing things like studying magic because I'm curious about it.
- There are much easier ways to make extra money that I already have access to if that were a primary goal for me, and if I wanted to sell pop culture magic theory to gullible people I'd be making much stronger claims about how experienced I was and what magic could do to improve people's material wealth than you'll find here.
- If I wanted to write fiction I'd just write fiction instead of lengthy, carefully-worded statements describing the current state of my research.
- I have plenty of ways to get attention and build a platform that aren't shilling magic. I'm genuinely interested in this topic and trying to be as clear, rational, and cautious as I can with it.
XI. Are you planning to provide sources and documentation for all the claims you're making and referencing in this FAQ?
Eventually yes, I am. For version 1.0, as my research is still in early stages, I'm just trying to get my thoughts down so that I have a reference for common questions, and my citations are not nearly as thorough or complete as I would like. I do try to provide relevant links to easily available online sources for many examples already, but future versions of this will have more complete source and reference lists like a traditional bibliography or citation list as I narrow in on individual topics. I will be sure to provide thorough documentation along with any strong claim I make in the future.
Section 2. Definitions, Boundaries, and Examples
I. What do you mean when you say "magick"?
As I explained in Section 1, I use "magick" as a concise and convenient descriptor of a fuzzy, loosely linked conceptual space that spans topics from religious ritual to neurobiology. While some of the topics I draw in are more widely accepted and studied than others, they all appear to have application for explaining two broad categories of experiences that humans have which I would classify as "magick."
- Category I (C1): Physical outcomes which violate causality. The first category include material outcomes which appear to violate our understanding of causality in physics: sigils are drawn, prayers are prayed, or intentions are stated, and the desired outcome occurs even though there is no apparent link between the activity and the outcome which comes to pass. I also broadly include physical phenomena with no apparent cause in this category (raining frogs, spontaneous combustion, etc).
- Category II (C2): Perception of information without an apparent source. The second category is revelatory or divinatory in nature. An actor, through either intention or accident, appears to know or perceive information with no apparent source or method of attaining that information. I also broadly include visions, dreams, and hallucinations in this category.
Note that the common element to both categories is the ability to receive information or act on matter in a way that seems to violate our current understanding of physics from a strict materialist lens. To apply a spiritual lens would be pointless here, as most spiritual belief systems have their own explanations for such phenomena. Magic(k) is written here with a "k" to differentiate it from stage magic, which does not violate causality, and while I dislike this convention it significantly predates my research and will thus be used in spite of my aesthetic distaste.
This is simply a categorical descriptor of the different classes of phenomena I'm interested in studying, rather than a claim about the validity of any particular expression of either category of magick. Generally, phenomena that fall into Category II are more widely-accepted by materialists as "real" than Category I phenomena because they are both more frequent and easier to explain via hypotheses that do not violate physics.
II. Can you provide some more specific examples of phenomena that might fall into Category I or Category II of your definition of magick?
I once again want to stress that this is a categorization of areas of study rather than a claim that any of these particular expressions of the category are valid, but I can certainly illustrate some examples of each.
Examples of C1 phenomena:
- Prayer. A devout Christian with a terminally ill relative prays to God that he might heal them, and his relative subsequently experiences a miraculous recovery that doctors are unable to explain.
- Chaos Magick. A practicing chaos magician who is unsuccessful at dating draws a sigil representing their intention to find a romantic partner, activates it via ritually burning it and charging it in a trance state before intentionally forgetting about it. A month later they bump into a wonderful person, fall deeply in love, and get married.
- Placebos. A doctor prescribes a placebo drug to a patient with an illness and instructs the patient to take it daily. Several months later, the illness is cured.
- Manifestation. A man who wants to meet a particular celebrity he admires attempts to manifest the meeting by focusing his conscious attention and intent on that outcome. Through an extremely unlikely set of circumstances outside of his control or awareness, he is soon seated next to the celebrity on an international flight.
- Rains of animals. Flightless animals of a single category such as worms, fish, or frogs rain down on a small town from the sky with no apparent source or cause.
- Ritual Magick. A shaman in a small village performs a ritual intending to curse a rival in a nearby town, and the rival shortly thereafter sickens and dies from an unknown illness.
- Levitation. A religious adherent appears to repeatedly levitate several feet in the air simply by allowing themselves to be overcome with an appreciation of the divine.
- Telekinesis. After many hours of focused meditation and concentration, a magickal practitioner causes a flame to bend and weave inside of a glass encasement with no external source of air or pressure.
Examples of C2 phenomena:
- Remote Viewing. An individual reputed to have paranormal psychic abilities is tested in a military laboratory and produces specific and correct information about the location and description of intended targets with 20% accuracy.
- Divination. A small business owner uses tarot cards and receives predictions about their new business venture which later turn out to have been entirely accurate.
- Spontaneous Hallucination. An experienced meditator begins to have spontaneous visual and auditory hallucinations of demonic entities following them and interacting with them which they are unable to voluntarily cease.
- Prophetic Dreams. A lawyer has a dream in which the opposing counsel for an upcoming trial makes unlikely and novel arguments for the case which later match the actual arguments presented by the opposing counsel in court.
- Revelation. An angel appears to a rural woman and tells her the location of valuable relics on her farmland. She investigates and finds historical relics precisely in the unlikely location where she was instructed to look.
- Spirit Communication. Under the influence of a psychedelic drug, a geometric entity provides instructions to the user on how they can improve their psychological well-being, and the user subsequently puts those suggestions into practice and makes progress on resolving long-standing mental issues.
This is far from an exhaustive list of phenomena which might fall into either category, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the boundaries I'm drawing as I describe my research.
