Chaos magician and author Gordon White on the blurring of parapsychology and magic.
photo by: Skeptiko
Nobody does magic quite like Disney. The sciency wizard, the wand, the spells, it’s all burned into our collective consciousness, along with the idea that it’s all silly nonsense, but hey, what about this…
(Dr. Dean Radin on RuneSoup) Sorry, I should back up a second here and say I’m talking in a way that a year ago I would never have talked, I would never have used the word ‘magic’ and I wouldn’t have talked about spirits or anything of that sort.
That’s Dr. Dean Radin, the Dr. Dean Radin, pre-eminent parapsychology researcher, pioneering researcher and he’s talking with today’s guest, author and chaos magician, Gordon White.
So, this is all relatively new for me. I know a little bit more than I did a year ago, because I’ve just written a book on this, but the thing that sparked my interest in looking into the esoteric traditions is, that I’ve been working in psi research for something like three decades, almost four decades now, and I had to think really hard for anybody whoever talked about… a couple of anthropologists will talk about the psychic and Sharman connections as real, as opposed to as theater.
In the most recent large book, which is a state of the art book on psi research called A Handbook of Parapsychology for the 21st Century, the word ‘magic’ doesn’t even show up in the index. I found this kind of puzzling because, of course, everybody’s well aware of what the Sharman’s claim to be able to do and we’re well aware of notions of what magic is, at least what is portrayed in entertainment, and I became curious as to why it doesn’t show up. I mean, I’m involved in the profession of studying magic, if we think of magic in the proper terms.
So I went through this whole business of seeing if I could synthesize, what are the basic magical practices and seeing if I could map it onto psi research and of course, it completely maps.
(Gordon White) It 100% maps, absolutely.
It a 100% match. So then I was shocked at, “Well, how come I didn’t know this?” It’s virtually because no one ever talks about it, and then, well why is that? Well, we’re being scientists, that’s why.
So, fully take that in for a minute. The leading light of psi research, Dean Radin, is telling us that psi, the stuff that’s blown the lid off of grandpa’s dopey old materialistic science, well he seems to be saying that, that isn’t really science at all, it’s maybe better termed ‘magic’.
(Gordon White on Redesigning Society) Yeah, I have this definition down to a sentence now I subsequently explain, which is, ‘magic is a culture specific way of using or interacting with the natural consciousness capacities of a particular human.’
Here’s Gordon again, this time he’s chatting it up with Phillip Watt, on his magic themed podcast, Redesigning Society, but tell me, as you’re listening, does this sound like a podcast about magic or a science podcast, because I’m not sure which is which anymore?
So, that might sound a bit circular, but actually if you look across the world at systems or cultures that have never repudiated magic in the same way that the northwest European Enlightenment did, and I’m being very specific about that in Europe because you’re actually finding in southern Europe that it’s carried on merrily in the kind of folk traditions of Italian grandmothers and so on, but it’s a very specific Cartesian post-Enlightenment world out of all of human history that repudiated it.
But if you look around the world there are, sort of, what you might call ‘magical powers’, for want of a lesser dramatic term, a number of techniques that are reasonably conserved. So you have some method of seeing the future, or clairvoyance, you have some method of communicating across distance, so you have telepathy or whatever you want to call it, these are just modern words for capacities right? Then you have interacting or communicating with the spirit world and then you have some method, as a result of that typically, of what I would call probability enhancement or probability manipulation, which is, to make the things that you want happen more often than the things that you don’t want to happen.
What’s interesting to me about that is, if you look at the history of say, the development of psi and the Society of Psychical Research and all these kinds of groups that emerged about 150 years ago, we now have 150 years of evidence, mostly laboratory evidence that basically falls neatly into these four categories.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m pining for a simple-minded world of biological robots in a meaningless universe, a paradigm that we’ve thoroughly trashed on this show over the years, but at the same time I’m not entirely sure Dean Radin knows what he’s signing up for.
Here’s occult philosophy expert and more importantly, practicing ceremonial magician, Dr. Stephen Skinner, on Greg Carlwood’s, The Higherside Chats show.
(Dr. Stephen Skinner, on The Higherside Chats) One of the basic grimoire things is that the parchment that you do the key seals on things, must be made from an animal because parchment is animal skin and that you should make it yourself and I have done that and it’s quite an interesting procedure and it’s hard work and I can tell you that parchment, rather than paper or plastic or something, is much more effective. So, perhaps in some reason, the spirit can, I won’t say see it but understand the sigils on it because it’s written on something that was once living, whereas if you just sketch it out with a compass on a piece of paper it’s much, much, much less effective.
