Ever found yourself having the same conversation twice, with two completely different people?
Thanks to the kaleidoscopic disaster-cum-heroism-cum-fiasco that is the UK lockdown, I haven’t been able to get together with my local occultist friends for nearly three months now. Not even on Zoom, because a lot of the people involved are technorefuseniks or technophobes or hydrophobes or something (I’m paraphrasing).
But if the Golden Age Of Zoom has closed down one avenue of discussion, it’s opened several others. I’ve suddenly been able to participate in other conversations, at new levels of depth and intensity, with colleagues from other mystical currents. One of those currents has quickly become very important to me, in an unexpected way. I’m not going to get into which one right now, because it’s not relevant to this story, and also because it’s private. I don’t tell you everything, you know.
Anyhoo, last week my new friends on Zoom and I were chatting about myth, mythopoesis, and how one shouldn’t conflate facts with truth. In the midst of it all, one person dropped the casual remark: “Of course, scientists don’t believe in anything they can’t see…”
Well, I wasn’t having it. Just as I wasn’t having it three months earlier, in a different (face-to-face) esoteric discussion, when a different friend similarly remarked: “Of course, if they can’t see it or cut it up with a scalpel, scientists think it doesn’t exist”.
My response in both cases was more or less the same, and if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, and/or if you’ve read The Golden Cut or Origami, you can probably fill in the blanks yourself, but in a nutshell it went something like CHRIST ON A CRUTCH YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING, HAVE YOU MET ANY QUANTUM PARTICLES LATELY FFS?
Yes, I sure know how to make myself popular in group settings. But putting my interpersonal skills aside, it got me wondering: what’s with this dismissive attitude to science?
Whose Demon Are You?
The kneejerk diagnosis of this situation would be to say that people who are into the esoteric are by definition irrationalists, and/or that they’re hostile to science because they don’t understand it.
There’s no doubt that this diagnosis is occasionally correct at the level of individuals. Anyone who has hung out in esoteric or mystical circles for more than five minutes will have met people like that. You don’t need me to spell it out.
But I don’t think that’s all that’s going on here. I don’t want to get into personalities, but it’s fair to say that although one of my two interlocutors would definitely fall into the woo-woo category, the other would not. And in any case, these weren’t one-on-one conversations, but group discussions: the remarks made in both cases were part of a group dynamic.
What’s more, both groups also included people who are or have been professional scientists, and the individuals who made the anti-science remarks were aware of that. So it’s not as if those individuals didn’t actually know – not just in the abstract, but concretely, as they looked around the room or at their Zoom gallery – that there are real live scientists who are interested in mystical experiences, or have had such experiences themselves, or at the bare minimum are sufficiently open-minded to turn up and tune in for the conversation in the first place.
So this boorishly empiricist figure – let’s call it the Scopomaniacal Scientist – is not a composite of the real scientists the speakers have met in their lives. Since it was invoked in the company of actual scientists, it also seems insufficient to call it a stereotype. A stereotype is a cliché or oversimplification, but this involved a more wilful (albeit unconscious) refusal to recognise the other people in the room.
No, this was something else. As I pondered over it – because this is how my mind works – I started to make sense of it to myself this way:
The Scopomaniacal Scientist is an egregore.
The phrase “if they can’t see it, they think it doesn’t exist” is the incantation used to summon it.
The Accidental Entity
I hope I don’t need to explain (but I’m going to anyway, just in case) that when I describe the situation in this way, it’s not my intention to reduce magick to a figure of speech. Rather the other way around: I’m acknowledging the power of my friends’ speech as magick. I describe the situation in this way precisely because I believe* that magick works, and that egregores show up when you summon them.
Had we but world enough and time, I could now launch into an exceedingly long and convoluted debate about the definition of “egregores” and how they differ from similar things such as demons and golems and tulpas. But this is only a blog post, and I’m going to want my tea in a minute. So I’ll just say that by “egregore” I mean an entity created and summoned in a group context by means of a collective process.
As I’ve said here before, summoning entities is (for the most part) a dumb thing to do. Demons, gods and other magickal entities aren’t just cute pop-psychology metaphors for parts of your own psyche. Obviously, they’re not simply “out there” in the material world either. No, they have both subjective and objective existence simultaneously. That’s the point: that’s magick. And that’s also why they can be dangerous.
