Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: EPOCH – Part 1

Over the last several months I learned that I shouldn’t declare the subject of my next post in advance. This constitutes an important lesson, for if I had not promised to review EPOCH, I likely would have a few more posts up by now on other subjects. I imagined a simple and quickly written essay, as I read the book excitedly in only three days when it came out, but it turned out that I needed to put some time between readings in order to get the most out of them and in the meantime I’ve been introduced to sources of information that have subtly changed the way I see certain issues that will prove useful when I finish the review. As I want to get back to writing about other things (and because the first part got lengthy), I’ve decided to break the review up into two or three parts (probably three). However, I won’t write these back-to-back, as I want to actually work with the material in the book before saying more. I could crank out a cursory examination and critique from a theoretical stance, but I feel a practitioner’s point-of-view will cover more ground with more insight and ultimately seem more useful to others. Accordingly, this first part deals with only the first couple chapters – the theory sections. I make no promises as to when I’ll write the later parts.

Another interesting thing happened in the last few months – Scott Alexander created a rather interesting map of the rationalist community and included this blog as tangentially related, setting it specifically in the category of “postrationality”. This has led to a lot of discussion about what “postrationality” means. The best explanation so far comes from Darcey Riley on her blog Yearly Cider, and I suggest people look there for clarification. I agree with her take on postrationality so far and have no objections to accepting the label for myself. To me, it seems like the combination of reason and intuition, science and religion, that I normally assume as the default in magick. I have my own thoughts on the matter, of course, and will likely write about them eventually, but I want to wait for the idea to develop more fully first.

A large increase in readership has resulted as a consequence of this blog’s inclusion on the map of the rationality movement, many of whom I must assume count themselves as rationalists. I had always planned to write for an intellectual audience, but now I wonder about framing discussions of magick in a way that doesn’t set off rationalist alarm bells. Fortunately, this particular segment of the rationalist community seems rather different from some others; many of them have read Robert Anton Wilson and Aleister Crowley, and some practice sigil magick and/or tulpamancy (a practice that looks quite similar to servitor creation from Chaos magick, among other things). They even anthropomorphize emergent structures as various gods, although I think they do so sloppily and will have to discuss this in the later posts in this series.

So, it seems appropriate that my first post to overtly discuss magick concerns Chaos magick, of a type that appeals most strongly to atheists, materialists, and skeptics, as it provides an explanation of magick beyond mere psychological effects, one which the scientifically minded should find acceptable, so long as they remain open to such an explanation. Not everyone will agree. There exist pseudo-skeptics out there that stop thinking upon hearing the word “magick”, not realizing that magick does not mean “impossible miracles” or “fantastical nonsense” or even “mysterious”; such things do occur in the lore, but act more as distractions than definitions. Nor does it represent a word devoid of meaning which one can conveniently fill with a meaning of one’s choice. It instead refers to a historically persistent and culturally universal set of ideas and practices that has connections with, and relevance to, pretty much all of human experience.

There exist also other types of Chaos magickians that don’t like Carroll’s ideas past his first book, thinking them too rational and preferring instead what appears to me as possibly insane absurdist solipsism. I don’t have an answer for them. In the possible range of human interests, some people prefer art to science or vice-versa; as a postrationalist, I prefer somewhere in the middle with a moderate bias towards science. I suspect Carroll does too, which explains why I like his writing (even when I disagree) and I think many rationalists will as well.

As usual with my book reviews, I intend to summarize the text in some detail and provide commentary in the process. This will make the review rather long. You can find an excellent and more traditional book review here.

On with the review…


Peter J. Carroll wrote the Esotericon & Portals of Chaos (EPOCH) as his 6th book, this time in collaboration with Matt Kaybryn, who did the artwork for the accompanying Portals of Chaos card deck. For those who don’t know, Carroll previously authored Liber Null & Psychonaut, Liber Kaos, Psybermagick, The Apophenion, and The Octavo. He gained renown in occult circles with the release of Liber Null, for which many call him the ‘father’ of Chaos magic, and he writes with an exceptionally clear and concise manner that leaves one wondering how so few words can contain much so meaning, making anything he writes rather difficult to summarize.

From Psybermagick on, Carroll avoids using forms of the verb ‘to be’, employing E-prime to increase clarity and condense meaning further. I adopt this style in homage for this review, even though it slows down my writing process somewhat and results in some awkward constructions. Although using Aleister Crowley’s spelling of “magick” in Psybermagick, all of Carroll’s other writings use the spelling “magic” (which I also use for this review, despite my usual preference), and his disdain for Crowley’s philosophy becomes clear in the EPOCH.

While Liber Null consists of the stripped down basics of magical techniques, constituting the beginning instructions of Chaos magic, Liber Kaos presents a brand-new magical theory, one designed for a rational, scientific, and atheistic worldview based on equations for how magic manipulates probability. Psybermagick extends Chaos Magic Theory (CMT) and provides numerous other challenging ideas in multiple subjects. The Apophenion, among other things, introduces the idea of Apophenia, that moment of realization when one finds meaning in a seemingly random pattern, and proposes turning it into a goddess and invoking her directly to produce epiphanies. The Octavo contains mostly physics and gives equations describing a universe where not only does magic work, but it requires magic to function at all. From Liber Kaos on, Carroll has elaborated on CMT, along with his alternative cosmological theory that he now calls Vorticitating Hypersphere Cosmology (VHC), both of which currently find their most elaborate expression in The Octavo, with continuing updates on his blog. Thus far, all of Carroll’s books have built upon his previous works, and the EPOCH doesn’t differ in this regard, but in other respects it represents a very different type of book, accessible to those not thoroughly familiar with his earlier ideas and concerned mostly with the concepts graphically suggested in the card deck.

