Inventing Reality – The joker in the pack

The joker, the jester, the ‘fool who goes where angels fear to tread’, is a symbol that permeates the whole of the magical tradition. And it’s a symbol that any technology would do well to adopt and understand.

There are many different aspects to the symbol, all of which are valid to us in learning to work on the world as it is. One is the sheer stupidity of following a path without looking where it takes us – as is the case with the Tarot fool, who is usually shown about to walk straight over the edge of a cliff.

Another image is that of the Mediaeval ‘Lord of Misrule’, the anarchic symbol of change – which can be directed, perhaps, but certainly not controlled in our accustomed scientific manner.

Humour, too, leads us gently to find new ways of looking at the world; the court jester is able to show us things, through humour, that we would perhaps rather not see: our vanity and our pride when we blunder our way into some new skill, for example.

And nature itself plays at the joker, tricking us when we least expect it: without an awareness of nature and our own nature, life can become distinctly unamusing.

‘Applied science’- a technology without magic

One of the saddest disasters that can befall a technology is for it to be treated as a science. There is plenty we can learn from methodology, the study of methods – but only when they are studies in practice. As soon as we think in terms of ‘theory and practice’ – theory before practice – we can be sure that we’re going to hit trouble as soon as we meet up with anything that doesn’t fit the assumptions of theory: and we’ve already seen that we can never, in practice, analyse enough factors for theory to be able to predict anything with total reliability.

Theory can only tell us where we’ve been, not where we are or where we’re going: it’s a rear-view mirror, taking us nowhere but backwards on some neat train of thought. It’s a very blinkered view of where things have been: it can only see what it expects – or rather expected – to see. And by assuming that what it sees is ‘objective truth’, it leaves no place for subjective experience, for the other multitudinous factors that make up the context of the real world we experience.

This view is bad enough in fields where the human factors are less crucial, or at least less visible: in engineering, for example, where a design (the theory, if you like) which fails to allow for erratic workmanship and variable materials can be fantastically expensive in the long run – the now-ageing first- and second-generation nuclear reactors now littering the country being a good case in point.

But it’s in the so-called ‘soft sciences’ or, more accurately, the human technologies, like psychology, sociology, ecology, economics and the rest, that this attitude becomes downright dangerous. If the technology only knows about ‘truth’, with no concept of value, of quality, then it has no room for a sense of the quality of life.

A technology that regards scientific truth as its sole criterion can only understand value in terms of quantity – ‘bigger is better’. To that particular point of view – and it is a point of view, as we have seen, and not ‘fact’ – any other sense of value is, by definition, ‘subjective’, and therefore unscientific.

So it’s not surprising that the other, more qualitative view – ‘small is beautiful’ – is seen by some as magical, and by others as plain ‘unscientific’. Which, of course, it is: both magical and unscientific.

But that – complaining that magic and technology are not scientific – is precisely the mistake that concerns us. They never were science: it’s true that they may use scientific concepts in practice, and they may use scientific-style logic and reasoning in their methodologies, their study of techniques, but that does not bind them to see things only from that platform, that group of points of view. They put science to use, so in that sense they may be ‘applied science’; but they can also put any idea, any concept to use, as long as, and only for as long as, it is useful.

There are two aspects of science which are definitely not useful. One is the limiting effect of its constant rearward thinking, which can make it anything from difficult to impossible to apply new ideas and new approaches and put them to use. The other, more serious, aspect is a side-effect of its true-or-false logic: if something works, it is true, therefore, logically, any other method is false, wrong, forbidden. This method works, therefore there is no other way it can be done; there is no alternative, it says.

When the true-or-false concerns of logic have priority over value – as they do in science – what we get in practice is not technology, but something more like a mess of dogma. As another Nasrudin tale puts it:

Nasrudin was throwing handfuls of crumbs around his house.

‘What are you doing?’ someone asked him.

‘Keeping the tigers away.’

‘But there are no tigers in these parts.’

