Magick, Thought and Transistors

by Mike Sententia on April 23, 2014

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There’s a meme that magick is somehow “made of thought.” After all, you direct it with thought, so it has to somehow be thought, right?

Nope, not right. Except, not 100% wrong, either. It’s a subtle but fundamental error, something that leads you astray slowly, only causing problems long after you’ve bought in. I’m going to explain in an analogy, so you can think about the meme yourself.

Imagine an EEG hooked up to a computer. The EEG reads brainwaves, sends them to the computer via wifi, and you control a game by thinking. (This is a real thing, by the way.)

Now, imagine you take someone from a few hundred years ago, who’s never seen a computer. You embed the EEG into their hat, so they don’t see any of the technology. Just their hat and the screen.

“Wow, Mario does whatever I think. He must be made of thought.”

No, you say. Thought is electrical impulses in the brain. This is a computer. It’s made of transistors.

(Some trickster you are, intentionally fooling this old soul. Shame on you. But back to the story.)

“But it reacts like it’s alive, like it’s intelligent. It may be made of physical matter, but surely, it must also be made of thought.”

No, you say. You show him a transistor, explain how it works.

“Aha! So each transistor processes information. It contains a tiny bit of thought. That’s why you can put them all together to produce this game.”

Well, transistors do process information. If you squint just the right way, you can sort of agree with him. But there’s a danger in using the same word for transistor-thinking and brain-thinking:

“My thinking causes the game character to move. So, the game must be made of thought. Then this fellow tells me the game is made of transistors, so transistors must be made of thought. And, since they’re made of thought, it’s not surprising at all that my thoughts interact with those transistors.”

Did you notice what happened in that last sentence? He skipped over the EEG, the wifi, and a bunch of other technologies.

Sure, he understands enough to play the game. With trial and error, he might even discover complex commands. (Maybe entering alpha state for 2 seconds, then beta for 1 second, then gamma opens a new program.)

But hand him transistors, and he’ll expect to control them by thinking. Block the wifi signal, and he’ll think Mario is dead. It’s not that transistors don’t think, because if you squint the right way, they sort of do. It’s that, while he’s not wrong, he’s also very much not right.

“Thought affects thought” sounds so simple, so sensible. Which makes it easy to elide the system’s true complexity.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ananael Qaa April 23, 2014 at 2:21 PM

Taken to its logical extreme the error is obvious. “Thought makes my arm move, so my arm is made of thought.” Still, enough people fell for it to create the whole “New Thought” movement – the arm is made of thought, the arm appears to be matter, so matter is made of thought. Hence “The Secret.”

On a more serious note, I recently ran into this article that puts forth the idea of consciousness as a state of matter.

https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/5e7ed624986d

I’m not sure that I buy it yet because I see consciousness as more of a dynamic emerging process than some sort of “stuff.” However, if it turns out to be an accurate model, do you think it would be more correct or just as wrong to say that magick is made of consciousness?

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Mike Sententia April 23, 2014 at 4:00 PM

Never heard that logic with the arm, but I can believe it’s in The Secret. Wow.

Interesting paper. I don’t buy it either, but interesting to see how physics represents dualism. In terms of magick, I don’t know. It’s quite different from how I envision magick working, that much I know. But if this became part of the standard model of physics, I’d have to think about it more.

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George April 23, 2014 at 4:17 PM

It’s definitely a mistake to say that magick, or physical objects, are “made of thought”. But it’s not necessarily a mistake to say that magick, physical objects and thought are all made of the same ‘stuff’ or are from the same ‘source’. In fact, if they aren’t, then they are restricted to different domains and so can’t interact.

I didn’t think the New Thought guys viewed the external world as made of thought, did they? I know that Neville Goddard, for instance, would describe it as ‘thought pushed out into the world’, but I read that more as thought being able to affect the physical world (which is what we all agree on, right?) not that they are the same thing. Maybe I’m wrong there.

