This is a loose transcript based on my notes for the talk I gave at The Colours of Chaos (Conway Hall, 6th September, 2008). Some of the themes covered I've previously addressed elsewhere on this site, from a slightly different angle, in: 'Synchronicity, The Paranormal, Psychotherapy and Magic.'
Two Types of Magic
I would like to suggest that results from magical acts come in two flavours.
Sometimes people say to me: 'I got a spectacular result from some magic the other day. I wanted a new job, so I did a ritual. Then I looked in the newspaper, saw some ads, sent off for an application form, had some interviews, and then I got a new job.'
My reaction: 'Oh. That's really amazing. (Not.)'
But then a part of me thinks: Well, it's about the person's experience. They experienced the result as amazing, so that's what happened for them.
But then I see sense again, and I just can't help concluding: 'No. That's not magic. That's just getting your shit together and acting like you've got half a brain.'
It's only the second flavour of results that I would bother to call 'magic'. This is the type that also makes good stories. The first type doesn't, because they simply follow the rules of everyday cause and effect: you get a job by applying for one, whether you've done a ritual or not. Good stories are based on screwing about with events, or unexpected coincidences and significances.
I did a working recently to get myself abducted by aliens. (I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.) Various things happened (I don't want to bore you) but it reached a climax when, a week after the working, a friend and I were treated to a procession of UFOs right outside my window. In fact, half of Sussex saw them; there was a wave of UFO sightings across the south of England that weekend, which was reported in the local press.
Now that's what I call magick! Okay, it's not fair to compare an intent to get abducted by aliens with an intent to get a new job. Agreed. So, instead, let's compare the relationship between the intent and the result in each case.
Regarding the aliens, I'd expected the result to be a vision, maybe, or a lucid dream. Instead, I saw three UFOs and half the county got involved in a UFO flap! (The fact that the 'UFOs' were actually Chinese lanterns isn't relevant, because I don't believe in flesh-and-blood aliens anyway; but a UFO flap is a UFO flap!)
Case One: I want a job, I do a ritual, write-off for and get a job. The everyday laws of cause and effect are not being stretched.
In the case of the aliens, the probabilities against the result that manifested seem much higher. You get that wonderful buzz – the thing that keeps a lot of us doing magic, I suspect – that feels as if the whole universe is being levered into position, as a consequence of the working that we've done.
Actually, it hasn't, and later on I'll suggest why not.
Question: Should any result gained through magic be viewed as a paranormal event?
Does it depend on how you define 'paranormal'? Perhaps you're expecting me to do that here, but I'm not going to, because I'm guessing we're already broadly in agreement: telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, clairvoyance.
What these boil down to, I'd suggest, is a violation or bypassing of the laws of cause and effect that usually obtain in our experience of mind, time, matter, and the mundane senses.
It's not that I want to big-up these 'laws of cause and effect'. All I mean by them is a set of assumptions by which we normally make sense of the happenings in our daily lives.
Paranormal phenomena, on the other hand, do not belong among these everyday happenings. For most people, the paranormal arises spontaneously, unexpectedly, and is generally unwanted. However, magicians are not 'most people'. Most magicians, I'm guessing, have experienced the paranormal. Some of them as the direct result of magical workings; although many, or perhaps most, as the unexpected side-effects of magical workings. What sets magicians apart from 'most people' with respect to the paranormal is this intentional aspect. We set out to make something unusual happen. Most people do not invite these sorts of things to happen to them.
So, there's a relationship between magic and the paranormal, but it's not as simple as saying that magic is the means by which the paranormal is caused. For instance, there are other kinds of people besides magicians for whom the paranormal manifests through intention.
I want to examine one of these groups of people: they don't use ritual, instead they use experiments. They don't have ouija boards or go into trances, instead they have various bits of hardware and – most importantly – statistics. They call themselves parapsychologists. But just like magicians, sometimes they persuade the paranormal to manifest in their laboratories.
The history of parapsychology begins with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which was founded in 1882. Early paranormal research now reads to us like after-dinner parlour games. Interesting, but anecdotal. A shift occurs in the 1930s, coming from Duke University in North Carolina, where J.B. Rhine for the first time concentrates exclusively on a quatitative approach toward the paranormal.
I want to concentrate on a parapsychologist from the transitional period between the two approaches, by the name of Whately Carington. An unsung hero. Obscure. Most likely to be mentioned in connection with the researcher Samuel Soal, the British equivalent of J.B. Rhine.
Soal set out to replicate Rhine between 1936 and 1941. He had 160 subjects. More than 128,000 trials. After five years of results he'd discovered nothing above chance.
It was Whately Carington who suggested to Soal that he re-examine his results and look for 'displacement effects'. By this, Carington meant that although the subject might give an incorrect guess to the card they were supposed to be guessing, how did their guess compare with the (also unseen) card that had been turned up in the previous trial, or the card that was about to be turned up in the next trial?
