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

Monday, July 18, 2011


I stumbled across an article written by Donald Michael Kraig on entitled "Cold Fusion, Pseudo-Skepticism, and Magick."
Kraig, for those who don’t know, is probably best known as the author of Modern Magick, which was the first book I read on ceremonial magick when I was a teenager. I recall the book being a good introduction to the subject, and I also recall a handful of incredibly silly and laughable claims made in the book, including the claim that the author saw “astral junk” in the form of a snake leap out of his floor one day while he was watching TV and the claim that the ritual of the rose cross caused the author to avoid getting pulled over by the police for speeding.

Read on for an anlysis of Kraig's approach to evaluating claims and an illustration of where his logic goes wrong, rendering his approach nothing more than a mechanism to assist with self-delusion.
Kraig’s article basically endorses what he calls “real skepticism” while denouncing what he calls “pseudo-skpeticism.” He defines “real skepticism” as follows:
admitting you don’t [know] the reality of something until it is proven. I think this is a positive attitude for magicians to hold. It prevents you from being taking advantage of by either non-physical entities or physical ones. The study and practice of magick keeps you out of cults and not a simple follower of some charismatic leader.
He defines pseudo-skepticism in this way:
The pseudo-skeptics, on the other hand, are archetypal cultists. They have a certain set of beliefs and rather than sending soldiers to defend the faith, they send insult and humiliation. Since scientists value their reputations, they will tend to avoid doing anything that could result in an attack by the pseudo-skeptics. They self-censor. Not trying something because it might cause you problems is the very antithesis of what real magicians do. The path of magick is one of bravery.
So, in other words, real skeptics wait until something is proven before they accept it as true. Pseudo-skeptics have a specific “set of beliefs” – and though Kraig doesn’t say what these beliefs are, it’s safe to assume that he incorrectly assumes materialism to be such a belief (see here for more on that) – and they “insult” anything that doesn’t line up with those beliefs. [And indeed, as an aside, there is another article on the same subject by Kraig, in which he notes that skeptics subscribe to materialism. Once again, it should be noted that materialism is not a belief, as Kraig incorrectly labels it]
Of course, Kraig mistakenly characterizes the people he calls pseudo-skeptics as having a dogmatic, pre-determined set of beliefs, when in fact, these people operate using a model of reality that has consistently demonstrated itself to be true and that has observed so-called magical claims consistently fail to demonstrate themselves.
Kraig then reveals his “real skepticism” to be nothing more than gullibility:
When you do a magick repeatedly and have a positive result most of the time, it both implies that your magick worked and that your magick is real. The failures, rather than being treated as disproving the effectiveness of magick, should be treated as feedback. What did you do that resulted in failure as opposed to when you succeeded?
In the first place, no, having a “positive result most of the time” most certainly does not imply that the magick is real in any way. As explained on this blog – such as in this post here – “results” are often broadly or vaguely defined and reinforced through confirmation bias. What Kraig is saying here is no different than an old lady saying that her prayers to St. Christopher “work” because she finds her lost objects most of the time after she prays, and it is also no different than a silly kid saying he has psychic powers because he very thinks about the very episode of The Simpsons  that airs later that day.
In order to confirm the claims of supernatural “magick,” you would have to test the magick in controlled conditions, which means much more than just making a list of things that strike your mind as “hits.” At the very least, you would have to put safeguards in place to prevent self-deception and cheating, and you’d also have to set up a control group.
But in the second place – and most damningly of all – Kraig is starting from the assumption that the claim he’s investigating is already true. On the basis of this assumption, any failure is regarded as nothing more than an opportunity to invent ad hoc explanations for the failure, thus bolstering the claim in the mind of the adherent. When you approach a subject from this perspective, it’s impossible to apply skepticism properly. Ironically, Kraig commits that fault he charges the people he calls pseudo-skeptics of committing: he holds a pre-determined position prior to investigation.
In other words, if we were to conduct a magical operation to obtain a specific result – and if we defined the result specifically enough to be something definite and rare (say, have the operator scry a word chosen randomly and written on a piece of paper in a house down the street by an impartial third party…repeat this several hundred times) – using Kraig’s model of…er…”real skepticism,” we would have to accept any correct guess of the word as evidence that the magick works, but we would have to explain away any failure (and we may reasonably expect that such an “experiment” would consist almost entirely of failures). Either the mood wasn’t right, or the planets weren’t in alignment, or we just weren’t focused enough on the result, or the presence of skeptics – damn those pseudo-skeptics! – disrupts the magick, or magick requires the emotional oomph of a real need, or magick doesn’t allow itself to be tested by science in the way that any force of nature allows itself to be tested – for some reason that I suppose only magick understands – or  we were operating against the will of the universe – because randomly shutting off our magick when we try to test it is one of those wacky, happy-go-lucky things that universes sometimes do – etc., etc.
One is reminded of Uri Geller’s astounding failure on The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson – who used to practice stage magic and who had suspicions that Geller’s “powers” were nothing more than stage magic tricks – enlisted the help of James Randi, who recommended providing their own props for Geller and not letting him or his people anywhere near those props before the show. Lo and behold, Geller was "not feeling strong" that night, and accused Johnny of making him feel “pressed,” even though he was just asking Geller to demonstrate abilities that he had in the past. These are the kinds of ad hoc excuses used to explain away failures once steps are taken to minimize the chances of deception, intentional or otherwise.
As should be obvious, Kraig’s position is absolute poison to any attempt to apply real skepticism to claims. His position is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to maintain faith in a belief unjustified by reason.

The second article by Kraig on this subject -- Minds Are Like Parachutes -- continues the theme of using a magical diary to provide “evidence":

Keeping a magickal diary (as I discuss in Modern Magick) is more than just journaling. It is a legitimate scientific record of your experiments (rituals, spells, etc.) and the results of your experiments. This is part of what is called the scientific method. It requires what I call “true skepticism.” If you can show that repeated experiments produce the same results, if rituals repeatedly work, your record provides great evidence for the efficacy of magick. If you don’t get good results, your record may indicate where you need to change things to get the desired results. This is basic science.
While there are some magick practitioners who simply assume that anything and everything is caused by their rituals, I would contend that mere chance might have implied a cause and effect when there is none. The magickal record can prove that there is an actual cause and effect between a spell and a result. With magick it’s of great value to be skeptical. It helps to keep you grounded.
No, Mr. Kraig. A record of events that strike your mind as “hits” cannot ever “prove that there is an actual cause and effect between a spell and a result,” especially if you insist on regarding the non-hits as something to be explained away in service to a belief that you dogmatically hold to be true.

The fact that Kraig can misdescribe his superstitious attitude as “real skepticism” is disheartening, but it provides one illustration of how educated and intelligent people can rationalize wacky ideas and maintain a belief in things that they are not rationally justified in accepting.
Incredibly, Kraig asks the right questions:

As magicians we should look at our rituals and rites with a skeptical eye: Is this real? Is it a mere coincidence? Did my ritual cause this to happen or was it just luck? These are legitimate and necessary questions.
With this passage, I agree 100%. However, we need to employ the methods most effective at determining the answers to these questions, and we will find ourselves defeated if we begin by accepting premises that are nothing more than platitudes that assist with the process of self-deception.

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