Dita von TeeseToday I went to see Dita von Teese at a book signing. I was quite disappointed. In the flesh, she’s just another normal person – albeit with a more interesting sense of fashion and plenty of makeup. Another fantasy bubble popped. I often forget how the camera distorts reality – when I see a celebrity I’m often surprised at how unlike their media image they are.

The concept of ‘glamour’ appears a lot in traditional European witchcraft. It is one of those terms that seems to have both a general meaning and a specific one. In general, a glamour is any spell cast over another person. In particular, it seems to be principally concerned with perception. The ability to employ glamour is the ability to appear to someone in a way other than the way you really are. Austin Osman Spare claimed to have been taught by an old witch who, despite being a haggard old lady, could make herself appear to be a beautiful young girl.

In Old Norse soul lore, a distinction is made between the ‘hamr’ and the ‘lík’. The lík is the physical, corporeal body. It is the real blood and guts of which we are all made. But the hamr is the idea of our physical self. It is the way that we appear to be. When one first learns to see through the hamr and perceive the lík beneath, it can come as quite a surprise to realise that most of the time people do not see each other’s real bodies but rather see the idea of their bodies. This is a useful skill to develop, not just because it allows you to see through other people’s projections of their self-image but also because it allows you to manipulate your own. The hamr is plastic – that is, it can be moulded into the shape that you desire. This idea appears in the Old Norse literature when the magician lies still, as if he is asleep or dead, and then appears elsewhere (usually in the form of an animal) to engage his enemy. It is his lík that lies still while his hamr is projected by the force of his hamingja. A more obvious phenomenon that fits into this category is that of shape-shifting. The magician does not physically change shape – his lík remains the same – but he wills his hamr into a different shape and it is the hamr that most people perceive.

A vaguely similar idea, which really is only vaguely similar, is the theory of morphogenetic fields proposed by Dr Rupert Sheldrake. Although his theories have been largely discredited by the scientific community, they can be of some use in exploring the idea of glamour even if they don’t correspond to scientifically measurable effects.

I only got a brief glimpse of Dita von Teese but I got the distinct impression that her glamour is the result of talented photographers rather than her own personal presentation. Or maybe I just saw through it.

Published in: on April 24, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (5)  

Indulgence and Debauchery

cups070It was in San Francisco, a city not exactly renowned for its moderation, that I learned the difference between indulgence and debauchery. ‘Indulgence’ was the watchword of the Church of Satan so I suppose it was appropriate that I should be taught the meaning of the word when I was only about 5 miles from the Black House. I am currently recovering from a very indulgent weekend, which was great fun but rather expensive in more than one way, so the distinction between the two concepts is at the forefront of my mind.

Indulgence is the opposite of asceticism. Whereas the ascetic, whether he is a pious Christian or an Indian sadhu, denies himself all carnal pleasures, the indulgent seek out pleasure wherever it suits them. As the first and eighth Satanic Statements put it: “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence!”, “Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification!” However, as you might expect from the early Church of Satan, there is a serious concept behind the showmanship and incessant exclamation marks. To indulge is to do something that you want to do for your own ends: there must be a point to it. It need not be a high and mighty goal – a simple desire to have fun is enough – but you must have some goal in mind.

In contrast, debauchery has no ultimate aim. Debauchery is an act that you perform not because you really want to do it but just because you have nothing else to do, or because your friends are doing it, or because someone has told you to do it, or because you are addicted to doing it. Indeed, addiction is the epitome of debauchery. For example, assuming that the health issues are accounted for, there is nothing wrong with smoking a cigarette because you enjoy the flavour of the tobacco smoke and the relaxing effect that it produces. But if you smoke a cigarette just because that’s what you always do then the act becomes debauched. You are no longer consciously choosing to do something in order to bring about a situation that you desire, you are just perpetuating a habit. If you wish to celebrate something, or even just to enjoy an evening of fun with friends, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t go out to a bar or club and indulge in some intoxicants. On the other hand, if you find yourself going out every night for no better reason than “this is what my friends and I do”, then you may have a problem.

