After a short digression on the achievements of science and maths in the last century and the perspectives open for our future, we face the problem of relationships between science, traditional teachings and ‘magic thought’. We will try to answer some questions: Must Tradition look for confirmation in scientific discoveries? How do we have to consider in the 21st century the vision of the world belonging to the ‘magic thought’?|
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Science, Tradition and Magic
by Alessandro Orlandi
It is now necessary a reflection on the relationship between Science and Tradition; it can be very fruitful and stimulating, but it can become extremely misleading. As a negative example I can mention the way many New Age movements use science, such as Scientology's Dianetics or the ‘holistic' pseudo-arguments that we can all see below any pseudo-traditional nonsense; these arguments often refer to quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity or modern cosmologic theories; they are used to ‘explain' or ‘justify' hideous syncretism without rhyme or reason.
Certainly the way science views the world has deeply changed during the last hundred years. Some examples are: the quadripartition of the fundamental forces concerning the electromagnetic force in the universe, both in a macroscopic and microscopic level; gravitational force; strong and weak interaction; all the quantum mechanics discoveries about nature, both wave and corpuscular of sub-atomic and light particles mechanics; the importance of the observer in determining some characteristics in the observed phenomenon (Heisenberg's Indeterminancy). All these achievements have deeply changed our idea of casualty and led us to conceive the ‘ultimate nature' of the world as statistics.
The so-called ‘string theory' gives us today the possibility to fit the phenomena regarding the sub-atomic world into a unitary picture.
The theory of relativity led us to change our idea of space, time and matter; Lorentz' ideas replaced the Galilean transformations and this showed us that the reference system for observing phenomena can determine dilations or contractions of space and time and therefore it is impossible to consider them separately.
Our rigid idea of time suffered a blow; the idea of simultaneousness of two events, so important in the usual idea of cause, has been questioned. Some people (Hawking, even Goedel in some of his less known works in the ‘40s) hypothesized the possibility of strong singularities in the space-temporal continuum which would allow to travel in time, different from the so-called ‘black holes'. With regards to three-dimensional space the Euclidean geometry has been abandoned and replaced with Riemannian theories in Minkowski's version: a space that ‘bends' in the presence of strong concentrations of mass, where the shortest line between two points is not a segment but a geodetic line. Thermodynamics as well gave its contribution and the second principle led us to a vision of the evolution of the universe ruled more and more by probability and less and less by rigid determinism, a universe condemned to thermal death by the entropic growth.
Mathematics as well has undergone great revolutions; the dream to build a coherent and complete logic structure, where all the statements of the mathematical rational thought could find their place, deriving from fundamental assumptions, as Hilbert's dream was, was shattered by Goedel's discoveries.
Scholars such as Russell, Peano, Frege, Brower, Cantor, Dedekind, Von Neumann, Tarski, Wittgenstein, etc, gave a great contribution to explain the nature of logic structures and propositions, the rules of inference that make them, the basis that support them, the same relationship between language and reality, the nature of the concept of infinite. On the real world's phenomena we have ‘superimposed' more and more sophisticated mathematical models, from the theory of catastrophes to dynamic systems, from the chaos theory to the theory of fractals, to Prigogine's theories on dissipative structures; we have applied all these models to physical, chemical, social and biological phenomena.
The increasing use of overlapping pieces of mathematics on portions of reality is leading us to abandon the positivist vision of a world ‘written in the language of mathematics', which must be decoded to the advantage of a vision where we must superimpose several ‘languages' to the studied realities; each of these languages establishes a mathematical analogy between model and reality and shows a ‘form' of phenomena that we wouldn't have noticed otherwise.
Nevertheless we still must verify if mathematical models have an ontological value, viz. if the forms and properties that they bring to light are properties of the world or rather of our intentions in describing it.
Some people have seen in these revolutions of scientific thought a clear sign of ‘spiritualization of science'. Fritjof Capra in his ‘Tao of Physics' draws a big picture of the relation between modern science and eastern spirituality, comparing the idea of the world emerging from physical theories to Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Nobel Prize for physics Abdus Salam did the same, outlining a parallel between the theories of particle physics and Muslim religion. Likewise Nobel Prize for chemistry Ilya Prigogine (for example in ‘La Nuova Alleanza' [ The New Alliance, Note of the Translator] ) sees a new humanism on the horizon, a new possibility to reconcile science and man's fundamental values.
Finally, the revolution of information science and the simulations of reality are very important in ‘re-defining' the universe we live in. The world wide web cancels distances, makes coeval realities that were so far separated by space-temporal abysses; it disarranges and re-arranges any cultural product, like a jigsaw puzzle where the picture to create changes all the time; it turns everything in consumable goods. In the future we will have the cyberspace, which is today imperfect and addressed to single individuals with helmet and gloves, for the moment only used for games and archaeological or architectonic reconstructions.
