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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Machine Knows! (Or Does It?)

I recently took a trip that involved a long drive, and during my travels I had an opportunity to employ a GPS (“Global Positioning System”) – you know, one of those devices that uses satellites to track your position and, charting your location on maps with which it is programmed, tells you audibly which way to turn (“In .2 miles, prepare to turn right on Oak Street…Turn Right on Oak Street…Continue 5 miles….”).
During this trip, I learned that a GPS is a remarkably useful device for navigating unfamiliar terrain. However, I also learned firsthand something that I already knew from simply being alive in this culture, something most drivers have known for years now: GPS devices can be unreliable in many situations.

Invariably, there will be places where the road is different than the map programmed into the GPS: either they’ve built a new road or there’s construction going on or there’s a traffic jam that just makes you want to go straight instead of turning (or vice versa), etc.. In those cases, you have to ignore the directions the GPS is telling you, make the moves that the situation demands, and let the device recalculate the route – unless, of course, you want to drive into an unpleasant situation.
I’m reminded of the mildly amusing scene from the American version of the sitcom The Office in which Michael Scott blindly obeys his GPS and turns right…into a lake…because “The machine knows!” (Link here. Sorry for the poor video quality: it’s all I could find)

There’s a lesson in all of this: the GPS is useful, but it sure as hell doesn’t beat paying attention to the road.
If it’s not obvious where I’m going with this, I’ll note that driving a car is one of my favorite metaphors for carrying out the True Will: navigating through life and trying to stay on one’s path even when passing through unfamiliar territory. As with driving a car, one is aided in carrying out the True Will by paying attention to reality (keeping one’s eyes on the road). Now, glancing away from the road for a moment or two, of course, usually causes no problems. But the longer one keeps one’s eyes and attention focused on something else, the greater the chances of catastrophe.

And as with driving, there are tools that can help assist with the accomplishment of one’s True Will. Chief among these tools is the conscious mind. However, like a GPS, the conscious mind can easily lead one astray if one blindly follows the call of the “machine”

Read on for more details.

The True Will, as Thelemic commentators have noted numerous times, can be found in any moment, and, it comprises one’s natural inclinations in a situation – one’s authentic reaction to reality – that can be observed when one stills the mind and its distorting influences. (The appearance of these facts in the works of Aleister Crowley can be studied here)
Yet a number of important decisions that people make are chosen in advance of future situations by the conscious mind: decisions like what career one is going to pursue, how one will spend that week off from work, or even what one will do later that evening.

In such instances – making a decision before one is in the appropriate situation – one is forced to select an option based on what one thinks the True Self will like best. Thus, decision-making is greatly aided by forming a model of the True Will in the conscious mind, yet it is vital that this model be recognized as highly tentative, a model that one must constantly test against reality.
As Erwin Hessle puts it in his classic essay Fundamentals of Thelemic Practice:

The role of the mind must be carefully understood in this practice. It is necessary, as we have said, for the mind to be made aware of the preferences of the self — of the will — but not in order for us to ‘know what to do’. The will is always made apparent by paying attention to it instead of paying attention to the mind. The purpose in making the mind aware of the will is not to enable the mind to make a representation of that will in order to guide us in action. Instead, the purpose is to enable the mind to assist in the fulfillment of will.


Even if the mind can be made fully aware of the will, the will is a highly dynamic quality, and if one attends to the mind's representation of the will instead of to the will itself one will find that representation becoming rapidly out-of-date. Again, the mind must become capable of consciously formulating or representing the will, but not in order that one can ‘know what to do’; the mind is there to help one know how to do it.

To use a simple example, when deciding how one should spend one’s vacation week, it is immensely useful to know that one’s True Self usually enjoys spending time at a beach or going camping or visiting old ruins or whatever.
Of course, as Erwin notes, such a conscious formulation of the will is, at best, tentative and meant to aid the conscious mind in assisting the will, *not* in telling the Self what it “should” be doing. Observing the Self and inferring that it likes going to the beach and then, on that basis, arranging a beach trip is all well and good, but without the crucial step of then observing the Self while at the beach and determining whether the Self actually still enjoys it one is just blindly trusting the mind, blindly turning right without bothering to look and see if the road is actually clear.