The key issue here is conscious choice. Are you choosing to indulge in something because it will cause something that you truly want, or are you just going with the flow or continuing a habit? If an outside observer were to watch you perform a single act, he would not easily be able to tell whether it was an act of indulgence or debauchery. He may get a pretty good idea if he is able to observe you over an extended period of time but ultimately only you can tell the difference by honestly examining your self.

So, was my weekend indulgence or debauchery? It began with a night of fantastic indulgence but I think its extension into the rest of the weekend began to err towards debauchery. I don’t think that I had a genuinely good reason for continuing, although the second night was quite fun as well. In particular, it would have been nice to have been compos mentis by Sunday afternoon. As it is, it is Monday evening and I still haven’t completely recovered. This realisation does, however, give me added focus and motivation to work hard over the next few weeks. I have a lot of work to do and time is running out so I think I will be very busy until the second weekend in May. Until that date, I think I’ll only have time to write short entries for this blog.

A better burden can no man bear
on the way than his mother wit:
and no worse provision can he carry with him
than too deep a draught of ale.

Less good than they say for the sons of men
is the drinking oft of ale:
for the more they drink, the less can they think
and keep a watch o’er their wits.

A bird of Unmindfulness flutters o’er ale feasts,
wiling away men’s wits:
with the feathers of that fowl I was fettered once
in the garths of Gunnlos below.

– verses 11-13 of the Hávamál

Published in: on April 17, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

Belief and Logic

Hive Groin CardToday’s entry is a bit of a cheat because it’s something that I actually wrote in September last year. However, it deals with an idea that is still a very important part of my thought so, for the sake of completeness, I want to include it in this blog as well. This is it:

I was talking to the proprietress of the Atlantis Bookshop at a book signing recently and she recounted an amusing story. A man had once poked his head inside the door and asked if they had any books on logic. “Sorry,” she replied, “we don’t believe in that.” Much mirth ensued. Anyone who has visited the Atlantis Bookshop or spoken to its regular customers will recognise that attitude. However, it is not clear exactly what is being stated. Logic appears to have been identified as a belief system akin to more obvious religions. “Logician” seems to play the same rôle in speech as “Christian” or “Muslim”. This is wrong. Logic is a tool and nothing more. It makes no more sense to claim to believe in logic than it does to claim to believe in a hammer. One can believe that a hammer exists and one can believe that a hammer is useful but most people would not say that they believe in a hammer. To say that one does not believe in logic implies a fundamental misunderstanding of what logic actually is.

For a start, there is no single thing that could be called “logic”. There are all sorts of different types of logic depending on what you want to do. Aristotle is generally considered to be the father of formal logic, although logical systems certainly existed before him. His goal was to create a formal system that could model the way humans thought. If he could enumerate a set of rules that determined whether or not a statement was true then, by applying those rules, he could conclusively state whether or not a person’s argument was correct. For example, one of Aristotle’s basic axioms has come to be known as the Law of Contradiction. This states that if a thing is A then it cannot also be not-A at the same time. So if I now give an argument in which I claim that “this box is red and it is also not red” then Aristotle could apply his axiom and declare that my statement is wrong because it violates the Law of Contradiction. Aristotle listed a number of other simple axioms and they formed the basis of logical argument – that is, argument tested against a set of formal rules – for hundreds of years. Now, one may think that one or more of his axioms are incorrect. Certainly, Thelemites would recognise the duality inherent in the Law of Contradiction and claim that such a law cannot hold above the Abyss. However, that has absolutely nothing to do with belief in Aristotle’s logical system. His logic is designed to model human thought in a formal manner so that it can be studied and refined. If you think that the model is incomplete, incorrect or in any other way not up to the job then that just means that the model is broken. It is much the same as thinking that a rubber hammer would not be very good at hammering nails. Such a thought would not provoke one to claim that one does not believe in hammers: it is only that this particular hammer is no good for this particular job so a different design is needed. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened in the field of logic. In the 19th century, Gottlob Frege recognised that Aristotle’s logic could not express current mathematical ideas so he expanded it into what is known as “predicate logic”. There are now many other logical systems that have been designed for different tasks. Computer programs designed to exhibit “artificially intelligent” behaviour often make use of “fuzzy logic”, which denies the Law of Contradiction. Some modern logicians would like logic to return to its roots as an attempt to model human thought, but the very fact that this is a controversial issue shows logic for what it is: a tool.