Note that there are also reports of experiential phenomena which don't fit neatly into either C1 or C2 but have elements of both. Recorded human encounters throughout history with non-human entities (aliens, fae, demons) frequently exhibit a blend of surreal, dreamlike, or prophetic qualities (C2) while also providing physical evidence of apparent material violations of physics such as gifted objects, unexplainable wounds or illnesses, and physical evidence of their presence at the scene of the alleged encounter (C1).
Note also that there are examples of things that would have seemed inexplicable and been placed in one of these categories prior to our widespread acceptance of the phenomenon, such as Lucid Dreaming. This is now widely studied and accepted in spite of still not being easily explicable, and I still place it in C2 and consider it relevant to my research.
These categories define the boundaries and provide qualitative descriptions for the types of subjective experiences I want to explore and understand, but are not themselves explanations or hypotheses for what might be happening when someone experiences such an event.
III. Which of these phenomena do you actually think are real?
This is another tricky question to answer, because I honestly don't know. There have been numerous, well-documented cases of both C1 and C2 phenomena throughout all of human history and up to present day. I have personally experienced examples of several expressions of both C1 and C2 phenomena that I'm at a loss to explain. Some expressions of each category of phenomena are better studied and have more conventional evidence than others.
What many of the expressions of these phenomena have in common is that they are difficult to produce either consistently or on demand, especially in controlled and verifiable settings, and even when a subject of study reports frequent occurrences of a particular phenomenon in their life.
While I don't believe every story I hear, it's abundantly clear that these experiences and phenomena are real for at least some of the people who report encountering or producing them, and some of the reports are very difficult to discredit without some extreme justification acrobatics.
Without the security of being able to reproduce results empirically, we're left to draw conclusions from unlikely commonalities between separate accounts and direct experience to form hypotheses about what may be happening. Because of this, it's impossible for me to definitively claim that any particular expression of C1 or C2 phenomena is "real" in a way that would be satisfying to a materialist skeptic in the absence of such evidence.
All I can offer you is some high-level hypotheses that I find plausible as a result of my experiences and evidence from my ongoing research:
- Magick is "real." It seems very likely that apparent violations of physics expressed as both C1 and C2 phenomena do sometimes occur, and that these violations of physics can sometimes be produced intentionally by human actors. There is too much qualitative and historical evidence of such phenomena and too many unexplained reports from credible, living persons who have experienced such phenomena to simply write it off categorically as a hoax or a misperception of reality.
- Controlled effects are inconsistent. Decades of parapsychology research have attempted to consistently and empirically provide evidence for manifestations of both C1 and C2 phenomena in conventional laboratory settings with appropriate controls. While their results are sometimes interesting, they are not consistent (and sometimes are inconsistent in bizarre and completely unexpected ways that contradict one another completely from study to study). Many hypotheses for why this might be have been advanced, which I will go into later, but it's clear that we do not have an appropriate grasp of the mechanics of magickal phenomena to apply conventional methods of study to them at this time and get widely-acceptable results.
- Belief, emotion, concentration, and attention may play an important role in producing effects. Nearly all formal schools of conventional magick and spirituality recommend improving concentration and belief when attempting to produce magickal outcomes, and associations with excitatory and inhibitory altered mental states are common. Tools and props are often used to heighten the emotions or belief of practitioners via association of the physical item with the intended vehicle producing the outcome (as with correspondences in sympathetic magic). Note also that there is evidence suggesting that not only the belief of the practitioner matters, but possibly also the belief of all witnesses, participants, or observers of either the magickal action or the intended outcome.
- Nonhuman entities which interact with humans are "real." Regardless of your explanation for the phenomena, it is clear that humans have credibly reported encounters with nonhuman beings which showcase apparently supernatural abilities throughout recorded history and into modern times, often accompanied by persuasive and inexplicable evidence, and that such encounters exhibit elements of both C1 and C2 phenomena in ways that suggest they may be linked.
IV. Why are you bringing nonhuman entities into this discussion? Doesn't branching into UFOs, aliens, demons, and fae seem kind of ridiculous?
Yes and no. Up until recently I was reasonably confident that magick as a phenomenon was real (though inconsistent and unexplained), that non-corporeal entities such as spirits or demons were implausible but explainable as subjective expressions of human psychology, and I was extremely dismissive of accounts of UFOs, aliens, and fae. It seemed like a grab bag of fringe concepts to me to entertain the whole of nonhumans as a body and somehow relate it back to magick.
However, I have been persuaded by the work of Jacques Vallée and others who have studied historical accounts of nonhuman entities that there is not only a significant body of evidence for contact with mysterious and evasive nonhuman entities, but that such accounts have startling and consistent similarities between them throughout history and across cultures which lend additional credibility to otherwise isolated and bizarre reports which we might otherwise attribute to fiction or insanity.
Vallée proposes a theory that all such accounts of nonhuman beings are expressions of a singular core phenomenon which expresses itself in different presentations that vary with the observer's time period, location, culture, and expectations. He goes on to build a case that the purpose of this phenomenon may be the breaking down of old belief systems and the implementation of new ones in humans.
This is notable and relevant due to the historical association of both C1 and C2 magick with nonhuman entities such as spirits, gods, and demons, whose appearance and behavior can be linked to the nonhuman manifestations catalogued by Vallée and others. If Vallée's hypothesis is correct, and the purpose of such encounters is shaping human spiritual beliefs for some unknown purpose, this would explain why the apparent outcome and hypothetical function of engagement with C1 and C2 phenomena appears to also be spiritual development in humans, as has been suggested by the work of parapsychologist J.E. Kennedy.
While these theories are necessarily highly speculative, the associations themselves in the reports are readily apparent and merit further research. For the purposes of my own inquiry, at this time I'm accepting the unified nonhuman hypothesis advanced by Vallée as tentatively correct and assuming that reports of UFOs, aliens, fae, spirits, angels, and demons are all expressions of the same phenomenon, and I investigate their link to magick through this lens.