‘That’s right. Effective, isn’t it?’

[Idries Shah, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin]

Once a technology becomes ‘applied science’, it seems, people forget to think: about the wider context, or about what they are doing in practice. It also seems that they forget how to laugh, how to use humour as a means of moving from one point of view to another. Our technologies, our ways of working on the world, are a serious matter, it’s true: but when the humour goes, when the joy goes, so does the humanity – and with it the magic of technology.

Medical madness

Perhaps the saddest examples of this can be found in the chaotic shambles that we call medicine. There are any number of ways of looking at health, any number of points of view, every one of which claims to be the only way of looking at health. You could say that we understand extremely well in medicine why people fall ill; what we don’t really understand at all is why they don’t.

The conventional medical approach regards disease in terms of cause and effect: known causes, such as bacteria or carcinogenic agents, produce known symptoms, known effects on the health of the patient, from which the cause is diagnosed. Symptoms are treated with drugs which, unfortunately, may have side-effects, other symptoms which have to be treated by yet more drugs: a cycle which seems to profit the doctors, the ‘caring’ professions, the drug companies, their advertising agencies – everyone, in fact, except the patient.

In effect, the problem with this approach is that causes are seen in terms of symptoms, which, by reverse reasoning, are assumed to be the result of the causes. Diagnosis, like scientific investigation, is an art, not a science: its ‘discoveries are beyond the reach of reason’. Without awareness – something that logic alone cannot provide – things can go badly astray:

Imagine that you’re wearing a tight collar.

Now, if I pull hard at the back of the collar, where do you feel the tension?

That tension is a symptom of the disease: so I’ll treat it by pulling hard on the collar at that point where you feel the tension.

Strange: the tension has gone from the first place, but it’s started again somewhere else. So I’ll treat you by pulling hard there as well.

Now, you’re feeling fine, aren’t you? Aren’t you…?

Above all, this kind of medicine believes that it is scientific, ‘objective’. The patient is literally ‘one who waits patiently’, without right or responsibility for their own health: disease is objective, so treatment is ‘done’ to them, actions in which they are not involved other than as an obedient lump of wayward flesh. Any other approach to medicine is wrong, because this one works on facts.

But that is precisely the point: this approach cannot work simply because there are no facts – only experiences. To quote Beveridge again, “most biological ‘facts’ and theories are only true under certain conditions and our knowledge is so incomplete that at best we can only reason on probabilities and possibilities”. This is obvious to anyone working in the real world of general medical practice, as my parents did: every patient was different, so the techniques used – although strictly speaking those of conventional medicine – were different for every patient.

Yet in the sterile atmosphere of hospital wards and laboratories, this view would no doubt be thought of as unscientific, as dubious medicine: an objective world-view has no place for the anarchic differences between individuals. Technical skill and expertise may be one of the hallmarks of conventional medicine; but vision, an awareness of what medicine means in practice to the patient, is often conspicuous only by its absence.

In principle, then, you would expect vision and awareness to typify ‘alternative medicine’. And yes, after a fashion, it does: being points of view in what is actually a magical technology, acupuncture, homoeopathy, herbal medicine, dietary therapies and the rest certainly work for many people. And people are seen as involved people rather than passive ‘patients’: health for the whole being. Routinely, though, you’ll find that the practitioners of these therapies argue with their colleagues, other practitioners, and doctors from conventional medicine, as to which therapy is more ‘true’, is really more scientific.

But in practice this is is pointless: all of them are true, in the sense that they all do work, after a fashion; therefore, logically, none of them are true in an absolute sense, since they all disagree as to how things really work. To quote de Bono again, “everyone is always right, but no-one is ever right”. Being right doesn’t necessarily help if it fails to see the whole of the problem: surgeons’ reports in the nineteenth century routinely ended with the phrase “operation successful, but patient died”, which seems a somewhat extreme example of missing the point of medicine in the first place.

