The Clenched Fist of Reason, by John Michael Greer

This new blog, The Well of Galabes is quite promising - Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. It's rather long, but well written and insightful. Here is an excerpt:

It’s the cultural layer that stirs up the controversy, because our culture has staked its survival, and more than merely its own survival, on the notion that the peculiar way its inmates construct the world is not the jumble of genetic, collective, and individual patterns that its own sciences prove it to be, but the plain unvarnished truth about the universe, which ought to be obvious to anyone anywhere who pays unbiased attention to the world around them. Thus the only version of history that most people in the industrial world are willing to consider is one that explains how people stopped believing all the obviously muddleheaded things they used to believe about the cosmos, and learned to see the reality that was sitting right out in front of them all along—which, of course, just happens to be the one we construct, moment by moment, as we make our worlds.

There are plenty of problems with that way of thinking about history, but the one that’s most relevant to the project of this blog can be grasped by recalling the last time you saw a cat staring intently at something that your eyes didn’t see. The worlds constructed by different cultures don’t just vary from one another in how they arrange the flurry of disconnected data that comes streaming in through the senses. They also vary in which data they include in their arrangements, which they exclude, what they consider important and what gets dismissed as meaningless. It’s entirely possible for the world of a given culture, at a given era in its history, to exclude utterly a range of common human experiences that the worlds of most other human cultures treat as having very great importance. We know this because the world of modern industrial culture does exactly this—and among the things that are excluded in that world, dismissed as nonexistent and meaningless and imaginary, are the raw materials of magic.
The predicament at the heart of it, though, can be summed up easily enough. For reasons we’ll be discussing in a later post, rationalism suffers from an innate and lethal tendency to lose track of the difference between the abstractions that it contemplates and the universe that those abstractions are meant to represent. That confusion between representation and reality tends to increase over time as the rationalist movement defines its view of existence with more and more precision. It’s as simple as it is inevitable: the tighter the rationalist clenches his fist, if you will, the more of the universe of possible human experience slips through his fingers.
Magic, as I suggested in last month’s post, is the reset button for minds that have allowed their worlds, their representations, to get out of sync with the reality those representations are meant to describe. In all ages, that’s highly useful for individuals; at certain times, which recur with remarkable predictability in the lives of civilizations, that’s necessary for entire societies. We live in such a time, in case you haven’t noticed.
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The next entry is up, and IMO it's pretty good:

The Course the Nations Run

It’s one of the more common modern form of doublethink, as I commented in a previous post, to allow that of course the universe we experience is a mental construct rather than an objective reality, and then to turn right around and insist that some currently popular features of that mental construct—the deadness, mindlessness, and meaninglessness of the cosmos, for example—are objectively real truths, while features of mental constructs that our culture doesn’t encourage—the presence of life, mind, and meaning in the nonhuman cosmos, for instance—are just plain wrong. We’ll be contending with that sort of doublethink over and over again as this discussion continues.

For now, I’ll simply point out that experiencing the world as a community of living and thinking beings leads to one set of behaviors and attitudes toward the rest of the universe, while quite a different set of behaviors and attitudes follows from experiencing the world as a dead and mindless mass of raw material that has only whatever meaning and value certain human beings choose to give it. Which of those behaviors is more useful in the present predicament of industrial society is another point worth considering, and we’ll be discussing it, too, as these posts proceed.
On that least part, see an article about Bergson:

Henri Bergson and the Perception of Time

...Despite the recovery of a more vitalistic outlook in attitudes towards physical and mental wellbeing, the main underlying perception of our modern, urban-industrial society remains mechanistic and soulless. Over the years, the dominant western worldview has become de-vitalised and devalued, especially in politics and economics. Let’s suppose things had developed in a more balanced, Bergsonian way over the sixty years or more since his death: reason and intuition, intellect and imagination, matter and mind, the physical and the spiritual. Perhaps we would have learned from this a greater respect for all expressions of the life force, including our own species...


The Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Dragon

...Thinking in the early stage of a civilization always centers on some such set of emotionally charged representations that bring order to the cognitive chaos of a fallen civilization. Such thinking differs in important ways from the sort of thinking that’s common nowadays, or more generally in the last centuries of any civilization. We think abstractly, analytically, sorting out our perceptions into one or another scheme of categories; people in dark ages think concretely, synthetically, relating their perceptions to one or another set of compelling images. Thus it never occurred to medieval authors to suggest that Christmas should be celebrated at the time of year when shepherds in Judea actually keep watch in the fields, as the Biblical narrative specifies. To the medieval mind, the birth of Christ and the winter solstice, when the first slight northward movement of the sun’s apparent path in the sky announces the return of light and life to the world, belong so self-evidently to the same synthetic pattern of imagery that mere history had no power to separate them.

