Is there ever really a case for the academic study of the occult?
I originally wrote this several years ago for a forum I used to run, however decided that it was time to update and refresh it. I have added a few biographical details here at the beginning since I feel that the whole piece makes more sense if I describe where I am coming from and why my attitude is as it is.
I did intend my last posting on “Liminal Whispers” to be my last piece on the social and scientific impact of the occult for the time being but on reflection I wanted to get this one out there first to close these thoughts for a time, freeing myself to write about something more experiential next, probably something new on tulpas if I can get all my material together in a coherent fashion. I also feel that in getting all this out there I had drawn myself a line and can move on from the fundamentalists on all sides of this argument.
I am writing this as someone whose background has always been scientific and “rational” despite a firm acceptance of the existence of magic and the paranormal. This is mostly due to a number of very strange experiences growing up that have convinced me that there is a larger reality out there than the likes of Dawkins and Randi can dream off in their limited philosophies. So for me it is not even really about trying to prove that the paranormal is real, it is very much my trying to live in and understand the world with both a scientific and a magical worldview.
This has probably left me a little eccentric in my views, which is fine with me. Frankly I am surprised that I cope so well since many in my family have either gone nutty-religious or nutty-materialist. I have managed to disentangle and dispel some of the more religious aspects of my family to the extent that they no longer think that I am a diabolist and my mother has been known to borrow and read my Crowley books, not that I think too highly of Aleister Crowley, which is a story for another day. The materialists are actually more trouble since they are convinced I am bonkers and that it is their job to make me see reason. However I suspect in at least two cases this is more a fear reaction to their own psychic sensitivity. My sister in particular is very psychic but wants nothing to do with the paranormal which is really annoying on those days when I need a really good seer…
For example, there is one experience which happened when I was quite young and playing with my younger brother back in our house in Lincolnshire. We both stopped for a moment and I remember seeing an apparition of our niece, Jennifer standing just next to us. Aaron (my brother) asked me if I had just seen Jenny there. I said yes and we were both a little started by that. We could both describe the image identically including the fact that she was wearing her yellow dress etc. Since the house was empty apart from us and Jenny was 20 miles away in the nearby town of Boston it couldn’t have been her physical self. My nasty rationalist mind has pondered and broken down this event for 25 years or so now and I still can’t explain this in “rational terms” although I can draw on a number of paranormal theories to explain this. It doesn’t really matter to me what the explanation is as much as the fact that events like this show that the phenomena is real and that we are immersed in it as a part of out reality.
I know that modern psychologists would try to explain this sort of thing away as a shared fantasy or shared hallucination or something. However they would be utterly wrong. There was no two way discussion of details where this could happen. I saw the apparition and my brother described it exactly how I saw it.
My education was formally academic up to MSc level, and at the time I dallied with the idea of taking a PhD which would have probably been in a mathematical or computational subject. One of my regrets however is that I did not study physics to A level and if I could live the early part of my life over again (or win the lottery) I shall certainly take an A level in physics and use that as a springboard back into academia and some hard sciences. This is more for personal interest however rather than feeling a need to prove anything to the world.
I hesitate to use the word “psychic” to describe myself. Despite a number of very odd experiences which are only explainable in terms of the paranormal, my day-to-day mindset is generally analytical and left-brained. I have had to (and continue to) work very hard to open up to different consciousness and experience the paranormal in a willed sense. Years of meditation and visualization exercises have helped, however the biggest switch on point was joining the ghost club and actually experiencing a number of hauntings where I found that the psychic part of me switched on very quickly to dramatic effect and I have found subsequently that it is much easier for myself to switch this on now that I know what that state feels like and have developed my own personal routine to activate it.
I am generally my own worst enemy however in that I try to over analyze when I should be sensing. This is something which I am working on however and it just takes time, effort and self-control. I can easily see this taking another twenty years or so, in fact it is probably a lifetime task.
Those states of mind where the psychic facility is active however are fascinating to me, and alike those dreams which we get sometimes, that seem deeper and more “real” than other dreams, than “reality” itself sometimes. I assume that I am fairly average in the sense that most (if not all) other people have similar weird experiences and dreams, so I am frankly a bit surprised that most other people are not really interested in the paranormal or occult except as in a vague voyeuristic way and in fact many people are openly hostile to it. I have really given up trying to persuade people to be interested in the extraordinary things which happen around us all the time and see myself basically as an explorer, exploring solely for myself to learn and find out rather than find the proof to enlighten humanity.
I am at heart a bit of an academic however in that I like things to be nicely and precisely defined all with terms of reference etc. I am all for furthering occult knowledge, however I feel that given the experiential nature of the experiences it is not something which works well within the academic environment. I have commented elsewhere on this blog my issues with physics and the paranormal. However conversely with magic we also have to deal with the concept of studying spirits, in fact of communicating with the spirits you wish to study.
