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

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Profiles in Ignorance 2: Misinterpreting The Book of the Law

The Book of the Law has some significant things to say about reason, and its passages have over the years been completely and totally ripped out of context, misunderstood, and used as justification for constructing extremely gullible New Age worldviews.

This post examines a handful of verses of The Book of the Law, looking at examples of ways that they have been misinterpreted and providing correct interpretations that expose the falsity of the New Age twaddle that the Book is often used to prop up.

Among the most misunderstood verses of The Book of the Law are II:27-33, which state:

27. There is great danger in me; for who doth not understand these runes shall make a great miss. He shall fall down into the pit called Because, and there he shall perish with the dogs of Reason.
28. Now a curse upon Because and his kin!
29. May Because be accursed for ever!
30. If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops & does nought.
31. If Power asks why, then is Power weakness.
32. Also reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown; & all their words are skew-wise.
33. Enough of Because! Be he damned for a dog!

One of the most common misinterpretations of these lines is that they condemn reason as a tool for gaining an understanding of reality. Usually, these false interpretations are bolstered by, and combined with, readings of III:42, which states, in part: “Success is thy proof: argue not; convert not; talk not over much!”
Thelemites often read these passages together to mean something to the effect that reason isn’t the only tool capable of evaluating claims about the world; that there is some other, presumably better, tool for the task and that reason can actually interfere with this other tool if one pays too much attention to the reason; that truth can be ascertained by “what works.” Under this interpretation, a Thelemite would say that if he achieves “success” through a ritual – say, if he does a ritual to attract money and he finds some extra cash in the street later that week – then his “success” is the only “proof” he needs, and he has demonstrated – “to him,” if not to anyone else or to that damned reason – that his magic “works.”

Needless to say, the above paragraph explicates an entirely incorrect reading of these verses of the Book.
Before providing a correct interpretation of these verses, this post will first give a handful of examples of Thelemites – or at least people in the magical community – making errors in thinking consistent with such a misreading. The purpose of these examples will be to demonstrate that the error I am discussing is a common, widely-held misinterpretation and that addressing it is both necessary and useful.
After all, when Thelemites are called out on these issues, their first instinct is to claim that they are being somehow misrepresented. So let us carefully quote from real, live people to demonstrate the frequency of this error:
Our first example comes from Mr. Donald Michael Kraig, who recently made a blog post that quotes AL III:42 before going on to amplify an error he has made before:

[T]o me it has always seemed like there should be some sort of convincer that the ritual you have performed has been a success.
I have found to indicators of ritual success. I call them Delta T and Delta C.
Delta T means a temperature-based change. […]When you experience ΔTie during a ritual, it becomes hotter.
Delta C means a chronological or time-based change. […]When you experience ΔCe during a ritual, time seems to extend.
Read here for an explanation of how Kraig’s position is confirmation bias. The problem with the above position is that it provides no means for determining whether the operation worked: it merely adds another set of subjectively-interpreted phenomena for the brain to operate on and produce confirmation bias.
Obviously, before one can decide that an operation has been a “success,” one must have a way of determining that it actually did work or accomplish something. The Book doesn’t say, “Randomly assuming that an operation is a success, based on confirmation bias and the purely subjective feeling of getting hot when you do a ritual, is your only proof.”
A similar example cropped up in a discussion thread, where one “Frater Shiva” – former member of The Solar Lodge and author of a book about the experience – claimed to be able to alter the weather, since he had done so before in front of spectators:

If I formulate a change in the weather in my mind, against the predictions of the weatherman-woman, usually to make it rain in a dry spell or to stop an ongoing downpour, and then project that thoughtform onto the aethers - and the rain stops or starts as intended, then I would say that it WORKS.

Then the detractors will say, "Random Coincidence! And not even meaningful, except in your mind." And they will use catchwords and catchphrases like, "Confirmation Bias," and "Subjective Conclusion," etc.

And who can debate their position or their cries of subjectivity? Not I.

But, then, what if this change in the weather was pre-announced? If I were to say, "I shall stop this rain!" to more than one objective, external person. And it comes to pass.

"Hmmm!" says the skeptic. "Maybe I better look more closely at this happening so that I can analyze it."

Or maybe it comes to pass on [at least] seven separate occasions that the rain is stopped or started, in full perception by external, pre-warned, individuals?
Obviously, as I went on to point out to the dear Frater, this example demonstrates nothing more than the fact that the “magician” is good at (perhaps unconsciously) picking up on weather cues from the environment. Any serious study into the matter, by means of double-blind testing, would immediately reveal that there is no connection between this kind of rain dance magic and weather patterns.
In response to my relevant question, “why can no one demonstrate these abilities consistently to statistically significant results?” Shiva quoted my question, bolded the “why” and then predictably quoted:

". If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops & does nought." and
"Also reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown; & all their words are skew-wise.
Enough of Because! Be he damned for a dog!"
Of course, Shiva went on to try to give lame excuses for why people who supposedly have such superpowers assiduously avoid participating in tests that would eliminate the possibility of self-delusion. The fact that he did attempt to answer the question suggests that even he does not agree with the interpretation of those verses that is implied by the context of his quotation.