The transition from the numinous, emotionally charged images that surround a civilization’s cradle to the finely wrought but passionless abstractions that gather around its deathbed takes place, broadly speaking, in three stages. It so happens that very often, those three stages are assigned distinct names by historians, which makes the process easy to trace. In the modern Western world, those three stages are called the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Era; in the history of ancient Greece, they were the Archaic period, the Classical period, and the Hellenistic period, and so on. I propose to give them more general names, and since this is a blog about occult philosophy, I don’t propose to limit myself to the sort of dry nomenclature historians think they have to use these days. The names I’ll use for these periods are the time of the Unicorn, the time of the Phoenix, and the time of the Dragon...


Three Fallacious Arguments: An Interlude

...That said, there’s also a logical issue here. The question “does X happen?” is logically distinct from the question “why does X happen?” Thousands of years before Newton worked out the theory of gravitation, people knew that objects fall when they’re dropped, and could make accurate predictions on the basis of their knowledge, even though they had no notion of the cause. For that matter, Newton himself famously refused to offer any hypothesis about what gravity was; his sole concern was to construct a precise mathematical model of the way that it appeared to work. Only the fact that heavy objects clearly do fall when dropped, I suspect, prevented the skeptics of Newton’s day from rejecting his ideas out of hand; after all, late 17th century physics hadn’t yet conceived of the curvature of spacetime, and so didn’t have a causal mechanism in place to explain the effects of gravity.

This latter point can be made even more forcefully, because most of the great scientific discoveries of the last three or four centuries would have been “disproved” by the arguments today’s skeptics use with such eager abandon. Let’s take Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an example. When it was first formally proposed in 1859, to begin with, Darwin’s claims were extraordinary by most standards, while the proof he offered to back up those claims was composed of ordinary scientific evidence, some of it the product of his own painstaking research, some published by others in the scientific journals of the day, all of it solid but none of it particularly amazing. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, as so many skeptics insist today, Darwin’s work should have been rejected out of hand by the scientific community of his time.

Furthermore, there was no shortage of ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the facts Darwin marshalled, without recourse to a theory of evolution. Some scholars in Darwin’s time argued that fossils were the bones of ancient animals that failed to find room aboard Noah’s ark; others insisted that, just as Adam had a navel even though he’d never needed an umbilical cord, the Earth was created miraculously in 4004 BCE with a complete stock of fossils, as though it had existed from measureless time; still others argued that fossils had been put there by Satan in an attempt to lure the unwary into eternal damnation. If it’s legitimate to use ad hoc hypotheses to dismiss possibilities that don’t conform to existing theory, it would have been equally appropriate to insist that the evidence for evolution “must have been caused by” the Flood, or God, or Satan, and dismiss Darwin’s theory on that basis.

Finally, Darwin’s theory required two things for which the science of his time had no causative mechanisms at all. The theory of heredity as understood in the middle of the 19th century argued that the traits of each parent blended completely with the other, and so provided no way for individual characteristics to be passed down unchanged to offspring—that didn’t enter the body of science-as-product until the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work in the early 20th century. What’s more, 19th century physics provided no mechanism for the Sun to keep shining for the immense periods of time needed for evolution to work, and so physicists in Darwin’s lifetime insisted that life on Earth could only be a few million years old. Evolutionary biologists ignored that, because they were confident that a mechanism that would provide billions of years of sunlight would be found, and of course it was. If it’s reasonable for observed phenomena to be rejected if no causal mechanism capable of producing them is known, though, Darwin’s theory should certainly have been tossed in the trash.

Fortunately, that’s not the way science worked in 1859. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was assessed on its own merits, not dismissed out of hand because it contradicted the science-as-product of its day. The body of ordinary evidence that bolstered Darwin’s extraordinary claim was recognized as quite adequate to the purpose; the various ad hoc hypotheses brandished about by critics were recognized as such, and mocked merrily on that basis in the scientific and popular press; and the absence of crucial causal mechanisms, far from causing The Origin of Species from being tossed in the nearest dustbin, encouraged researchers to go looking for those mechanisms, and find them...


Two Impossible Realities: A Second Interlude

“The great magical agent that we have called astral light, by others named the soul of the earth, which the old alchemists denominated under the names of Azoth and Magnesia, this occult, unique, and indomitable force, is the key of all empire, the secret of all power. It is the flying dragon of Medea, the serpent of the mystery of Eden; it is the universal mirror of visions, the bond of sympathies, the source of love, prophecy, and glory. To know how to wield this agent is to have disposal of a power like that of God; all real and effective magic, all true occult power is in it, and all the books of true [occult] science have no other end but to demonstrate it” (Dogme de la Haute Magie, ch. 11).

“The astral light” is one of the terms commonly used in occult writings for the X factor we’re discussing. There are plenty of others, but this is the one I propose to use in these essays, not least because it carries a good deal less intellectual freight than most of its rivals.