So, let us start by defining the term “occult” so we are all on the same level here. Occult derives from the Latin “occultus” which means “hidden” or “secret”. The association of this word with the paranormal or magical began somewhere around the 17th century. I tend to use it synonymously with “paranormal” to denote the range of phenomena ranging from psychicism to haunted houses to the effects of ritual magic.
I think that academia itself is quite odd and in many ways academics are a law unto themselves. They see themselves as the holders and the guardians of sacred knowledge and the only ones who can grant access to it, knowledge which is not academic is often seen as not quite acceptable. A person outside that community often finds that it is very hard to be accepted or even printed in Journals such as Nature. This causes massive problems in that subjects which are seen as “politically” bad choices for research are automatically ignored. Placing them below the discussion threshold means that this can happen without debate. We see this happen frequently with the rise of the sceptical movement, totally dismissing (and even name calling) researchers such as parapsychologists.
I see this “political correctness” as the first barrier with regards to the academic study of these subjects. Doubtless over time it will be overcome and if there is any truth in these subjects then eventually proper study will come about. However to expose them to an environment of disbelief could bring about considerable short term damage preventing them from being studied for much longer.
We see a similar situation arise with the evolution debate. Broadly (very broadly) speaking the argument is polarized between monotheists who either argue for the old Garden of Eden chestnut, or slip their God in with the intelligent design sophistry. The other side of the argument is dominated by sceptics such as Dawkins who insists upon the literal truth of Darwin’s model for evolution; “Natural Selection”. Before Wallace and Darwin independently postulated “Natural Selection” as the mechanism behind evolution there were other theories which have long been discredited such as “Lamarckian inheritance” where acquired characteristics are passed on. So a Blacksmith would have strong arms and we would then expect his children to inherit this trait. Clearly this is not what happens. Darwin himself however had some doubts as to whether Natural Selection explains everything but it is widely accepted as the whole story.
As far as I am concerned we (humanity) came about by evolution, so I have no time for the monotheists arguments at all. However I am a bit annoyed that these monotheists are the only ones causing a fuss here – We don’t see Odinists arguing that mankind was made from trees as some Northern traditions suggest. It all seems to me to be all about a big mouth middle-eastern storm deity who now has a lot of big mouthed followers.
However the problem arises when one wants to study the mechanism of evolution to a deeper level. To scientifically suggest that there may be more to the theory is academic suicide and any actual problems with the theory are suppressed to the favour of the purist neo-Darwinian argument.
A number of noted academic such as Lynn Margulis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Margulis (beware Wikipedia is a bit one-sided)) have raised theories such as the endosymbiotic theory which argues that Eukaryotic (complex) cells can assimilate less complex cells to build up their complexity. Other researchers have raised questions such as noting that bacteria is the most prolific of all life on earth and is also very simple, then asking where is the impetus towards more complex life forms evolving including humans coming from.
These are totally slated by the neo Darwinists, however I think that Margulis etc have a point that questions still need to be answered, these questions still agree with the mechanism of evolution, even with natural selection as the mechanism by which evolution (at least generally operates) but (as with any science) there are quibbles and questions about the details which need research. However the political climate has suppressed and largely ridiculed this kind of research whilst it wastes time with the children who still think their God did it in 6 days. Remember we are talking about cases where peer review and research should come to a scientific consensus rather than a spat between a sect of religionists and a sect of scientists. A cynical part of me suggests that perhaps the neo-Darwinists are going after the easy targets rather than having to try to break down the research built up by the likes of Lynn Margulis.
Another slightly older example occurred with the dating of the Sphinx in the 1990s. I remember the outcry among archaeologists when John West and Robert Schock argued for the water erosion of the Giza Sphinx. In the Horizon documentary it was reported that geologists were given pictures of the Sphinx with the head taped over (so it looks like any mass of rock). Many (if not all) argued that this was water erosion until the tape was removed, revealing the familiar Sphinx, They then refused to be associated with the work since it was not politically correct at the time to question the archaeological "history" in place. It seems that archaeologists might be even less flexible than the neo-Darwinists when it comes to opposing scientific theories.
Similarly we have Robert Bauval's Orion correlation. As far as I know no academic would even look at the research. Regardless of whether the correlation is true or coincidental it should have been looked at since the work was brought to the academic gatekeepers as a well-developed theory, not a “loony new-age” idea. Refusing to look at research keeps these ideas below the threshold of debate, entrenching set ideas and reinforcing set positions and textbook sales.
