Divination and the Limits of Possibility

Recently on the Twitters, one of my fellow occultist friends, the lovely Rachel Izabella from The Way of the Transgressor is Hard, asked whether I was ever worried whether “divinations sorta quantum collapse possible futures and precipitate the one future that’s divined”.  It sparked an interesting conversation between us, but given the response lag and enforced brevity of Twitter, it wasn’t the greatest medium for such a chat.  The idea was originally spurred from Kalagni’s post (which I hadn’t read before) on using the Tarot to both read and influence probable events.

To this, I gave a befuddled “no”, and after some more talking a more solid “no”.

First, some background. Quantum entanglement is basically the idea that, on a quantum level, the positions, behaviors, and all its theoretically possible quantities and qualities of a particular object exist simultaneously until observed.  Upon observation, the object falls into one particular configuration of its qualities and states.  Basically, until something is observed (seen, heard, touched, informed about, sensed in any way, etc.), literally anything can happen and is happening constantly, but once observation occurs, what happens is what’s observed, and since observations of multiple states in the same object cannot occur simultaneously, the object must fall into one particular state.  This is called “collapsing the waveform” or some similar phrase, depending on the author.  However, pleasing as this idea might be, it only applies on the quantum level.  Things that exist bigger than a few molecules don’t follow the rules of quantum physics.

Every generation of occultists since the 1700s has wanted to help occultism and magic “catch up to speed” with modern science and industrial innovation, in some weird kind of keeping up with the metaphysical Joneses.  Read back on some of the literature from those days, and you’ll find claims that magic works based on rays of light, electricity, magnetism, or (even today) some kind of unspecified energy.  Indeed, the notion of “energy” as we (kinda sorta) understand it today in magic didn’t exist until electricity became widespread; there was no “energy model” of magic.  Whether occultists believed magic to work literally on these physical concepts or metaphorically, it’s still kept up today with notions of “galactic alignment” or, you guessed it, “quantum physics”.  Whether these theories apply to magic doesn’t concern me; I just don’t bother, since magic was reckoned as a more-or-less complete system for thousands of years before we had these newer ideas.  Admittedly, some of these ideas offer a useful interpretation of magical operations, but by no means do I conflate the two.  And, given the micro/macro divide in physics, notions of quantum physics and waveform collapsing as applied to my life and work are next to meaningless.

I was a little placated once it was cleared up that Rachel only intended her question metaphorically instead of physically, since it cleared up the conversation to get to the real meat of the topic: does divination affect outcomes in addition to relaying information about them?  Now we get to an interesting topic, and here’s where philosophy really kicks in.  To talk about this, some background information might be required, which could very easily tip this talk of a narrow aspect of divination into a huge blogosphere-churning debate about the entirety of the art (or maybe I’m just flattering myself).  For the sake of the question above, let us assume the following:

  1. Divination is done in earnest by the diviner, not fraudulently.
  2. Divination obtains omens, messages, or some other symbols containing useful information from some occult, metaphysical, or spiritual source.
  3. Divination doesn’t care who benefits from the reading (the diviner, the querent, anybody else), so long as information is delivered.
  4. Divination is performed strictly for the sake of gathering information, not to intentionally change it by the act of divination itself.  (This precludes Kalagni’s probability wave Tarot technique, which I would claim is divination plus magic instead of just divination.)

Is divination as a skill necessarily accurate?  No, but why this might be depends.  If the divination is inspired like prophecy, the inspirer might be a trickster spirit or the god, if authentic, might intentionally deceive or lie in the message; the first is usually protected and warded against, and the latter is rarely heard of, so neither of these cases are likely.  However, I have heard of cases where diviners were intentionally misled due to the will of God for some other purpose, so it may still happen.  If the divination is technical like Tarot or geomancy, the diviner might misinterpret the omens, or in generating the omens the diviner might not have a clear enough connection with the source of information.  If one believes set and setting to be important in divination, then anything from turbulent current affairs, local spirits interfering, or even the weather might upset the transmission of the message from the source to the diviner.  If one assumes perfect circumstances, with clear and correct interpretations of omens and messages, then divination relies on another question…