Tomorrow we will have the chance of a complete illusion of reality, with smells and tastes; it will conclude a subtle process started in the Renaissance: the objectivation of our inner ghosts, our forms of thought and the elimination of frustrations and limitation that mark the bounds of the ego and form the character of individuals. Nothing will stop us from this use of the virtual space, time and matter that characterize the cyberspace, feeding our psyche on virtual and gratifying relations, committing virtual crimes to express rage and anger, giving life to all the unexpressed ‘Selves' that sleep inside us. Who will stop a lame person from having a program of virtual reality where he is an Olympic champion of the 100 meters? Who will stop us from planning romantic dinners with a lover that abandoned us, from having sexual intercourse with a star from the jet set or family gatherings with relatives who died years ago?
As it is already happening with the web, the cyberspace will lead us to be more and more in our own homes; a bureaucrat will be able to carry out his duties or to delivery documents without him or his customers leaving the house, doctors will be able to operate from a continent to another, musicians to hold a virtual concert playing in different cities, complex technical operations will be carried out using a simulator as an interface, planes operated from the ground.
Our ‘ultimate reality', then, will become the interface we dialogue with. It will be a fictitious space-time where we will be able to project our wishes as well as objectivate and animate them, intervening both on the ‘external' reality and on our dreams.
The fundamental intention behind the scientific thought remains the domination of nature and the transformation of man's desires into reality.
The ascent of science as we know it is simultaneous with the ascent of merchant classes; it reflects the need to achieve safe procedures and models whose purpose is to conform the universe to man's needs and possibly to transform those needs into action and reality.
The world around us is Mephistopheles' answer to the wishes expressed by Faust.
All has become goods; space and time have lost their ‘objective' nature and are going to become a white board where we can write what happens in our day, also shaping our emotional life. From the psychic point of view a process of ‘reversal' of our inside in the outside is in progress; modern technologies allow indeed to ‘give life' to the several ‘Selves' that make the person, objectivating the imagined elements not only as a game… As we have already said, among the positive aspects of these technologies there is the possibility to ‘act from the distance'; artistic creations will be conceived with strong interactive characteristics. In geography, history, archaeology and experimental sciences, it is already possible to experience, through models and simulations, the visit to an Egyptian tomb or the effects of the force of Lorentz on an electric charge; we can imagine a three-dimensional ‘cinema' taking place in the cyberspace and with a ‘variable plot', depending to the interactions of the viewer with the protagonists of the show.
From an epistemological point of view it will be more and more difficult to distinguish between reality and the ‘interface' we use to reach it, between the interfaces that touch the external reality and those that end with the products of our fantasy. The interface is going to be a proper ‘filter' between the subject and the world, a filter that re-defines space, time and matter. Space is dilated or contracted to our liking through the possibility of action from a distance; time can be dilated or contracted artificially (very easy to do in the cyberspace) and the ‘journeys in time', intended as the virtual experience of historical events of the past or true reconstructions, undistinguishable from the original, of lost places, cities and ages will be possible. Likewise it will be possible to live virtual ‘events' where time is slowed down or accelerated to our liking; an instant between birth and death, like in the lives that Vishnu makes his initiates live, to show them the illusoriness of earthly incarnations. On the other hand, matter becomes an abstraction determined by the parameters that rule forms and covers of virtual reality.
Since eroticism and pornography occupy such a big space on the internet, it is not difficult to forecast that there will be interactive programs in the cyberspace that will allow us to seduce, as Indiana Jones look-alikes, the woman of our dreams, which perhaps has the face of Kim Basinger, the body of Marylyn Monroe and the intelligence of Marie Curie… The gloomy reality pictured in films such as ‘Matrix' or ‘The Truman show' is already in progress, behind advertising slogans and the drive to consume, behind the future possibility of chat lines where the fictitious identities that we will create will not only be nick or fancy names, but will have bodies and feelings.
What has happened in six hundred years is that man is turning inside out like a glove, revealing the hidden debris of our psyche like a dustbin; we are learning, like any self-respecting apprentice wizard, to embody our forms of thought and to make them walk around the earth. Who will be able to stop them? Who will stop us from the delirium of almightiness?
Every good reader of fairy tales knows that when the Demon closed in the bottle grants three wishes, behind the miracle there is always some terrible deceit. Like Faust we will have to save ourselves at the end, on the edge of the abyss. There will have to be someone who fights to reaffirm the principle of reality, no matter how unpleasant or ugly this is.