As a minor digression, nowadays I am more included to accept Andrew Collins work on a Cygnus correlation which seems to place a tighter correlation between the stars and the pyramids and also correlates with other objects on the Giza plateau. However what I or anyone else thinks is not really relevant in the larger context. Both ideas should be subject to peer review and studied, rather than the case at the moment where we break into the Collins or Bauval camp on the subject.
Finally we have the case of the sceptical parapsychologists such as Richard Wiseman, putting on a show to enforce their ideas (and hide their bad science). Wiseman is a very poor researcher however he is very good at whipping up a sensationalist fervour which the media love. One piece of “research” involved his stunningly unoriginal thesis that scary places make people imagine ghosts. There seems to be a global academic belief that ghosts are not real and that therefore they must be imagined. This is nonsense of course, since the dawn of history, consistently across all cultures, ages, both genders, a broad range of intelligence and education, ghosts are consistently experienced by people. Parapsychologists should be asking questions such as what exactly is being experienced rather the belittling the actual experience.
Wiseman’s “research” means getting a lot of silly people to scare themselves in his academic ghost train, to a lot of media witnessing so he can make his sweeping and uninformed statements. His research does not come anywhere towards looking at the broad spectrum of ghostly phenomena which gets reported including crisis apparitions, poltergeists and possession. Stepping back for a moment there doesn’t seem to be much thought amongst academics regarding psychic perception in cases of apparitions and people are still looking for (and expecting to photograph) ghosts made of a form of matter. Our state of knowledge in these areas is now so tenuous that people like Wiseman; who have clearly and absolutely no experience with ghosts or the paranormal in general; defining “reality” and “knowledge”. This is a reversal of the work open minded Victorian investigators such as Sir Oliver Lodge accomplished who went into the field with an open mind and brought back knowledge gained from experience.
Wiseman and many others often use a tactic of ridiculing serious researchers or battling the more dodgy and fringe people in the field, then using their inevitable victory to blanket-declare it all “woo”. Richard Dawkins argues against phenomena in “The Blind Watchmaker” by using the example of statues moving and discussing the number of atoms which would need to move for this to happen, James (The amazing) Randi spends his time tilting with Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne using the absurdity and question marks which often surrounds these people as ammunition for an assault against more serious people such as Rupert Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Brian Josephson. Finally they resort to name calling. Randi (I know he is not an academic but he is used by academics in supporting their claims - eg the Jacques Benveniste "water memory" episode) labels us all WooWoo's. Dawkins labels atheistic scientists "Brights".
There are a lot of scientists out there with a genuine interest in the occult and the paranormal. However the noise created by posturers such as Randi and Dawkins or “nobbers” (to use his word) such as Brian Cox means that their chances of funding are reduced to practically zero.
I could go on here, but there are many examples available on line and an attack of these sceptics is not so much my concern as is my question as to whether magical subjects really need a place in academia.
When we do find a supporting academics who at least research the subject and seriously consider the evidence; luminaries such as Jacques Vallee, or John Mack in UFO research; they do produce often startling and paradigm shifting research which is often worth the hassle we get from the rest, however these true pioneers are rare and often caught in the quagmire of backwards thinking from the mouthy establishment which are more interested in protecting the status quo, watching each others backs or the "validity" of their latest book. A kind of “old boys network” kicks in and established myths become self perpetuating in a strange sidereal way as illustrated in Borges "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" where a false and synthetic archaeology and history begins to supplant real history.
So, it will be a long uphill battle to get these subjects ever studied academically. However I also believe that even with acceptance the academic approach will cause problems. I think that should magic and psychicism ever become accepted there are limits to where academia can go. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what role academia plays in magic?
Should it should be there to record occult history, recording the acts (and claims) of magicians throughout history and if this is the case, what purpose does this serve? Most people are not interested in magic as I have shown above, and occultists will already know the histories of other magicians. Also the academic “fact” ignores the mythic element - as a magician I am more interested in the mythic Merlin rather than any historical person who may or may not have even existed.
Let us take Dr Dave Evans’ recent “The History of British Magic After Crowley: Kenneth Grant, Amado Crowley, Chaos Magic, Satanism, Lovecraft, the Left Hand Path, Blasphemy and Magical Morality” at face value and pretend that it did not have the following faults:
- Lack of Accuracy, in that he doesn’t make incorrect assertions such as Dion Fortune founding the Servants of the Light
- Lack of Relevancy: He waste time discussing pointless questions such as how many occultists are in the UK or devoting an overly large part of the book to the very minor Amado Crowley
- Poorly referenced with a reliance on anonymous anecdotes.
Even if such a book (or rather the Phd to which this book is the dramatization) were to exist, would it have any value to anyon? It is only recording history within a very narrow band (in terms of time and scope) and has only limited use.