Is reality fixed?  The answer to this relies on one’s worldview.  The prevailing opinion is that reality and the flow of time isn’t fixed, and that what divination shows is only one possible way that flow might go.  Divination might show the most likely path or outcome, but not necessarily the only one.  This is where one’s ideas of fate and free will mingle and mix and mangle each other to unrecognizable conceptual pulps.  Personally, I think that there is a kind of “divine plan” that indicates what should happen, but not how it should happen.  I point out the Fall of Troy, which was destined to happen by the will of Zeus.  However, Poseidon mentions to an impassioned Aphrodite that if he had known Aphrodite held Troy so dear to her heart, he would have given the Trojans better walls to last even longer against the Greeks, though they would still have had to fall eventually.  This indicates that although certain events might be “fated” from on high, how they might be brought about depends on the actions of us down below.  What things are fated and what’s not, however, isn’t known to me, or whether either of those is an illusion based on the other.  For my worldview, I assume that there is a high-level set of fixed events that will eventually be brought around in some manner or another, the which manner may have otherwise chaotic side-effects that do not change the occurrence of the fated events but affect other non-fated or less-fated events.  In short, “what will happen will happen”, but how it will happen is up to us.  It’s like writing a software program: so long as the program fulfills its requirements and constraints, the actual flow of bits and commands sent to the CPU don’t have to follow any set or known pattern.

Does divination affect the future or merely relay information about it?  Technically, divination only ever relays information without changing it, but I have to say both yes and no to this, because it depends on whether something is one of those fated events or one of those non-fated incidental side-events I mentioned above.  It’s because of the human element that may want to change things, and may have the power to do so when armed with particular knowledge through divination if and only if the event is non-fated.  For instance, it is fated that we will all die one day.  The method by which we die may not be fated, or may not be fully specified (consider that terrible series of movies Final Destination, where everyone was supposed to die and eventually did but not necessarily in the manner foreseen).  In my experience, what was said to come to pass in divination in fact did come to pass, even when I’ve tried to act contrary to it…except sometimes when magic is involved, actions that mess with fate and the wills of the gods and whatnot. 

I guess I don’t have a concrete answer to this, at least for now.  Trying to answer this question for divination brings up the same question of any method of relaying information, from news media to any other kind of communication.  Hell, it brings into question the notions of fact, truth, correctness, and accuracy of information, consciousness, and reality itself (how can we know that what we see is real? do two people seeing the same thing recognize the same thing? etc.).  This is way more philosophy than a single blog post, or even a whole blog, can cover.

At any rate, to answer her actual question about whether I “worry” about it, no, I don’t.  As a magician, I use information to my advantage.  I’ve likened magic and divination to a river with both treasure and junk flowing down it; using divination, we can figure out where to position ourselves to catch the treasure and avoid the junk, but with magic we can lure the junk to us and keep the trash away.  If I know something is going to happen and I don’t like it, either I’ll change it to something else I like or I’ll be changed to like it, or some combination of the two.  I’m never worried that I’m whittling down the range of possible events that could happen, but rather I aim to have my preferred events happen as much as possible given the circumstances amongst all possible events.

What do you guys think about divination, accuracy, free will, fate, and the like?  This is a really hairy topic, but I’d like to hear your ideas and opinions on the matter.

How to Learn a New System (without Bias)

I didn’t expect to write a follow-up to the earlier post so soon, but a quick email exchange on a Hermetic magic mailing list got me thinking, and before long the thinking got me to ranting.  Earlier, I mentioned that you shouldn’t go into one system of symbols expecting a one-to-one matching with another system, like matching geomantic figures to the Elder Futhark, without understanding how each system works internally.  If all you have is the external image of something, you’re omitting the reasoning, rationale, logic, and foundations that give the symbols their meaning, and you end up corroding and misinterpreting the symbols to fit things into an ill-fitting correspondence.  It’s just just trying to jam square pegs into round holes, but more like trying to jam oranges into a keyboard.  You risk trying to match up radically different things unless you figure out what things do on their own.

Well, this email chain was discussing the substitution of one set of forces called upon in a ritual with those more amenable to someone’s own upbringing and pantheon.  To be more specific, in the Trithemius ritual of conjuration, one calls on the Holy Trinity at several points in the ritual.  This is largely because the dude who came up with the ritual was a Christian abbot who practiced Christian Hermetic magic in a predominantly Christian society using a Neoplatonic philosophy that also had a trinitarian aspect in its perception of divinity.  It’s understandable that many people who aren’t raised Christian or who are pagan from birth or by choice don’t feel much of a connection with the Trinity or other similar Abrahamic ideas of divinity; even though I was raised loosely Jewish, I didn’t have much of a faith in God before actually beginning the Work, much less the other two-thirds of the Trinity that I call upon fairly frequently nowadays.

