Magic and Mental Causation

This is going to be a Wicca post. If that turns you off, I completely understand, seeing as how this is actually not a Wicca blog, and I promise my next post will be 100% Tarot.* For anyone who’s relatively new to my blog and doesn’t know this about me, I am a onetime atheist turned Gardnerian Wiccan. My relationship with the gods of the Wica is complicated, and most of it is not appropriate to share on this blog,** but one of the big themes of the path I have walked with these gods thus far is that I overthink everything. I ask a lot of questions, and one of the hardest lessons for me to learn has been the simple virtue of keeping my mouth shut, turning off my brain, and living my religious life experientially rather than rationally.

79ba568047eafd79f47816ff7522ef74And yet, the fact of the matter is that I’m a deeply inquisitive person. I like to ask questions, even in places where questions aren’t necessarily appropriate. And on top of that, I’m an academic (and worse, a philosopher), so I like to have my worldview at least make internal sense. What I experience and believe in my religious life doesn’t have to square with what other people think, or even with what my rationalist side says “should” be true, but I want it to have some kind of internal consistency. It needs to make sense on its own terms.

With that background information in mind, let’s turn our attention to magic.

I believe in magic.*** The erstwhile atheist in me shudders at that admission, and it’s not something I advertise around my academic colleagues because it would incur nothing but scorn, but it’s true. I have experienced that strange, quasi-electric thrum that we in the woo-woo community like to call magical “energy”, and I have attempted (in ways I consider successful) to perform magical spells directing that energy towards the accomplishment of specific goals. The things that made me believe in magic are purely subjective experiences that wouldn’t hold up to any empirical testing, and I would never dream of trying to convince someone else that she ought to believe in magic based on the experiences I have had. But for myself, I’m convinced. Magic is a part of how I understand the world.

This leads to an important question. How, exactly, does magic square with the rest of what I experience and believe? How does it fit into my model of the universe?

frans_hals_-_portret_van_renc3a9_descartesEnter René Descartes. This is the super-famous philosopher known even in non-academic circles for his “I think, therefore I am” gambit (although most people know the quote and not the context). He is going to help me explain, in a philosophically rigorous matter, what I personally think magic is and how it fits into my understanding of life, the universe, and all of the things.

Descartes’s philosophy is awesome, and I don’t have space in this blog post to talk about all of it or all of the reasons that I think it’s worthwhile. For now, we’re going to focus on one specific idea: substance dualism. Descartes is not the only philosopher to have had this idea, but he’s the most famous, so we’ll simplify things by ascribing it to him.

The Cliff’s Notes version of this philosophical theory is that there are two kinds of substances in the world: mental substances, which are defined by their capacity for thought, and physical substances, which are defined by their extension in three-dimensional space.**** Human beings are, according to Descartes, unique in that they have both minds and bodies (as opposed to rocks, which have only bodies, and angels, which have only minds).

I’ll gloss over a lot of relevant material here, for the sake of brevity and readability, and skip to the problem that emerges. Minds and bodies are distinct substances. A mind is never physical, and a body is never mental. So the problem is, how can they interact causally? How can I have a mental state (e.g. “I am thirsty”) that causes my body to perform a physical action (drinking water)? And similarly, how can something that happens to my body (stubbing my toe) produce a mental sensation (pain)?

Incidentally, this is a problem that still causes raging debates in contemporary philosophy, and even in neuroscience. My own personal take on the mind-body problem is rather complicated, and relies on the work of a seventeenth-century Dutch Jewish philosopher to whom Einstein wrote a love poem.***** Before we get to that, though, the point I’d like to make is that nobody really knows how mind and body interact, so this subject is totally open to interpretation. Some people have strict physicalist responses to this problem, arguing that consciousness is nothing but a series of brain states caused by neurons firing in specific patterns, and that eventually we’ll be able to reproduce those brain states in a computer. Other people, on the opposite extreme of the spectrum, claim that only the mental exists, and that the physical world is an illusion produced by our mental states.

For myself, I lie somewhere in the middle. And my take on this is pretty much directly plagiarized from one of my favorite philosophers of all time, Benedict de Spinoza.

Life goals: To one day have my portrait painted in this style.

Spinoza is a fascinating character. With everything I learn about him, I want to learn more. He’s one of those amazing philosophers of yore who had a comprehensive theory of everything. He had a metaphysical model for the universe, which was his basis for ethics, politics, religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and so on. Pop physicists on the Discovery Channel are always talking about the dream of one day coming up with a theory of everything, but frankly, Spinoza already did that. And he did it with more pizzazz than most physicists will ever be able to muster.

But let’s not get distracted by my casual disrespect for the hard sciences. Physics is a wonderful discipline and I sincerely wish I knew enough advanced mathematics to understand it properly. Back to Spinoza.

Because Spinoza’s philosophy is so sprawling, there’s no way I can explain all or any of it adequately in this blog post, but I want to touch on two key ideas of his: substance monism and panpsychism.

If you know that substance dualism is the theory that there are two kinds of substance, and you have any basic understanding of Latin, then you can probably figure out what substance monism is. It’s the theory that there is only one fundamental substance in the universe. What, exactly, is that substance? Well, according to Spinoza, it’s God. Not the God of Abraham who wrote all those commandments and was so fond of infanticide, but a very squishy, kind of hippie-ish, pseudo-pantheistic vision of God as the totality of all the things in the universe.****** God is the supreme thing, consisting of all the attributes of all the other things. He’s the original source of everything, and he simultaneously is everything. (Incidentally, this means that God is not so much a “he” as both a “he” and a “she”.)

In Spinoza’s thought, all of the other things in the universe are not substances unto themselves. Rather, they are just aspects of the one monistic substance: God. To be a thing is simply a way of being God. So I am part of God, and you are part of God, and the pasta I ate for dinner tonight is part of God, and so is Angela Merkel’s left nostril. All part of God. It’s very woo-woo.

Now, let’s hold that part of Spinoza’s philosophy in mind as we talk about the second key idea: panpsychism. If you know a little Greek, you can probably derive the definition of this word. “Pan” = “all”, “Psyche” = “mind” (or “soul”, but in this case that’s a misleading translation). So panpsychism is the theory that everything in the universe has a mind. In the contemporary woo-woo community, this is effectively very similar to animism.

For Spinoza, because there is only one substance, there is no substantial (pun completely intended and actually philosophically relevant) difference between mind and body. The mental and physical are just different aspects of God. There’s a little bit of philosophical hand-waving that I won’t get into here, but what Spinoza concludes is that all bodies have minds and all minds have bodies. These bodies and minds may vary in complexity, so that my mind is probably more complex than the mind of Angela Merkel’s left nostril. But if there’s a body, it definitely has a mind–and similarly, if there’s a mind (or a mental state of any kind), it’s definitely attached to a body.

There’s a sort of as-above-so-below causal parallelism that happens with bodies and minds in Spinoza’s thought. Let’s go back to the two examples I raised when I was talking about the problem of mind-body interaction in Descartes. I have a mental state (“I am thirsty”) and it causes me to perform a physical action (drinking water). Descartes, with his substance dualism, can’t really account for this. Spinoza, on the other hand, explains it by saying that there are two processes–one mental and one physical–that occur in parallel with each other.

The mental process: My mind is thirsty, so my mind consumes the mind of some water. (It sounds weird to say it that way, and I’m oversimplifying, but that’s basically the idea.) Simultaneously, the physical process: My body is dehydrated, so my body consumes some water.

Similarly, stubbing my toe (physical) causes me pain (mental). For Spinoza, stubbing my toe causes my body physical damage. Simultaneously, the mind of the doorjamb against which I stubbed my toe causes mental damage to my mind, and that damage elicits the mental state that is my pain.

It’s a weird philosophy, and it’s extremely counterintuitive to a lot of people, but I really love it. And one of the reasons I love it is that it can account pretty neatly for magic.

191da8-20141201-fantasiaLet’s come back to the starting point of this post. How can I, a super-rationalist self-respecting philosophical academic, believe in magic as part of an internally consistent understanding of the universe as a whole?

Well, my answer is (kind of) simple: For me, magic is mental causation. It’s a matter of my mind interacting with the mind of whatever it is I’m trying to affect, and consequently producing a physical effect in the body of that target.

I should offer a qualification here. Everything I have said up to this point about the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza is totally mainstream and accepted as a part of Western philosophy (if a bit simplified). This “magic is mental causation” bit, however, is not. That is my idea alone, and it would be considered super fringe and laughable in philosophical circles. So for the love of God, don’t wander around saying, “Spinoza believed in magic as a form of mental causation”, because people will (justifiably) tell you you’re wrong. I’m reappropriating Spinoza’s philosophy to suit my own needs here.

The philosophy of causation is a whole other domain, which entails problems of its own, but generally speaking, it’s accepted that causation can only happen if there’s some kind of spatiotemporal continuity. X can only cause Y if X and Y happen sequentially and in the same geographic area. The idea of magic as a form of mental-to-physical causation screws with that a bit, because we (that is, people who do magic) perform magic to affect persons and things that are removed from us in space and time. There are techniques that occultists use to remove these barriers, but this is the kind of objection that would raise the hackles of any philosopher and that would make my pet theory on magic non-publishable in any peer-reviewed journal.

But this is not a peer-reviewed journal. This is a blog post. I’m not trying to justify magic to people who don’t believe in it, or to prove its existence. Rather, I’m taking as given that I believe in magic, and then trying to find a way to fit it into my understanding of how things work.

And in a very broad sense, I think this pseudo-Spinozistic account of magic makes a lot of sense. Many occultists take something resembling a monistic view of the universe, where everything that exists is interconnected as part of the Great Oneness of Everything. (In fact, the “Law of Unity” is one of Isaac Bonewits’s Laws of Magic. The “Law of Personification” also smells a hell of a lot like panpsychism.) Magic is, essentially, a causal process that starts with the magician’s mind and (usually, though not exclusively) ends with a change in the external, physical world. Thinking about that process in Spinozistic terms can help us–or at least, help me–fill in the intermediary steps.

When I am performing magic, my mind is interacting causally with the “mind” (i.e. the mental/spiritual/astral/what-have-you component) of my magic’s target. Usually, this is accompanied by some physical action–a sympathetic link. (Photographs, dressed candles, trinkets, herbs, yadda yadda yadda.) See once again Bonewits’s Laws of Magic and the “Law of Similarity”: that which is like a thing is the thing. By interacting physically with objects that represent my magic’s target, I am interacting with a body that shares–even just the tiniest bit–in the “mind” of that target. So there is a physical interaction that runs parallel to the mental interaction that is the core of my magic.

I’m worried I’m not being clear. So, with all that background information, here’s my basic understanding of what I am doing when I perform magic:

  1. My body interacts physically with objects that sympathetically represent my target.
  2. Because of the sympathetic link between those objects and the target, there is a simultaneous process by which my mind interacts with the mind of my target.
  3. Because of the parallelism between mind and body, the effect of my mind on my target’s mind will be accompanied by a simultaneous effect on my target’s “body” (i.e. my target’s physical presence in the world).

There’s a lot of hand-waving here, and I know that. Once again, this idea of mine would not be fit for an academic journal. But I’m okay with that. I feel that this idea ultimately manages to show a way in which magic could be a part of my philosophically rigorous understanding of the universe as a whole. Can I explain exactly what the process of mental causation is, and why that’s always accompanied by physical change (which, at least in theory, is the result I was endeavoring to produce)? Absolutely not, although if you gave me a book’s worth of space I would do my damnedest.

But if you ask me “What is magic?”, I can give you some semblance of an answer. I can tell you that I consider the universe to be one tangled monistic substance consisting of both mental and physical states, and that I consider causation to be a two-tiered process of mental interaction and physical interaction. I understand magic as leveraging that two-tiered process to enable my mind to produce change in the physical world.

This post is almost certainly too long, and for that I apologize. I’m not even sure if it’s halfway coherent. I’ve stayed up past my bedtime writing it, and drunk two beers over the course of the writing process, so for all I know I may reread it tomorrow and think it’s utter garbage. If it is, I sincerely apologize; I promise, there is a good idea lurking behind all of my messy writing.

For now, I am off to bed. I can only hope that this post made sense, and that at least someone found it interesting. Next week, I’m back on the straight-and-narrow with some Tarot writing; I already have a fun idea for a post about the Hermit and the Moon.

*Because, as we all know, TAROT IS NOT WICCAN.

**Look at me! I’m going to do that dickish thing where I mention something potentially interesting on my blog and then say “But I can’t talk about that because it’s too personal”. If it’s too personal to share, why did I even bother mentioning it? Because I’m a jerk, that’s why.

***And I REFUSE to spell it “magick”, because FUCK ALEISTER CROWLEY.

****There’s a really interesting consequence of this doctrine, which is that Descartes doesn’t believe that it’s possible for a vacuum to exist in space, but I’m getting sidetracked.

*****You think I’m joking. I am not.

******Did I mention that Spinoza’s theological ideas were so radical that he was actually excommunicated from the Jewish community in Holland? It’s really hard to get kicked out of Judaism, but he managed it.


11 thoughts on “Magic and Mental Causation

      1. Based on what you’ve written here, I’d say that you’re not missing anything at all. After you remove the ahistorical assertions and the pedantic philosophizing, the Kybalion is “Spinoza-lite.”

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I’m incapable of linear thought. Hence, footnotes. There would have been many more, but I felt that after six consecutive asterisks it became too unwieldy and aesthetically unappealing to mark a seventh footnote.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I use all sorts of other things for footnotes. 3 is my max for asterisks. Then these jobbies: † (“daggers”), then their buddy the “double-daggers” (‡).


      2. It’s much easier when I’m writing in MS word, because then footnotes are numbered. I never figured out how to type daggers and double-daggers, and I was too lazy to copy-paste them every time, so I ended up sticking with footnotes. Plus, I think there is something just the tiniest bit satisfying about the absurdity of peppering my posts with long strings of asterisks.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating post; I love how thought-provoking your blog so often is. I’ll have to ruminate on my opinions a bit, as someone who’s more on the hard science side and stumbles at certain philosophical concepts.

    Your footnotes are always entertaining.


    1. Thank you! That compliment is taken to heart. And as for being more on the hard science side of things, I understand that. I’m frankly astonished that my worldview ended up skewing towards the fantastical as much as it has.


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