27 April 2010

Science, Magic and speculation

I've found that those interested in magic and the occult are often much better versed in contemporary particle physics than the average intelligent layperson.  At first glance, this seems like a peculiar combination.  Scientism often stands in starkest contrast to spiritual inquiry.  One has only to read the screed of someone like Richard Dawkins to see the extent to which a certain kind of scientific mindset holds itself as in absolute contradiction to any kind of spiritual belief or knowledge, or really any knowledge outside of its own limited sphere.  However, the furthest reaches of scientific inquiry are opening up the scientific community to an understanding of reality that is much closer to that espoused by esotericists.  Concepts like "other dimensions," "multiverses," "retrocausality" were once exclusively the province of science-fiction and esoterism.  These are now an accepted part of the scientific lexicon.

One of the reasons that I love far reaching research in theoretical physics and why I believe it is very often of interest to those with an interest in esoterism, magic and the occult, is that it participates in the tension between wild speculation and observability that characterises so much research into spiritual practise. Both theoretical physicists and magicians start their research in the mind, not the lab.  The thought-experiments of particle physicists and the speculations of occultists happen exclusively in consciousness.  And yet...ultimately, both have to have something to do with praxis.  As a physicist, your equations and speculations will remain academic curiosities unless real work is put into demonstrating their predictive or falsifiable properties.  As an esotericist, your magical models of the universe are nothing but day-dreams if you don't put them to work.

Some try to reduce all spiritual practise to sophisticated science, and as opposed as I am to the kind of rabid scientism that I mentioned above, I don't think that this is entirely misguided.  I personally don't think that magical work can be entirely understood in scientific terms, but contemporary science has elements that are sufficiently mysterious that I can't simply dismiss the possibility out of hand.  There is simply too much we don't know.

My Idealist roots compel me to take the role of consciousness very seriously, in a way that pre-20th century science never did.  Contemporary science, at least since General Relativity and the Uncertainty principle, on the other hand, is deeply invested in the idea that consciousness is part of the equation. I think that this is very much in keeping with esoteric work and research, which ultimately rests on the axiom that the macrocosm (manifested reality) and the microcosm (consciousness) are intertwined, or, to use the terminology of particle physics, entangled.  Change in one doesn't just precipitate change in the other.  Change in one is change in the other.

As a layman, I don't pretend to understand the complexities of particle physics.  To do so would not only be a lie, but an insult to the sophistication and hard work of so many people doing such wonderful work in the field.  But I am fascinated by it, and while the ways in which we as esotericists make contemporary science  dovetail with ancient magic may inspire many good scientists to smash their heads against their blackboards, I think ultimately the convergence is a productive one.

09 April 2010

History and Myth, or Jesus and the Kraken.

I had two experiences this week that have brought to my mind the question of the relationship between history and mythology. In my professional work, I am more of an historian than anything else, so the question of history is an important one.

The first was a television programme on the History Channel about the “True Face of Jesus,” which involved the Shroud of Turin. I love these sorts of shows, and this one didn’t disappoint. Watching these artists and scientists work their magic on the image of the Shroud was a wonder to behold. The one theologian who spoke made a point about the Shroud that I have heard many times, and which goes to the heart of the meaning of the artifact. That point is that ultimately it doesn’t matter if the cloth is “Authentic” or a “Fake.” What matters is what it represents, which is the suffering of Christ and ultimately the inherence of the divine in the human. I think that some people expected that with the carbon-dating of the Shroud to the 13th century, former believers in the authenticity of the shroud would be broken into two camps: those who were no longer believers, and those who denied facts staring them in the face. I think these two groups actually represented only a small minority of those who venerated the Shroud. More numerous were those who challenged the methodology without challenging the method (e.g. those who claimed, as many now believe, that the carbon-dating was done on a repaired piece of fabric that dated from much later than the original cloth) and those for whom the “authenticity” of the Shroud didn’t matter one whit to their faith. The latter are attesting precisely to the idea that what the Shroud means is much more important than what it is; that the myth of the Shroud is greater than its facticity.

The second was the opportunity to see the movie Clash of the Titans. I fully expected this to be as much of a cheeze-fest as the original, and this too did not disappoint. I also expected to be frustrated by the mish-mash of myths cobbled together to form a story could be told on the big screen in 118 minutes. I found that this expectation was unfounded. I am not sure if this is due primarily to the skill and artistry of the creatives behind the movie, or to my realisation that I was treating Greek myth as if it were a monolithic construct that oughtn’t to be changed in the minutest detail; I was treating mythology as if it were fact. The reality is that Greek mythology is itself a mish-mash and is often self-contradictory and open to wide variation. What the movie did do, and this I never expected, was tell a story that meant something rather profound; a story that taught us that there is a nobility in human beings that does not require even the gods to validate it. It created its own myth which stands on its own, no matter what its relation to the myths of Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus and others.

So what do these things have to do with history and myth? The brute “facts” of history are particulars, and as such they tell us nothing outside of themselves. They only become meaningful when they themselves are subjected to the process of historiography, in which they become not data but meanings, not facts but myths. In this process they become universals expressed in concrete form, existential absolutes. The myths are true. The facts that make them up are merely, at best, correct. This is a distinction that is attested to in the language of the Greeks and Romans; it was present in our thought but we have lost touch with it in an age where many believe that only scientific “facts” are true. As Heidegger writes in his The Question Concerning Technology, “the correct is not yet the true.” This statement is very telling: it is not that the correct and the true are opposed, indeed they share an opposite, namely the false. It is not that facts have nothing to do with truth. It is only that facts are only on the way to being true. It is myth, even when it gets its facts wrong, that speaks truth, and when we lose our myths, we lose our capacity for truth.