V. What about all the other stuff: vampires, ghosts, zombies, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster? Are they all related to magick too?
I have not seen any persuasive evidence, even theoretical, of the existence of corporeal undead or cryptids. I have not deeply studied cryptozoology, and I don't consider it relevant to my research on magick at this time. While this may seem like an arbitrary distinction to draw, accounts of cryptids and corporeal undead differ significantly in their presentation, reported attributes, cultural impact, and methods of engagement when compared to the nonhuman entities discussed in the previous section.
While some of these cryptids and corporeal undead are purported to exhibit characteristics that would map to C1 and C2 magickal phenomena, they do not appear to be related to the understanding or human expression of magickal phenomena, and are thus less interesting to me. I also find it difficult to accept that persistent, corporeal beings which interact with humans, however elusive, would remain undocumented in the face of modern technology. The difference from the entities in the prior section is that those entities are frequently reported to appear and disappear at will and to control the mechanisms of their manifestation to humans, which makes our inability to collect conclusive evidence on them more persuasive to me than with cryptids or corporeal undead.
Ghosts (or the non-corporeal manifestation of dead humans) are in a category of their own here, and I don't have a lot to say about them right now. They're mildly interesting to me as a frequent purported subject of divination and mediumship practices (both C2 phenomena), but I have not studied them deeply or read any compelling theories which would cause me to think they should exist outside of the boundaries of C2 phenomena as independent and autonomous entities in the world. I may update my opinion on their existence as my research progresses, but at this time I am mildly skeptical that they exist in anything like the form frequently presented by popular culture.
VI. How can you confidently claim that all religious systems, ritual, magickal technique, and spiritual practices are engaging with the same core underlying mechanics, can be grouped as like things, and are related to one another?
I'm neither confidently claiming anything at this stage nor am I trying to present myself as someone with special authority in this subject. What I'm doing is sharing my observations and being as transparent as possible with my research method and framework for thinking about all of this.
What I have observed so far is that many spiritual paths and belief systems (among other tools) appear to lead to reports of experiencing qualitatively similar expressions of C1 and C2 phenomena. My theory about this is that all of these systems, which are ultimately expressions of belief and ritual, tap into the same "thing," which appears to be a real thing at least in the experiential realm, and produce similar kinds of results to varying degrees.
By analyzing the similarities across disciplines, I hope to be able to cut through the differences that might be unnecessary and try to wrap my head around the mechanics of both action and response that humans may be tapping into in order to experience or produce C1 or C2 expressions of magick.
VII. People sometimes claim that all kinds of creative activities are "magick," including storytelling, coding, and language itself. Is all technology magick? How does this mesh with your definition of magick?
I'm torn about this. Because there is a direct cause and a direct effect with these disciplines that we can explain using conventional methods, it feels like categorizing these things as "magick" as I'm defining it doesn't work. I feel that presenting coding or language as "literal magick" (as people often do), confuses the issue and makes it harder for people to pin down the domain space and to speak precisely about possible causes for poorly-understood phenomena.
It feels sloppy to me to claim that "coding is magick" just because you're using symbols to produce emotional and physical changes in the world--there's a known logic chain that can be followed to explain those changes. I'm undecided if it's truly related or if we're playing with semantics and using these activities as a metaphor, whether intentional or not, for a harder to describe thing.
However, I do think that the tools of those disciplines (symbol, language, ritual, creative vision) are some of the same tools used heavily in magickal acts to assist in producing outcomes. The difference may be in degrees of abstraction or levels of tooling through which we affect the physical world. Magick as I define it feels closer to directly manipulating the raw fabric of reality than effecting change via the manipulation or sharing of symbols that influence others directly. Tools may be useful for this, but as an enhancement of the will of the actor rather than as a necessary component of the act itself, which is why the magician's wand has no power without the magician's will behind it.
This is further complicated by the possibility that you can effect change in the world through a combination of mundane and magickal means, and thus mistake your mundane act for a magickal one because it's so tightly intertwined for you. I need to better understand the underlying mechanisms to make a decision about this, even for myself.
VIII. Is magick just playing with subjective perception and self-deception to induce novel mental states where you can do things which don't defy physics but which would be harder for you in a normal state of mind?
While this could account for some types of C2 effects, it doesn't address all of them, and it definitely doesn't explain C1 effects to my satisfaction. I do think that there are expressions of magickal phenomena, such as invoking, which put someone into a mental or emotional state to do mundane things that they couldn't normally do. I have suggested before that invoking can be viewed through the lens of giving oneself permission to act differently, in the same way that Johnstone discusses masks altering our psychological state in his book Impro or how people feel more comfortable in a role when they dress in a way that they're used to seeing someone in that role dress.
However, we may be once again intertwining the mundane and the magickal to assume that something like invoking can be strictly viewed as a psychological tool when the actual field of possibility may be larger. It's also possible there's a lot of overlap between "psychological tools" and "actual invocation."
It's very hard to say whether invoking a deity to make you wiser or more confident is "really" magick or "just" psychology. A magician would tell you to banish after invoking. A psychologist might say that was unnecessary after "psyching yourself up for an interview." Size and nature of the possible effect is extremely relevant here, and more research is required.
IX. How would one distinguish making discoveries that don't mesh with a consensus reality (if one were able to do that) with the definition of psychosis or schizophrenia as given by the DSM-V?
A key element of psychosis and schizophrenia is that they impair your ability to think clearly or function, and I actually view working in different mental paradigms and engaging in banishing rituals or attempting magickal acts in clearly demarcated ritual spaces as tools to maintain clear lines between the real and unreal. This is also one of the reasons why I expose as much of my thought process as possible, so that others can check me if I'm making unsubstantiated inferential leaps.