So, why do many people – particularly those attracted to “New Age” ideas – reject logic so vehemently? Why are they willing to make use of all sorts of other symbol systems, such as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Tarot, Astrology, Norse Runes and many more, but not logic? I’m sure that if I claimed that tarot was nonsense because it’s just a stack of pieces of cardboard then they would dismiss my claim as naïve and ignorant. Tarot is a symbol system and a deck of cards has no more to do with tarot than an abacus has to do with arithmetic. There may be other arguments against tarot but that is certainly not one. I find it irritating when people ask me whether or not I “believe in tarot”. If I say `yes’ then I imply that I am a gullible fool – probably the sort of person who studiously reads his horoscope in some magazine every week. So I usually say `no’. However, by saying `no’ I am acknowledging that the question is a valid one. It is not. One does not believe in tarot. One can believe in its efficacy, or not, but it does not make sense to ask whether or not someone believes in tarot itself. Such a question could only be asked by someone with a very superficial acquaintance with tarot and thus no real understanding of what it actually is. I have a similar problem if I am asked whether or not I believe in logic. Again, I would rather not answer the question at all because it does not make sense, but neither can I be bothered to explain all this in casual conversation. By answering `yes’ or `no’ I am lumped into one or the other religious camp – the camp of the Believers in Logic or the camp of the Heretical Unbelievers. But logic, like any symbol system, has nothing to do with such belief. How has this divide into religious camps come about?

The first people to treat logic as a belief system were not New Age hippies rejecting logic but rather avid proponents of logic. They believed that if a statement could not be incorporated into a coherent formal logic system then that statement must be false. One could decide between contradictory logic systems by testing them against empirical evidence. Metaphysics is a famously wishy-washy and vague discipline so certain prominent philosophers seem to have decided that philosophy would be better off without it. This movement culminated in the Logical Positivists of the 1920s and 30s. They planned to do away with metaphysics by insisting on the “verifiability criterion”. This said that the meaning of a statement is conveyed completely by the means by which it is verified. So if I say, “When I let go of this apple it will fall to the ground,” then the meaning of that statement is conveyed by testing it empirically, i.e. watching me let go of the apple and seeing whether or not it actually does fall to the ground. If a statement cannot be tested in that way then, according to the verifiability criterion, it is meaningless. Since metaphysical statements cannot be tested in such a rigorous empirical manner they cannot be verified, thus the verifiability criterion says they are meaningless. In this way, the Logical Positivists declared that the natural sciences were the only way to seek knowledge and that metaphysics and anything else that did not fit into their logical system was completely meaningless. But there was a flaw in their plan: the verifiability criterion is itself unverifiable. There is no empirical experiment that can be performed to verify that it is true. So, according to itself, the criterion is meaningless. This mistake came about because they failed to recognise that logic is a tool for making models. They accorded logic a greater status than it deserves: in effect they accorded logic a metaphysical status. They believed in logic. However, Logical Positivism is exactly the right attitude to take in the natural sciences. This is hardly surprising because the goal of natural science is to create a model of the physical world in order to predict physical events. Prediction requires determinism – or at least fixed probabilities – so the model must be internally consistent. In other words, Logical Positivism is just sensible scientific method applied to inappropriate topics. It is good and appropriate in the natural sciences but as soon as one forgets that science is about models of reality and not about the entirety of reality itself, then logic becomes a Golden Calf and the scientists become priests. Although Logical Positivism has deservedly died out among academic philosophers, it is still popular among some “pop philosophers” and some sections of general society.

