And so, on to The Paradigm Problem: -
Adapting our ideas and brain functions for the long and painful climb from hunter gathering lifestyles to exploiters of general relativity and quantum physics has not proved straightforward or easy. We still bear the scars and vestiges of our neurological and psychological adaptations.
Platonism rose to become the esoteric metaphysic of choice in the Hellenic west during the last few centuries B.C. because it provided a more effective mental tool than the animist and spiritist thinking that had informed pagan societies as they became progressively more urbanised.
Animist and spiritist thinking remains concrete, phenomenological, and immanent-ist. All phenomena exist ‘just as they are because they are’ and they have powers intrinsic to themselves. Yet these powers can remain subject to transfer by contagion, as for example when a shaman or priest dresses in a bear’s skin to borrow its ‘powers’. Such thinking still influences modern humans to some small extent.
Platonism supports abstract thinking. By positing the separate existence of the ‘essences’ of phenomena it allowed people to conceptualise such things as ‘the personal self’, and interesting abstract ideas like ‘justice’ and ‘mathematical principles’. It also supported the rise of monotheistic religion by positing the idea of a supreme essence, from which lesser essences devolve. Basically in Platonism ‘whatever you can think of’ acquires some sort of a transcendental reality as an ‘essence’, and sometimes as a ‘sentient essence’ as well.
However despite that it encourages abstract thinking, Platonism exhibits a serious flaw, most of its ideas remain untestable and unfalsifiable. The Platonists strove to create a corpus of ideas based merely on self-consistency, with insufficient reference to observed reality.
Neoplatonism, which arose in first few the centuries A.D, devolved from Platonism and it extended the basic idea of essences into all sorts of esoteric realms where it gave rise to Hermeticism, Kabballah, and Gnosticism. In these the essences multiply to create complicated schemes of emanations and archetypes based on pagan style deities, archons, demiurges, and a supreme transcendental monad or whatever.
Unfortunately Neoplatonism comes with few mechanisms for discerning between useful and useless abstractions, and it quite rapidly became fixated upon the supposed ‘essences’ of things like earth, air, fire, and water, or upon the supposed ‘essences’ of the classical ‘planets’ and the ‘essences’ of twelve zodiacal divisions of the ecliptic. Despite the very poor explanatory and predictive power of such schemes of ‘essences’ this style of thinking persisted for nearly two thousand years. It still persists as a rather sloppy form of common speech and thinking. We tend to attribute classes of attributes or ‘essences’ to phenomena as a kind of shortcut in our thinking. Phenomena remain mutable, not fixed by essence. People change continually throughout life, culture and circumstance determines behaviour far more profoundly than star-sign or race. We obviously don’t actually have fixed selves or souls or ‘essences’. Watch a child grow, or more disturbingly, watch dementia take an elderly person.
The attempt to discern the nature of the supposed ‘essence’ underlying the entire universe has involved a great deal of anthropomorphic projection and wishful thinking and it has left us with the chocolate screwdriver idea of a monotheistic God with a capital G. It may promise comfort and control, but what in heck does God actually DO apart from that? Huge natural disasters and small tawdry miracles?
Do gods and goddesses and spirits and demons actually exist as anything other than imaginary friends? As imaginary friends they can still serve to inspire and empower us as I repeatedly point out in The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos, and I have several of them myself, but where lies the extraordinary evidence required to go beyond that into the belief in their objective existence?
Astrology appeared as another chocolate screwdriver, or perhaps worse. The idea that each twelfth of humanity has certain characteristics dependent on conditions of birth now seems as indefensible as racism. It has no predictive power whatsoever beyond the obvious calendrical/seasonal associations.
Neoplatonism represents an improvement on crude animism & spritism but it now seems a debilitating and ineffective way of thinking.
Its corpus of ideas remains more or less untestable and unfalsifiable for whenever it appears to give poor results it tends to spawn ever more complex and evasive explanations, and as a general principle any unfalsifiable idea of this kind has very little predictive power at all.
The translation of the bible into vernacular languages provoked people to question the Neoplatonic assumptions that became incorporated into it during the first few centuries A.D. This led to Protestantism and the beginning of the end of the whole Neoplatonist paradigm which Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity had bought into. A British Protestant Parliament eventually required that any prospective member of its parliament would have to refute the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea that a consecrated host actually embodied the actual ‘essence’ of the sacrificed body and blood of Christ, and instead compromise with the idea that it merely symbolised it.
This might seem an uncontentious and trivial theological point to many today, but the idea behind it led to the abandonment of Neoplatonism and Aristotelian theory (derived from pure thinking largely uninformed by objective observation), and this led to Empirical Science, the Royal Society, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, some Freedom of Conscience, and eventually to Democracy of a sort. Parallel developments took place over much of north-western Europe, despite ferocious Papal resistance initially.