People will not push themselves to do those things. Now, one day somebody may discover how you can do sigils on plastic and still get the same effect but it sure as hell is not going to be me.
Yeah, I mean, once we can do it on Facebook we’re all going to be set.
Yeah, it will not happen. There are only certain images and things that the spirits recognize and these are not what comes up on Facebook.
(Greg Carlwood) Damn. Well, as for people’s fears on this kind of stuff, I’ve heard you discuss the classic notion of the Faustian pact, this idea of making a deal with a trickster and losing your soul and then it was more of a Christian invention to scare people off and I think that’s really interesting. How can we separate real concerns and dangers in dealing with this kind of thing, from that lingering propaganda residue?
Okay, you’re absolutely right. It was largely a Christian gloss on the Faust books that he lost his soul. The pact is real but the pact is what the spirit makes with you and it’s his obligations to you that are written into the pact. The whole idea that you lose your soul or whatever at the end, I think, is a priest’s view rather than a magician’s view.
There are dangers in magic, one of them is obsession. There are a number of people who get obsessed or possessed anyway, but if you’re actually actively calling a particular spirit, and you have no defense and you don’t know what you’re doing, then it occasionally happens that the spirit will take up residence and then you’ve got a serious problem and you need an exorcist who knows what they’re doing.
So, there are dangers in doing magic. It’s like electricity, with the right insulation, at the right circle, the right conditions, you don’t get zapped, but if you do these things and handle a wire without the right precautions, then you may get zapped.
So magic, like physics or doing household electrics, is not without danger.
Brave be the scientist who wants to bring that into the lab, but that may in fact be the future of parapsychology… and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to Gordon today on Skeptiko.
Alex Tsakiris: How do you really bring magic into the lab? If you come to that worldview shift and you say, “Okay, I really don’t understand what I’m measuring,” he wants his scientific cake and he wants to eat it too, I mean, isn’t there an inherent problem with that?
Gordon White: Yeah, absolutely but I think you sort of nailed it when you said, you mentioned 20 years in terms of people looking at Dr. Radin’s research and, sort of, figuring out what he was doing or is doing. I think, in a lot of fields, we’re at that point now where, to sort of quote Pete Carroll magic works in practice but not in theory, so I’m sort of sanguine about it.
Dean’s going to be wrong, as we all are, and I think between now and how we get to, even the word science is maybe not correct for it, but how we get to a method of inquiry that is a least worst match for these phenomena, is going to require a lot of things. It’s going to require interdisciplinary research, so it’s going to require anthropology, it’s going to require history, biology, it’s going to need all these things that we don’t have the words for, because our conception of the world has sort of outrun the way we structure learning about things, even adding ‘ology’ to a word, and putting it in little, sorts of, pillars and categories.
All that and much, much more on this episode of Skeptiko.
Gordon White: Well, like yourself, I’ve been a fan of Dr. Radin for a very long time. I love his stuff and one of the things I really resonate with, one of the things that I think is great about is work is that he marches to his own drum. So, I think he’s correct, obviously, when he said that. It was sort of a, “Well, welcome to the tent Dr. Radin,” and I think we’ve kind of had that discussion, a couple of years ago, when Starships came out and we had that discussion where I said I think magic works better as the kind of metamodel for understanding all the things we talk about, and I think it really does work better as a descriptor and baseline model.
One of the challenges with parapsychology and it’s something Dr. Radin and I spoke about, is that it still has, just by virtue of historical inertia, a lot of, kind of like 19th century premises, which they know are not correct but even just the word ‘parapsychology’ is constructed in a way that limits where the model or the field can go next.
So I think Dr. Radin should be congratulated to go, “Do you know what, mankind, which is obviously singing my song, mankind has been doing this for a long time, this is what it is,” and all these other words we use for it are ‘just words’.
Alex Tsakiris: I’ll tell you what, let’s take that to its natural conclusion. Tell me what happens when Dean brings magic into the lab.
Gordon White: I think the change for parapsychology is going to be… For the last 150 years, and rightly so, they’ve been extremely rigorous and almost nitpicky with experimental protocols and the results they have because they’ve been climbing a wall of derision for 150 years. So the game in that first one and a half centuries has been to say, “Look, here are the actual numbers, here is the spreadsheet, riddle me this materialist.”
