Sunday, January 18, 2009
It seems to me that the arguments against the efficacy of prayer and the reality of magic run much the same way: how can you know that what happened as a result of the prayer or spell wouldn't have happened anyway? And, if you don't know for sure that they wouldn't have, what is the point of praying/casting spells? Wouldn't it be just as effective to wait and see? These questions are not limited in their implications to the reality of magic and prayer alone, but concern the more general question of how a spiritual life--a life of spiritual activity in any form--can play a real, meaningful role in our practical, everyday lives.
Independence & Control
This, I think, is what deo meant when he talked about a "mind-independent universe": a universe that functions according to its own objective and established laws, laws that to some extent must be engaged on their own terms, not bent to the will or passing whim of any given person. According to this view, if prayer or magic are to "work" in any meaningful way, they must provide the tools for the practitioner to do something to external reality, not merely reframe the way in which that reality, as it happens, is interpreted. A scientist developing an experiment, for instance, may have a particular hypothesis in mind, and this will inevitably affect the way in which she arranges the testing of that hypothesis or interprets the results, but she is still actively engaging a "resistant" external reality, she is still doing something to a world that is (or that she perceives as being, in this context anyway) beyond her own mind. One important aspect of a scientific experiment is that variables are controlled and particular activities incited in order to observe the results. The scientist can say with a good degree of certainty that, if she hadn't lit that bunsen burner, that mixture in the beaker wouldn't have boiled over (this tells her the boiling point is apparently much lower than she hypothesized, but she can still be fairly sure that the mix wouldn't have boiled over on its own had she done nothing).
On the other hand, people who work spells or pray to deity are in some very specific ways relinquishing control, releasing their hopes and intentions into the mess of chance and circumstance or putting their faith in the capable hands of a "higher power," whatever that may be. When the man at the restaurant prayed to God to give him a sign, this act was at once an act of will (intentionally invoking the help of deity) and of vulnerability and release (relinquishing control of the situation to a supposed greater perspective). Likewise, a person who works a spell takes particular actions with specific intention (usually invoking deity, shaping energy through ritual acts, or both) while at the same time "releasing that intention" to work its own way out to manifest the intended goal. Because these acts involve a kind of paradox of willed surrender, there will always be a question of what really caused the results to manifest. Certainly doing nothing is also a form of relinquishing or surrendering control. Why make the willed effort, why organize it according to ritual or traditional recitations? If it was going to happen anyway, what role does the act of prayer or magic play?
My answer to this question is, in part: many things "happen anyway." In fact, things are "happening anyway" all the time. Often times, the same thing will "happen anyway" repeatedly, without a given individual either noticing or caring. Then again, many things don't happen at all, and their persistence in not happening can be painful, joyful, irrelevant, any combination of complex emotional and intellectual responses. Clearly, the correct frame of mind, or rather a mind or awareness that is receptive to certain possibilities as opposed to others, plays a large part in how we interpret all these happenings and their interrelationships. Acknowledging this simple reality--that our "frame of mind," for lack of a better term, inevitably affects how we interpret our experiences--may seem to lead us inevitably to the conclusion that magic and prayer really are merely ways of "changing your own mind," and don't actually do anything to change the external, objective or "mind-independent" world. If we accept this opinion at its most obvious, without probing any deeper, we may come to feel that needling sense of irony that deo mentions, engaging in a kind of play-acting, performing acts that we do not think have any meaningful effect on or relationship to the world outside our own brains.
Coming soon... "Spiritual Aesthetics: Part II: Art & the Unconscious"