A similar dismissal of reason is found in a post by Kyle Fyte, artist and Typhonian practitioner, who, in a discussion said the following:

The use of logic (er...wasn't "reason" to be "damned for a dog?") to demonstrate absolutist statements [is "passe and tiresome"].
Reason is further dismissed in the following old thread in which a resident buffoon says, in reference to his misunderstanding of Godel’s incompleteness theorems:

[With regards to reason,] self-contradiction certainly seems the name of the game, but the bottom line is that Reason may always be, ultimately, governed by the law of bullshit. […]Reason is always, perhaps, ultimately bullshit.
On the Temple of Thelema forums, one poster quotes AL II:27-29 and goes on to provide the following:

That there is danger of misunderstanding through the Intellect is a reasonable extrapolation of the above passage.
Obviously, when one attempts to comprehend something, there is a danger of misunderstanding, just as when one attempts to lift something, there is a danger of being too weak to lift it. But the implication in the above commentary is that there is some method of acquiring knowledge other than the intellect, which is simply false.
As a necessary aside, some people appeal to the difference between knowledge and Understanding, whereby knowledge is attributed to the Ruach and the intellect while Understanding is attributed to the supernal triad (specifically Binah). Indeed, the two terms are different. However, when we are talking about evaluating claims about the world – including claims such as “Reincarnation happens” or “Spirits are real” or “My ritual worked” – then we are absolutely in the realm of the intellect and subject to all the rules of reason and the necessity of scepticism.
Amusingly, the poster in the above thread goes on to draw a rational conclusion about a verse in the Book, but presents it as an “intuitive leap,” thus attempting to conceal the fact that he uses reason to reach conclusions.

All conclusions – by definition – are rational constructs. Conclusions are reached either by a correct application of reason or an incorrect application of reason – if one reaches conclusions without using reason at all, then they are completely random and no one – including the poor sod making the “intuitive leap” – has any justification for thinking that they are true.
Would-be Thelemites are often quick to improperly use reason – such as, for example, committing errors of confirmation bias – and then deliberately overlook their errors (and, in fact, actively protest against any attempts to analyse their errors) on the grounds that reason is “flawed.”
Obviously, even the conclusion “reason is flawed” must, necessarily, be reached through an application of reason, which invalidates the conclusion.
Another example of the above position comes from Michael Staley, who is presumably the current head of the Typhonian Order:

Rationalism is indispensible in daily living; however, magical and mystical experience reaches beyond the rational. That doesn't mean that one has to accept things indiscriminately; it does mean, though, that one doesn't discard experience on the grounds that it is not rational. It's not an either/or situation; both logic and intuition are necessary to me.
As Erwin Hessle points out on his blog, this post is an example of what Stephen Jay Gould called the “non-overlapping magisteria” of religion and science, applied to the field of occultism. To put it simply, this is an idea that science (understood broadly as all forms of evidence-based inquiry, not merely formal science) and religion each have their own separate spheres that don’t overlap: science deals with physical things, religion deals with spiritual things, and never the twain shall meet.
Staley is advocating a version of this position for occultism: reason is all fine and good for most things, he is basically saying, but when it comes to this particular group of claims that he’s arbitrarily selecting, reason all of a sudden becomes ineffective and some other tool becomes better suited for the task.
It’s the old practice of keeping two sets of books. Religious types (including occultists) are all in favor of using reason to evaluate 99.9% of all claims about the world they come across in their daily life, but when they encounter those handful of claims about the world that they want to be true – such as, “My operation to attract money to me *worked*! After all, it got all hot when I did the ritual…and then I found money! Success!” – reason suddenly becomes not good enough.
It’s called compartmentalizing one’s mind. Those interested in having a consistent worldview – and all people who desire to believe as many true claims and as few false claims as possible need to be interested in that – must avoid doing this at all costs.

Here are two other quotes from, this one from a thread discussing knowledge:

"I believe" that TBOTL wishes for reason to be transcended as an evolutionary identification with all. Therefore reason sometimes when indulged in to excess for it's own sake alone runs contrary to my will.

And this one from a thread about synchronicity:

For those of you who call yourselves thelemites yet still believe reason to be truth, when the Book of the Law clearly states: "...reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown." I ask of you this question: Do you believe their was anything mystical about the 'Stele of Revealing' being inventory 666 of the Bulaq Museum on that fateful March afternoon?
This last comment was made by a rank beginner, and thus the comments that I have reproduced in this post come both from those new to Thelema and those who have spent much time in the world of magick (if not explicitly Thelema).
There are many more quotes that I have collected, spanning many years, that demonstrate Thelemites condemning reason in favor of a misguided understanding of “intuition” or “experience,” based on an incorrect reading of Liber AL. However, I will spare my readers the task of wading through this voluminous material that basically drives home the point that has already been made.
There is only one more quote I wish to add to the list, and it is one that has been brought up on this blog before. Fr. Perseverabo, mentioned in the Wild Ghost Chase post, wrote in a thread on the Omaha Community of Thelema about evaluating the claim that a ritual had caused someone’s iPhone toy “ghost radar” to stop detecting ghosts:

Thats the kind of documentation that's needed. What the things were is not really important, nor where they went, it was the will of 'moving' them. It seems to have worked would agree. Sure it's not a laboratory test and reason and why will punch wholes in the theory, but remember what 'why' does... it stops progress.
The clear implication of these words is that “why” – which is a synecdoche for reason, as it attempts to discover explanations for phenomena – will find flaws in the ghost story of the Omaha Community thread, but this same “why” is limited and “stops progress.” The strongly implied conclusion is that attempting to discover what is really going on (by means of the reason) is an impediment to “progress.”
In fact, if we take a step back, we can see that all of the quotes that I’ve reproduced have been at least implying this idea: that actually investigating things and attempting to figure out what’s really going on, as opposed to how things subjectively feel, is an obstacle to spiritual attainment.
The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite.
The Book of the Law in AL II: 27-29 isn’t saying that one should avoid using reason to evaluate factual claims about the universe.
In context, the verses are very clearly talking about discovering and performing one’s will, not at all about evaluating claims. Crowley’s commentary to these verses affirms this reading.
Most damningly for would-be Thelemites, Crowley explicitly says that not only is the Book of the Law not opposed to reason, he says that reason should rule the mind with an iron fist:

We must not suppose for an instant that the Book of the Law is opposed to reason. On the contrary, its own claim to authority rests upon reason, and nothing else. It disdains the arts of the orator. It makes reason the autocrat of the mind.
An autocrat is defined as “one who rules with unlimited power,” and it is often grouped with words like “tyrant” and “dictator.” Crowley is saying that The Book of the Law is saying that reason should be given absolute power over the mind.
That’s so important that I think I’ll repeat it: Crowley, the self-proclaimed “prophet” of Liber AL is explicitly saying in his most well-known commentary to Liber AL, in explicit language that is echoed across the comment to other verses, that reason should be given absolute power over the mind.
Indeed, such a position squares well with the Thelemic model of the self, derived from The Book of the Law (and explicated here, among other places): the mind, along with the body, are two “veils” the Khu casts over the true self. They work perfectly well within their spheres of activity, but they produce dis-ease when they try to overstep that boundary by telling the self what it *should* be doing. The mind, whose function is to evaluate and interpret the world, needs to be trained in the use of reason and skepticism – but its role is not to tell the self what it should be doing.
The Will – the dynamic aspect of the True Self – is where action should come from, according to Thelema. It is in this sense that the Will “transcends” reason. When the subject is evaluating claims about the world – such as, for example, whether a magical operation “worked” – one cannot “transcend” reason in order to evaluate the claim because the very process of evaluating is a rational one.
Far from being an obstacle to spiritual attainment, figuring out what’s really going on – which is a function of the reason and only the reason – is the only way to achieve spiritual attainment. We may describe attainment as the gradually increasingly accurate perception of things as they are (and “things,” of course, naturally includes the True Will and ways that the reason – in the form of “because” – distracts from that will).
One who falsely believes himself to have “transcended” reason is likely to get caught in the trap of reason and fall right into the pit of Because.
One who says, for example, “I know that my ritual *caused* that other event to occur because I did X and got Y result!” is precisely falling into the pit of Because.
Further, one who decides, “I should act in such-and-such a way because that’s how a good Thelemite should act” is also falling into the pit of Because, allowing a rational “should” statement dictate his actions (rather than being skeptical about such statements and instead perceiving and acting on his true nature).
We can see now that the often-misinterpreted verses of the Book aren’t telling Thelemites *not* to use reason. They are commanding Thelemites to employ reason in order to detect and guard against the ways in which reason – in the form of “because” – restricts and limits the will, and it limits the will both by suggesting “better” courses of action based on arbitrary standards and by interpreting the world falsely.
We can see now that one way to read the “great miss” spoken of in The Book of the Law is the mistaken interpretation that the Book condemns reason as a tool for evaluating claims. In fact, we can say that people who interpret the Book in this way and following the dictates of their thoughts will be missing reality, for they will be perceiving the contents of their minds and not the real world. They have made a “great miss” both by missing the meaning of the words of the text and by missing the world that is right in front of their noses.
Further Reading: Erwin Hessle, as part of his Liber AL study guide, has a full, detailed reading of the verses here:
And he also explains the dangers that these verses are advising against – and practical methods for following the Book’s injunctions – here:

1 comment:

  1. This is brilliant. It's not only surly, teenage emo, "witches" who flock together with, "like minded" individuals in a social bubble of unreality but it is seasoned, sophisticated heads of Magical Orders who fall into that pit also. It's laughable. Both groups proceed to kid themselves that they are somehow different and special from, "the people" as they can somehow mold events with their candle prayers and the like.

    Fantasists, one and all.