Now, the trouble is, the next model… and I think Dean’s right and it’s heading in the right direction to bring meditators in. When you’re dealing with magic, and magic either is a practice or magic is an improved way of thinking about the world so that we may learn new things, you kind of get a non-specific uplift in people’s lives. So I contend, that’s why you get similar results, in terms of healing and synchronicity from people who are doing full-blown magic versus people who are regularly praying in a temple or church or what have you.
So, you kind of have to jump it up and make peace with the fact that the results aren’t going to be as nitpicky as parapsychology is typically used to and it is in that kind of weird… you can get the trajectories rather than pin down the numbers and I don’t know how long it’s going to take, for potentially the field to have the confidence to stand behind that as a result in the same way that they do the really, really precise stuff, because that’s kind of, you know, generals fighting the last war.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know, I kind of think that that cuts both ways. I mean, when you started that you said, “If you’re studying telepathy in the parapsychology lab, congratulations, you’re studying magic,” and I’d almost say, no, you can’t go there. That is, to me, conceding to the fact that, “I don’t know what the hell I’m studying. I’m open to the idea that I’m studying more than telepathy, but I don’t know the beginnings of where that turns into magic, where that has connections with anthropology, where that has connections with the spirit world,” which again, Dean, you know you push him on that, he’s backing off, way, way, way off, as fast as he can, and is kind of trying to find the safe space, super-psi thing, which is just again, the last refuge of the holding on of the material thing. I don’t think you are there.
Gordon White: When you said, “If you’re studying telepathy in the lab, you’re doing magic,” I think you are, just because you haven’t worked out how to think about it, if you were non-verbally communicating with someone in another room in a way that is accurate.
Alex Tsakiris: So now we need to drill into that because now we’re hitting it in a way that I haven’t heard anyone talk about it. So, we’ll go back to Dr. Stephen Skinner and he’s saying a couple of things that are shocking to a lot of people, but I certainly admire the way that he just kind of lays it out on the table, and you should really… Well, I’m going to say it as I understand it and you can correct me because you have a much better and deeper understanding of it. He says, number one, “I’m not appealing to God or some divine entity. I am appealing to, kind of, this middle layer of spirits that can affect this material world.” So, that’s one thing that I think is extremely interesting, you know, talking about ontology, I mean, that’s pretty controversial, I’ll just leave it at that.
Then number two he’s saying, “…and I can command them to do my bidding. I can make them, if I perform these certain rituals and acts in a certain way, they are required to act on my behalf in the material world.”
Now one, that’s incredibly controversial and as you say, then there’s a lot to pull apart. Well, how does that compare with someone else’s magic, how does that compare with tarot or astrology or spellcasting, whatever? You would know that world better than I do.
So, you have all that and then number two you have, “Okay, but in the process of proving that you’ve now [unclear 00:17:37] co-conspirators in the research project right? Because you’re saying there’s these forces and he’s personifying them, he’s saying, “There’s these entities out there that are going to come in and work on this experiment with me.” I just don’t know if Dean’s ready for all that, it doesn’t sound like he’s ready for that.
Gordon White: No, he’s not. When you’re talking about Dr. Stephen Skinner and the Solomonic Grimoires, you are at the, extreme is the wrong word but you’re at the Olympic level of magic as expressed in northwest European cultures.
If we’re talking about the interview with Greg on The Higherside Chats for instance, I hear him say that and like you, I want to jump in and do the interdisciplinary thing because if he’s saying there are these intermediate, these are separate, sometimes physical, sometimes non-physical beings that can interact and affect the physical world, I want to jump in and go, “Right, so I want to sit you down with some ufologists that I don’t dislike and I want to go through where some of that will match, because it is parsimonious to suggest that we are talking, at least the same, in the broadest possible sense, world.
So you kind of want to pull that out and Dr. Skinner would not be in the least bit interested. I have enough trouble getting magicians to talk about that stuff as it is, and he kind of moved down the set of protocols or contentions he’s making and you realize that, if there is a kind of spirit world that will respond to us in a reliable or semi-reliable way, then you want to back that into anthropology and then you want to go to the Amazon or Indonesia and start talking to Sharmans who make the exact same claims and see where that overlap is.
So, this is kind of what I mean about being a disciplinary. I don’t think we need to go, “Okay, it turns out magic’s probably a better, wider description than parapsychology and its associated terms,” that doesn’t mean we turn around and say, “You, magician, explain what’s going on,” because that would be a disaster.