To make our medicine work as a technology, we need to be able to select ideas from each approach, from each view of medicine, according to the practical needs of the patient: not, as so often happens at present, according to the dictates of theory. Above all, medicine needs to be appropriate to the individual: efficient, reliable, elegant and apt. To bring the sense of meaning back into medicine, it needs to be a technology with magic: a magical technology.

Murphy’s Law

Science describes many so-called laws of nature, that describe how the world really works; and as we’ve seen, they’re not so much laws as guidelines that we can use to create reality – guidelines that describe rather than define. Yet to engineers, and to anyone working on the real world in a practical way, there is one real immutable law of nature. Often known as Murphy’s Law, it states, simply and baldly, that: ‘If something can go wrong, it probably will’.

And that is a fact: not of theory, but of experience. There’s always something that doesn’t fit, some combination of factors that you didn’t or couldn’t allow for. There are innumerable variants on the theme: one of my favourites, from the computing field, states that ‘As soon as you think you’ve made your program idiot-proof, along comes a better idiot’. Nature plays the joker, the jester who teaches through jokes that strike home where we would often rather that they did not: if we don’t learn the lessons, we end up being the fool.

Which is probably why skilled workers tend to approach the world in a cautious way, with a wry sense of humour. Watch any craftsman at work in any real skill – be it carpentry or chemistry, dowsing or programming, or whatever else you choose – and you’ll see much the same expression on their faces. At the point of action, there is total attention: concentration on the work in hand, yet also wide open, sensing the context for difficulties or dangers coming from any direction.

On our swamp analogy, they’re at one specific point of view, yet spreading their weight, sensing when it’s time to move on. Like an artist, or the stand-up comedian, it’s all in the timing. So there’s no place for the ‘brute force and ignorance’ school of non-craftsmanship: by failing to listen what is happening in the swamp – to what is happening to the world and the work in front of them – they miss their timing, miss their footing in the swamp. And it can take a lot of floundering in the mud to make a macho-style male realise that nature doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

If we’re lost in the swamp, we’re stuck – we don’t know which way to go. In debugging a program, we know the program has followed the logic, the points of view, that we gave it: so which way did we tell it to go? A scientific approach, with its closed logic, can only tell us the way back from one point of view: more often than not it will only lead us round in circles. Being stuck, trapped in a circular pattern of thought, is distinctly unfunny: but we can use humour to lighten the way out. Or images, or analogies, or any of the other tools we looked at in the previous chapter: anything which will let us see the world as it is, rather than as our point of view assumes it to be.

Mistaken magic

If ‘applied science’ is a dangerous disaster, attempting to treat the technologies of traditional magic in a scientific manner is even worse. If we accept that that magic is a technology of mind, it is obvious that to try to understand it from an ‘objective’ point of view, one that does not even recognise the involvement of the mind, will lead to fundamental problems: it simply isn’t going to make any sense. Trying to use a true/false logic in an area of experience in which everything and nothing is true at the same time, and in which only value judgements are valid, is, bluntly, insane.

And yet people do it. We’ve already seen the problem with the ‘alternative therapies’ in medicine, in which some controls do at least exist; imagine, then, the dangers where no safety devices exist at all.

One example that comes to mind is ‘channelling’, a formalised version of the imaging we saw in the last chapter: it’s a key part of both spiritualist-style and many so-called New Age operations. A ‘spirit guide’ or ‘guardian angel’ (the terminology varies) is contacted – imagined – and provides information on how to handle some problem. So far, that’s no different in principle from what we’ve done here, talking to our imaginary guide; but the interpretation is quite different. Instead of treating the information provided as just that – information – it is treated as fact: final, absolute Truth, from a ‘higher being’ or a ‘higher consciousness’. With no way whatsoever of checking the validity of that ‘truth’.

On occasions the information is useful – if you like, ‘inspired information’ in the same way that finding a pipe by dowsing is ‘inspired guesswork’. Information is always useful if you can put it to use. But there are no control procedures, no ‘noise filters’: no way of separating out the useful information from the junk that comes with it, junk from any number of possible areas in the human psyche and way beyond.