The magical revival of the 1880s, initiated mainly by Macgregor Mathers of the Golden Dawn, represents the last high water mark of Neoplatonic thought, and from it most of the western esoteric traditions of the twentieth century descend. However the cracks in it already seemed visible at the time and a recession of the high tide seemed inevitable. Psychological insights into the mechanisms of esoterics began to arise upon the examination of oriental mystical practices and the Golden Dawn manuscripts and practices seem to imply in places that the adept can more or less manufacture gods and spirits to order, as many of them effectively went on to do so.
Plus of course most of the occultists of the late nineteenth century revival adopted Neoplatonism as a Romantic alternative to the Mechanistic thinking which came with the Industrial Revolution, Darwinism, Thermodynamics, and the emerging Social Sciences. They mostly came from such privileged backgrounds that ineffectual styles of thought did not immediately incur serious consequences, and some of their art came out rather well.
Yet the Neoplatonic theory of ‘essences’ or abstract ‘forms’ ceases to provide an competitive mental tool in a world increasingly dominated by evidence based Mechanistic thinking.
Only perhaps when we don’t understand a mechanism, or where mechanism seems absent and the phenomena seem random, does it seem worth trying the Neoplatonic paradigm, because it developed for precisely such purposes.
If you try and interact with people or machinery or institutions or natural phenomena on the basis that they operate on supposed intrinsic essences you will interact less effectually unless your theory of essences has an equal sophistication to theories of mechanism.
This has created a big problem for the alternative types who re-adopted Neoplatonism in the late twentieth century esoteric revival. They often didn’t have the same resources as the wealthy Victorian bohemian classes and the western world had become far more demanding of adherence to a Mechanistic outlook. You can barely survive and prosper in it now without decent arithmetic, endless form filling, and button pushing.
Of course some people order most of their daily lives with Mechanistic thinking and reserve the Neoplatonic style for their religious, mystical and artistic interests. However the more they let the Neoplatonic style influence their everyday activities the more of a mess they seem to get into by using a set of unfalsifiable ideas that have very low predictive power.
If you cannot really test the idea that a certain phenomenon somehow represents a manifestation of the metaphysical elemental essence of say ‘earth’ then the whole concept has very little predictive or decision making power.
The magnificent edifice of late nineteenth century esoterics that Mathers created left a dual legacy. Some accepted parts of it wholesale and continue to paper over the cracks in the Neoplatonism that it partly exposes. Others accepted its welcome eclecticism and have since gone on to struggle with its metaphysical framework and update it.
One of the great challenges for Magical theorists lies in developing a metaphysic that remains compatible with Science and Existentialism.
Existentialism, for all its association with association with verbose and miserable French left bank philosophers, comes down to basically the insight that phenomena don’t actually have essences. We don’t have souls or real selves and neither do things in general, phenomena consist just of what they actually do, they don’t also have a separate abstract form of ‘being’, except in our minds.
So if phenomena lack any form of ‘otherness’ what can you base occultism or esoterics or magical ideas on?
Fortunately Science itself now comes to the rescue in a way that it couldn’t have done a century ago.
Unfortunately this new paradigm can often sound as contra-intuitive to the non-scientist as Neoplatonism now does to someone trained in science.
Basically, all physical phenomena do have an ‘otherness’ as well, but it consists of a ‘wave-function’ that we cannot directly observe. This may not sound as exciting as the idea that every phenomenon has an associated ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’, but it has far more explanatory and predictive power and it actually leads to more effective Magic,( and to more effective Science as well incidentally).
The wave function of any phenomenon carries information about the possible pasts, parallel superposed presents, and possible futures of that phenomenon. Moreover the wave function can have non-local effects in space and time and interact with other wave functions.
Mysteries come in three varieties:
Plato was discoursing on his theory of ideas and, pointing to the cups on the table before him, explained that while there are many cups in the world, there is only one `idea' of a cup, and this cup-ness precedes the existence of all particular cups.
"I can see the cup on the table," interrupted Diogenes, "but I can't see the `cup-ness'".
"That's because you have the eyes to see the cup," said Plato, "but", tapping his head with his forefinger, "you don't have the intellect with which to comprehend `cup-ness'."
Diogenes walked up to the table, examined a cup and, looking inside, asked, "Is it empty?"
"Where is the `emptiness' which precedes this empty cup?" asked Diogenes.
Plato allowed himself a few moments to collect his thoughts, but Diogenes reached over and, tapping Plato's head with his finger, said "I think you will find here is the `emptiness'."