I Trust Experiences, Not Explanations

by Mike Sententia on May 10, 2012

You found my old blog. Thanks for visiting! For my new writing, visit mikesententia.com.

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.

Distrust “Never”

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

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Enoch327 May 10, 2012 at 3:37 PM

I shall endeavor not to flame. How does one account for all of the Druids who so identified with trees? How does one account for the phrase “as above, so below”? If there is a tree there must be a spiritual counterpart. In the book “The Great Divorce” C. S. Lewis’s characters got the afterlife they felt they deserved. I think what you have proved is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. We tend to find what we expect to find-what we measure for. My standard of proof is much lower than yours. I can’t prove magick in scientific or legal way, yet the anecdotal evidence I have found overwhelms me and perhaps only me. This is as it should be. Each of us has to find our own way. I find magick to be one of the most effective spiritual paths I have encountered. And my mind remains open. Thanks for making me think. The great work continues.

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Mike Sententia May 11, 2012 at 11:42 AM

Hi Enoch, thanks for writing. You definitely met your non-flaming goal.

To answer how I account for all these people, both historical and modern, identifying with trees, I have a simple answer: Finding accurate models of magick is hard. And, especially if your culture doesn’t have a tradition of scientific investigation, it’s tremendously tempting to go with what everyone else believes, rather than investigating yourself to seek something more accurate. Add in the difference between models that are actually simple vs models that seem simple, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that many people identify with trees and with tree spirits.

Does that help?

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wsa May 10, 2012 at 9:59 PM

Good grief, Mike! I have so much I want to say to this and no time to compose a coherent post until next week. But in just one moment I would like to say two things.

(1) I don’t think you are “slaying” any “sacred cows”, I think you just hit upon a topic of great interest to your readers. Your readers seem to have vastly different life experiences leading them to have different ways of viewing the workings of this dimension.

And (2) one of the failings, to my mind, of science is the search for the holy grail of the One Right Answer to all questions and the deeply-held belief that there IS one right answer to all questions… I think the Universe has a lot more shades of grey than that. Chinese Medicine has a saying: “Many diseases, one treatment; one disease, many treatments.” Both are true depending on the viewpoint of the practitioner and the manifestation of the constitution of the patient in that moment. I think this Spirit in trees and other plants is the same kind of unsettling grey “this and that” rather than a more comforting black and white “this OR that.”

I do recognize I say all that without benefit of being an expert in your system and so I am unable to observe the workings of Magick as you outline them…. I can imagine how all the components work from your descriptions, but am not yet experienced enough to have the first-hand… well, experience, of the observation as you do. Perhaps when I do have that first-hand experience observing, I will change my mind about the amount of grey but I doubt it because the longer I remain in this world, the more convinced I am of the truth of the saying “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao.”

As always, Mike, thanks for another interesting post and discussion.

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Yoseqlo May 11, 2012 at 7:11 AM

The science mainstream always try to teach us that’s there’s only one correct answer, and many people in the world (Almost everything) had learned that maybe not only one answers.

But I personally think there are incorrect answers, which are the less useful in a practical sense, the applicability and usefulness of describing the phenomena and deriving techs in that model, then it have to consider a correct one.

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Mike Sententia May 11, 2012 at 11:48 AM

I’ll respond to both WSA and Yoseqlo here: I think it would be more accurate to say that there is one truth in the external world, but we can only approximate that truth. Therefore, multiple models may be true-ish, or true enough to be useful, and depending on what you want to do, one of these true-ish models might be better or worse than others.

But, there’s a very polite tendency to say that, since there are multiple correct answers, we should act as though all answers are true-ish. I think that’s dangerous, and ultimately prevents us from approaching that external truth. And, in the case of “trees actually have intelligent spirits you can talk to” vs “the mage absorbs the tree’s energy and talks to their own mind,” those models are pretty far apart, fairly testable, and suggest very different things about how productive it is to go out and talk to trees. In other words, one model is probably much closer to true than the other, and I don’t see a lot of situations where we should go with the less-true model in this case.

Note that you can agree with all of that while still thinking that trees have spirits.

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simon May 11, 2012 at 12:33 PM

“Note that you can agree with all of that while still thinking that trees have spirits.”

If i’m correct I think this is the crucial point that is causing some confusion. Your original post was actually about a fairly specific technical point about working with ‘energy signatures’ and was not attempting to settle the ultimate and definitive truth about whether trees have ‘spirits’ or not.

From reading your other posts its a common theme on your blog of course- dynamic and systematic models of how stuff is operating: the ‘if-you-do-this-and-tweak-that-you-get-this sort-of-result’. The focus is on how the pistons and fuel injection cells operate to get meaningful results. In this case if you make a connection to a tree you can read its energy signature.

To continue the metaphor- I think we’ve been shifting into broader arguments about what a car is for (its for getting from A to B/its for picking up hot girls/its about freedom/ its for becoming a multimillion dollar racing driver).

