Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Believers Say the Darndest Things 2: “Hey, it works for me!”

When I was a kid, I would watch The Simpsons every single day without fail (this was, obviously, before The Simpsons turned into complete and utter crap, sometime in the vicinity of seasons 9-12). At that point, I had seen all of the episodes several times, and I would religiously – pardon the phrase – watch the repeats in syndication.

I can distinctly remember quite a few times when I would think of a particular episode all day long and then tune into to the episode aired that night and be shocked to see that it was the exact episode I was thinking of all day. This happened many times, with such frequency that I began to wonder if I was in the possession of psychic powers.
And it happened with other television programs in syndication as well. I would be watching a repeat of some show and realize, suddenly, “Hey, this is the exact conversation between these characters that I was thinking of today.”
Now, I never actually did believe that I had psychic powers, but let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I really was convinced that I had some minor psychic ability.
So here’s a question for you skeptics out there: did I have sufficient evidence to claim that I had demonstrated – “to me,” not necessarily to anyone else – the existence of psychic powers?
If you answered “yes” to the above question, then you need to read the rest of this blog entry to learn exactly what kind of drooling idiocy a “yes” answer is the product of. If you answered “no,” then you should read on anyway, just to learn why you are correct and possibly to be entertained.
Before we answer that question, let’s consider a few other examples. The first is the old lady who believes in praying to Saint Christopher to find lost objects. She will tell you that she consistently prays to Saint Christopher when objects are lost, and consistently finds her lost items. In fact, this has happened so many times over the years that she’s lost count of the number of times the Lord has answered her prayers. She can think of maybe one instance where the prayer was not granted (maybe two), but those were minor items, and, she says, it must have been the Lord’s will for those objects not to have been found.
At any rate, she might claim that she has obtained consistent results and that she has therefore proven – “to her,” if not to anyone else – that prayer “works.” She says she’s unconcerned with proving it to anyone else, as long as it “works” for her.
One more example, as if it’s not obvious where I’m going with this already. Let’s say that we have a friend who is an occultist, someone who has all the normal hobbies we would expect a young man to have: he likes reading, long walks on the beach, building model airplanes, watching television, going to the movies with friends, going out to bars, and, of course, jacking off onto pieces of paper in an attempt to cause reality to bend to his will. All totally normal interests.
Let’s say that our friend tells us that he regularly conducts magical workings of this sort (what are technically called “eighth degree workings”) and that he regularly obtains new sexual partners after performing this act. It happens consistently. Of course, it doesn’t always work – he can think of one time (alright, maybe two) when there wasn’t an immediate result, and he naturally attributes these failures to errors on his part in planning the operation and possibly the fact that the “will of the universe” might have been against him that week, for some unfathomable reason presumably known only to other universes.
At any rate, our friend might claim that he has obtained consistent results and that he has therefore proven – “to him,” if not to anyone else – that magick “works.” He says he’s unconcerned with proving it to anyone else, as long as it “works” for him.
When we look at these two examples side by side, it’s obvious what’s wrong with the whole “it works for me,” crap: the practitioner has no basis on which to claim the practice actually does “work.” That the practice yields what are subjectively interpreted as “results” tells us absolutely nothing about whether the practice actually caused the results or not.
The human mind has a tendency to believe that the universe works in the way that the mind either expects the universe to work or wants the universe to work, and it is very good at pressing observations into the service of these beliefs. One common way that the mind does this is through something called “confirmation bias.” This is where the mind seizes upon things that (it thinks) confirm a claim and either ignores or downplays everything that fails to confirm the claim.
So, for example, my mind was impressed when I thought of a Simpsons episode during the day and then saw that episode later that night. But how many times did I think of a Simpsons episode and not see it on television that night? My mind wouldn’t even notice something like that, since it only remembers the “hits” that strike it as being “special.” In fact, I would wager that a boy who is a fan of The Simpsons thinks about multiple episodes during the day. If one of those episodes comes on television later, of course the mind is going to remember that it thought of that one particular episode and forget that it thought of a handful of others.
Furthermore, at the height of its popularity, The Simpsons was airing in syndication at least four times a day, making it even more likely that a particular episode would be thought of and later seen. And if all of the above was not enough, syndication runs are often done in order, so that a fan would know – if not exactly which episode was next – at least what group of episodes was likely to be next. It’s very likely that a mind could unconsciously detect this pattern and naturally start thinking about episodes surrounding last night’s episode in the syndication run.
All of the above means that I don’t have psychic powers and that the natural motion of my mind inclines me to interpret my experiences in ways that can seem – to someone untrained in skepticism – as if something miraculous is happening.
But if I were to sit down and actually test my supposed “psychic powers” (i.e. actually make a prediction about an episode generated randomly from a computer and then repeat this hundreds of times and see if I could perform to a statistically significant degree better than expected based on chance) – my “powers” would fail miserably, and it would become immediately obvious that I had not demonstrated my psychic power as a boy, even “to me.”
In fact, I had especially not demonstrated this power “to me.” I might have *thought* that I demonstrated these powers to me, but that only makes this false belief all the more insidious and more likely to pollute my mind.
We can look at those other claims I mentioned in this post and apply the same analysis to them. The old lady praying with her hands and the occultist praying with his genitals amount to the same basic thing: their minds, after the prayer, are going to be on the lookout for “results” – often, defined as broadly as possible, making it even more likely that there will be something that can be considered a “result" – and they’ll ignore or downplay anything that’s not a result.
Obviously, if you’re looking for an item – particularly an item you lost in your house – it seems overwhelmingly likely that you’re going to find it sooner or later. And equally obviously, if you’re looking for a sexual partner – assuming you’re not a complete doofus whom no one would ever want to sleep with anyway – you’re going to find one sooner or later. That these prayers are followed by events that look like results is completely unsurprising and tells us nothing about whether or not they actually “work.”
Furthermore, strange coincidences and weird occurrences happen all the time, whether or not you believe in magic. To use a recent example, my girlfriend lost her cell phone not long ago. We looked everywhere for this thing, tearing the house apart in the process. It was nowhere to be found. Alas, we gave up on it. Days later – days and days later – a friend found it…I shit you not…on the hood of our car, wedged in between the windshield wipers (where the black cell phone blent in so well that we couldn’t see it). Due to the angle, it was impossible to see when actually driving, which we did many times in the intervening period (I suppose it’s lucky that we didn’t need to use the windshield wipers!).
We’re still baffled as to how it got there. Our best guess is that my girlfriend dropped the phone in a parking lot – next to the car – and some kind stranger found it, put it on the car, and, not wishing it to fall off the car, tucked it securely in the windshield wiper.
But anyway, here’s the point of this odd anecdote: if I were an occultist and had done a “magical ritual to ensure the return of my lost item” or if I were a different kind of religious believer and prayed for its recovery, I would have one hell of a story to tell about how my magic “worked,” and I’d be able to say that my magic “works for me,” even if I can’t prove it to you.
As we can all see now, the whole “it works for me” nonsense is a giant pile of horseshit that religious believers, such as occultists, tell themselves in order to avoid having to actually perform the difficult and unpleasant work of evaluating their claims. It’s nothing more than a device by which a person can convince himself that he has “evidence” for a claim when, in fact, he has nothing more than his own gullibility.