Therefore I think that we shouldn't look at the creations of science candidly, like shadows projected on the walls of Plato's cave, able to lead man from the sensitive world to the world of archetypes. We shouldn't blindly trust the forms of thought produced in these centuries to ‘explain' the world.
The creations of physics, from quarks to the string theory, are fascinating and they strike our imagination. Some physicists wrote books together with great psycho-analysts (Jung and Pauli wrote about synchronicity) or with Indian yogi (Bohm with Krisnamurti), but this doesn't mean that we should not wonder about the purpose of science and the purpose of Tradition.
They have two opposite purposes: in one case it is about knowing the universe in order to transform and adapt it to man's needs; in the other it means knowing the universe and man as part of the cosmos, in order to transform man.
Scientific theories must never become ‘devices' or fetishes to adore and to use recklessly to interpret reality; they have their own domain of applicability. After all, in the 18 th century scientists thought that to ‘explain' a phenomenon it was sufficient to build a robot or a device that showed its internal cause-effect relations in terms of mechanical interactions. Today this model is in the middle of a crisis. Therefore we can't trust science to ‘justify' traditional teachings. Definitely not.
We should, instead, reconsider the way Tradition deals with the technè it uses, viz. traditional magic and rites. Every Tradition requires particular processes to transform man and his reality (interior or exterior, it doesn't matter). To study this subject means to understand the relationship that there is today between science and Tradition.
In cultures where the idea of sacredness is active, the material conditions of man are interpreted on the light of what he perceives as ‘cosmic laws'. The fundamental aspects of existence follow the patterns of sacred rites and myths that surround them.
Both rites and myths serve the purpose of connecting every new action to a primordial archetype, which must give it sense and reality by annulling and re-founding time (cfr. For example ‘Sacro e Profano' [Sacred and Profane, Note of the Translator] and ‘Il mito dell'eterno ritorno' [the myth of the eternal return, Note of the Translator] ' by Mircea Eliade). In this way we want to demonstrate that what man is going to do in the changeable world he lives in has already happened in the world of gods, or mythical progenitors, or archetypes, at the beginning of times; it also means that since the present situation re-performs the primordial action, it has a sense and it magically inherits the ‘power to do'. Every action is indeed conceivable as a way to draw order from chaos, thanks to its similarities with some celestial archetypes. Therefore there are ‘sacred' places and periods of time whose destiny is to establish a contact between human events and divinity.
In an archaic civilization, during a time dedicated to those places and periods, rites are carried out and myths are re-evoked; they cyclically re-actualize the main aspects of social life, making them ‘participate' to an archetype (to till the soil, to fight a war, to reach puberty, to join in marriage, to generate children, to catch preys during a hunt, to become ill and die), miming their emersion, for the first time, from the undifferentiated chaos of the shapelessness created by a God or a mythical progenitor. This mechanism of re-actualization works like a proper purifying bath, like an immersion in the waters of Nothing that allows the forms of actions to receive the sense, the life and reality from a primordial Logos uncorrupted and incorruptible by time.
Whoever is into such a vision of the world has an idea of his own ‘being', an image of himself, a sense of self much less rigid and limited than modern man. According to this view, all that is perceivable and exists in man is founded on a homologue principle outside him and vice versa; conscience is not given a priori, but it consists of a precarious balance between an internal and an external pole, which define and identify each other. Furthermore, there is always the possibility that the conscience follows the invisible thread that joins our inside to our outside and that we can lose ourselves, ‘waking up' dismembered in what surrounds us.
We must put initiatory rites and the various magic techniques and practices in the perspective of this perception of the relationships among people. From this point of view the human condition is characterized by imbalance among the various polarities and the dualisms that characterize each individual, by a blindness that prevents the twin Self from reflecting in his polar opposite, the world.
Knowledge and wisdom are not synonyms of gathering notions and general laws to control nature and subject it to our desires. The man who knows can transform himself up to the point of making the laws that rule his inner microcosm identical to those that rule the macrocosm. The wise man has recognized those laws and has learnt how to apply them on himself. The initiatory rite, which is the transmission of a spiritual influence, has the sense and the purpose of ratifying a change of status, a step in the individual conscience on the path of the harmonization of himself with the cosmos, in the individuation of the whole in a part.
This journey usually requires two stages. The first consists of acknowledging one's ‘double', seeing in proportion one's own individual status, recognizing one's ‘outside twin', perceiving that the characteristics of the single, his place in time and space and the personal epics don't have their own existence. They are nothing. This stage can only end with the symbolic death of the individual, the destruction of all his identifications with the mask-person, from whose ashes a new man will be born.