I have never personally (yet) had an experience that I would clearly qualify as "talking to a spirit" or "inhabiting an altered dimension of reality" absent the use of substances, so it's difficult to know how literally others actually experience these types of C2 events.
For my purposes, the test of whether a claim or experience is a mental break of some kind or an actual expression of magick phenomena would require it to have the following characteristics:
- Useful in some way, like providing desirable or novel information.
- Matching the desired and intended result of the attempted magickal action (even if the mechanism of causality is unclear to the practitioner).
- Provide physical evidence of any claimed physical action in the world.
Any such discovery would need to at least meet these criteria and not otherwise impair my ability to function in order for me to conclude that it wasn't psychosis. This is also why those studying magick are strongly encouraged in many traditions to keep an active journal of the intent of any magickal act and a log of the outcomes, which would be indicative of more orderly thinking and could provide a record of intention and result even if the results were unable to be demonstrated to others consistently.
X. If magic is real, why would it not work to study it via the standard mechanisms of science and evidentiary controls that we normally have in place for lab-based research?
Without a thorough understanding of the underlying mechanics of this domain (which we do not have in any kind of universally-agreed upon model), it's hard to know that even the most carefully-controlled studies are actually being conducted under consistent conditions and with consistent constraints.
A simplified example of this from physics is that a temporary magnet only exhibits properties of magnetism in the presence of a strong magnetic field, but if you were unaware of this property and your magnets were in the presence of such a field during your experiment, you would come to different conclusions than a researcher testing identical objects outside of such a field. If the field had arisen accidentally and temporarily, you may not even be able to reproduce your own results at a later date and would not understand why. You might have observed a real effect (magnetism), but without understanding the actual cause of that effect, both your original conclusions and the falsifying conclusions would be wrong, because they would be missing a critical factor of which you were unaware.
If we accept that C1 and C2 effects do sometimes occur, it seems very likely that we're encountering a problem of this nature when we attempt to study them in a controlled environment. This becomes particularly troubling if you accept the hypothesis that belief and concentration may be an important part of intentionally producing these effects (or that disbelief may interfere with them), because we have no way to independently verify the subjective belief and concentration states of all participants and observers in a study. This is why I'm particularly interested in commonalities across disciplines, methods, and experiences, because it might provide useful information about the missing piece of the puzzle.
This is the simplest explanation that I have at this time for why it's difficult to come to accurate conclusions about magick in a controlled environment, although other, more specific theoretical explanations for the inconsistency of the phenomena have been presented by parapsychology researchers like J.E. Kennedy in his detailed discussion of the problem and his review of 11 possible hypotheses to explain it, presented here and here respectively.
XI. What is a sufficient standard of evidence to conclude that magick as you define it is real?
To definitively conclude that magick is "real" for my own purposes, I want to understand the mechanisms well enough that I can reliably produce magickal results for myself which match my pre-defined intention in a way that I can explain, even if I can't demonstrate, to others. Note that this requires me to not only develop an appreciation for the mechanism of action, but also to identify and reliably predict the boundaries I should expect around effect size and scope of impact.
Until I can do this, all I have is a hypothesis that C1 and C2 effects are real, can be produced by humans, and that we don't adequately understand mechanism of action yet. Gathering information about the mechanism and boundaries is part of the point of my research.
XII. What would be sufficient evidence or information to persuade you, personally, that magick is not real?
I would have a very hard time being persuaded that magick as defined here is not "real" in any sense, because there's so much anecdotal and living experiential evidence of these phenomena occurring, even if rarely or weakly. I would need to see similarly compelling evidence for alternate explanations or negations of these accounts to conclude decisively that a particular expression of a poorly-understood or rare phenomena was adequately explained according to known principles.
I have a very hard time accepting unproven explanations that falsify or deny the reality of these phenomena simply because they provide an "explanation" for them that fits neatly into an existing model of reality. Until I see evidence either way, it's all just alternate hypotheses. It's far too easy to use dismissive models of hallucination or memory unreliability to halt further inquiry into a particular case, for example, with no further evidence of that being true than any other explanation. We shouldn't jump to conclusions to explain what's happening without evidence, whether those conclusions "confirm" or "deny" the reality of a particular phenomenological expression.
XIII. In the absence of verifiable evidence for many of these expressions of magick, what is the justification for ascribing any credibility to claims that they are real phenomena such that research into them is worthwhile?
Providing an exhaustive list of evidence for each of the types of phenomena I'm interested in is impossible at this stage of my research, and providing partial examples would be counterproductive because it would do a disservice to specialists studying those fields in more depth.
For now, I'm going to punt on this question and work on gathering more complete lists of evidence for any phenomena I eventually make claims about. I'm content to continue my own research on the basis of the limited evidence I have at this time.
XIV. Is magick evil?
I see magick through a phenomenological lens that is neither good nor evil, but rather as an expression of poorly-understood natural mechanistic forces. If humans are capable of using and manipulating these phenomena, then it would be human intent and the outcomes of that use that give rise to value judgments of "good" and "evil," just as with any other force. A comparison is that you can use electricity to keep your home lit overnight just as you can use it to kill people, and we can do both of these things as a species because we understand the mechanisms required to manipulate it.
Many spiritual systems and magickal traditions have their own definitions of whether certain expressions of these phenomena or the attempted use of them are "good" or "evil," and often this varies depending on who is using them and how they are using them. Christianity condemns sorcery but condones prayer. If you adopt their belief framework, the two types of action have very similar practical goals, and the primary difference is the causal source of the change in reality that the actor is attempting to bring about (where the magick originates with God vs originating with the magician or the spirits the sorcerer commands).
