Thursday, July 26, 2012

Magic: Part 3 - What it is (yo).

Holey schist this one took a long time to write! I'd like to say that was due to the quality of Deep Thoughts Being Thunk, but it's actually more to do with balancing work, and other stuff I'm trying to achieve, and other house-dwellers' internet needs. That and Dwarf Fortress*.

Last time, I talked about how humans live with a gap between perception and objective reality. The result of this is that humans by and large operate using a picture of the world (which is often largely constructed from assumptions based on past data) rather than direct perception of the world itself. This is what we call a "worldview".

It's tempting when thinking about worldviews (especially those of ancient or foreign people) as groups of beliefs that people can somehow "get past". While worldviews can and do change over time, and some elements of them may be open to doubt or question, for the majority of people most of the time their worldview is the totality of the world-as-it-is for them at any given time. So when we talk about (for example) ancient peoples sacrificing members of their communities in order to ensure divine favour, we are talking about the literal truth of the universe as they understood it - it's not enough to say they "thought" that they needed to do this, from their perspective they literally did.

This is still the case - unless some aspect of objective reality directly and constantly contradicts an aspect of a worldview, that worldview will represent its bearer's entire picture of reality. That's how come we're mostly OK with doing things like using an entirely fictional commodity as a medium of exchange - we all agree that it's real, so it is. Because of the odd relationship between our minds and our bodies, this can even bleed into the "real world". For example, superstition can actually make you better at doing stuff.

More perniciously, this can make us subject to suggestion. If an idea can be introduced into your worldview without you necessarily noticing it***, it can become a part of your picture of the world. If it can be introduced to many people simultaneously, the chance of any one of them having a dissonant reaction and rejecting it is greatly diminished.

When I use the term "magic", I'm referring to any technique that takes advantage of this feature of the human mindscape. This can encompass self-programming or de-programming techniques like meditation, prayer or visualisation, as well as techniques for influencing others like advertising, public relations, art, politics or culture jamming. The reason I talk about this stuff in terms of magic, is because I feel like there's something to be gained by seeing all of these tricks as belonging to the same set.

Also, on the perceptual level it can be valuable to have a magic "lens" or framework to look at things through. Humans like narratives, and understanding situations in terms of the shift in power from individual to individual (for example) can be a constructive additional tool in narrativising a situation without necessarily compromising the facts.

Two people (one of whom has a very painful past) get into a relationship. They truly love one another. After enough time for it to be particularly painful (say, 6 months to a year) the one who was hurt betrays the other. They then move on in their own life with confidence, leaving their erstwhile partner to recover in turn. This is a typically human situation, in that it doesn't really make any sense. Why betray someone you love? If you no longer love someone, why not simply leave?

One magical way of narrativising the situation would be to see the hurt one using the other as Sacrifice in a long-running ritual that transforms them personally from Hunted to Hunter - from Prey to Predator. In this conception, the love and betrayal are necessary elements to charge the ritual and make it fully effective. The facts remain the same, but the meaning has changed.

Magic can give us language to talk about the ways that our actions and beliefs can change us, and (if you're good at it) can let you have a certain amount of conscious control over those changes.


* My current bugbear is digging wells. It's a process that rarely happens without cockups or fatalities at this point. Current scheme for this fortress is to pump water out of the river - it'll require building an elevated pumping-platform, but it should prevent my water supply from re-stagnating, and avoid the risk of pressurising my well and flooding all the lower levels of the fortress.

** So long as it's stuff you have some degree of conscious control over - there's no evidence that it has any particular effect on pure luck.

***  "Occult" derives from the Latin verb "to hide" - this is important.

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