  1. As much as occultism is if taken literally total bullshit, I think there is something to say about performing these types of rituals, not to prove they work or don't work in that way. Rather to play around with your own mind as a sort of deconstruction of your brains tendency to ward perceptions and cognitive conclusions. To become familiar with your unconscious mind and it's tricks and limits. To play around with your own gullibility, and perhaps if you are lucky learn tricks to defend yourself against these limits and biological weaknesses, to enhance critical thinking and recognise cues that your mind is mis-interpreting before it's too late.

  2. You do make a lot of valid points here; confirmation bias is not only one of the most detrimental things to any practice (metaphysical or otherwise), it's one of the most difficult to detect.

    I have done some work with sigils in the past; some of it was successful, some of it wasn't. The successes could easily have been attributable to other influences, or simple dumb luck. The failures are the same. It's probably a good thing that the first time I started seriously reading Crowley's works, coincided with my first college-level psychology and statistics classes; one of the things he stresses in keeping a record of all practices (meditation, pranayama, magick, etc.) is to accept failures as failures, instead of saying "well, if you look at it another way, I actually succeeded!"

    It's important to take both successes and failures at face value; for successes, figure out what you did that may have contributed to the success, and try it again; for failures, figure out what may have caused the failure, and try something differently.

    When I did ritual work of various kinds, I kept a detailed record of everything I could: weather, lighting, my emotional state at the time (as best I could, given the inherent difficulty in observing one's subjective feelings), et cetera. I noticed that the temperature in the room was often one or two degrees higher after doing a ritual. The way I knew that I wasn't a Space Cadet just yet was that my first thought was, "It's probably just the ambient heat from the candles, or something to do with the convection from my walking around the room." If the temperature had risen ten degrees in ten minutes, I would have checked the heating in the house before attributing it to some kind of entity or unconscious magical power.

    Based on the limited work I did, and the personal experiences of a few friends, I think that "magical" ritual can definitely have profound psychological effects (which, to some extent, can affect the physical world as far as the human body; demonstrated by the mystics who can affect their heart rate and alpha waves by mental effort). As far as producing tangible phenomena that are 100% objective - i.e., able to be detected by instruments other than the human senses - I remain unconvinced.

  3. Well there certainly is a comfortable living to be made from swindling the kids about this metaphysical validity. It's appalling but even the imbeciles who are selling it are swindling themselves a lot of the time.