This started as a comment to Maebius’ post here but quickly grew beyond the dimensions of a comment and turned into a post all its own.
I tend to tune out when the conversation turns to the relationship between quantum physics and magic. Mostly because the people doing the talking aren’t usually physicists (if they were, I’d be more likely to listen) and so I have no reason to think that their grasp of the subject has any more depth than mine. I get bored not because either subject is uninteresting, but because the way the relationship is argued is usually trite and boils down to something like “Science has now discovered that magic works!” This, for me, is in the same territory as arguments like “The Eleusinian mysteries were based on hallucinogens!” or “Manna from heaven was really fungus!” in that it completely misses the point of magic and myth. It reminds me of Palaephatus, arguing that Callisto was actually eaten by a bear, because after all, it’s stupid to think that anyone could transform into a bear. The argument tries to save the myth from being unbelievable and kills it stone dead in the process. As my Palaephatus example shows, there’s nothing new about this process, though Palaephatus is funnier than most modern examples.
I do not believe, a la The Secret or What the Bleep, that we create our own reality. It in fact seems glaringly untrue to me. It’s not enough to think nice happy thought – plenty of people have thought nice happy thoughts and still had horrible things happen to them. Plenty of others have been dreadful and cruel and still prospered. We are brought up in this culture to think that Being Good leads to Getting Stuff – Santa Claus is one of our principle myths of childhood, and there are plenty of Christians who firmly believe that if only they are good enough in this life, wonderful things await beyond the grave. The flip side of this, of course, is that behaving badly leads to deprivation and suffering. And that in turn is easily turned around to: those that have good lives deserve them, and those that suffer have brought it upon themselves by being bad.
This can be a very comforting worldview, both for those that have and those that don’t. Suffering is easier to bear if you can convince yourself that you had it coming, and being prosperous while those around you lack can be much more comfortable if you believe that your prosperity is your reward for Doing it Right. It’s a very useful myth for a capitalist society, and it’s no surprise to see it so ingrained even in modern theories of magic.
There’s a softer version which is the Pollyanna theory, that if you greet everything with a positive attitude and sunny smile, no matter how it works out, at least you’ll feel better about it and see the bright side of whatever it is. I have an easier time with this than with the Santa Clause theory, because it often works. Focusing on the good is a useful skill that has helped me through some difficult times. Still, when confronted with pain or loss, it’s not always helpful. Focusing on the positive side of having to eat beans and rice for a week because you’re too poor for anything else is useful and helpful; focusing on the positive side of the death of a loved one is psychotic. You can’t make that reality go away no matter how much you might believe that you created it. And if you did believe that you created it, how awful is that! I have never been more tempted towards violence than when someone has said to me, after a great loss: “What lesson do you think you were meant to learn from this?”
I have been studying magic as part of my AODA studies. I thought this would be simple enough. I’ve been doing magic all my life, after all, and consider myself to be very familiar with the basic concepts. I’ve studied it both from an academic and a practical perspective. It’s one of the things I would describe as a defining part of my identity. It’s something that has been with me consistently all my life. Yet, I’ve never spent much time on the nature of magic. I don’t have a personal theory of how it works, at least not until very recently. I understand the why, and the when, and the how-to-do-it. I can describe different theories of magic. I know about ceremonial magick-with-a-k, I know about folk magic, I know about anthropological theories of magic, I know about witchcraft both ancient and modern, I read the PGM from cover to cover – you hand me a book on magic, I’ll either have already read it or will immediately sit down and read it. I don’t mean to be boastful in saying all this, though I suppose it might sound that way; it’s just one of the things I do. I’m for magic the way some people are for sports statistics. I had already read all of the books that are “recommended reading” in the AODA Magic Spiral. All but one – RJ Stewart’s Underworld Initiation. I’m reading that now.
I’m stuck on page 59. I started reading this book two weeks ago and I can’t get past the bottom of page 59. Here’s the paragraph that stopped me in my tracks: “Humankind stands as a mediator between the Source of the Archetypes and the substance of the Land or Planet. This substance is said, in turn, to be composed of elements compounded from numerous other worlds. The Innerworlds are not truly within the imagination, although that is our first entrance to them; they are within the fabric of the physical planet, and therefore within the human organism which partakes of the substance of that fabric.”
Oh, I said. Oh. Then I closed the book and thought about that, and then said Oh again, opened the book, and tried to read on, but couldn’t. I just read that line over again. So I put the book back down, went into the backyard, sat down, and meditated on it for a while, and then when I came back from the outer reaches of the cosmos said, Oh, again. Eventually I will get on to the rest of the book, but I have to work through that paragraph first. I think
Wednesday, as I was walking home from work, a sudden downpour made me duck into the Penn bookstore to let it pass. The Penn bookstore is basically a two-story Barnes and Noble that also has Penn materials, as well as a Starbucks where you can grab a book and read and have a cup of coffee. I went to the science section, looking for something for the non-math person on the fabric of the physical planet. and saw a book called “The Fabric of the Cosmos” that seemed just what I was looking for. It’s by Brian Greene, who you may have seen looking all cute and nonthreatening on PBS, explaining complicated concepts in simple terms. I thought I would look through it and if it seemed like the thing, to find it at the library (I am too poor to buy every book I want to read. Hooray for the public library.) I read the introduction and drank a decaf mocha while the rain passed. I read, “Assessing existence while failing to embrace the insights of modern physics would be like wrestling in the dark with an unknown opponent. By deepening our understanding of the true nature of physical reality, we profoundly reconfigure our sense of ourselves and our experience of the universe.” I bought the book.
I like reading popularized science books. I make no claim to any background in science or math, but I am an enthusiastic amateur. It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything like this – more than a few years, actually (I think the last one I read was something by Hawking, or Kip Thorne.) I’ve always seen it as separate from my interest in magic, though – as I said, I’m nothing but annoyed by New Age attempts to equate quantum effects with New Thought-style magic. I didn’t even like “The Tao of Physics.”
Yet, now I have to read a 500-page book on spacetime before I can get past page 59 of a 300-page book on magic.