This stage is followed by another of vertical ascent towards subtle realities. The overcoming of dualisms is internal as well as external: man gets what he wants and he wants what he gets. The spiritualization of the body and the materialization of the spirit pursued by initiations will show the conscience truths that were before unattainable and can now be lived and embodied.
Every initiatory language declares primordial sacred origins rather than human, which are placed outside the ‘becoming' and described through its specific myths. According to this view, symbols receive their sense (and their power to unify the conscience) thanks to this link with transcendence; the initiatory organization itself is considered to reflect the cosmic order, which is ‘transferred' into its hierarchic system (this lays itself open to easy degenerations, as unfortunately we can see).
The man who occupies a certain place in the hierarchic system, independently from his individual value, will be able to carry out particular tasks on behalf of the initiatory organization. In such occasions he will exist only as a ‘transmitter', representative of tradition (from an exoteric point of view this is similar to the case of the excommunicated priest whose masses have a sacramental value). This view of things belongs to most of the past and present initiatory organizations (Rosicrucian, Freemasonry, Compagnonage, Martinism) and to many mysterial cults of the past (Eleusinian mysteries, of Dionysus, Mithras, Attis and Cybeles, Zoroastrianism, etc.). It is not possible to mix the rites of different traditions.
Only the Form that complies with the rules of one and only tradition can receive in itself the spiritual energy and transmit it. The aspirant initiate either has or hasn't the qualities necessary to approach the ‘Mysteries'. If he doesn't, he won't be able to aspire to the transmutation of himself in ‘Universal Man', no matter how many efforts his intellect makes (on this subject, cfr. Guenon: ‘Aperçus sur l'initiation' [Perspectives on Initiation, Note of the Translator] ). On the contrary, if he is ‘predestined', the Providence itself will send him a sign that he will recognize, as a result of his interior and exterior work. Thanks to a series of apparent coincidences he will get in touch with the initiatory organization.
According to these organizations, the man who carries out his journey anarchically, viz. the mystic, can't go beyond a modest degree of self-awareness, of harmonization of the contraries, except for extremely rare cases of initiates descended to bring the Word (this is the case of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed or Laozi). Myths, rites and symbols can't be ‘modified' because of their own essence; the result would be a charlatanic decay of the initiatory organization. The whole configuration of myths and rites is indeed what keeps the ‘spiritual influence' in them.
There are ‘esoteric' forms of the rites which only the aspirant or the initiate can access. Being initiated doesn't mean only to learn the use or meanings of symbols and rites of a certain Tradition, for example by reading them on a book. Initiation consists of the transmission of a ‘spiritual influence'; in order for this to happen it is necessary that place, time, way and vehicles used for this influence to be spread are ‘charismatic', viz. they keep their aura intact. If we take rites and symbols out of their synchronic context we pervert their sense.
The purpose of rites is to create a current of communication between human and non human. In an initiation the rite is seen like a whole of ‘technical' means to get in touch with sacredness. The initiate experiences a purifying bath, source of life and renewal; as it happens in the alchemic process, he must go through the lowest in order to reach the highest, he must recover and integrate the archaic infantile animal in order to reach the mystic condition of ‘homo maximus'. Some initiatory rites are carried out only once in the lifetime of an individual; their influence is definitive and it can't be revoked, no matter how the man who completed them changes later on (christening and priesthood are an exoteric equivalent in Christianity). The spiritual influence lasts even after the initiate has materially left the places and the ministers of cult he belonged to.
There is a parallelism between the ways how symbols and rites work. Rites are a space-temporal and dynamic succession of symbols and symbolic actions. From this point of view the rite is nothing but an organized whole of symbols, whose fabric gives power to the rite and synchronizes it with an archetypical configuration from which he magically inherits or receives its charisma. On the other hand, the myth consists of a whole of symbols (passed on through oral and written tradition, painting, sculpture, etc.) which can have different degrees of influence on the aspirant, depending on how they are arranged and interpreted. In other words, in the myth there is a rite in progress; in fact many rites in progress (since the same myth can be penetrated with different levels of depth at different times).
The rite is a means, an instrument to get in touch with sacredness, although the officiant doesn't understand its true sense. On the contrary the Myth, which comes from the root ‘mu' and from Latin ‘mutos', dumb, is as such only if the person using it has revealed its deep meaning, when he possesses the inner qualifications to interpret the symbols that make it, orienting in the maze of images and distinguishing the outline that leads to the goal from the closed paths. The essential element of the myth is what it keeps secret, the hidden analogy that, when revealed, makes the myth active , gives it the evoking power that the rite already owns intrinsically. We could say that the myth acts from the inside whilst the rite acts from the outside.