When Soal did this, he discovered that two of his subjects had scored hits several millions above chance – but on the trial before or after the one they were supposed to be guessing. Soal was able to replicate these results in subsequent experiments.
Hang on! If a subject is correctly guessing not the current card, but the one that comes after it, in the future, is this telepathy or precognition?
Carington had recognised the importance of displacement effects as a consequence of his own experiments, which were as follows: he collected a couple hundred volunteers; gave them a pile of prepared questionnaires; every evening at the same time he opened a book in his study and made a drawing based on a random word; he left the drawing over his fireplace, then he locked the room until next morning.
These days we'd call it 'remote viewing'. Carington's subjects were invited to remote-view the drawings (they lived all over Britain) and record their impressions on the forms. The results were assessed independently, and were found to indicate
scores significantly above chance.
After a while, Carington decided to enclose a photograph of his study in with the forms. He simply wanted to heighten his subjects' sense of participation in the experiment. He did not expect what happened subsequently: the number of hits jumped up dramatically.
The photograph was playing the part of what Carington would later call a 'K' object or 'K' idea. The 'K' object increased the number of hits – Carington theorised – because it supplied a link between the subject and the drawing. By showing them the study in which the drawing hung, it seemed to have the effect of putting the subject more fully in mind of the target, the drawing.
Carington's view of the paranormal gets around the alternative view that the paranormal relies upon transfer of information, or energy, or particles between people. Or that it depends upon some kind of latent or exotic sensory ability. Instead, he held the view that entities are linked and give rise to one another in a manner similar to how ideas are linked to one another in the mind. Carington looked to the classical philosophical notion of 'The Association of Ideas' as the key to understanding paranormal phenomena. The 'K' object works because it forges a link between between the subject and the drawing.
In magic, 'K' objects are everywhere!
A ritual is a 'K' object: the symbolic link between an intent and the magical result.
The ritual often involves further objects acting as 'K' objects, usually in one of two flavours: (a) sympathetic magic ('like attracts like'; a symbolic representation, such as an effigy of the person who is the target of the ritual); or (b) associative magic ('the part is connected to the whole'; such as hair, or blood of the target, or a possession of theirs). You don't need these things; often the ritual itself is enough of a 'K' object – Carington didn't need the photo to score above chance. But it helps! And I've often heard magicians express the view that you can't beat a good magical link in order to really nail a result in sorcery.
Parapsychologists and Magicians
Hang on! The magician has ritual, the parapsychologist has their experiment, but it looks as if they're both doing magic! Both are expressions of intention, setting up an intentional situation in order to create a link to a desired outcome.
The paranormal is the violation of classical cause and effect. So, it seems, is magic. If I command a goetic demon to bring me cash and I discover a wad of twenties in the street the next day, this is not the usual relationship of cause and effect that obtains between myself and money.
But the laws of cause and effect are never violated to the extent that what happens ceases to have meaning. (Is that possible?) As Carington suggests: the paranormal adheres to the laws of the mind. ('The Association of Ideas.') A demon is a 'K' object; a concept to form a link between me and some cash. This makes no sense in terms of classical physics. But the idea of a demon fetching me some cash is perfectly comprehensible in terms of how our minds work; what's not to understand?
Carington was writing in the 1930s and 1940s, so didn't have the benefit of a later idea, which squarely addressed the notion of meaningful, non-causal correspondences between events: synchronicity.
Carl Jung published his essay 'Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle' in 1952.
Synchronicity is a very useful idea for thinking about magic and the paranormal. Without it, you tend to be left with many loose ends. For instance, how do you tell the difference between telepathy and precognition? What seems telepathy may be someone remote-viewing the result of the trial in the future – i.e. precognition + clairvoyance.
Arthur Koestler, another key figure in parapsychology, was one of the first to suggest how synchronicity helps us out of these kinds of problems. Koestler was interested in quantum physics as a model for the paranormal. Trouble was, each type of phenomena seemed to require a different quantum-physical model to explain it. In the case of psychokinesis, where everyday objects start rolling around, some kind of interface between the quantum and the level of classical physics would be required.
It can't be right to have different explanations for different bits of the paranormal when, as we've seen, those bits aren't really distinct anyway. Luckily, synchronicity does all of the job in one go.
Jung suggested there was a separate force at work in the universe apart from causality. We don't have to look only for a causing b. It might be, Jung suggests, that given a, then b sometimes likes to happen with it. ('Likes to happen' is probably the best our language can do to describe the synchronistic relationship between things.)
Telepathy can be viewed not as a biophysical mechanism, but as a correspondence between my intuition and thoughts in someone else's mind; precognition as the correspondence between my intuition and events in the world; even psychokinesis: a correspondence between my intention and the physical behaviour of an object. I concentrate. It moves. A cause? Or a correspondence?
Lovely. But unfortunately acausal, meaningful correspondences between mind and matter are very difficult to conceptualise.
An example of synchronicity: the famous dream of the gold scarab. A patient of Jung is telling him her dream of a gold scarab, when a golden beetle flies through the window.
