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Edit: I didn’t do a great job walking you through my reasoning in this post. I revisit it a week later for a second try, as the second half of the weekly comments round-up. You might enjoy that post more.
When I posted yesterday about how talking to trees is really just absorbing the tree’s energy, then talking to yourself, I hadn’t expected it to be controversial. Interesting, sure. Unexpected even. But I didn’t realize I was slaying a sacred cow.
To all the commenters: Thank you for the intelligent, respectful disagreement. I love learning new things from you, and I love how it’s always a discussion, not a flame war. You’re awesome, each and every one of you.
As I thought about each of your comments, there were a few themes that kept coming up. I’m going to post them here, then add a couple notes in the comments of the previous post.
Seeking Scientific Truth
There is a right answer, and I intend to find it. This necessarily means looking at some beliefs and realizing they are inaccurate in a variety of ways.
Part of this is expecting a belief or model to make some kind of verifiable prediction. Yvonne said:
The most controversial part refers to the kind of “intelligence” that you cannot discern in the tree. It might be that it exists, but in the state of consciousness in which you are operating, which is fourth dimensional, and it is not possible to discern. I think this might be the case with your crystals as well?
This is a generous way of making everyone right: I say I can’t find any intelligence, and I’m right that I can’t find it. They claim there is intelligence, and they’re right, but it’s an intelligence that isn’t discernible — it doesn’t interact with anything, except through communication. And since Yvonne is quite diplomatic, I would expect nothing less from her.
But that just doesn’t sit well with me. Because I care more about finding the truth — or at least, finding a useful, more accurate model — than I care about being right, or about saving someone’s feelings. I would rather make a concrete prediction, discover I’m wrong and then come to a more correct belief, rather than leave everything vague. And I expect the same from any model of reality I use. This probably makes me less popular than if I made everyone right, but it’s more true to who I am, and it’s probably more useful in the long-run (in terms of the models you develop).
Separating Experiences from Explanations
I trust that subjective experiences were actually experienced. If a lot of shamen say they feel like they are talking to a spirit when they take a drug or meditate on a tree, I believe that’s how they felt. Same with other religions: If you feel closer to God when you flog yourself, I believe that flogging produces a feeling of being closer to God for some people. I trust subjective experiences in this way.
But I don’t give a lot of weight to the mechanism people assign to that subjective experience, particularly if the person comes from a culture without a tradition of science. That is, I trust their experience, but not their explanation.
Why? Well, it’s incredibly easy to get this stuff wrong. Most people would jump from, “I feel like I’m talking to a spirit” to “I actually am talking to a spirit,” without considering other explanations for that feeling, other ways of testing for the spirit, and so on. That’s what I did as a teen, and it wasn’t until my 30s that I’d developed the skills to actually test for spirits, then think to test this particular model. And you know how strong my science worldview is.
So, the fact that lots of shamen attribute this subjective experience to tree spirits doesn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t count as a significant weight one way or the other when I consider the different models.
Actually Simple is Different than Intuitively Simple
I know it doesn’t feel like it, but my explanation — that the brain absorbs energy and thinks in a slightly different way — is actually simpler than suggesting that spirits live in trees.
The problem is, my explanation doesn’t feel simpler. To understand my explanation, you have to understand energy signatures, something about nerves and the brain, how subjective experiences can be deceiving, and a bunch of steps to connect all of the parts. It feels pretty complex.
Contrast that with the shaman’s explanation: There’s a spirit in the tree that talks to you. There’s only 2 active parts, both of them are human-like, and it’s comfortable. Our brains evolved to be really good at imagining and understanding other human-like minds, and so it all feels pretty intuitive.
But actual simplicity isn’t the same as the feeling of simplicity. Actual simplicity means that an explanation works using already-established mechanisms, and doesn’t propose new laws of the universe. Sunlight based on nuclear fusion is simpler than sunlight based on Ra, even though the simpler answer involves a lot more math.
How do the two models stack up in terms of proposing new laws?
Energy influencing thoughts is something I’ve observed a lot, can cause myself, can have heard similar reports from other mages. It is well-established.
Trees having a different energy than people is also not surprising, and is easy to observe.
What about the idea that having your mind in a different energy state feels like talking with an outside spirit? For me, that was easy to observe — that’s what I did before writing that post. And beyond that, it makes sense: The way we tell a spirit’s message apart from our own thoughts is by recognizing the different energy signature of their message, so if a foreign (tree-based) energy shifts our own thoughts into a foreign signature, it’s not surprising that it would feel like our thoughts are coming from a spirit.
Now, suggesting a spirit is tied to a plant isn’t that much of a stretch, either. I’ve seen spirits, I’ve seen plants, and I could connect them easily. That’s why I went looking for them. But I’m pretty good at spotting spirits and their connections, and I didn’t find any. So now we’re not talking about ordinary spirits, but rather a new type of spirit that I cannot detect, which is a whole new thing that wasn’t previously in our model. Which is why that explanation is no longer simple.
What about getting actual information, like the potential uses of a plant? Doesn’t that require a plant spirit? Sorry, no: All you need is psychic ethereal software. The shaman has a connection to the software, thinks “I wonder what this plant does,” and the software reads the question and pushes information into her mind. I know, much less sexy than plants telling you what they can do, but much, much simpler.
I regret saying that “No one thinks LSD is intelligent.” I had no idea how broad of a category “no one” really is.
So, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that spirits never connect to plants, or that no group of shamen has ever found a group of spirits who likes connecting to plants. What I’m saying is that those events are rare, and that I would expect the drug-like mechanism I’m proposing is much more common.
Slaying Sacred Cows
I’m also realizing that, to build magick into a mature, respected field will involve slaying a lot of sacred cows. Probably even some of my own. I hope that we can all continue to have these great, respectful discussions, no matter whose cow is getting slain this week. Because it will come around to all of us, eventually.
Also, a quick scheduling note: I’m going on a retreat this afternoon, returning Saturday. No post tomorrow, though I’ll use my phone to approve comments (if I have a signal). You’ll have to entertain one another until then.
Now, have at it in the comments.Other posts in this series:
- How Energy is like LSD (May 9, 2012)
- Discuss Terrence McKenna (May 10, 2012)
- I Trust Experiences, Not Explanations (May 10, 2012)
- Talking with Trees: Try it Yourself (May 11, 2012)