In the representation that many Traditions give of sky and earth, the existence of several ‘planes or levels of reality' is stated; they are considered the manifold ways used by the One to manifest itself. The level of reality that our senses and rationality can perceive is considered the lowest, linked to the world of matter. Next to such level, it is said, there are many others called ‘subtle' which are perceivable after man, even through symbols, rites and myths, has re-integrated in the ‘primordial status' of harmony with the cosmos. These subtle levels, far from being better or more desirable than the ordinary reality that we access through senses and rationality, are indeed the seat of forces and energies of any kind. The man who hasn't achieved a condition of inner harmony, of victory on egoistic and self-affirmative drives, of deep contact with his Self, can still equally search for and obtain contacts with the ‘subtle forces', but he exposes himself and others to serious danger. Indeed, the man in this condition doesn't normally use the forces he doesn't know, but he is used by them and he is passively exposed to influences of all sorts.
There is also the case of ‘counter-initiation', a path that leads to a total decentralization of the being, practiced by those who promote the development of Self, rather than its dissolution, those who look for a domination of the subtle forces aimed at the will for power and their goal is not their harmonization with the cosmos but the domination and transformation of the cosmos in order to adapt it to an immobile and hypertrophic Ego. This pursues a way opposite to the initiatory one, a progressive detachment from the Center, from the condition of Universal Man, which is a perverted condition obtained by strengthening the bonds to the lowest levels of the being.
Elemire Zolla wrote in ‘Uscite dal mondo' (Exits from the world, Note of the Translator) : ‘ In evil initiations the Self must face sacrifices like in all the others; the difference here is that they don't aim at its total extinction, on the contrary they isolate a nucleus of the self made of pure vindictiveness towards the cosmos, of vampire-like longing for other people's life, of furious and naked will. The tremendous sacrifice is made to this nucleus, and the mutilation of any other part of man is dedicated to it.' The self becomes therefore a fetish elevated above the same personal and circumstantial destiny.
Let's go back to the point of view of the initiate. For him symbols and rites are linked to a project of self-transformation. This conscious use of the ‘subtle forces' requires an organized relationship with Tradition. Here magic is seen as a ‘traditional science' that subtends the execution of rites and the ability to re-awake the power of transmission of symbols and myths. Furthermore, the attitude of the initiate towards symbols is to consider them reality, the being, whilst the changing images coming from the world are only reflections of the unchangeable and a-temporal reality. Whilst counter-initiation and profane science use symbols to control the world's images considered as reality, the initiate does the opposite: through traditional magic he tries and transcends images and stages to reach the true reality of symbols, the archetypes whose force he wants to draw. This point of view belongs to religious and traditional teachings worldwide and it is paradoxically identified by westerners as ‘Plato's philosophy'.
We must imagine a traditional science that studies subtle forces with intentions opposed to those used by the ‘profane' physical science to study material forces.
In this context ‘psychic powers' and the ability to produce ‘miraculous phenomena' (healings, clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.), to dominate and control others and to turn perceptions into procedures that transcend the senses, don't help the spiritual journey of a man but on the contrary they hinder it. Both the man who uses magic and the man who possesses ‘paranormal faculties' work in the same domain: the former appeals to a ‘technè', the latter to his own natural gifts. From the point of view of the initiate this doesn't help either of them to get closer to a spiritual evolution, but on the contrary it creates the illusion of being well on a way that they haven't even started yet. ‘Powers' are indeed obstacles along the spiritual journey, bonds that tie to the material plane and to the dimension of individuality. The proof requested to progress along the path of initiation is the mere refusal of one's own ‘powers', to show that one prefers the research of knowledge rather than ‘powers'. On this subject the ‘Yoga sutra' by Patanjali, which deals precisely with the development of powers by the yogi, prescribes the renunciation to such powers as an indispensable condition for his spiritual evolution.
Let's see the main aspects common to magical languages as they were determined, rightly or wrongly, by Frazer in the ‘Golden Bough' and by Hubert and Mauss in ‘Outline of a general theory of magic'.
First of all it is necessary to distinguish between magic connected to ‘rites of transmission' and to ‘rites of generation'.
1 – Rites of Transmission
These rites are aimed at forcing the transfer of occult powers and properties from an object to another. The type of magic that uses such rites is called ‘sympathetic magic'. The rites of sympathetic magic can be divided into rites of contagion and imitative and homeopathic rites.