That Medium article is interesting, in that it takes the view that a model of consciousness must be undivided as one of its starting points, although from a glance it still seems bound to the computer model. Minds seems to work more by insight than linear processing, or mine does. Anything that gets away from the ‘it will emerge from the brain, give us more time’ angle, usually sans a good definition of consciousness, is a good move though. (Neuroscience has been pretty disappointing in this area: the brain is pretty much a black box with an ‘I.O.U.’ label stuck to the front.)

My current working definition of consciousness these days is: “the sense of being present”. Any suggestions for alternatives?

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George April 24, 2014 at 2:07 AM

“…thought being able to affect the physical world…”

Hmm. Actually, that’s not quite right, is it? Better to say: thought as an act is a way of representing or describing a desired change in the world; it’s the ‘language’. It doesn’t have causal power by itself.

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Ananael Qaa April 24, 2014 at 6:40 AM

@Mike, It’s not that the specific example of the arm is in “The Secret.” I deliberately used it because it’s so obviously wrong. The thing is, though, the logic of many of the “New Thought” variants is essentially the same – they resolve the old philosophical mind/body problem by proposing that everything is really made of thought, so there’s just mind and no body. Bad things that happen to you, then, are just manifestations of negative thinking and so forth.

@George, there are a lot of variants on the original “New Thought” concept, but what they have in common is that they essentially propose that thought is omnipotent. Even if they believe external matter exists they believe that thought totally controls it. If “The Secret” folks would drop that idea and replace it with the idea of thoughts influencing to some degree but not controlling matter in a deterministic fashion, they would arrive at something akin to how magick really works in my experience, and I think in Mike’s as well.

My current working model of consciousness is experiential as well, which is why I’m not convinced yet by the idea of it as a state of matter. It has some interesting possible implications, but at this point it’s just a hypothesis with no testable evidence supporting it.

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Synchronicity April 24, 2014 at 9:06 AM

Hi Mike,
at this point, an interesting question would be “what thoughts are made off?” ;)
…or “how thoughts interact with matter/energy/non-thoughts/…?”

I don’t believe in dualism, but the gap between the objective domain of neurons and the subjective domain of feelings / volition really seems so wide… and the nature of the bridge so mysterious…

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Simon April 25, 2014 at 2:13 AM

I think its interesting that you’ve recently come out and explicitly called yourself a ‘materialist’. I wonder if you could expand on your take on this a bit more. You must be one of the very few people writing who call themselves a materialist who also engages in spirit communication! Do you consider spirits are physical matter -just of an unfamiliar kind?

Personally I have a lot of problems with the a-priori assumptions of materialism- many of which are summed up in the criticisms section of the wikipedia article you referenced better than I could. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materialism
That said it is the philosophy which has ultimately given birth to modern empirical testing so I can see why you would be a materialist in that sense.

As a philosophical model ‘process philosophy’ especially as developed by Alfred Whitehead is the one that seems like it could really help with magic but I know he’s not currently fashionable. Also I’d need a few more years to try and understand it before I can really say for sure..:-)
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/process-philosophy/

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George April 25, 2014 at 5:16 AM

Simon, great link. I hadn’t read Whitehead’s work, but it seems really useful. Don’t know how I’ve missed it!

My own approach is a mixture of physicist and philosopher David Bohm’s implicate/explicate order ideas which similarly treat reality as a dynamic process of forms rising from and falling into a unified field of wholeness – plus a bit of nondual thinking/direct experience work and ideas of superimposed granularity – but its origins in quantum physics make rewording in accessible metaphors difficult. (The whirlpool in a stream being a handy one: a temporarily stable form without stable constituents, potentially at different scales superimposed.)

As I see it: there is form, but no material. The universe might “do” atoms and particles, but it is not “made from” them. This allows for different levels of subtlety or scale within the same space, with formlessness or ‘void’ as the root. The question for magick is: how do we tune in and manipulate form? Does intention work at and ‘seed’ form at the void level? And: what are “we” in such a scheme?

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Mike Sententia April 30, 2014 at 4:49 PM

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