This applies to egregores at least as much as to other entities. Once you’ve conjured that sucker, it’ll be raring to go. It’s bad enough when you’ve conjured it on purpose. I’ve conjured a few in my time, and it’s always got out of hand one way or another. You have to be incredibly clear and focused, not just individually but collectively, to keep that puppy in check.
Worst case scenario, you lose control of it, and the puppy starts biting the hands that feed it.
Even worse worst case scenario, the puppy gets big and bold enough to run away, and it starts getting other people to feed it, and then it bites them too.
The Scopomaniacal Scientist is an egregore that’s well and truly on the loose, turning up at any mystical or esoteric group it can find, ingratiating its way in, rubbing its arse on the carpet, and getting well-meaning people to feed it.
Whenever I smell its doggy breath, I go full Spengler ‘n’ Venkman.
Fire Up Your Proton Pack
I don’t honestly know why this egregore gets such a warm welcome in esoteric circles. Or anywhere else, for that matter, since it’s certainly not limited to those circles, even though that’s the context I’m focusing on here.
Maybe I’m overthinking it (you’ll be astonished to hear that I have a tendency to do that sometimes). Maybe it simply appeals to people’s stupidity or intellectual laziness or mean-spiritedness. The friends of mine who summoned it don’t strike me as having those qualities, but hey, everyone has hidden weaknesses.
The two groups I’ve been talking about are actually very different in outlook – more different than I’ve indicated so far (although still not quite as different as they think they are, but that’s another story). What they have in common is a desire to re-enchant the world. I think that’s also what makes them vulnerable to the Scopomaniacal Scientist’s charms.
If you have a strong idea of yourself (whether “you” are an individual or a group) as on a mission to re-enchant the world, then that mission feels even more heroic and exciting and romantic if you have a disenchanting foe to vanquish.
So you summon the ol’ Scopo to fill the role of the foe. Except, of course, that insofar as you’re the one who breathes life into that foe, it’s actually you who are doing the disenchanting. You’re giving strength and power to a drearily mechanistic view of the universe, just so that you can oppose it.
Well, just as there really are esotericists whose heads are full of candyfloss woo-woo, so there no doubt really are scientists who think the world is a dull machine. But I bet there are not nearly as many of the latter as there are of the former.
There are whole swathes of science that are both enchanted and enchanting. Scientists marvel at the wonders of the world, and apply themselves to understand it more deeply – often producing yet more wonders in their explanations. Think of quarks, black holes, gravitational waves, the double-slit experiment. Think of the placebo effect, alpha waves, the genome. Think of chaos theory and hypergeometry and the multiverse.
What’s more, as the scientists who were present in our group conversations were quick to point out, science is not about arrogant certainty, but about respect for the unknown. Far from refusing to acknowledge anything they can’t already “see”, a good scientist is always acutely aware of the limits of their own knowledge.
Indeed, it’s those very limits that inspire their quest. And one of the ways they drive that quest forwards is by proving themselves and each other wrong, moving beyond old ideas by destroying them. “Following the science” in a new field always, by definition, means encountering error and uncertainty. Uncertainty isn’t bad science, it’s working science, and you shouldn’t let scapegoat-seeking politicians tell you otherwise… But now I’m getting off my subject.
You can point to a zillion examples of science being used to disenchanted ends; of course you can. I can point to a zillion examples of magick and mysticism being used to equally disenchanted ends. If you don’t believe me, I’ve got a nice selection of cancer-curing crystal amulets blessed by genuine Amerindian shamans you might like to buy.
It all comes down to this: a blanket rejection of science and rationality is no better, and no less disenchanting, than a blanket rejection of magick and mysticism. Magickians ought to know this even better than scientists do. Aren’t we the ones that are always banging on about transcending dualisms and sublating contradictions? Or did I miss some mediumistic memo that told us we could skip it when it comes to rational versus irrational?
*Or rather, I suppose it, in the sense outlined in a previous blog post.
Images from Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal (1863), in the public domain.
Take a peek behind the veil.