Since we have said that the True Will comprises the preferences of the True Self, and since one can select actions in line with those preferences, there may be, at any given time, a number of actions that may be consistent with one’s True Will. Notwithstanding Crowley’s comment in the introduction to Liber AL, that “only one act is lawful for each one of us at any given moment,” there is no a priori reason to assume that the Will must always be consistent with only one action. In any given scenario, there may be a handful of actions in line with the True Will. The function of the conscious mind, then, is to assist the Will in manifesting by placing the Self in one of the situations conducive to its functioning (without the mind “taking over” and deciding to run the show on its own).
An example of this idea appeared recently in the forums of the "Omaha Community of Thelema," an online social group that appears to be for Nebraskans interested in the Law of Thelema (but, judging from the quality of many of the posts, don’t really have a good handle on it yet). I’ve commented on one of the more ridiculous posts on that site once before in my blog (see here). The poster of the example I want to use now is one “Non Serviam,” who – if I’m not mistaken – used to post under the name “Frater Perseverabo” (yikes) and who posted here on Thelema and Skepticism (the post I linked to above), attempting to defend his foolish comments. It seems that this “Perseverabo” has learned a great deal since then, as his posts are consistently the most informed and insightful on the Omaha Community site.
In his post, entitled “True Will is no something that you DO, it's something that you ARE” “Non Serviam” writes:
Let us say I have obtained the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel and have become aware of my Nature (True Will). Let me claim that it is in my nature to take care of the ones I love. I then choose to cook my wife some dinner. I am not foolish enough to claim it is my True Will to cook my wife dinner as that has clear associations with desire, purpose and lust for result. This action is however in accordance to my True Will as I take care of the individuals that I love. True Will is not what I do, Will is what I do. True Will is what I am and once aware of my True Will, my Will, desires and purpose are in accordance to it.
Here, “Non Serviam” is drawing a distinction between will and actions that are consistent with that will.
First, let me point out that the terminology he’s using to explain the distinction is not really clarifying or useful at all. He also seems confused on a some basic points, most notably his weird idea that cooking dinner for one’s wife necessarily involves “lust of result” (more on that term in a future post on Thelema and Skepticism). In fact, the use of such terminology and the labeling of one’s actions “will” or “in line with will” or whatever is completely superfluous once one has decided to do something. The “True Will” model is only useful insofar as it provides a framework for decision-making. As soon as one has done something, one has done something, and the thought that “Here I am, doing my Will!” as one does an action is, at best, extra. It’s just a story to tell yourself so that you feel neat-o about your actions.
But second – and more important – what *is* useful in this post is the observation that one’s will can be defined as the natural inclinations of one’s True Self and that a variety of actions can be *in accord* with that will.
The only danger is in getting caught up in stories that one’s mind likes to tell itself about the Self.
One has to be careful, and another example will illustrate this point. Observing that “I like coffee” is a fine observation to make about the Self, and it’s an observation that’s unlikely to mislead a person into thinking that there is any virtue attached to it. No one’s likely to go around with a puffed out chest saying things like “I’m the kind of person who enjoys coffee! Aren’t I great!”
But “I like cooking dinner for my wife” *can* mislead a person into thinking there’s some virtue in it. “I’m the kind of person who likes cooking dinner for my wife!” one might think. “I’m oh-so romantic and chivalrous, not like those other husbands. That’s why she’s with me and not them. I’m so sensitive and caring.” Thoughts like these might easily lead one into getting caught up in a narrative about the Self and following the demands of the narrative – following the siren call of a GPS voice – rather than bothering to look at the road.
This, then, is the problem with deciding that the True Will is “who you are”: the phrase “who you are” too easily turns into self-righteous fantasy. The True Will is better thought of as a collection of preferences, none of them inherently more important than soemthing like one’s fondness for coffee.
If one has a True Self that has, in the past, liked coffee, then go ahead and make a pot, but be sure to pay attention to the Will, in the moment, as one drinks it. There may well be times when one just feels like dumping out that mug and having orange juice instead.
Similarly, if one has a True Self that has, in the past, liked cooking for one’s wife, then go ahead and plan to make dinner – but be sure to pay attention to the Will, in the moment, as one begins to prepare the meal. There may well be times when one just feels like saying, “Aw, hell, let’s go out to eat tonight” or “Let’s order in and play Cosmic Wimpout and Innovation for the rest of tonight!” In fact, it could be that a person has a will that authentically inclines him to leave his wife. Any of the above actions could be the will (or, under a slightly different labeling, consistent with the will), but these conditions of the “road,” as it were, will be obscured if a person is diligently listening instead to the story that “I like cooking for my wife! That’s Who I Am!” One cannot accurately perceive the will unless one roots out prejudice in thought against any options for action and patiently perceives what’s actually there, what the road actually looks like.
To sum up, one’s conscious mind is a powerful and useful tool that can be pressed into service of the True Self, but one must always be on guard against the assumption that the mind’s representation of the will *is* the will. In sharp contrast to the thought that “the machine know!” the machine, in fact, usually does not “know” the Will and – the conscious mind being the fallible tool it is – one must constantly be vigilant, lest one "fall down into the pit called Because, and there [...] perish with the dogs of Reason."
We might say, inspired by Michael Scott, that the True Will is about fulfilling one’s preferences, whereas the conscious mind is about murdering you in a lake. Here, indeed, the choice is obvious


  1. wow...Cosmic Wimpout...that's a blast from the past!

  2. A friend introduced me to Cosmic Wimpout a few years ago, and I've been enjoying it ever since.

    When I first learned how to play, I had no idea how old it was or that it is associated with Deadheads (though I guess I had no right to be surprised at those facts).

    The best part of the game is coming up with house rules. You can read some sample house rules here: