I like to believe I’m a smart person. I think critically. I have a master’s degree in philosophy and I’m working on my Ph.D, and contrary to popular belief, academic philosophy is not, in fact, a free-for-all of sloppy thinking and vague bullshit. My discipline is overwhelmingly, exhaustingly oriented toward rigorously defined concepts and motivated arguments. As a philosopher, it’s not enough to say “I believe X.” First off, you have to specify what, exactly, you mean by X. What does the term actually mean? What other concepts does your definition of it rest upon? What hidden assumptions work their way into your framing of that concept? And why should someone else, who is not you and does not have your prior beliefs, come to believe X as well?
Critical thinking is my stock and trade. And sometimes, that makes being a Witch really hard. I practice magic. I sit in my bedroom, in a circle of candles, I hold my magic wand, and I cast spells. I believe (on a good day) that if I rub a green candle with cinnamon and burn it on a Thursday, I can get a grant application approved. Or that I can deter burglars from my house by laying a line of brick dust across my threshold. Or that I can shuffle a deck of cards and use them to predict the future.
But hot damn, I am so excruciatingly aware of how ludicrous all those beliefs are.
I have doubts. I think everyone has doubts, really, and any Witch who says they’ve never doubted magic is either lying or willfully un-self-critical. Now, importantly, those doubts don’t keep me from doing my thing; I love the ecstatic experience of Witchcraft, the embodied ritual, the feel of magical energy. And hey, I keep getting results, so I’m going to keep doing my thing. I have, at the very least, mastered the skill of believing fully in what I do while I’m doing it.
However, I think it can still be a good thing to give voice to our doubts, to take them face-on and engage with them directly rather than sweeping them under the rug. As a magical practitioner, I want to be straightforward and unashamed about my belief in magic, as silly as it might seem from the outside. I want to be able to stand straight, look people in the eye, and say, “Yes, I’m a Witch,” without feeling like I’ve just declared that earthquakes are caused by alien laser beams (or something equally insane). And the only way to do that, the only way to earn that level of conviction, is to interrogate my doubts.
What follows is an incomplete list of the sorts of doubts I have about magic, questions I wish I could answer to my satisfaction. Some of these, I have thoughts about how I would answer. Others, I do not. All are questions to which I wish I could see other occultists’ answers—not out of an expectation that those answers would agree, but just to chase our collective beliefs about magic all the way down to their foundations.
Since this is still technically a Tarot blog, I try to avoid having multiple non-Tarot posts in a row. But, well, I write about what’s on my mind.
- Magic doesn’t violate the laws of nature, but rather is supposed to work through them (e.g., if I do a spell for healing, the illness will not miraculously vanish overnight; rather, it will heal in accord with the function of my immune system, if potentially faster and more easily). Nothing happens with magic that could not physically happen without magic. So why believe in magic at all? Wouldn’t a principle of parsimony say that we shouldn’t add to our ontology if the addition has no additional explanatory power?
- What, exactly, is a spirit? What kinds of spirits are there? Are we (corporeal) spirits? If so, what is the relationship between us and other (noncorporeal) spirits?
- How does necromancy, hedge-crossing, reincarnation, or the belief in the spirit world even begin to work, in light of what modern science shows about the supervenience of mental states on physical ones? (i.e., the dependence of personality, memory, and mental continuity on brain function)
- A common way of explaining how different systems of magic can be independently workable but mutually inconsistent is to say that magical correspondences are thought-forms built up over time. But how, exactly, does that work? Does that mean everything having to do with magic is a thought-form? Is there anything magical that is not a thought-form? What does that say about the Gods, angels, spirits of place, ancestors, and various other spirits we work with?
- Sympathetic magic is all well and good, and it rests on a basic principle that “That which is like a thing is a thing.” But what justifies this principle? Why should we accept it? Basically, how is magic supposed to work?
- When one of the core principles of magical practice is the certainty of belief (knowing that it will be so simply because I will it), how do we safeguard against confirmation bias and the placebo effect? Isn’t it important to distinguish between actual effects of our magic and mere wishful thinking?
- What is the scope of magic? You can’t use magic to win the lottery. You can’t use it to remotely assassinate a tyrant. You can’t use it to halt a global pandemic. So what can magic do, what can’t it do, and where is the dividing line between can and cannot?
- Serious occultists always insist that magic is compatible with science, but, well, is it? Science (at the macroscopic scale) is built on a materialistic, deterministic paradigm where events are determinately caused by the state of affairs preceding them. And sure, that deterministic paradigm breaks down at the sub-sub-atomic level, but even then, there’s a great deal of rigorous math involved that constrains what is and is not possible. It sometimes seems to me like we only say magic is compatible with science because we don’t understand the science well enough.
- Why us? Why should we, these freak accidents of evolution on a tiny-ass planet in the armpit of a single solar system, have the ability to causally influence the world remotely and through non-physical ritualistic actions that are supposed to work only because they appeal to our subjective aesthetic sense of resemblance between one thing and another? Like, what?
- How many planes of existence are there? Why not more, or less? To which planes do we have access? What does a non-materialistic map of reality look like?
I’ll finish this list off with a caveat. The thing is, ultimately, none of these questions really matter. Magic is something that you do, not just something you sit and theorize about. At the end of the day, I’m sometimes maddened by how little of it makes sense, but I still go out in the world and do the thing. I don’t anticipate that changing.
To put it in elemental terms, all this anguish over thinking about magic is a purely Airy undertaking. And there’s a place for Air in magic; it’s really important to have a clear idea of what we think we’re doing and how we think it works. But Air is only one of the four elements, and in order to do magic well, you need them all. You need the willpower and drive to declare your intention and fix that intention as your new reality. You need the intuitive, emotional connection to your work—that is to say, you need to surrender to the part of your mind that speaks in symbols and feelings and doesn’t care if it all makes sense. Finally, ultimately, you need to do the thing. Cast the spell, perform the silly action, stop asking questions and just do it.
It’s easy for me to get caught up in Airy questions. I’m an Airy person. Having the balance of the other elements, the other ways of being, is what keeps me from getting stuck there. So although I find value in entertaining these doubts, in asking these questions and trying to build answers to my satisfaction, none of it ultimately makes any difference. Magic is not philosophy. It’s not a purely intellectual exercise, and its value does not lie in whether it’s intellectually consistent. It’s something I do (or, to be somewhat trite, it’s something I am), and I plan to keep doing it, one way or another.