The New Age disdain for logic and science is a backlash against Logical Positivism. They have rightly perceived that Logical Positivism is in error but have failed to accurately discern the cause of its error. As a result, they have copied the Positivists by considering logic to be a matter of belief but have chosen to avoid its taint altogether by not believing in it. This is just as absurd as the Positivist approach and even more damaging. While the Positivists have taken up their hammer and decided that everything is a nail, the New Age has decided that hammers do not exist.

Clearly, the best approach is to possess a good hammer but to make sure that something really is a nail before you hit it. So what is logic good for? Logic is the tool of the rational. It is common to divide ideas into the rational and the irrational. If we do so, it does not take great insight to see that rational humans succeed where the completely irrational fail. A man can successfully feed himself by employing rational agricultural techniques but a man who tries to feed himself solely by waiting for manna to fall from the sky will starve. Rational natural science affords modern humans a mastery of the physical world that provides great opportunities for survival and luxury. It is no wonder that the Logical Positivists wanted to elevate science: clearly rationality is far preferable to irrationality in such areas. Yet logic does not apply to every area. Logically it cannot: not only does the verifiability criterion fail but Kurt Gödel proved that no axiom that does the job that the Positivists wanted the verifiability criterion to do could possibly exist. Any rule designed to delimit the rational must itself be irrational. To mix my metaphors and flog the dead horse of the hammer analogy: not everything is a nail.

The problem arises from this simplistic division between the rational and the irrational. It is far more useful to divide the irrational further into what some have called the “pre-rational” and the “trans-rational”. Plato knew this but somewhere along the line it has been forgotten. The mistake of both the Logical Positivists and the New Age is, by failing to further divide the irrational, confusion between the pre-rational and the trans-rational. The New Age thus considers anything irrational as equally valid. Incidentally, this behaviour is by no means limited to the New Age, I only pick on them for convenience (and the term itself is suitably nebulous.) Tertullian’s famous remark – “I believe because it is absurd” – also falls into this category, as does Theo Hobson’s “average Christian” who “tries to believe things his clever friends mock.” All of them recognise the limitations of logic but throw the baby out with the bath water and leave themselves with no way to distinguish between different categories of the irrational. In the backlash against Logical Positivists, anything irrational is considered good and anything rational must be avoided, which just leaves them in an undifferentiable morass of incoherence with no way out. On the other hand, the Logical Positivists, by paradoxically according rationality the highest metaphysical status, are forced to consider all irrationality as equally invalid. They do not make the mistake of elevating the pre-rational above the rational but they make the similar mistake of forcing the trans-rational beneath the rational. A more productive hierarchy would place the pre-rational firmly at the bottom, the rational above that and the trans-rational above that.

Note that the term is trans-rational – i.e. it transcends the rational, it does not replace or discard it but rather includes it and then goes further. Therefore no-one can possibly approach the trans-rational without first mastering the rational. Although the terms do not correlate exactly, the same idea can be found in the Platonic hierarchy of eikasia, pistis, dianoia and noesis. The path to noesis is through dianoia. Logic is indispensable to the development of a human. It has a limit, beyond which other tools must be employed, but without skill in logic one cannot get anywhere. Crucially, if one ever has cause to use the phrase “believe in” then one is on the wrong track.

“Roughly speaking: to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Published in: on April 13, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Category Mistakes

God the GeometerThree weeks ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an interview in which he argued against the teaching of Creationism in schools. This statement, coming from a senior Christian figure, unsurprisingly got the front page of at least one newspaper (the Guardian) and appeared in most other UK papers (such as The Telegraph.) The Archbishop earned my respect for publicly articulating the real reason that Creationism has no place in science classrooms: it is a category mistake.