The former originate from the abstract principle that what happens to the part and to the whole is connected by a ‘symbolic' correspondence' and that by symbolically working on the part there are real effects on the whole. The word ‘part' must be intended in the widest possible sense; two objects which have been in contact keep acting on each other even after the contact stops. For example: the sorcerers of the Marquesas Islands take hair, saliva or some other element from a man they wish dead and bury them in a fabric bag, accompanying this act with complex rites. The victim of the spell dies slowly and death can be avoided only by digging up the content of the bag – the ‘defixiones' of ancient Romans were very similar. The Apaches throw water on the rocks to obtain rain and the Ottawa Indians say that ‘each flame contains fire, each bone of a dead contains death'.
Imitative rites originate from the ‘similia similibus' principle, which means that there is attraction between ‘similar' things. This works both as principle of attraction, viz. one thing draws all that is similar to it, and as principle of imitation, viz. a series of symbolic operations on an object have similar effects on another object with the same configuration. In the so-called spells the pain and torture inflicted to a doll of wax or fabric or to a mandrake are transferred on the enemies of the sorcerer (which often uses rites of imitation and contagion as well, by attaching hair or nails of the victim on the doll).
On the other hand imitation can also work on the opposite, depending on how analogies are perceived. This leads to a fundamental matter: each object is comparable to an infinite number of other objects by analogy. The magical rite therefore ‘favors' some analogies among the possible ones and the same rites can have opposite effects in different cultures (for example to throw water on the ground means to beseech rain in a culture and dryness in another). In actual fact there isn't an ‘objective similarity' between things. The similarity is in the eyes of the man who perceives it, in the language and tradition of a certain culture.
To summarize, we have the following table:
Homeopathic magic <---------- SYMPATHETIC MAGIC -----------> contagion magic
2 – Rites of Generation
The main purpose of these rites is not to ‘transfer properties from an object on another', but to suddenly create properties from nothing. Such rites are mainly verbal and their success is linked to the pronunciation of words or ritual song whilst carrying out the due operations. If rites of generation are understood in depth, they can be considered as a part of the previous case. What is really created in rites of generation is a whole of symbols, sounds, gestures or letters on which to operate.
These sensitive data play the same role as the ‘similar' object in rites of transmission, which was the target of magic operations. We find the same ‘similia similibus' principle, but on a more abstract level. Whilst in rites of transmission the sorcerer ties a thread (analogy) between two opposite poles, which he connects invisibly, in the rites of generation a pole is the symbolic representation of what we want to obtain, an organized whole of words, gestures or sounds and the other is the object of representation that is ‘picked' in the empyrean of ideas and forced to manifest itself in reality.
Some elements are necessary in order for science to deal with magical rites; one is the use of some language, representation or analogy and another the conviction that images, languages and analogies can reverse their energetic relationship with reality, and rather than form from reality through abstraction, reality forms from images and words.
Ethnology, history of religions and cultural anthropology want to deal with so-called magical phenomena and all that is related with the sphere of sacredness; whilst doing that, they struggle in an irremediable contradiction created by the attempt to mediate between modern science and the view of the world and criteria of truth belonging to archaic culture.
In 1944 Ernesto De Martino published ‘Il mondo magico' (The magic world, Note of the Translator) ; talking about the embarrassment and the difficulties of the researcher when he aims at verifying the reality of magical and paranormal phenomena, he wrote: ‘ In our exploration of the magic world we must start by verifying the alleged ‘obvious' unreality of magic powers, that is we need to determine if these powers are real and in what extent. But a new difficulty arises, complicating to the extreme what seems at the end of the day only a modest matter of fact, a simple problem of assessment. When we face the problem of magic powers we are tempted to assume that we know what reality means, as if it was a concept owned by the mind, free from aporia; we take for granted that the researcher must or must not ‘apply' this concept as a predicate to the subject of the judgment to express. After having started this research or carried it on for a short period of time, though, we realize that the problem of magic powers doesn't only concern the quality of such powers, but also our concept of reality and the investigation involves the judging category (concept of reality) as well as the subject of the judgment (magic powers)'.