Section 3. Benefits and Risks
I. Why should someone study or practice magick? What are the actual benefits of spending time on this?
From a practical materialist lens and regardless of the efficacy of attempting to produce C1 or C2 effects, studying this domain expands your ability to approach the world from novel viewpoints and entertain contradictory ideas that may both have truth to them. You can increase your awareness and concentration, add additional tools for handling challenging situations to your toolkit (which you may choose to view in either magickal or psychological terms), and learn more about the history of human spirituality.
From a philosophical lens, you can deepen your knowledge and appreciation of ways of making or finding meaning in the world around you. Many researchers in different fields of study related to magick have suggested that the purpose of magick may be personal and spiritual growth, and finding personal meaning in the world is associated with improved life outcomes.
From a magickal lens, assuming that humans can cause and manipulate these phenomena, you may develop personal methods for manipulating physical reality (C1) and attaining novel information (C2). I cannot prove, credibly claim, or guarantee this. I will tell you up front, however, that direct expression of these phenomena for material gain (wealth, love, fame) is heavily discouraged and seen as a distraction by most spiritual traditions even if you get them working through mastery. It's sometimes presented as a bonus, but rarely as the point. I will also note that this differs from magickal systems like Chaos Magick where the expression of effects is the point, but the wisdom of pursuing magick exclusively for these ends appears questionable to me.
I would most recommend the study of magick to people who are psychologically and financially stable, autonomous, have a strong support network of friends or family, are interested in spirituality and philosophy, have good coping mechanisms to deal with potentially upsetting, disorienting, and frightening experiences that may challenge their established worldview or sense of self, and are curious about deepening their awareness and appreciation for the nature of reality and human history.
II. What does magick offer as a tool that differs from what can be achieved through more conventional means?
Very little, to be honest. I haven't seen any evidence leading me to conclude that magick is the most direct, safe, or convenient path to any of your non-spiritual goals for most people. If you want money, go work on Wall Street. If you want love, focus on becoming a kinder and more attractive person. If you want fireballs, buy a flamethrower. You certainly don't have to study magick to achieve your goals, and it may actually become a significant deterrent to achieving them.
The lack of reliability and predictability in existing methodology makes producing magickal outcomes mostly interesting in hindsight or useful as a tool of last resort (or a tool to be used in combination with other, more conventional methods). I have no evidence at this time to persuade you that you'll consistently get anything materially useful out of it from existing methodologies, although I feel that I personally have.
Magick, to the degree that it works or is useful, appears to offer the most consistent benefits to its students in the realms of spirituality, meaning, self-discovery, and self-improvement. It may offer you utility in daily life, but the enhancements are likely to be subtle, inconsistent, and highly subjective--especially early on. Some experienced practitioners claim to be able to produce outsized material effects, but I have not seen direct evidence of this, and the degree of concentration, costs, and study which appear to be required to do so makes this impractical if your goals for study fall more into the realm of material achievement or acquisition.
Finally, it can be interesting and entertaining to study magic, especially if you're the type of person to be curious about weird and novel experiences. However, it can also be extremely dangerous in ways that I will explain further down in this section, so if this is your primary motivation, maybe just watch television or pick up a new hobby.
III. Why should someone not study magick?
Studying magick can be dangerous for your physical health, mental well-being, social status, and spiritual beliefs in very specific and concrete ways, and this holds even from a materialist perspective where there is no "truth" to the reality of expressions of C1 or C2 phenomena.
These dangers are magnified significantly if you suffer from any kind of unresolved psychological issue or trauma, are financially or emotionally dependent on others, are interested in magick primarily as a means to achieve material wealth, status, or power, or have strong ties to a community that would disapprove of your interest (or belief) in the subject.
Some of the ways in which magickal study will require you to stretch your mind and some of the subjective experiences it may produce can be extremely disorienting, upsetting, and painful, and they may not be easy for you to resolve or cease. The impacts of this can be mitigated or avoided to a degree, but you're in the best position to do so from a place of autonomy, stability, and overall health.
I strongly recommend that you work on getting your mental, physical, social, and financial health stable and in order (via therapy, medicine, or any other conventionally useful means) before you begin seriously looking into magick.
At this point, I have both read numerous case studies about and personally encountered many individuals who have lost touch with reality or appear to have done significant psychological, emotional, and social damage to themselves in ways that are either influenced by or a direct result of their interest in magick, with no apparent benefit to them. When I encounter these people, it often seems to be because they embraced the material in a psychologically vulnerable state with other, unresolved issues present. Without appropriate coping tools, discernment, or supportive social structures, there can be a tendency to sink ever deeper into unhealthy states and further isolate oneself from healing or coping mechanisms without being able to recognize the level of delusion or impairment that are arising from your beliefs.
This is not only potentially very damaging for you, but if you flame out and hurt yourself because you didn't listen to me, it's also damaging to the credibility of the entire field of study because you are likely to be much more visible as a cautionary tale than people who pursue the domain methodically and carefully. Even if you don't care about yourself or the people studying this field seriously, please consider the harm or pain you might inflict on your friends and family by wading in without proper care and preparation.
IV. What are the real and specific dangers involved with trying to practice magick or even learning more about it?
One of my biggest frustrations with the commonly accessible entry points of magickal study is that they're full of dire warnings (like my warning above) but have little to offer in the way of specificity about what the dangers might be. This makes them appear to be all bark and no bite, adding to the intrigue and mysterious nature of the space and ironically making it more appealing.
Let me demystify this for you and get into the specifics of how magick can be dangerous to you. This is so important that I have written a 9000-word article about just this subject, as well as recorded two podcast episodes (Part 1, Part 2) discussing the article in even greater detail. While I have updated some of my beliefs since I originally wrote the article, it is still extremely useful as an introductory primer to the potential risks of playing in this space, and I am now even more persuaded of the material and psychological dangers of study than when I first published it.
There are too many possible risks to summarize them in this FAQ, so please go and read the article before you continue in this domain. Being smart or skeptical does not, by itself, protect you from this. Please do not be reckless and assume you know better.
V. If magick is dangerous, is it ethical to encourage people to explore it, even simply by making it more legible to them than it currently is?
I'm not sure. This is actually a question I pose to myself on a regular basis, and I wrestle with it a lot. Particularly vulnerable people have historically been drawn to this subject for a number of reasons, and I worry that by making it more accessible and talking about it as much as I do with my platform, I might be inadvertently exposing people to harm because they ignore my warnings and recklessly proceed because they're excited about the clear way in which I present the material.
On the other hand, I feel that people who are attracted to this subject will explore it anyway, whether or not they're ready to do so. There's no shortage of books and online resources which explain how to do magick, and they're often presented with breathless enthusiasm and a complete disregard for the very real risks. There are comparatively very few resources available which describe these risks with the level of care and detail that I go into and which explain useful and practical methods to mitigate those risks. There are fewer still which do so in materialist terms which might be useful for concerned friends and family members of people exploring this domain to understand what to look out for in their loved one and how to help them cope with negative impacts.
By demystifying and explaining the topic in plain language from both a materialist and a spiritual lens with concrete examples, I feel that my approach and descriptions are safer than many other resources that are freely available all over the internet, and so it seems more ethical than not to share my research, observations, and recommendations. Even so, I remain conflicted.
VI. What are the best methods of protecting oneself from the risks of magick, especially when starting out?
Once again, I will refer you to my article on this which discusses the risks and some more detailed mitigation steps, but I will summarize the high-level mitigation techniques here because I feel that they are extremely important and useful if you're going to be exploring this space.
- Even if you feel that you are ready to proceed, start small and go slow. Thoroughly digest my discussion of the risks and think about how you'll detect warning signs for each type of risk and what you'll do to address the problem if you see them.
- Monitor your body and emotions for signs of distress and immediately halt to explore and resolve them before continuing forward. You have your whole life to study magick if you want and it's silly to hurt yourself (possibly permanently) by pushing forward before you're ready. Pay attention to your feelings. If the idea of becoming someone who believes in magick is deeply unsettling or threatening to your identity, why would you want to explore a space that may cause you to come to this conclusion?
- Approach this domain with a level of humility, seriousness, and respect for the dangers, even if you think it's silly to do so. Even if you think all of this is deluded nonsense (and perhaps especially if you do), it would be very distressing to eventually come to other conclusions and not be prepared to deal with them. Take Pascal's Wager and err on the side of safety.
- If you intend to attempt practice, learn and perform some recommended grounding, cleansing, and banishing rituals even if you don't believe in them. You can view these as psychological tricks to center and calm yourself if it's a helpful frame to encourage you to actually do them.
- Read about and sharpen your classic psychological defense mechanisms. You should have confidence in your ability to deploy these coping tools as needed. Know your ideal psychological methods for dealing with stressful or anxiety-provoking experiences and situations, and be ready to use them.
- Learn how to hold contradictory beliefs playfully and mode-switch into different paradigms. It can be useful to be able to completely believe in the reality of your practice one minute and to laugh at yourself for how silly believing that might feel in the next. Being able to laugh at yourself is an extremely powerful psychological tool to ramp down fear and anxiety when necessary, and mode-switching between playful belief and skepticism depending on context may provide protection against emotional spirals.
- Practice discernment and skepticism. Synchronicities can stack up on you after a while, so make sure you're challenging your own conclusions regularly and keeping a detailed journal of intention and results to avoid slipping into unchecked apophenia or delusion (and you of course know what apophenia is because you already read my article on the risks of magick, right?). Don't let apparent successes trick you into seeing more than what's there. Don't believe people's wild stories just because they swear it's true. Trust, but verify through repetition and evidence as much as possible.
VII. What tools or practices should be avoided when starting out?
Some practices are more dangerous than others before you build a level of comfort in dealing with weird experiences, uncomfortable side effects, or unexpected results. Before you try anything, ask yourself how you would feel if it actually worked. If this is upsetting to you, it's best not to try at all.
The things to specifically avoid early on would be any attempt to control, conjure, create, or direct an entity external to yourself. Evocation/summoning/conjuration, invocation, or the creation of independent entities (tulpas, thoughtforms, servitors, etc) are all examples of what not to experiment with before you're sure you're ready. Even creating sigils can be risky, in spite of them being a commonly-recommended early tool for Chaos Magick practice, because you're still creating a low-level independent thoughtform to send into the world.
A spiritual explanation for why this is dangerous is because you may not have the skill to safely handle, interact with, control, or protect yourself from what you're summoning or creating yet, should you succeed. A materialist explanation is that these activities are more likely than others to trigger weird emotional or dissociative states that could frighten, upset, or confuse you, especially if you're already in a fragile mental space.
A friend once told me about someone they met who insistently claimed to be a tulpa (an intentionally created spirit entity/identity) who had killed their creator host's mind and taken over their body. Regardless of whether you interpret this literally in the magickal sense, as an expression of mental illness, or as an edgy way to describe an intentionally triggered major personality shift, it's the type of disruptive change to your life you might experience by fooling around with these concepts or techniques without appropriate preparation and care.
It's far better to start by trying small things that either improve your concentration and awareness or are extremely simple and limited to your conception of self. This is why I recommend getting very comfortable with meditation, dream exploration and journaling, or divination via a system like the Tarot or I Ching before you try anything more advanced.
VIII. How do you avoid delusional thinking while working in this space and coming to incorrect conclusions about reality?
By being very careful and discerning. I maintain a level of skepticism of my own work all the time and even doubt my own perceptions of something "working" consistently for me, as Tarot has over time. You'll notice I rarely make definitive claims like "sigil magick is real" or "Tarot can tell the future," and that's because I don't have solid evidence that those statements are true even if I've experienced things that look and feel like that in certain scenarios.
