Why Most Mages Don’t Do Science

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Most mages never see the unconscious forces that drive magick. Which makes understanding impossible.

Magical Experiments and The Razor’s Edge, have been asking “Why don’t people do more experiments in magick?” Their answers focus around science being hard and testing being not fun / socially discouraged.

Neither of those gets to the heart of the matter. It’s not that I disagree with them (I don’t). But there’s a deeper, systematic flaw to how we do magick that’s preventing us from reaching the level of science:

Mages don’t experiment because we ignore 2/3 of how magick works.

I’m going to explain that, and what we should do, but first we need to discuss what science really is.

Science = Systematic Explanations

People think of science as “Hypothesis, experiment, accept / reject hypothesis.” It’s what we’re taught in high school. But it’s simplified to the point that it’s not even useful.

99% of the effort is identifying a hypothesis that’s worth testing. You don’t just pick an idea at random, test it, then pick another. No, you observe a lot of events (without any particular hypothesis in mind), develop a good model, and only then test it.

Before Copernicus realized planets orbit the sun, he observed planetary motion. That lead to a model, which led to a prediction, which lead to the tests.

But not just any model. “The planets move because God blows on them” doesn’t count. We need a systematic explanation: A model that steps through the process, explaining how all the moving parts behave and interact, so you can simulate it in your thoughts. You don’t just stumble on systematic explanations. You build them by studying observations.

If you’re not sure about systematic explanations vs fake explanations, try this: Think about something you’re good at. Baking a cake. Climbing a wall. Building a spice rack. Whatever. Just imagine all the steps, walk through the process, and see how you can easily imagine what would happen if you altered one of the steps.

Now pick something you don’t know — your computer requesting a web page, say — and try to do the same thing. You’ll have some high-level pieces (your computer, the internet, the message), but no idea what any of them do at any given step. You can’t zoom in on a step and explain its substeps. That’s how you recognize a fake explanation.

For me, those are reversed. I can give a real explanation of retrieving a web page, but have no idea how baking works. (It involves soda, or yeast, or something, right?) And that’s part of the point: The systematic-ness isn’t in the world, it’s in the model in your head. There are no mysterious phenomena, only phenomena we don’t understand.

Making Systematic Explanations

Copernicus couldn’t have modeled planetary motion if he’d never seen the sun.

If you only have part of the process, it’s much harder to make a systematic explanation. Especially when the missing parts behave in complex ways for reasons you don’t understand.

Imagine someone like me, trying to understand baking a cake. If I have the whole recipe, I can make a decent cake, then try out different ingredients, experiment some, and figure out how it all works. (“Figure out how it all works” = “Make a systematic explanation.”)

But now imagine I have half the recipe. You’re doing the other half. And to mess with me, you randomly change some ingredients. Sure, I might figure out what’s going on eventually, by doing a ton of trials and finding averages, but it will be a lot harder. And if I don’t realize there are missing variables? Hopeless.

A (Quick) Systematic Explanation of Magick

Now you know what we’re trying to do. But before I can show you how mages fail, and how to fix it, we need an overall model of magick. Here’s mine:

  1. Your conscious mind uses some form of symbolism (either traditional or personal) to signal your goal to your unconscious mental muscles.
  2. Your mental muscles act on this goal, usually by sending instructions to an external force (a “system”).
  3. The system shifts probabilities, produces energy, or does whatever else to make the magick happen.

For details, see this series.

You can also do magick without a system once you awaken your mental muscles. But that’s a detail we don’t need right now.

So, 3 steps. First, a “do-anything-you-want” message creation, then an unconscious process, then an external force that does the actual work.

Where do you think most books on magick focus?

Focusing on Recipes

If you guessed “The first step, where you signal your intent any way you please,” you’re a winner.

Everything you’ll commonly read in books, from rituals to visualizations to correspondence tables to “belief as a tool,” is primarily about communicating that intent.

Traditional rituals also get systems to contact you. But again, an unnecessary detail for this discussion.

Why? I can’t be sure if this is the reason, but it’s roughly a thousand times easier to explain a visualization than to explain how to make an unconscious process conscious, and roughly a million times easier to do that than to understand the internal workings of those forces that do the actual magick.

Focusing on the conscious step is like reading a recipe out loud, but letting someone else mix all the ingredients. If they’re anything like the human unconscious, half the time they’ll say “That’s nice, but instead of the baking soda you asked for, I’m adding milk, because milk is awesome.”

So, you say “1 cup flour, 1 cup water,” but don’t see any of the other steps: Which ingredients actually make it in, in which quantities, how long they bake for, etc. You just see the end product, which probably didn’t work right. Then you try again, and the same recipe produces something else. Do you think you’d ever get a systematic explanation? Or even reliable results?