The term “category mistake” refers to the idea that things can be divided up into different categories depending on their way of being. For example, physical objects are one type of being. The sofa that I am sitting on as I type this can be said to be in the sense that it exists. I know that it exists because I’m sitting on it: I can see it, feel it, smell it and taste it. Properties are also a type of being. There is a property ‘red’ that is shared by all red things. A red apple, a red tomato and a red sunset all share the same property of redness. There is something in common between each of those three items and we call that thing ‘red’. So properties can also be said to be. There are also relations. My sofa is underneath me so there is a relation between the sofa and me: the relation of ‘underneathness’. So relations can also be said to be. However, even though physical objects, properties and relations are all beings, most people would make some distinction between their different ways of being. Is redness a real thing that exists in the same way that my sofa exists? If so, where does it exist? Does it make sense to ask where redness is? I expect most people would say it is perfectly sensible to ask where my sofa is but not where redness is or where underneathness is. If you accept that, then it is a category mistake to ask where redness is. A category mistake is when one talks about something using terms that cannot be meaningfully applied to that thing’s category. It is not meaningful to talk about redness in terms of ‘where’. ‘Where’ can only meaningfully be applied to things in the ‘physical object’ category of being. This is a particularly controversial topic in philosophy and there is no universally accepted system of categories but, regardless of your personal views on the reality of different categories, the term “category mistake” clearly describes a real mistake. If you disagree, then please tell me what “blue is taller than red” means.

I think it is worth emphasising that I am not making any great metaphysical claims here. I do not – in this blog entry anyway – intend to discuss any particular system of categories or to make any claims about the reality of a category. The only question that I am concerned with here is whether or not a statement is meaningful. We don’t have to get bogged down in complicated philosophical arguments to see that “blue is taller than red” is a meaningless statement. It doesn’t matter what sort of ontological status we ascribe to “blue” or “taller” – it still won’t make sense; however you look at it, that statement is a mistake.

So, what category do the physical sciences deal with? With what sorts of things are we concerned in a school’s science classroom? Fairly obviously, the physical sciences are concerned with physical things. Different people have interpreted this in different ways. Some people say that physics characterises physical entities in terms of their relations to one another and so makes no claims about the intrinsic nature of the entities themselves. Some people reject such a distinction. Whichever position you hold, it is clear that in some way or another the physical sciences deal with physical things.

What about religion? With what sort of things is religion concerned? This is a harder question to answer because there is no universally accepted definition of ‘religion’. The origins of the word are unknown and even its modern usage is inconsistent. However, we can ignore some senses of the word simply because they are not relevant to this discussion. First of all, we are not interested in religion in the sense of an organised church. The doctrine of Creationism does not depend on any particular human organisation. Similarly, we can forget about religion in the sense of a set of practises (going to church, prayer, taking Communion etc.) or a moral code. Creationists claim their declarations are true regardless of how any people happen to be behaving. So what’s left? All the meanings of religion that I have considered so far are contingent on the heart of religion. Without the core of Christianity, going to church would be a relatively insignificant activity akin to attending any social gathering. Without the core of a religion, its moral laws are nothing but a list of recommendations for good etiquette. What is this meaning-giving core? It is the relationship between a person and the sacred, whether that is conceived internally as something specific to each individual or externally as God. However you wish to classify this concept of the sacred, it is not a physical thing. Animists, pantheists and others may conceive of the sacred as being immanent in the physical world around them but it is not itself physical. No-one would try to analyse a holy object to find constituent particles of holiness.

Religion is concerned with the physical world only in as much as it acts as a forum for human activity. This is true even for those religions that do not accord any special status to humans, for the religion is still a human endeavour – if there were no humans there would be no religion. Thus religion and the physical sciences are concerned with different categories. The biblical account of creation is not a description of a physical process but a description of the unfolding of the relationship between man and God. To set up Genesis as a rival “theory” to compete with scientific hypotheses about the early history of life on Earth is as absurd as arguing that “blue is taller than red” – it is not just wrong, it is a meaningless category mistake. The Archbishop is quite right to worry that “creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it”.

