Book Review: Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminismby IAO 131 (LuLu 2nd edition 2012 -1st edition 2009)
I think that this is an excellent and important book that addresses some relevant issues and clears a path to a way of thinking about phenomena that hovers on and beyond the limits of scientific analysis.
The term ‘Scientific Illuminism’ was coined by Aleister Crowley in describing his Equinox publications where he extolled it as “The Method of Science, The Aim of Religion.” This book is an important continuation along this path. The term ‘Naturalistic Occultism’ is basically synonymous with Scientific Illuminism and suggests that unexplainable things can be better approached through a format of naturalism as opposed to supernaturalism. Here science is the standard for measuring the subjective experiences of magick, occultism, mysticism, and spirituality. It is basically an approach, one possible one among many, yet it is a very good one, probably the best. This general approach can be applied to any reasonable belief system or even an atheistic angle. It is an approach that keeps superstition and dogma at a minimum. Frater IAO 131 states that the book developed from his studies of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
One feature of the book stems from
’s desire to expose and discredit the
charlatans which seem to populate occultism and to re-orient occultism toward
science. Crowley ’s
contemporary, the occultist Dion Fortune, noted similar dismay at the proliferation
of pseudo-science in occult circles and the author refers several times to her
book “Sane Occultism”. The trend seems to have continued on in the wildly speculative forms of “New Age”
Spirituality and psychic hucksters. The author has founded the Society of
Scientific Illuminism to further such ends as promoting a more scientific
understanding of occultism. Crowley
The author assumes the connection between perception, even consciousness, and the human nervous system. Though one may argue philosophically that consciousness (or perhaps awareness beyond consciousness) can be independent of neurology, for all practical purposes, it is a functional assumption. Changes in the nervous system cause changes in perception – this statement defines Francis Crick’s “Astonishing Hypothesis.” On that basis the author states that:
“Magick might therefore be defined as, “the volitional control of the human nervous system through manipulation of itself, the rest of the body, and its immediate environment.”
He also suggests that the utilization of magical correspondences can be seen as “the intentional conditioning of associations between various sensory stimuli with abstract or moral ideas.” He notes also that initiation might be “understood as the de-conditioning (ie. overcoming mental and behavioral habits) and then re-conditioning of the human nervous system in accordance with the volition of the organism.”
The author offers two types who may be averse to a scientific view of occultism: those who despise and overly distrust science (the charlatan) and those who deliberately misuse science (the pseudo-scientist). Aversion to and distrust of science can be a significant problem these days. While the views of scientists are not always correct and are often not at all absolute, science should be the standard by which things are measured, even those things that are subjective and unseen.
Frater IAO 131 contrasts Scientific Illuminism with three general groups of occultist-types: New Age, Hermeticism, and Chaos Magick. These he critiques and gives their pitfalls as well as their admirable qualities. He notes that New Agers and pagans can be apathetic to mainstream science yet open to pseudo-science and given to consumerism. Hermeticists can fall prey to traditionalism and elitism and sometimes accept philosophical ideas uncritically. Chaos mages can lack a systematic approach and focus overly on material rather than spiritual goals. New Agers and Chaos magicians tend to be healthily open-minded. Hermeticists can be systematic and thorough. Chaos mages tend to be pragmatic, emphasizing what works. Scientific Illuminists, he notes, utilize science as much as possible and avoid antipathy to “mainstream science” while also staying open-minded. Blind faith in tradition is discouraged but experts in their fields are strongly considered. He suggests a general avoidance of commodifying occultism and of any notions of elitism or superiority. I think he correctly sees the judging of others as a waste of energy and notes that we should work in a spirit of collaboration and note the contributions of those outside one’s own traditions.
In a scientific illuminist framework the occult practitioner is likened to a scientist and the occult community to a scientific community utilizing shared data and ideas.