Further on, trying an acrobatic solution to the problem, he says: ‘ …We can also translate this event in our cultural language and say, for example, that spirits are second existences or projections and personifications of our dearest; but in the historical world that belongs to the spirits, they are real as they are pictured and experienced by ‘belief'; only a polemic misunderstanding can lower them to ‘arbitrary imagination'. To the question: ‘do spirits exist?' the answer is: ‘If by reality we mean the established and guaranteed data of our cultural world, spirits don't exist. But if we recognize a form of reality which, during the magic existential drama historically determined, emerges as redemption of a risky presence in a risky world, we must welcome the reality of spirits within magic civilization. In this sense spirits don't exist, but they did exist and they can come back whenever we relinquish the character of our civilization and re-descend on the archaic plane of the magic experience'. (E. De Martino)
As an amused Eliade points out in a short essay on the ‘Magic world' by De Martino, if this reasoning is pushed to the extreme, it leads to the schizophrenic conclusion that there are two realities and two worlds that seems to deny each other. One is Galileo's, Newton's and Descartes' world, where the laws of physics and other sciences are the only form of true and possible knowledge of phenomena, the other is the world of primitive shamans, where magic phenomena actually happen, spells have the desired effects, it is possible to fly, to communicate with the afterlife, to talk with animals, to walk on fire, to divide oneself in two, to see past and future reflected in a mirror.
Another possible view of the problem is proposed by Erich Neumann who, in ‘Storia delle origini della coscienza' ( The history and origins of consciousness, Note of the Translator ), talking about the rites connected with hunting in primitive peoples, says: ‘Although we can scientifically establish that an objective influence of the rite on the prey is unlikely, this doesn't mean that the magic rite is illusory, childish or simply a thought based on desire. Indeed the magic effect of the rite is real and not illusion. It also affects the success of the hunt, as man believes; only that it acts on the subject rather than the object. The magic rite, like any other magic or higher intention, included religion, acts on the subject that practice the religious or magic rite, increasing his ability for action. In this sense the result of the action, hunt, war, etc, certainly feels the effects of the magic ritual. The fact that magic work in the reality of the soul rather than the reality of the world is a discovery of modern psychology; at the beginning the reality of the soul was projected on an external reality. Still today, for example, the prayers for victory are not intended as an endo-psychic modification but as a way to ask for God's intervention. Likewise the magic used in hunting is considered as an influence on the prey rather than the hunter. In both cases our rational and illuminist attitude, proud of having scientifically demonstrated that the object can't be influenced, misunderstands magic and prayers as pure illusion. This is a mistake because the effect, which is the change in the subject, is objective and real.' (E. Neumann).
The main worry of scientists seems to be the setting up of techniques that guarantee the reproducibility and forgeability of the phenomena they deal with. From the point of view of a scientist the phenomena related to the sphere of sacredness or ‘paranormal' can be taken into account if they are reproducible or forgeable, whilst the main characteristic of these phenomena is to be strictly connected to the place and time where they occur and to their symbolic value, to the fact that they address a particular person at a particular time. The main aspect seems to be the ‘aura' of the phenomenon, its immediacy, its uniqueness, its connection to a whole of states of things with the function to ‘indicate' archetypical and symbolical aspects, therefore precisely its non-reproducibility.
Finally we must remember the risks taken by those who deal with phenomena linked to parapsychology or to the sphere of sacredness. In just over a century and half the inquisition managed to cancel the image of Diana – Perchta from the rites for fertility, remains of traditional cultures now forgotten; they survived in European popular cultures and were transformed into witchlike Sabbaths and adoration of the devil. This doesn't mean that they became as such only in people's perception, but also for those who took part in them – compare Carlo Ginsburg's studies on the matter: ‘I Benandanti' ( The Good Walkers, Note of the Translator) and ‘Storia notturna' ( Nighttime story, Note of the Translator) .
Witches and wizards ended up by conforming and identifying with the domineering models in the collective consciousness. They were plagiarized by the ruling catholic culture and eventually burnt, whilst paradoxically sharing the same view of the world as their executioners, of which they represented the ‘shady side'.
A mythical imagery, which had resisted for over a thousand years in the European folk wisdom after the end of paganism, was extinct in less than two centuries.
It is a general law: what collective consciousness considers to be true gains the ‘power to do', vice versa for what is considered false. Reality is (also) a collective dream. ‘Witches' were devoted to practices whose sense was lost, expression of marginal and dying cultures; because of their ‘diversity' they were particularly exposed to the risk of incarnating the darkest sides of the Judaic-Christian imagery (needless to say that these characteristics have hugely increased in pseudo-initiatory modern organizations that follow witchcraft, such as Wicca and similar). When subaltern cultures, especially those that follow symbols and deities of extinct civilizations, oppose to the domineering culture, they inevitably end up by embodying the Shadow. When through the centuries an archetype disappears in the darkness of consciousness (like it happened to the feminine energies connected to the Great Mother and the masculine Dionysian energies) it will acquire evil and negative characteristics, even for those who still enjoy their miraculous aspects. What happened in the first 1,400 years after Christ ‘on a small scale' to Artemis, Dionysus, Pan, Hecate, Demeter and Persephone, Cybele, Mithra, Osiris, has happened on a ‘bigger scale' in the last 500 years thanks to science. The whole relationship of man with the ‘subtle' world and sacredness (Gods, Nymphs, gnomes, Satyrs, goblins, ghosts, angels, demons, spirits, phenomena linked to the manifestation of sacredness, paranormal abilities, magic, canonic rites of great religions, initiations to Traditional Organizations) has gradually changed. Science denies the reality of the above mentioned phenomena for the simple reason that it can't deal with them. They are not measurable, reproducible or forgeable.
