That Old Black Magick
by Robert Anton Wilson
from New Libertarian, April 10, 1977
Say the magick word and the duck will come down and pay you S100. -Marx
In NLW 65, Phil Osborn raises some objections to Bonnie Kaplan’s article “Libertarian Magick” (NLW 55). While I am quite sure Kaplan can defend herself, and probably will, I can’t resist homing in on the debate myself.
Osborn objects to Kaplan’s remark, “And like technicians, magicians do not completely understand why what they do works, but they know it often does.” In what follows, I will give Osborn’s objections and my comments in the form of a dialogue.
Osborn: Oh, really?
Wilson: Yes, really. Some technicians may think they know why what they do works, but this is due to their defective education. If they questioned a physicist about the assumed entities with which they are dealing, they would soon find themselves adrift in an aggravated agnosticism as far from Objectivist dogma as anything in Cabala or Tantra is. For instance, Bell’s Theorem (1964) quite adamantly demonstrates that, if quantum mechanics is true, then we must surrender either objectivity or Einstein’s speed-of-light barrier or, quite possibly, both. Since nobody can imagine a physics without quantum mechanics, or without objectivity, or without the speed-of-light barrier, physicists are in a much worse ontological quandary than mere magicians. And yet the technology based on this physics works.
Osborn: How do they know it does? (I.e., how do magicians know magick works?)
Wilson: In the stupidest way possible, by sheer empiricism. This, of course, was the only way anybody knew anything (although philosophers had a lot of opinions) before the Revolution of the 17th Century, in which modern science was forged by synergetically combining such primitive empiricism with mathematical-logical method.
The great magicians of that epoch – Paracelsus, Dr. John Dee, Giordana Bruno – were pioneers in this synergetic wedding of empiricism with mathematics, and offered the best scientific models of how magick works that anybody could produce in that era. Those models are now out of date and magicians are looking for better ones. Meanwhile, empirically, magick continues to work, whether we have a good theory for it or not.
Osborn: By observing results? Well, then, which results are tied to which causes? If the magician can prove that connection, then he does in fact understand why it works.
Wilson: Ah, my friend, if only it were that simple. In fact, it is quite possible “to build several models, in modern physics and parapsychology, which will each explain the phenomena of magick, some causally and some acausally. The Physics/Consciousness Research Group, headed by Dr. Jack Sarfatti, had six good models the last time I heard from them. I provide a run-down on each of these models and four others from related disciplines in my new book, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. The trouble is that, at this point, there is no valid reason to prefer any of these models to any of the others.
There are even reasons to believe (as suggested by Nobel laureate Nils Bohr and Dr. Sarfatti, among others) that the search for One True Model is medieval and obsolete. We may find it much more profitable intellectually to accept a minimum of two models, and a maximum of n, as the best way of describing the universe, mind included.
Osborn: A more serious error is contained implicitly in the whole article and specifically in the paragraph beginning “Magick is rational. . .” It is not rational to postulate the existence or non-existence of something just because the universe or any part of it would seem more livable that way. This is the essence of psychotic subjectivism.
Wilson: It is not rational, either, to write about a subject you do not understand. Magick does not postulate the existence of any entities (except the mind of the experimenter, and even that is called into question by some of the more advanced experiments).
As Crowley writes in Magick, “In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth, and the Paths, of Spirits and Conjurations, of Gods, Spheres, Planes and many other things which mayor may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things, certain results follow; the student is most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophical validity to any of them.”
This may seem like “psychotic subjectivism” to Osborn, but it is merely the intelligent agnosticism of one who has done research in a very puzzling area; just as the similar agnosticism in modern physics seems like psychotic subjectivism, or worse, to poor old Rand, but is merely the intelligent response to puzzling experimental results.
All of this is probably rather annoying to Osborn and amusing to Kaplan, but in my usual perverse fashion I would like to conclude by saying that I emphatically agree with Osborn’s judgment that few magicians are rational beings. I would go further and say, with Brad Steiger, that “the lunatic asylums are full of people who set out optimistically to study the occult.”
Crowley used to warn that nobody should study magick until they could pass an examination on Comparative Philosophy (Ancient and Modern, Eastern and Western), perform credibly in athletics, master the elements of yoga (asana, pranayama, dharana), conduct scientific experiments accurately and carefully, face death bravely, and possess a general knowledge of mathematics and the physical sciences. After what I have seen of the occult revival in the last ten years, I would add a few more qualifications to Crowley’s list – e.g., the student should also be able to balance a budget, raise a family, program a computer and write any argument in the mathematics of sets.
If your mind can be blown, if you are at all subject to anxiety or hysteria, magick is the quickest path to psychoses.
Like Chogo Ri, magick is only worth the heroic efforts it requires because of the rewards it gives to the survivors. To quote Crowley again (and remember that he climbed higher on Chogo Ri in 1901 than any expedition before or since), “Man is only a little lower than the angels and happiness is not so far beyond him as is apt to be thought by those who do not climb mountains.” The mountain of magick is the most dangerous, and the most rewarding, of all.
However magick works, it does keep you high; that’s why folk-art, quite accurately, portrays wizards as having inscrutable smiles and witches as laughing like a gang of potheads who’ve just been sampling the latest shipment of Columbian Gold. On a planet that seems to consist 99.9999% of depressives and paranoids, staying high is no small accomplishment.
Those who want to pursue this subject further can find some of the best theories about how magick works in Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer, by Dr. John Lilly, Exo-Psychology, by Dr. Timothy Leary, and Space-Time and Beyond by Bob Toben and Dr. Jack Sarfatti.
-Robert Anton Wilson