I'll admit that some of the things I've experienced poking around in this space are very weird, to the point that they've swayed me further toward the "maybe this is real" camp than the "this is likely me fooling myself" camp, but I also know that that's a risk and overcorrect for it.
If you want to avoid delusional thinking, be really honest with yourself about what you know and what you don't, and resist jumping to conclusions. Keep a journal of your practice, think critically about what you're looking at, and report observations rather than making claims about reality.
IX. How can you claim to have avoided delusional thinking and say that "Tarot works for you" in the same section?
When I say "Tarot has worked for me," my observation has been that cards come up that describe situations correctly (both past and future) far more than random chance should allow for. This is very hard to accept because it violates our preconceptions of what should happen, and it annoys me for the same reason. I admit I may be misperceiving it, but I don't think it's delusional to note this pattern (even if experienced only subjectively).
A common suggestion about Tarot is that you're "cold reading" yourself, in the sense that any card drawn will seem to fit the situation or can be woven into a story about it, and this provides an intuitive explanation for what might be happening that fits a materialist worldview. However, this doesn't match my experiences.
There are 68 cards in a standard Tarot deck, 70 in the special Marseilles deck I read with, and each card has a unique and specific meaning. Furthermore, each card when dealt can come up in the upright or reversed position and has a different meaning depending on the orientation. This means that there are 140 unique, highly-specific meanings in a deck when I draw a card. For example, take a moment to read the descriptions of the Two of Swords, The Tower, and the Eight of Pentacles and appreciate how different a reading with each of these cards would feel.
Additionally, tarot spreads often have three or more cards in them, each of which is drawn into a slot with a specific, pre-determined meaning (such as "past, present, future" or "situation, influences, action to take"). A reading with the three cards in the last paragraph would be completely different depending on which slot each one fell into. It makes a big difference if the catastrophic disaster of The Tower is in your recent past or your immediate future! Furthermore, if I'm reading on my immediate past and things have been going well, The Tower popping up would seem very out of place.
My experience has been that the unique meanings map uncannily well in a surprising number of draws to exactly what has been asked. I don't expect to persuade you of this with any number of possible examples, but rather I explain these mechanics primarily to give you some perspective on how "cold reading" isn't quite so easy as you might think when the cards have such specific and strong meanings and are dealt into specific slots.
This doesn't necessarily mean Tarot will work for you the same way that I perceive it to work for me or that "Tarot is magick," but it's not delusional thinking to note the large number of times my reads for my business and personal life have been shockingly accurate from my own perspective. I find this interesting given how many possible ways that the cards might have fallen that wouldn't fit or would have been very weak fits for the situation. You'll have to explore this yourself if you want more evidence, though.
X. Why do so many religions and "right hand path" traditions warn about the dangers of engaging in spiritual practice with the intent to manipulate reality by supernatural means?
There are as many stated reasons as the belief systems that might forbid it, and there are a few ways to look at this. It really depends on how you see the world, but a few big objections to intentional attempts to manipulate reality come to mind:
- If you believe in a benevolent guiding force that has a life plan for you, attempting to change that path via supernatural means may be a diversion from what's best for you and may lead you astray into things that harm your health and well-being.
- If you accept that manipulating reality is possible, then you also have to accept responsibility for the second or third order effects of any alteration you might attempt to make to it. It would have ripples like any other action, and you don't know who you might be harming without intending to when you attempt to produce outcomes.
- Power can corrupt, and if you come to believe you have power over reality without a strong basis in morality, it may go to your head in the same way that a petty bureaucrat with power over others delights in wielding it. Power requires responsibility, and many people are irresponsible. You don't want to become an asshole.
- If the purpose of life (and magick) is actually spiritual and moral development, then having the ability to alter physical reality may distract you from this goal and cause you to lose yourself in material concerns that don't ultimately matter.
XI. Why does magick have a history of secrecy and illegibility? Is there a conspiracy to conceal it?
This requires more historical research for me to give a proper and thorough answer, but I don't think there's any active conspiracy to conceal magick as a concept. Religions are always recruiting and bookstores are full of books which claim to offer magickal guidance.
As for the history of secrecy and illegibility, consider that for large chunks of Western history, magickal practice has been aggressively condemned and persecuted by organized religious institutions like the Catholic Church. Practitioners can also heighten an aura of awe and intrigue (and the associated ego boost) by keeping what they're actually doing a secret.
Finally, there may be practical reasons for this. If we accept a framework in which magick is real, then allowing others to know what you're attempting to do gives them an opportunity to interfere with it via their own magick or even by disbelieving in the outcome (this is the disbelief shield theory, which I'll explain later).
XII. Given the history of fear and persecution associated with practitioners of magick, if you believe it's real, isn't it wiser to keep it secret and allow people to continue to think it's fake?
Maybe. Just as with the question about the ethics of making magick more accessible, I'm torn about this. It's true that if educated people widely thought magick were real, they would be afraid of it (and probably rightly so). There would probably be modern witch hunts, moral panics, and legislation put in place to curb its use, as their have been at other points in history.
However, I also believe in truth and reason. If it's real, it's useful, and we should find ways to integrate what we learn about it into our way of life like any other tool. It should be available and accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about it and benefit from it in their life. I think. Maybe.
Honestly, I'm not sure on this one. I'll probably wait until I have more evidence about which aspects of magickal practice are real and what the effects, boundaries, and mechanics of it are to make a decision about this.
If you have good reason to believe that magick is real and think that it's a very bad idea to share it, you're welcome to reach out to me with clear evidence of it being real and a clear and coherent argument for why I should stop talking about it, and if both are persuasive to me, I'm likely to listen to you. But my standard of evidence here is very high, so if you're going to try, make sure it's worth my time, please.