A chapter on Phenomenology gives a good introduction to the subject. The first concept given is that of the “phenomenal field.” Each person is the center of their phenomenal field. This is simply one’s filed of experience through the senses, including thought. Experience is seen as an interaction between us and the external world. In that sense, the external world itself can even be seen as a facet of consciousness. The author suggests that we adopt a phenomenological language of consciousness. Perception appears to be divided into inner and outer and perhaps it is confusion of the two that leads many people to assert external entities as the causes of many phenomena rather than internal perceptual processes involving the human psyche. As the author states it: “a feeling not often experienced is often attributed to some “other” spirit, entity, or force …” This is interesting to me as I have read that descriptions of the “attainment” in Thelema called the “knowledge and conversation of the holy guardian angel” – are often described initially as the sensing of a powerful “other” – this other, or new manifestation of consciousness, ends up being the “higher self” in magico-qabalistic terms. The author does point out that this separation of self and other, or ego and non-ego, or subject and object, can be unified, or un-differentiated, and this unification is often a key factor in describing mystical states. Several examples are given of how phenomenological language may be used to describe subjective experiences. What are described are things like feelings, mental sensing, metaphorical thoughts, and other first person descriptions and accounts of an experience. Metaphysical assumptions are generally to be avoided and the use of this “atheoretical” phenomenological language can even train people to avoid those assumptions . The idea is to focus on the subjective experiences objectively without being so objective as to discount the importance of subjectivity itself. The combining of direct physical evidence with subjective description has been termed “heterophenomenology” by psychologist Daniel Dennet. Utilizing a phenomenological language based in science fosters communication between people of different dogmatic backgrounds. There can be many ways to describe an experience if one uses the dogmas of various magico-religious systems. But if the dogma is sifted away, those experiences can be communicated more universally. Also, it may be useful to find agreed upon equivalences in various systems – and this is of course a part of the idea of magical correspondences. Also one may use the terminology of one’s own system as “shorthand” for descriptive purposes then translating it into the more universal phenomenological language.
Pragmatism deems that what is true is what is useful.
explained this in
his statement: “By doing certain things certain results will follow.” Pragmatism
is an approach to occult phenomena that favors subjective functionality over
asserting the phenomena as objective truth. In other words, what works is more
important than constructing a metaphysical model. Crowley
The summary of the approach involves formulating the methods and practice along pragmatic lines, doing the practice, recording results with phenomenological language, and utilizing a naturalistic interpretation and explanation of practice and results.
Next he goes into Theory – which is explained naturalistically as in step 4 (above) of the approach. In accordance with the Hermetic axiom “As above, so below” or as the author seems to prefer it “As within, so without” the external world can be seen in terms of a projection of our own psyches. Our tendencies to anthropomorphize forces and see pictures and faces in nature (similar to ‘free association’ in psychology) makes this model of macrocosm a projection of microcosm a potentially useful one.
The symbols of occultism such as planets, elements, zodiac, Sephira, tarot trumps, Hebrew letters, numbers, and other correspondences can be considered to be aspects of the psyche and magick can be considered consciously manipulating these aspects through conditioning. The associating of these symbols with phenomena can form a systematic way of understanding things, albeit with a certain amount of arbitrariness. In this vein the author goes through phenomenological explanations of divination where subjectivity is just as important as the meanings of the symbols that come up. The author notes that,
“The innate pattern-finding drive in human organisms can be bent to the will of the magician.”
He further suggests that divination can best suggest courses of action to alleviate indecision. He notes importantly that a form of cognitive bias known as “confirmation bias” is often at play in divination. This is “a tendency to interpret new information as justifying and affirming preconceived beliefs.” This along with our pattern-finding tendencies may account for much of the seemingly “spot-on” predictions of psychics and readers. So, in terms of Naturalistic Occultism, divination is considered to be objectively arbitrary but potentially subjectively meaningful. Perhaps another way to think of it is that the meanings of symbols are not fixed but change in accordance with how they are used by those who engage them. Similarly, finding patterns in numbers through methods like Gematria can be just as self-fulfilling – even to the point of obsession as one tries to fit the numbers in different schemes to make them match something of interest. Many or should I say most or all gematrians have been guilty of this at one time or another.