In this analogy, the force you channel (the “system”) corresponds to the kitchen. It doesn’t matter how insistent you are with your unconscious, if the kitchen doesn’t have honey, you’re getting sugar. (Or if your unconscious is less cooperative / skilled, you might wind up with cinnamon or table salt). And since most mages aren’t aware of which systems they use, you won’t know when someone else is working with different ingredients.

And what if you only visualize the end goal (“I want a chocolate cake”), not the individual steps? Or if you only do traditional rituals, where the entire recipe is set out and you aren’t supposed to change anything? Well, then you can’t even experiment with different ingredients — you can’t even try to figure out what’s going on.

That’s what’s going on with magick: By ignoring the forces that drive our results, we’ll never figure out which physical changes correspond to which symbols, let alone reliably bake a cake.

Exploring Magick Through Science

So here’s what we know so far:

  • Science requires systematic explanations.
  • You make a systematic explanation by observing all parts.
  • Mages focus on communicating intent to the unconscious, ignoring the other parts.

This, I believe, is the heart of why mages aren’t doing scientific experiments: We never even get the systematic explanation.

The solution? Observe the other steps of magick, and build a systematic explanation worth testing.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just believing you can. You need tools to observe magick, in the same way biologists need microscopes and physicists need photon detectors. Creating them yourself, before you have a whole picture of magick or even know which techniques matter, takes decades. (It took me about 15 years). Which is probably why most people aren’t exploring these parts of magick.

It’s much easier once you know the answers. So here’s the guide, plus the broad strokes of my systematic explanation of magick. That should make your exploration much faster than mine was.

If you liked this post, consider visiting my current blog at mikesententia.com.


7 Responses to “Why Most Mages Don’t Do Science”

  1. Actually Mike, in the first paragraph of my post I talked about the lack of process (or system if you want) and why its a problem and why need to understand the process of magic they develop. Then I focused on the nut fun part. My point in stating that here, is that like you, I did get to the heart of the matter. Also please don’t add a k to magical experiments. I thoroughly dislike the bastardization of magic that Crowley did.

  2. Hi Taylor, thanks for writing back. Remember, in my style of magick, “system” is a technical term meaning “the force a mage channels.” If you’re familiar with egrigore, it’s similar to that. So I wasn’t really talking about a lack of process, I was talking about whether our observations include the steps done by the unconscious mental muscles and the forces they channel.

    And I’ve updated the name of your blog in the post.

  3. Ananael Qaa says:

    I think that there are a couple of things to take into account when looking at the assertion that “most mages don’t do science.” The first is that I think a lot more of them do empirical experiments than that statement would suggest, they just don’t share their results. One of the things I try to be vocal about on my blog is that secrecy regarding such things helps no one, and if we want the discipline to move forward we need to publicize those experiments and build a general knowledge base just like what we find in the physical sciences. That’s why blogs like yours, which publicize experimental results, are so important to this effort.

    Second of all, anyone looking into this issue has to first accept that magick is difficult to investigate via the formal scientific method. It’s not completely deterministic and operates by creating probability shifts that are sometimes quite small, so in order to get reliable results you need large sample sizes. I don’t think that the problem here is formulating hypotheses – I can say “I hypothesize that set A of ritual forms should produce a higher probability shift than set B” without too much difficulty, but I can’t validate that scientifically without doing a whole bunch of rituals and recording the results to get my confidence interval up on the sample. Let’s say a ritual takes 15 to 20 minutes to perform, and I need several hundred of those for my sample. The time requirements really add up.

    Finally, much of what you talk about in terms of building a “systematic explanation” is so subjective that it’s going to be hard to work out even if you have a huge sample. For example, I’m not sure that I agree with you that there’s some special “unconscious mechanism” by which you activate your “mental muscles.” Based on my understanding of neuroscience, I would have to say that “mental muscles” should work the same way regular ones do – there’s a neural process involved, but it’s not really “conscious” or “unconscious,” at least the way most people mean it. You will your arm to move and it moves, and I think magick is similar when you break it down at that level. For that hypothesis, how would I even begin to set up an experiment?

    Well, let’s see. I could set up a functional MRI machine to monitor the neural patterns that are set in motion (A) during normal movement and (B) when setting in motion a magical operation. Then do some sort of statistical comparison between the firing patterns. We are getting to the point in our scientific understanding of the world where such a thing is possible, but only in a big research lab with access to multi-million dollar equipment. You can get your hands on an EEG machine for a few thousand these days, but those are a lot less accurate.

