The Usefulness of Doubt

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Excellent post on the Strategic Sorcery blog recently on The Usefulness of Doubt. A few quotes:

I think that occultists could use a little more doubt in their practice. Even notice that you don’t see a lot of blog posts about spells and magical experiments that don’t work out? […] Very often I see occultists taking synchronicity and gematric coincidences as proof of their work and direction. I do not often see occultists question whether they might be buying into a texas sharpshooter fallacy or suffering a confirmation bias.

Doubt has served me well in my practice. In the 90′s I did a series of enochian workings that sparked a fairly intense and detailed spiritual communication. The spirit had apocalyptic information, it insisted that I write it and share it, it insisted that I was a prophet. I was all kinds of excited to have my ego stroked and to join the ranks of people that were channeling Thelemic Libers, but decided to take a step back and take a look at it in a month with a cooler head. I asked myself, is the information useful? NO. Is there any chance that this might be incorrect? YES. I decided not to do what the spirit said, which is good because all the predictions were wrong.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s tempting to see something that might be the result of your magick, and decide that it is the result of your magick. We all like feeling successful. But if we’re ever going to get magick to the level of a modern science, we need to separate luck and placebo from real results, which means doubting ourselves a lot more.

Here’s the good news: The more you practice this, the easier (and less painful) it becomes.

Recently, I tried a healing technique for a friend’s cold. It didn’t work. She started making excuses — maybe she would have been even worse without the healing session, maybe she had both viral and bacterial infections my technique helped with one but not the other, etc. Looking back, I think she was just being polite, feeling awkward appreciating the effort I put in while telling me it didn’t work, (and she confirmed this just now), but at the time, I thought this was her honest reasoning.

A decade ago, I would have needed those excuses. Failure would have been painful, and it wouldn’t be just this one technique I doubted, it would have been all of magick. Am I any good at magick? Is magick even real? When the doubt generated by a single failure can flood your world, it becomes too painful to doubt anything.

(Yes, I’ve doubted if magick was real. Everyone has, especially when we’re starting out — it’s totally natural. To my readers who ask about these thoughts, you’re not alone.)

But now, I’ve had enough successes that doubt stays where it should, contained to the one technique that actually failed, not affecting all the other stuff that works, just not quite quickly enough to demonstrate to skeptics.

How do you get there? The only path I know is to succeed in your own magick a few dozen times. I wish there was something faster for beginners, but I don’t have an answer. But once you get there, accepting failure becomes simple.

One other thing I noticed: I now have a visceral response to excuses. They just feel dishonest, like they don’t lead anywhere true or useful. I can’t follow them, and get a bit annoyed hearing them, even. It’s a mental habit I’ve developed, I think, of asking myself is an explanation is my real reason, and turning away from any explanation that’s just an excuse. Again, I don’t know how to get there quickly, but if you practice asking that question, you’ll probably develop that same mental habit.

Back to the conversation, I said, “Nope, my healing technique just didn’t work this time. It needs some debugging.” Which I’ll return to next time one of us gets sick.

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One Response to “The Usefulness of Doubt”

  1. John W. A. says:

    I agree entirely. I use doubt as a method of making sure I’m honest with myself. Doubt everything, trust nothing – until sufficient verification and proof has been obtained to state otherwise.

    Neither blindly trust, not blindly doubt – instead, hold back on conclusions until you have enough facts to make a sufficiently accurate determination of what is the truth.

    That is one of the reasons why I continuously question myself in magick; is it real? It this truth, or placebo effects? The conclusion I arrived at was this; magick does indeed exist, and yes people are capable of performing it, and yes doubt can negatively impact your performance in regards to it.

    However, magick is about specific change in accordance to specific intent. I’d say, in order to pursue truth, it is imperative that one investigates the matter of magick, without drawing any conclusions until sufficient proof and evidence can point you in either direction. Which is what I do – right now, magick for me is an experiment; of research, experimentation, development, testing, verification and proof. And right now, I’m going back and forth between Research and Development, because I’m continuously trying to find something that will exceed by testing procedures.

    I make my testing procedures difficult – very difficult. I try making my tests as if I were a complete skeptic, because I believe that is the only conclusive way to prove anything. In science, the laws of physics will not change because of the test any experiment is given. Thus, I believe that when testing magickal power, one should test it in an adverse situation where mundane errors, imprecision of measurements, random coincidences, or psychological placebo effects are completely ruled out.

    That is why I spend so much time making sure I can find magickal acts which can completely rule out these possibilities, because I magick alone can’t offer me what I wish. I need a form of magick which rules out all external possibilities, and leaves no room for skepticism – which is why I perfect and hone my craft, and even if I am inactive (non-practicing) as a mage, I still study, I still theorize, I still research, I still read, teach and I still develop new methods and ideas.

    However… I believe my task is next to impossible, due to the nature of magick and existence. Nevertheless, I believe I am coming closer than others have, and I can only hope that others who will come after me can continue my work, because I do not believe such work can be done in a single lifetime. However… I think that perhaps the symbolic nature of the quest to understanding magick is never-ending, and perhaps this work can never be completed ever. But, maybe it is the fact that this work is ongoing, and the path of this work builds one into a better mage; perhaps that alone makes the study worthwhile, and not necessarily the ends.

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