In a chapter about why magick seems to work, the author suggests the placebo effect. The placebo effect is a powerful and very real psycho-somatic component of experience. It involves the power of expectation. Expectations alter behavior which may influence how one subjectively experiences something. Magick might be seen as “self-administered placebos.”
In a discussion of “synchronicity”, those uncanny connections and coincidences, the author suggests the cognitive bias called “selective perception” as a cause at least in some cases. This just means we tend to notice things that fit our needs or fulfill our expectations. Jung defined synchronicity as “temporarily coincident occurrences of acausal events.” This definition utilizes the word “acausal” which states that Jung did not see these events as being in any way caused by the other. Even so, these coincidences may be meaningful as they may be a sort of communication from our own psyche, or our unconscious. These are perhaps not messages from the gods or spirits as shamans and psychics conclude, but messages from our hidden selves – but then again if one sees gods and spirits and their myths and stories as manifestations of the unconscious rather than as some external realities then this can be rather equivalent. In magick one may even generate these synchronicities through practice. I have noticed that Western Esotericism in particular is very symbol-oriented and so these happenings do occur. Back when I was a more regularly practicing magician I experienced quite a few synchronicities of this sort. In some forms of shamanism the occurrence of synchronicities is said to be confirmation that the work is functioning on the inner planes.
There is a chapter that compares initiation to psychotherapy. The author suggests that the aims of both may be similar. He defines initiation as attaining a spiritual experience and the continuous de-conditioning in order to improve and manifest that attainment. I am not sure I agree totally here – though perhaps this is more in line with Western systems. In Tantra, initiation is an introduction to a series of practices and accomplishment would be the attainment of the results of that practice. In any case, the definitions have similarities.
He compares initiation to the psychotherapeutic goal of “making the unconscious conscious.”
The author goes on to give a concise introduction to psychotherapy from Freud to Jung’s idea of archetypes and individuation, the latter of which he compares to humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s motivation theories of self-realization or self-actualization. It is interesting to me that the concepts and terminology of psychology and psychotherapy are widely applicable in explaining what we normally call spiritual practices and mystical experiences. It is a universal discipline applicable to religion, mythology, philosophy, shamanism, etc. He also touches on newer forms of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy, existential-humanistic therapy, humanistic and transpersonal psychology.
even praised the work of Freud and Jung as bringing the methods of the magician
into mainstream science. Occultist and psychotherapist Dr. Israel Regardie
suggested that magicians would benefit from psychotherapy and highly
recommended it. As a good summary statement the author offers: Crowley
“Though the methods and underlying theories of psycho-spiritual change may differ, both initiation and psychotherapy have the aim of making the unconscious conscious, actualizing the potential of the individual, of de-conditioning various mental and behavioral habits, and realigning the self to be more in harmony with the entire psyche or organism.”
Frater IAO 131 then shifts to recent cutting-edge neurology that may explain the nature of the astral body of the occultist. This involves a representation of the body created by the brain which is known as the “body image.” Recent research suggests the parietal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with spatial perception, as generating the body image. The author suggests that this body image is none other than the astral body of lore and tradition. I would agree although there may be other astral bodies – as indicated by OBE researcher Robert Monroe and also part of occult and traditional teachings – that are independent of the body image. The neurological explanation of astral phenomena is investigated in some detail and is quite fascinating. He gives four hypotheses on the make up of the astral:
1) “the astral body is actually the brain’s self-representation of the body”
2) “the astral plane with all of its “astral phenomena” is actually the self-generated “extrapersonal space” experienced in OBE’s and dreams”
3) What we perceive as matter is the brain’s interpretation of sensory stimuli from the external environment and what we perceive as astral phenomena is “internally generated stimuli interpreted by the brain.”