    This is a good question – I think that the discipline of magick can only benefit from a more scientific approach, at least if individual mages are willing to share their results rather than adhering to some old-aeon notion of secrecy regarding techniques and methods.

  4. […] seems like I’ve gotten into quite a discourse. In his latest post, Mike argues that magicians don’t experiment because most of them ignore 2/3rds of how magic […]

  5. Hello, Mike. I responded to Taylor’s article on his Google+ page, and there I listed several unsolved (and possibly unsolvable) problems with scientific experimentation and magic, but here I will respond just to some points you made above, as part of the greater conversation.

    “1. Your conscious mind uses some form of symbolism (either traditional or personal) to signal your goal to your unconscious mental muscles.
    “2. Your mental muscles act on this goal, usually by sending instructions to an external force (a “system”).
    “3. The system shifts probabilities, produces energy, or does whatever else to make the magick happen.”

    None of these is (in its present state) a testable hypothesis; neither taken together. The parts and their relationships are not clearly enough defined. Respectfully, you seem to have traded one ghost for another.

    “By ignoring the forces that drive our results, we’ll never figure out which physical changes correspond to which symbols […]”

    But magicians do not ignore the forces that drive their results; they interact with them as part of their magical practice: sigils, talismans, angels, demons, subtle energies, usw. You can argue that those are not *really* the forces at work, that there are governing dynamics situated “behind” those forces, and I would not quickly disagree with you, but from what I have seen thus far from reading over your site, you have not yet identified what those governing dynamics are in any decisive way. Mere metaphors such as “mental muscles” are insufficient as models. I do not doubt that you can teach someone to experience results with your system, but people experience results (of widely varying kinds) with a wide variety of magic systems. I find nothing especially compelling about yours except perhaps its minimalist aesthetic, which is not a scientific quality.

    Science analyzes and trivializes; magic synthesizes and non-trivializes. Perhaps some aspects of magic can be usefully trivialized, but I suspect many cannot. I suppose magic in its practical sense occurs (or more correctly, recurs) at the interface of (un)consciousness and reality, but those are both dodgy subjects, and it may be that there are no objective or ultimate critera for defining either or separating one from the other. If you find such criteria, I would like to discuss them with you.

    I would add that most of what publicly goes for Chaos magic does not represent the state of the art. I know many advanced practitioners who are very much aware of the systems and processes they employ, and they indeed do more or less in/formally experiment by changing those systems and processeses and observing what results. Alas, most of them are satisfied to work in private. Not everyone shares my advocacy of open-source magic. :)


  6. Ananael and Joshua, this is why I love blogging: I get to talk with intelligent folks with different ideas making good points. That’s how learning and growth happen. Thanks for writing.


    You’re probably right about the secrecy with magick. When I visited London earlier this year, I went to a class, then talked with some folks afterward. I’d ask things like “What are you working on with magick lately,” which seemed like a good way to start a conversation about research, maybe exchange a few ideas, help each other out. But most folks clammed up like I’d asked them which STDs they have.

    I want to have a larger discussion with you about interface vs implementation in magick, which is really the difference between my systematic explanations and your A/B testing of rituals. I’ll write a post on that soon.


    Welcome to the blog. You’re right, the quick model I just laid out isn’t testable, at least in the A/B testing way Ananael is thinking of. (The more developed version of the model is, though, and I use it because it keeps passing tests in useful ways). And yes, a metaphor like “mental muscles” isn’t a model, though I do have a good and proper model behind the metaphor. (By the way, I developed the model 5-10 years ago, then made the metaphor once I started writing. My old term was “mental areas,” which has the same meaning-free feel of “systems.” But I wanted something a little more accessible to new readers).

    Which brings me to a series I’ve been meaning to write for a while, walking through the various pieces of my model of magick, explaining how they behave, what they predict, and what techniques I’ve been able to develop based on those models. Look for that coming up soon.

    And if you do a state-of-the-art Chaos Magick beyond what I’ve read, then I’d very much like to hear about it. I can hardly be blamed for not knowing what people are keeping secret, after all :) If you have an overview of it similar to my start page (https://magickofthought.com/start/), let me know. Feel free to leave a link here in the comments.



  7. Ananael Qaa says:

    The trouble with “mental areas” is that it implies some specific structure or region of the brain is involved in magick, which doesn’t seem to be the case. The Soviets put a ton of research into that one and still came up empty. So as much as I personally don’t like the term “mental muscles” it at least avoids that confusion and includes the accurate connotation that you can become “stronger” at performing magick the more you do it, kind of like how working out builds muscle mass.

    Terminology can really be a pain. It’s hard to come up with something that has all the connotations you want, none of the connotations you don’t, and doesn’t run anyone the wrong way.

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