The scarab in dream is matched with scarab in reality. The meaning of the scarab hieroglyph kfr (rebirth, renewal) is matched with the effect it has on the patient.
It's this same idea we found in Carington: the idea that events give rise to one another not only through cause and effect, but also through the meaningful affinities they share, which Carington referred to as The Association of Ideas. Related more in the way that ideas in the mind are related than the way that objects in classical physics are related to each other.
Synchronicity: great idea. Unfortunately Jung doesn't always handle it particularly well. Acausality is not an easy concept to handle. Sometimes Jung seems to suggest that synchronicity occurs because of the activation of an archetype. In the case of his famous patient: the activation in her unconscious of the archetype of rebirth (scarab) led to the synchronicity. But that has to be wrong, because in that case the archetype would have caused the synchronicity (no matter the exact mechanism), and causal is supposedly the one thing that a synchronicity isn't. Beware the Jungians!
The practice of magic, psychotherapy, parapsychology can be said to 'cause' synchronicity only in a very limited sense, in that they provide a context in which synchronicity is invited to arise. In the same way that going to school provides a context for learning; going to school doesn't cause learning to occur.
We have to distinguish this 'context' from what occurs within each specific example of a synchronicity, or within each act of magic. Having a dream about a scarab can't be said to have caused a golden beetle to fly into the room – that's a truly acausal event – but the practice of Jungian psychotherapy certainly did provide a context for this to happen.
Synchronicity and Magic
The most common outcome from magic is synchronicity pure and simple. Fairly commonly a synchronicity will arise as an unexpected side-effect, alongside or instead of the exp
ected result. The type of thing which, when you first start magic, leaves you thinking 'it's just a coincidence that would have happened anyway, even if I hadn't done a working'.
After about a hundred of these, you might stop talking about 'coincidence' and start to enjoy the feeling that your magic is able to lever the whole of reality into an altered shape all around you. But this attitude is just as dim because, once again, it's causal. I really don't advise you to go around believing that you or your magic causes the acausal.
But rituals can in themselves cause certain things to happen, and I think this may account for the 'lame' type of magic I mentioned at the beginning. Someone may perform a ritual, and the act may cause them to focus their efforts seriously enough to actually apply for a job, which they may not have done otherwise – and surprise, surprise, they get one.
Is this magic? I'm still loathe to admit it. The ritual may be said to have caused a result, but it caused it in a way that (a) was definitely causal, albeit on a psychological level; and (b) doesn't need any explanation outside of a bit of ego psychology.
The Transpersonal Factor
Where a true synchronicity occurs the 'K' object acts at a transpersonal level. All I intend by that is that there's no immediate cause – physical or psychological – at the individual level to account for the result. In the case of Jung's patient, no amount of personal development, visualisation, imagination, going to the gym, reading books by Ken Wilber could 'cause' a golden beetle to fly in through the window. And yet a beetle flew in.
What is this factor that somehow takes the K object onto a transpersonal level?
(You're expecting me to tell you, aren't you?)
Well, it's a mystery. In magic, it has been called 'True Will' (by Aleister Crowley) or 'Kia' (by Austin Osman Spare). In Buddhism, 'buddha chitta'. In Daoism, it's 'the Dao'. In Platonism, 'the One'. In Jungian psychology, 'The Self'.
Sometimes it arises in magic, sometimes not. If it could be guaranteed, then it probably couldn't be said to be acausal, because in that case we would have found a means to 'make' it happen. Nevertheless, as one progresses along the magical path its appearance becomes more common, and the experience of it becomes more integrated into everyday life. It even starts to have effects outside of intentional magical acts. One's whole life begins to become synchronistic. In Daoism there is the term 'wei wu wei' – 'doing without doing' – which seems to be describing this state.
Two things about this transpersonal factor are clear: (1) it's acausal; (2) any amount of wanting or willing it to happen guarantees that it won't. This is why the dreaded 'lust of result' has such a deadening effect on magic. Wanting something to happen fixes the 'K' object on the individual, causal level, and you get no result, because all the 'K' object does is put you in mind of how badly you want a result – or perhaps you get only an egocentric, psychological result.
Are all magical results paranormal?
No. Some are psychological.
What is the relationship between magic and the paranormal?
At the risk of sounding cheesy, reality is stranger than our habitual ignorance allows us to perceive. The paranormal arises out of the influence on our daily lives of this realm beyond our ignorance. Magic is one means, among others, that enables us to shed our ignorance and experience the transpersonal reality that lies beyond it.
I hope this has provided food for thought, and some structures for thinking around the relationship between the paranormal and magic.
Carington, Whately, Thought Transference (New York: Creative Age Press, 1976).
Heywood, Rosalind, The Sixth Sense (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).
Koestler, Arthur, The Roots of Coincidence (London: Pan Books, 1974).
Mansfield, Victor, Synchronicity, Science and Soul-Making (Chicago & La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1995).