I want to emphasise again that I have made no claims concerning the truth of any religious doctrine or scientific theory nor is my argument dependent on any particular ontology. It is simply the case that, as the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner wrote, “Theology and science can in principle not contradict each other, since from the outset they differ in their subject matter and in their method.” However, unfortunately, both scientists and theologians often make this mistake. Creationism is just one of many such category mistakes, although, thanks to the political influence of some of its proponents, it is possibly the most dangerous one around today. Others include all those ludicrous and superficial attempts to equate Eastern religions with recent physical theories. Scientific theories will always make helpful analogies and metaphors for religious ideas but they will always be limited to that metaphorical role.

I may disagree with Christianity in general, indeed I disapprove of anything based on faith, but in this case I am in complete agreement with the Archbishop.

Published in: on April 10, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

The Solent


Published in: on April 5, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  


La Parade - SeuratI keep a number of diaries. I have one hand-written diary in which I record thoughts and observations relating to initiatory projects that I am undertaking. I also have an electronic diary – just a collection of text files on my computer – in which I try to write at least one entry every day. The paper-and-pen diary serves a very particular purpose and it does this both in the way that a mundane diary functions and in a more magical, symbolical way specific to my projects. The electronic diary came into being quite recently for various reasons.

People beginning initiatory work are frequently advised to keep a diary but they are not always told how to do it or why they should do it. The act of writing can itself be a magical act (hence ἱερου γλυφικα) and, in this respect, it is probably best thought of as both a manifestation and a communication. But we shouldn’t be too pompous about something that is, in the modern world, a fairly commonplace activity.

A couple of years ago I began to keep a diary but I never knew what to write in it. If something particularly momentous occurred then I would write an entry but most of the time it just sat pointlessly on my desk. I carry notebooks around with me in case I think of something that I want to write down and gradually my diary turned into just another large notebook and my diary entries began to be spread amongst my many notebooks and pads of paper. Piecing together a chronological narrative from my disparate notes would be impossible. So, seeing no further use in the idea, I stopped even trying to keep a diary.

I maintained for a long time that my e-mail archives were my diary. I keep every e-mail that I send or receive so I have a complete record of my correspondence going back a few years now. I like this idea because there are things that come out in conversation, things that arise from the interaction with another person, that would not be clear at all in a traditional monologue-style diary. However, there are many things that are not mentioned in e-mails.

It may be helpful to consider what things we want to find in a diary. In general, we are looking for patterns. Consider the pointillism style of painting as an analogy. Up close, you cannot tell what the picture is. But if you step back, then the picture takes shape and the colours come alive. Diaries work the same way. It’s all very well being able to remember what you were doing on a particular day but if you cannot step back and see the bigger picture then you will never discern the patterns in your life.

So I decided to keep a daily diary. I try to write an entry for every day even if nothing much seemed to happen. The important thing is that I am absolutely honest. I must be brutally honest with myself so that when I come to review my life there is nothing missing. It has already born fruit: it is barely a month old and I have already noticed certain behaviours that restrict me which I had not noticed before.

So, why start a blog as well? There are a number of reasons. Because my diary must be complete and honest, it must also be secret. This is fine but I immediately lose the possibility of interaction – I lose all the new and different viewpoints that other people can provide. A public blog need not be just a monologue, thanks to the comment system every post can become a conversation. Second, a blog is a convenient way to let other people know what I’m up to. Third, I’m arrogant enough to think that some other people might be interested in what I have to say. And finally, in some ways the most important reason of all, I have recently begun a new phase in my initiation and I feel that beginning a public blog is a nice symbol of the start of new interactions. So, my private notes will continue to be recorded in my private diary but the rest will end up here. Of course, for this to work I need you to post comments…

Diaries provide the raw data necessary for pattern recognition. That is the great benefit provided by diaries as a product. There is also a benefit to be derived from diaries as a process, from the act of keeping a diary. If you don’t already keep one, I encourage you to investigate.

Published in: on April 4, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)