4) “it may be possible for enough volitional attention to be directed towards imagining certain visual stimuli to potentially induce an OBE”
He notes that most methods of astral projection involve physical relaxation and “mental concentration on an imagined extrapersonal visuo-spatial perspective” (a point-of-view outside oneself). This essay on the neurological aspects of the astral body and related phenomena is really quite convincing and he cites several recent neuroscience journal articles. Changes in visual attention may induce astral projection. OBEs occur similarly across many different cultures. One’s sense of balance may be involved. Non-egocentric perspective taking may be an induction method. Astral phenomena are often called visions and the interpretation of visions is quite subjective. The author compares astral workings and scrying to the “projective tests” of psychology such as Rorschach’s ink blot test where we project meaning onto ambiguous stimuli. I think one may include things like hypnagogic imagery and lucid dreaming as astral phenomena as well and as we know these can be associated with various feelings and sensations unique to ourselves.
Frater IAO 131 defines invocation as “the willed activation of latent parts of the psyche.” The gods, goddesses, angels, or demons invoked are understood (in Naturalistic Occultism) to be “symbolized aspects of one’s psyche.” This is identical to practices in Tibetan Buddhism where deities and demons are seen the same way. Even some of our every day acts can be seen as forms of invocation – ie. setting a mood, meditating on a quality, or taking on a persona of some sort. Setting up our correspondences to point to the quality we are trying to bring in is akin to turning knobs to tune in to a certain frequency
There is discussion of “Mystic Attainment” which can be explained in many ways by philosophers and religionists yet there are certain parallels in the various descriptions that can be picked out. One is the uniting of subject and object. This is often how the “non-dualism” of Advaita Vedanta or the Mahamudra of Tantric Buddhism is described. The question is whether this Samadhi, union with God, state of integration, or whatever it is called, is a psychological phenomenon. The evidence strongly suggests that it is. He goes on to describe the four characteristics of mystical experience delineated by William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience”: 1) Ineffability – difficult to describe, 2) noetic quality – powerful experience with deep conviction, ie. gnosis, illumination, revelation, 3) transiency – a generally short-lived state or a state that ends, 4) passivity – one feels more as a vehicle for the mystical energy. James also said that there is the:
“overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute” and “in mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”
The author suggests that the word “None” utilized in
’s Book of the Law
(Liber Al vel Legis) and other writings points to the ineffability aspect of
mystical experience better than the words “one” or “unity”. Crowley
In the final section on practice, the author again emphasizes that this is one approach to occultism and spiritual practice and should not be seen as denigrating to other approaches which may be in accordance with the will of those who practice them. It is a good general rule of acceptance and open-mindedness to other approaches. Of course, this approach will be seen as functional, sensible, and of great benefit by those keen enough to utilize it. He also describes the approach as accessible and accommodating, even to those of us who tend toward atheism.
The practical exercises given are astral projection or scrying, lucid dreaming, and a form of meditation which he refers to as “un-differentiated consciousness through focused attention.” For the last exercise he classifies progress as: 1) “awareness of only oneself and the object of attention” 2) awareness of only the object of attention, and 3) awareness of neither subject nor object.” He compares these as to the dharana, dhyana, and samadhi of raja yoga.
The author thinks this approach is still in the early stages and with further work and collaboration with magickal records and sharing of experiences and such, that success is more likely than in other approaches. He thinks that the efficacy and rational approach of this style of occultism puts those who practice it at an advantage over those who don’t – an advantage perhaps in being more integrated psychologically, more liable to discover and understand new things, and way more immune to the problems of dogma and superstition.
The book is written with concise summaries after most chapters and concludes with a very good glossary of terms which can also be a good review.
To recap, this is a most excellent book and one that any Thelemite should especially appreciate as it is a timely revision of
’s brain child of
a synthesis of Magick and Science. Crowley
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