On this matter the activities of the C.I.C.A.P. ( Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Note of the Translator) , have some amusing aspects: they want to falsify phenomena that, because of their nature, can't be included in the domain of science. ‘ If all the phenomena that concerns our relation with the Spirit and the invisible are recorded as ‘altered states of conscience', then there isn't any difference between a ‘trip' with Peyote and Moses' Burning Bush, between the mystic vision of Saint Teresa of Avila and the visions inspired by L.S.D., between the witchlike experiences of shamans that turn into animals or visit the afterlife and the hallucinations of a schizophrenic.'
To have an idea of how science approaches this problems you can consult ‘Orizzonti scientifici della parapsicologia' ( Scientific horizons of parapsychology, Note of the Translator) (Boringhieri) or the discussions between Popper and Adorno about social sciences: it is uncertain if psychology and sociology as well can ever aspire to the title of sciences. Common man thinks that ‘explaining' something (a physical, psychic or other phenomenon), in the sense of understanding its ultimate causes, means to ‘reduce' the phenomenon to a chain of sub-phenomena presentable as a model that can refer to one of those accepted by the scientific community. The results are statements such as: ‘they've discovered that neuroses, happiness or falling in love, suffering or schizophrenia depend on a particular enzyme' or: ‘one or the other chemical substance is released' or: ‘they are in actual fact electromagnetic phenomena'.
This arbitrary notion of cause hides the translation that the various classes make of phenomena, in languages created to intervene on them and subject them to the will of human power, favoring mechanical aspects, reproducible and controllable. The latter end up being the ‘true reality' in the collective consciousness, whilst the sphere of sacredness and ‘subtleness' is dealt with in the way we saw before, the destiny of the pagan gods that embodied archetypes removed from the common perception.
The forms of cult and veneration of sacredness, the surviving forms of ‘magic thought' (the Christian esthetics of sacredness itself) have become barbaric and vulgar because they are subjected to science (the Truth on the Shroud or on the Blood of Saint Januarius, the exact location of the Ararat Mountain, the statistics on astrology, the scientologist church of Dianetics, the comparison between Taoism and atomic physics, etc.). The ‘operators of sacredness' care to demonstrate to an imaginary illuminist interlocutor (the alter ego interiorized by the domineering culture) that the ‘subtle worlds' really exist and they try and produce, like retarded pupils in front of a strict teacher, proofs and phenomena that can eventually and definitely ‘persuade' positivists, inducing them not to consider mad or visionary the man who believes in invisibleness.
A similar attitude was taken by the poor Canterville Ghost in Oscar Wilde's homonymous novella, when he faced the skeptical American bourgeois who went to live in his ancient castle and mocked him for his claims to be a ghost. For the younger generation, we can compare it to the witch Hazel with Goofy, who refuses to believe in the supernatural powers of the old sorcerer.
There is an analogy between two facts. The first is that Dionysus and Diana became the devil and the witches his followers. The second regards those who believe in sacredness and invisible things, who become unreliable visionaries (destined to the criticism of people like Piero Angela), deceivers of the masses, manipulators of consciences, swindlers and charlatans who use cheap tricks to cheat their victims, superstitious and ignorant simpletons, followers of the worst sub-cultural products, unscrupulous profiteers who exploit people's weaknesses for their own interest. These are indeed the reasons why, according to the ‘scientistic' collective conscience, a person should believe in sacredness or perceive ‘subtle' realities. Exactly like it happened to the participants of the Sabbaths during the Inquisition, the modern followers of magic or sacredness often assume in actual fact such negative characteristics, taking on themselves the shadows of the collective conscience.
There is something that perhaps not many people realize. When we produce an ‘irrefutable demonstration' of the reliability of a subtle or paranormal phenomenon, it doesn't let us access the subtle world; indeed, it sends us straight into the prosaic world of materialization and heaviness of the being, viz. in the world of our positivist interlocutors; the latter, now convinced, are therefore more victorious than when they were skeptical.
This was one of the senses of silence and discretion of ancient people about Mysteries: the quality of the motivation to divulge them.
Why all these words? Only to say: before justifying Tradition with science, think twice and look around!
by Alessandro Orlandi