Section 4. Purpose and Utility
I. What is the purpose of magick, both in a practical and existential sense?
There are obvious practical applications for both Category I and II effects depending on the specific manifestation of the effect, but even if the effects are real their current unreliability makes them difficult to use in many situations where consistency or accuracy are important, such as relying on information gained from C2 effects for reliable business or military intelligence.
One example of this limitation for attempted practical application is evident in the U.S. military's decision to cancel their experimental Stargate Project, which centered on remote viewing, in 1995. Despite producing some very impressive individual results they ultimately concluded that it didn't work consistently enough to rely on for intelligence purposes and released conflicting reports about whether there was evidence for psychic phenomena at play. It's interesting to note that the conclusions given in the independent reviews of the project acknowledge that it did produce statistically significant results and the most damning thing they say about remote viewing is that it has "limited applicability and utility for intelligence gathering operations."
Practical applications for C1 effects such as manifestation, sigils, and invocation are also self-evident in that these techniques are designed to produce a specific outcome for the practitioner, but once again their unreliability makes them unsuitable except as a method of last resort or as a supplement for other, more mundane techniques to produce a desired outcome.
From an existential perspective, various individuals and spiritual traditions suggest that the purpose of magick may be to develop an appreciation for spirituality in humans toward the ultimate goal of expanding our consciousness. In his essay, "What is the Purpose of Psi?", parapsychologist J.E. Kennedy states:
The instances of striking psi draw attention away from the material world, and the capricious, actively evasive characteristics of psi thwart efforts to use psi for material self-interests. Enhanced consciousness can be viewed as the self-evident result of biological evolution, the ultimate goal of spirituality, and the primary effect of paranormal experiences.
Some traditions, such as Buddhism, note that the "practical" applications of magick in their practice (ie, "Siddhis") are distractions from this higher, spiritual purpose which is purported to be the true goal of both magickal attainment and human life.
II. What are the boundaries or limits of what magick is actually capable of doing?
This is still unclear to me at present and is a question I am keenly interested in answering. I have yet to meet anyone credible who claims to have experienced or produced significant Category I effects without a large margin for doubt, making it difficult to assess whether many descriptions of large effect sizes described in historical books and religious texts are meant to be taken literally or metaphorically.
I have personally seen no credible evidence of large, causality-violating C1 effect sizes with a short time period between an action and result in spite of many claims that magick is capable of producing them. At best, I am willing to take a speculative stance that magickal practice may be capable of manipulating probabilities over time such that certain events may or may not occur in ways which could mimic C1 effects.
Even commonly accepted C1 effects, such as the healing of ailments provided by placebos, are limited to producing that effect over time, and thus magick may be bound in scope by its nature to require an extended period of time to pass between an attempted action and the desired outcome. This is further reflected in the instructions given by many formal magick traditions, such as Chaos Magick, and thus it seems unlikely to me that the immediate production of magickal effects upon demand in the manner of conventional magicians seen in speculative fiction is probable even for very skilled practitioners.
Category II effects are limited to the realm of thought, perception, and information by their nature, and I am more persuaded that these effects work precisely as advertised, if we accept that they do work. I still have no clear indications on whether there are limitations of either time or scope on the type and nature of the information that can be obtained through their use, and the results from these types of effects are claimed and observed to be immediate when they present.
III. Why can't we use magick to reliably produce results, and why can't we get better at that?
Until we have a better model for the mechanism by which magick produces results, I don't have a good answer on why we might not be able to use it reliably. Parapsychology has tried (and failed) for decades to apply conventional techniques for study and application to magickal practice. Many practitioners and parapsychologists have provided theories for why this might be, but this is all speculation at present.
As for why we can't get better at it, I think we can, but once again we may have a conflict between the actual purpose of magick and our expectations for practical results. Some of the speculative theories of magick's purpose suggest that practical or reliable production of results may actually be in conflict with the purpose of magick as a vehicle for enlightenment and expanded consciousness, and if we accept this framework then it's our expectation that magick should behave like other, more familiar technologies which is unreasonable.
IV. Why isn't magick used for business, industrial, or military applications if it's real?
People actually do attempt to use magick for business, industrial, and military purposes, as can be seen in the declassified reports of military programs like Project Stargate, but the variability in practitioner skill at using poorly-understood systems and the unreliability of outcomes described in previous sections makes it hard for any organization to use them reliably and widely in these spheres.
The claim that "if it worked we'd be making a killing" assumes that we understand the mechanisms of any particular effect well enough to be able to discern credible practitioners (who still might have inconsistent results) from frauds, and that any organization who did secure a credible practitioner would be transparent about their use of such a person to achieve their goals.
Businesses or organizations which did use magick to obtain an edge over their competitors would have numerous reasons to conceal this information, both for strategic and reputational reasons. The rational thing for an organization to do if they found some rare and unlikely competitive edge is to conceal the nature of it in order to protect that advantage, especially if they don't believe that it can be easily reproduced or trained. Furthermore, declaring that your organization invests in activities believed by the wider scientific community to be fake is politically unwise even if you have evidence to the contrary.
In this environment, it's impossible to make any concrete claims about the degree to which magickal practice is used in any of these fields. We do, however, have clear evidence that organizations experimenting with or using magick conceal these experiments until they decide that they're no longer useful: The remote viewing experiments of Project Stargate began in the 1970s, were declassified in 1995, and weren't released publicly until a document dump in 2017. The XKCD comic is cute, but we have no evidence that the government doesn't maintain a cursing and hexing squad squirreled away somewhere in the military budget.
Finally, the nature of magick itself might be at odds with industrial or military application, as I discussed in section 4.I. The arguments in this section neither prove nor disprove the reality of magick itself, but they do provide several reasonable explanations for why this commonly-cited challenge is insufficient to "disprove" the reality of magickal effects.