“The whole of magical theory and practice,” the great English magical teacher Dion Fortune wrote, “turns on two points—autosuggestion and the astral light.” Over the months to come, we’ll talk about how these two factors work together to bring about change in consciousness in accordance with will. Before that can begin, though, it’s going to be necessary to spend a little more time talking about this mysterious X factor, the astral light—what it is, how it functions, and why even suggesting the idea reliably elicits foam-flecked tirades from the defenders of the rationalist status quo.


Surfing the Astral Light

In making sense of the astral light, the concept introduced in last month’s post on The Well of Galabes, it’s worth keeping in mind that operative mages are by and large more concerned with using magic than they are with proving its existence and efficacy to hostile skeptics The concerns of materialists or, for that matter, the dubious logic generally deployed in attempts to defend materialist skepticism these days, aren’t of great interest to most of the serious practitioners of magic I’ve met; if the skeptics don’t wish to help themselves to the practical benefits of magic, why should the mages care?

Thus the concept of the astral light is not presented by magical literature as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. It’s probably necessary to point out that this doesn’t make it meaningless. Falsifiable scientific hypotheses are extremely useful in that large but not limitless realm to which the methods of science apply—broadly speaking, those aspects of human experience that are subject to replicable quantitative measurement—but they reach no further. Such statements as “I love you,” “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives me also,” and “government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed” are not falsifiable scientific hypotheses, either, but I hope most of my readers will admit that they mean something, and in their own spheres, something of importance..
...For most people, under most circumstances, the process of creating a world out of the fragmentary glimpses handed us by the senses isn’t a conscious thing. Still, it can be shaped by conscious action, and one of the most useful ways to shape the process is by changing the focus of attention.

This is something that every scientist learns early on in his or her university training. If you’re just beginning the study of botany, for example, odds are that you’ve only paid cursory attention to the trees and plants you see every day; you might be able to recognize a dozen species of trees and as many lawn and garden weeds, but how many people actually take the time, let’s say, to examine a blade of grass an inch at a time through a magnifying lens? As you study plant physiology and structure, put in the hours keying out plants in the laboratory, and tromp through the mud on field identification walks, what used to be a vague green background turns into something considerably richer: a galaxy of complex, meaningful structures that can be read and understood, and can teach you things that the uninstructed don’t notice. This plant tells you that the ground where it grows tends to be soggy in winter; that one tells you that the soil is poor in nitrogen; the tree up on the hill, which belongs to a species normally found far to the north, reveals the otherwise hidden history of climate change in your region over the last ten or twenty thousand years, and so on.

At the heart of that reshaping of awareness is a process of using concepts to focus the attention Before your first botany class, you may have looked at leaves on stems any number of times, but without the technical vocabulary of the botanist, it might never have occurred to you to notice the difference between those plants that have leaves in pairs on either side of the stem and those that have them unpaired—in botanical terms, between opposite and alternate habits. Simple and compound leaves, palmate and pinnate veins, entire, dentate, and serrate leaf edges, and the rest of the incantatory vocabulary of the field botanist: all of that permits botanists to communicate exact details of plant structure to one another, but it also, and crucially, focuses the attention of the novice botanist onto exactly those details that allow plant structure to be understood.

That sort of refocusing of attention on details that might otherwise be neglected is central to most kinds of education. It certainly plays a crucial role in magical training and initiation, and the use of concepts to focus attention is just as important to the neophyte occultist as it is to the beginner in botany. The astral light, as a concept, has a central part in that process. Whether or not you’ve had any previous exposure to occult philosophy, dear reader, and even if you consider the subject of this blog to be the worst sort of superstitious malarkey, imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as the astral light—a vast field of subtle substance streaming out from the Sun to fill the solar system and everything in it, intangible to the physical senses and to all the instruments so far devised, but clearly perceptible to certain less widely recognized capacities of human consciousness. Imagine that this field permeates your body and that of every other living and nonliving thing, and that the phenomena discussed in last month’s post are among its many effects.

That’s a core aspect of the universe as understood by traditional occult philosophy. Like the details of plant structure studied by botanists, it directs attention toward certain things that are otherwise very often neglected by the untrained...
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New entry:

A Seafood Dinner in Lost R'lyeh

I find the stories of H.P. Lovecraft delightfully funny. Yes, I know that wasn’t the literary effect that he was hoping to achieve with his tales of supernatural horror, but there it is. To me, Lovecraft’s fiction has a sort of earnest absurdity I can only compare with the less frantically giddy products of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and it never fails to summon a smile....

...Lovecraft revolutionized the horror genre by putting the worldview of contemporary science at the center of his literary effort, in place of the medieval trappings that had dominated the genre since Horace Walpole finished penning The Castle of Otranto. The fears Lovecraft tried to evoke, with quite a bit of success, were utterly modern fears, and the particular terror from which he got the most mileage in his stories also happens to be the mainspring of the modern rejection of magic and religion. Tracking how those fears shape the collective imagination of contemporary humanity will make it a good deal easier to make sense of one of the most challenging dimensions of occult philosophy....