In magical technologies, there are no facts, only information and its interpretation: yet in these cases everything is treated as fact, simply because it comes through with an emotional loading, an apparent authority – a jumble of information and non-fact which is in practice determined by whatever interpretation happens to be lying around. One result of this indiscretion is that in the Glastonbury area, where I lived for some years, we seemed to be besieged by an endless stream of self-appointed Messiahs, each of whom was convinced, with deadly seriousness and a distinct lack of humour, that they alone had the divine guidance to lead the people to grace…

For a while, it’s almost amusing: a bitter cosmic joke. Listening to the sound of chaos, as the over-inflated ego of yet another fool is punctured, may provide us with a grim and all-too-regular entertainment; yet the sheer waste of mental resources, the destruction of minds that can take years to repair – that isn’t amusing. Magic without the awareness, the discrimination, of technology is definitely no joke at all.

It’s with very good reason that, in the Tarot, the Fool is the key card, the joker in the pack. A card without number, both beginning and end, it symbolises our progress through this maze of realities. An endless exploration: and each time we return to some place, we know it for the first time. With ‘beginner’s luck’ and a beginner’s joy of discovery, we can always learn anew: and there is always much to learn.

Nature has the last laugh

Within our technology, we have another lesson to learn: that we have to learn to live with nature and our nature. We are part of nature: we cannot control it without controlling ourselves – which we are manifestly unable to do. We can, perhaps, direct what goes on, though we cannot control it: the distinction is important.

Nature, the world we live in, is not an inanimate ‘thing’: seen as a whole, it is a living organism of which we are part. This concept has always been part of traditional magic, perhaps because of its pagan roots, perhaps also because of its greater concern with an overall awareness; yet it also comes through in more recent scientific research, such as James Lovelock’s work on the Gaia Hypothesis – that the condition of the Earth is actively made fit for life by life itself, working interactively as a whole. An appropriate choice of name for a scientific hypothesis: Gaia is an ancient Greek name for Mother Earth.

It’s interesting to follow through the old pagan concepts in terms of what they mean to a technology that is, as we have suggested, concerned with being efficient, reliable, elegant and appropriate: because if it is working with nature, in the real world, it has to be reliable over aeons of time – it has to be maintainable indefinitely. Which, it’s clear, can hardly be said of the present technologies developed from the blunderings of a half-blind ‘applied science’. We have seen that we cannot be scientific about our relationship with the Earth: there are too many factors to reason with, so in a sense we have no choice but to be unreasonable, to feel and to sense our way through to apt solutions.

And, historically, we have had what appears to be help from the Earth, from Gaia itself, in reaching towards sane solutions. From the work of that eccentric cataloguer Charles Fort in his Book of the Damned, and others such as John Michell and Bob Rickard with their listings of Phenomena, we can see that we’ve been sent all manner of mad happenings – from showers of frogs and fishes, to bizarre horrors like spontaneous human combustion – to show us that nature always has other points of view.

Throughout history, we’ve had muddled messages from an assortment of perceived yet imaginary entities – interpreted as fairies, angels or spacemen, depending on the point of view from which they’re seen -that have, it seems, been visited on us by nature itself. The only common factor in these insane events (and there must have been thousands of them throughout history) is their sense of authority: the Angel at Lourdes, the ‘man in black’ who handed over the design for the Great Seal’ of the United States, and many others. Somehow, ‘visitors from inner space’ seems more likely than otherwise: but what ‘inner space’?

In any case, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy’: a painful truth to discover, as many of us have found out… The ‘Old Magic’, as it’s called, ‘will answer your need, but not to your demand; it will respond to your heart, but not to your head’: we have little choice in the matter. If our technology, our new magic, fails to recognise this old magic of the earth, it will, in the long term, be heading for a collapse which will be anything but amusing. Without that wry sense of humour to help us interpret its strange jokes, nature has the last laugh on us every time.

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