Understandably people have started getting slightly uneasy about this and protesting that science cannot ultimately answer these kinds of questions and doesn’t have any right to pronounce judgement

Perhaps a better example- There are some Christians who still try to maintain that the world is flat because they feel that, if they admitted it was round then the Bible is not literally true and therefore their God is not true either. Of course most of us can probably see that the earth being round of flat does not necessarily have any bearing on the ultimate nature of ‘god’ ‘the universe’ and everything.

well ok…Admittedly it does make the literal model of a man with a white beard sitting looking over the dome of the earth with the stars as little pin holes on black cardboard a bit problematic…:-)

Anyway just trying to order my own thoughts… back to moving ‘energy’ up and down my body by using a visualization. That I can verify quite easily.

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Mike Sententia May 11, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Well put, Simon. Yes, I definitely let the conversation shift from my experiences (in the first post) to an overall worldview (in the later posts), and I would serve you (the readers) better by returning to a technical explanation of my own work, rather than a discussion about shamanic models that I don’t practice. Thanks for pointing that out.

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Andrew May 11, 2012 at 10:10 AM

“Actual simplicity means that an explanation works using already-established mechanisms, and doesn’t propose new laws of the universe. ”

I would be very interested to know where this definition came from. Especially since using it pretty much eliminates any validity of it or Occam’s razor in any scientific pursuit. If simple means not proposing anything new, then the entire history of science and magick would be purposefully arguing for things that were incredibly un-simple.

In your example Ra powered light would actually be be simpler and more likely explanation given that it is much older with a very thorough set of explanations that were created over thousands of years by curious people. Where as the ideas behind physics are scattered and contentious now days. Ra – better established, older. Fission – less established, newer.

If the definition you use is correct then Occam’s razor is useless for most activities, since after all you would be saying in effect “The thing that we already suspected is obviously correct.” Rather than “The thing that takes the least energy and coordinated effort is most likely correct.”

I’m not saying that your argument is wrong, just that I think your definition of simplicity is, no matter where you got it.

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Mike Sententia May 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Hi Andrew, this is the “laws formulation” of Occam’s Razor. (Not sure if that’s the official name.) I think I first formally encountered it here:

http://lesswrong.com/lw/q3/decoherence_is_simple/

(There’s also a good intro to Occam’s there: http://lesswrong.com/lw/jp/occams_razor/ )

The idea is, if we already know that a certain type of thing exists and is fairly common — spirits, stars, weather balloons, etc — then it’s not that unlikely that there’s another one of those in a particular situation. But if we are proposing a new type of thing that we’ve never seen before — a new law, in essence — then that requires much more evidence. (Also, a new object based on known laws is much more likely than a new object that requires new laws. A 5-wheel car isn’t that improbable, while a car powered by fairy dust is very improbable.)

The point of my Ra vs fission example is that the being described by Ra requires a whole lot of physical laws to describe. It requires space chariots, for example. (Which would be awesome, and if I ever get a spare billion dollars, I’m totally funding that research.) Whereas nuclear fusion can be described by a handful of equations. Also, to tie it into the above paragraph, nuclear fusion is already part of our model of how atoms work, while Ra would be proposing a whole new law to handle this one special case.

These are important ideas, because they get to the heart of what it means to develop scientific models. That also makes them difficult. Does that answer help?

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Andrew May 11, 2012 at 1:17 PM

Yes, that is a much clearer and more complete explanation.

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Yvonne May 11, 2012 at 3:10 PM

I couldn’t wait to talk to a tree, and report back, but the comments were closed in that section. I asked Legba to open the way, and what he thought about it. You are correct, there was a response with words in mind, I tried to manage them, and got a little resistance. I received the blessing from the Opener to talk to the tree. I ran outside to the tree, and resonated with its energy. I did not speak mentally, but sent a psychic greeting. The vibration of the tree shifted slightly in my direction, but it did not speak. I realized at the moment that trees do not use words in your mind. The greeting was returned, very gently, very subtly. There is definitely an energy “in” the tree. Is it intelligent? I can’t say, although objectively speaking I would say trees are hella intelligent. This was fun and interesting!

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Kol Drake May 12, 2012 at 12:25 PM

“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.”

See, you went about it all the wrong way. A tree is this vertical, rough thing with lots of barky-ness and green leafy things. It goes deep and is slow to respond.

A sacred cow is this horizontal furry thing that stands around and spends a lot of time chewing and dropping piles…. which, oddly enough, the vertical things can process and use to get more vertical!

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Lisa May 13, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Whenever I walk in an area new to me, I find that I get prompts to connect to certain trees. When I make a connection to the tree I’ve been directed to, I usually feel immersed in a warm, loving, hug- type sensation. Then, if I broaden the point I’ve connected at, I find myself connected with a more neutral feeling spirit (or software) that communicates with me using a foreign language. I don’t hear words. The hearing step is skipped and all the words are placed directly into my brain. I know the words are there; I just don’t know immediately what they mean, because I don’t speak/understand that particular language. I find myself going, “What? What are you trying to tell me?” After a few moments pass I receive a translation, but I feel like I’m getting the version a small child would receive.

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Mike Sententia May 14, 2012 at 12:28 PM

Cool. If you try the exercise in the next post, let us know how it goes.

https://magickofthought.com/2012/05/talking-with-trees-try-it-yourself/

Thanks for writing.

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