However, the first time I got my hands on the Trithemius ritual, I still did it by the book and called on the Trinity, on Christ, and so forth.  And you know what?  Despite not having a connection to the guys, despite not being Christian or being baptized or being a member of any Christian church, the ritual worked.  The Trinity heard me out and helped me out, despite that I was just some quasi-theist bumbling around with old Renaissance texts, a wand, and a few candles.  Heck, even after finding out about my role as a priest to Hermes and flirting with other deities here and there, I still think Jesus Christ is a pretty cool dude and call on his aid in many of my magic workings, along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  After all, I do work in the currents of a Christian-leaning Hermetic tradition of magic and philosophy where those forces are strong.

What the email chain was about was that this one person was a polytheist of a different sort and didn’t feel comfortable calling on the Trinity, saying that they had no connection to them whatsoever.  (Whether this was by upbringing as pagan or by choice in willfully excluding themselves from the Trinity is unknown to me, but I digress.)  They just wanted to know how they could get by doing the ritual how they wanted right off the bat without experimenting with the ritual as given to them.  They wanted to know how they could make the ritual better without ever having done it.  To take things to an absurd extreme, they wanted to just up and start off on their own tradition of magic when given only instructions in another that they were unwilling to accept wholly but willing to change however they wanted in order to make things look nicer for them.  Without doing the ritual.  Without seeing what happened when they called on those forces.  Without considering what the changes might do.  Without knowing how the ritual worked from the inside.  Without actually knowing how the system worked internally.

See why I felt that a follow-up post was necessary?  This is exactly what I’m talking about, and is about half of what Draja Mickaharic says in every one of his books on magic: don’t substitute until you’re a master in this shit, because you’re probably going to fuck shit up badly in doing so, even if only in your own understanding and spiritual growth.

This person had said that they saw no reason to use foreign pantheons in order to work their magic.  Really?  Hermeticism was started off by taking every single foreign pantheon there was back in the classical world and blending them together, calling on Moses, Jesus, Iao, Michael, Apollo, and Ra in the same breath.  Cornelius Agrippa, Aleister Crowley, and Stephen Skinner have written correspondence tables that link just about every aspect of Western ceremonial magic to just about every aspect of just about every other system of magic, religion, philosophy, divination, and symbology (and, yes, usually knowing how those systems worked from the inside out before making those correspondences).  It’s pretty much a given that all roads lead to Rome, that all spiritual paths lead to the Divine, that Truth is One but known by many names.  Every system is different, and every system is like a set of tools; one might use one set of tools for one purpose but an entirely different set for another purpose, such as building a house versus building a computer.

Pantheons, philosophies, and the like operate much in the same way for a magician, who looks beyond loyalty to one system of thought and tries to make use of what they have available to figure out what can be done better and more efficaciously.  Working with other systems and becoming familiar and friendly with them and their powers only increases the magician’s repertoire of skills and augments their toolbox so that they’re better equipped with actually doing magic when magic needs doing, sometimes by any means necessary with whomever is willing to listen.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t work with one system you like, but be willing to explore and whore yourself out to magic like how magic whores itself out to the cosmos.  If you try to shelter yourself, you only inhibit yourself.  We all have our preferred ways of doing work, but without learning how other systems and symbols and powers work in the process, we neglect the rest of the cosmos outside our own sphere.  It’s dangerous, especially when some rituals or techniques really can’t afford or allow substitutions just because “ew I have to call on that dude”.

The point of the Great Work is that it isn’t just a Hermetic thing, or a Christian thing, or a Mediterranean thing.  It’s a divine thing.  When you’re doing the Great Work, it doesn’t matter whether you’re monotheist, polytheist, henotheist, pantheist, panentheist, atheist, autotheist, or whatever.  It doesn’t matter whether you speak Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Chinese, German, Kalaallisut, Lojban, or whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  The Great Work is the attempt to get back to the Infinite Light, the Eternal and Endless Source from which all these things came from.  All these distinctions, classifications, and labels we draw and assign things to are ultimately nonexistent and false, but they’re useful tools at any level lower than the Divine Source in order to understand the things that materialized and separated from and into the Endless Light.  When you get There and perform the Great Work, all these things fall away revealing the not-even-oneness but the Oneness that underlies all of reality.  That takes work, though, and you need to get rid of your own biases and self-appointed labels before you can really begin to work towards this goal.