Speaking academically I think his use of anonymous people such as "Starbeam" rather damning. A historian relies on a paper trail and spends a lot of time looking at documents and other evidence rather than hearsay which is effectively what it is. I have no way of tracking his sources and for all I know he might have made them up. This means that no future work can build on this “history” of magic and I cannot see how this contributes to the sum of human knowledge given its inherent unreliability - not even necessarily because bits are wrong, but simply because we cannot verify them. His PhD supervisor must have cotton-wool for brains if he accepted this.
As a digression, it does seem to be a factor of both the occult community and the internet community to live under pseudonyms which I find rather silly. This goes back to at least Edward Alexander Crowley becoming “Aleister” and then taking on a myriad of other names (obviously some as a joke). However here, Aleister became an identity which he could be recognised under. The internet, with its myriad of forums all with people speaking authoritively under pseudonyms leaves me rather speechless.
In the world of “Dennis Wheatley”, academic study of magic is often life-saving, especially when the Duc de Richleau runs off to the British Library to look up a rare ritual before returning in time to save the day. In reality I doubt that de Richleau would even get past the guards at the door of the British Library who are far more brutal than Cerberus ever was.
However this sort of research (at least on a non fictional level) doesn’t seem to interest academics and it is scholar-occultists such as Kenneth Grant or Jake Stratton-Kent who study folklore and magical tradition within the context of the occult who do this work so admirably. Then it is the occultists who use this work to magically bringing through a gnosis of lost knowledge to light documenting and exploring these fragments, which can then be used to form a ritual capable of keeping the likes of Mocata at bay or in reality enable a user to expand their magical horizons.
However magicians also have a great deal of insight which comes about from their own personal gnosis. This is something which does not have a paper trail and whilst of massive value to us as magicians not something academics will be able to work with. That is one of the reasons why we are all told to keep diaries.
I would like to differentiate the study above of the occult or esoteric; with the study of genuinely useful history and archaeology which is generally about an aspect of life which is interesting to us. So academic books “Curse Tablets and binding Spells” by John Gager, “The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation” by Hans Dieter Betz or the wonderfully written (and titled) “Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illness in Ancient Mesopotamia” by JoAnn Scurlock are all wonderful studies, not because they are studies of magic. They are studies of archaeology which happen to be of interest to magicians.
They do not care about whether this “mumbo jumbo” works or not, which is very different to Evan’s questions as to whether Kenneth Grant is giving genuine accounts or whether ghosts and OBEs are a reality. In stunts such as questioning the reality of trans Yuggothian planets, Dr Evans is failing to keep his work as a history (such as his title suggests) and ineptly beginning a step into a field of magical parapsychology. Something which (as I have suggested) the stars are not yet right for mostly for political but partially for practical reasons.
Having said all that I do believe that there is value in a rigorous academic study of the history of magic in that it does bring a perspective on the state of societies and how they change over time. It must be accurate however or there is a risk of placing undue emphasis on history and personality rather than magical practice, which must be the most important thing. The danger there however is that it slowly begins to morph into either debunking under a materialistic world view, or religion under a mystical world view. With the magic not being present within the structure it will tend to distort then fall apart.
As a magician it is the magic which interests me the most, and a grimoiric mishmash of traditions can have much value to an occultist, even though it is historically inaccurate or even made up. An example of this is Andrew Chumbleys’ reboot of traditional witchcraft with the “Azöetia” where he pulls elements from Egyptian Magic , Qlippothic practice and Enochian to form the whole. None of this is really traditional witchcraft, but it can become a working system which could replicate the results of traditional magic.
Perhaps we need to ask with work such as this; which many people find valuable; is this value coming from Andrew Chumbley as a scholar or Andrew Chumbley the Magician? My money is on the latter, the working practices of the magician are imperative. However the pedantic bastard running in my soul also wants to ask whether we are not better working with the sources afresh rather than working with someone else’s vision. Well, I think the answer to that is actually yes and no. Yes, since one forges ones own path, however there is value in others paths which show people what to expect, what sort of things work and so on.
However until the politics of research sorts itself out and our generally materialistic society decide that it will open up a new stream of knowledge, magic and the paranormal as itself, separate and independent to physics and certainly and most definitely and clearly defined as different to the vulgar “history of magic” it seems that academically we are going nowhere. Which is a pity since a title such as Doctor of Practical Magic at Oxford University sounds like a great job and a damn site more interesting than corporate IT.
Until then however and speaking as a psychical explorer I don’t really feel the need to seek academic justification to my beliefs and actions. Maybe we have all achieved an initiation of sorts in we known such things as ghosts and spirits exist and have encountered them, have worked with them and even made deals with them, whilst academics are either debating their existence or denying it entirely.