With superb production quality, the hardbound over-sized book has over 200 thick, full-color, photo-quality pages. The pictures of the Portals of Chaos deck appear full-size in the book, and only slightly less shiny than the cards. Because of its odd size (9” tall and 10.5” wide), large number of large pictures, tons of blank space, and up to three columns of small font text per page, determining the actual ‘length’ of the book seems difficult. It feels longer than Carroll’s earlier works, but didn’t seem to take longer to read. It made me wish for the expression of book length in word count instead of pages.

The 54 cards have the same large size (9” (22.9cm) by 5.69” (14.4cm)) as the pictures in the book, but the borders on the cards render their pictures somewhat smaller (7.69” (19.5cm) by 4.69” (11.9cm)).  Having the cards so large makes them kind of flimsy, and thicker cardstock would likely improve them, but their intended use in ritual as altar pieces, rather than as divination tools, makes their thinness a non-issue.

The EPOCH contains three grimoires (one each for elemental, planetary, and stellar magic), although only the grimoire of stellar magic, a manifestation of the Necronomicon, appears in classical grimoiric form with implements to construct and explicit rituals to perform to conjure a set of entities. The other two grimoires seem less robust in comparison, presenting only the entities for the elements and planets, and mostly leaving the mage to figure out what to do with them while giving sparse suggestions. This actually seems appropriate though, as the forces dealt with move from simple and general to complex and specific to complex and general, requiring greater detail towards the end. Subsequent parts of this review will cover the grimoire chapters themselves, but first comes the rationale for them.

Chapter 1

This introduction to the whole work provides a sweeping overview of the history of magic in the western world, justifying the ideas to follow and setting them in a historical context. Nothing here will appear new or mind-blowing to anyone who has kept up with the history of magic for the last couple decades, but it does tell the story with Carroll’s characteristic flair and brevity. Beginning with the era of the Greek Magical Papyri, when a great synthesis of magical ideas occurred in the cosmopolitan world of the late Roman Empire, Carroll traces the development of what he calls Platonic Pagan Monotheism (PPM) from Greek philosophy on through Neoplatonism and Christianity. The main idea in PPM consists of the perfect existence of The One, which gets equated with God, and from which depend all the various gods and spirits as aspects or emanations. Up until rather recently, all western occultism derived from this system, including Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Kabala, all of which developed in the first few centuries of the common era in the crucible of ideas mixing Platonism, monotheism, and paganism.

Carroll emphasizes that the utility of paganism, with its multiple and diverse deities providing better handles for dealing with the complexities of human psychology, ensured that it could never suffer extinction. Monotheism imposes a vision of a single self, judged by a single god and suggesting a ‘unified’ and ‘stable’ singular personality as an unquestioned good. Paganism gives us a more realistic picture of our psychology, one where we can have conflicting motivations, ideas, and emotions and seek different types of experiences for different ‘selves’. The idea of the personal multimind has remained a constant of Carroll’s ideas since Liber Kaos, and finds expression in the work of modern psychology and cognitive science as well. As a result of its utility, paganism got incorporated into the esoteric systems that developed, and even Christianity adopted its methods with the proliferation of saints and icons to take the place of the pagan gods.

The preservation of ancient magic and philosophy by Muslims during the dark ages comes next, with mentions of the Picatrix and other medieval grimoires, up until the fall of Byzantium sends ancient texts westward and inaugurates the Renaissance. Christian Cabbalah emerges at this time from the intersection of Christianity with Kabala and Hermeticism. Carroll says that this time period led to our stereotype of the scholarly wizard searching through old dusty texts, although it seems to me that this image should have also existed in the time of the library of Alexandria.

The Enlightenment, initiating the beginnings of modern science and the industrial revolution, marks the onset of the age of reason and the decline of religious worldviews. Notably, the work of Newton, despite his intense devotion to esoteric studies, showed that the world could work mechanistically without any god perpetually tinkering with it, while Darwin realized that creatures didn’t get designed ex nihilo by some benevolent creator, but evolve through random and harsh circumstances. The world appeared disenchanted, and so, spurred by colonial expansion encountering interesting religious cultures and the backlash of Romanticism to industrialism, a new esoteric revival seemed assured.

Sure enough, the magical revival of the late 19th century manifested and found its most enduring expression in the work of Samuel Liddel Mathers, who cobbled together various streams of esoteric thought into what we now call the Golden Dawn system of magic. Using Kabala as a framework, and inspired by ancient mystery traditions, Mathers synthesized vast amounts of occult lore into a debatably coherent and somewhat cohesive structure combining Tarot, Astrology, Geomancy, Paganism, Monotheism, Spiritualism, Freemasonry, and Dr. John Dee’s Enochian magical system.

Although virtually all Western magical traditions today owe a great debt to Mathers’ influence, the system he devised remained built upon the PPM model. The combination of an abstract monotheism with a loose mythological polytheism had great appeal to the nominally religious Victorians worried about the clash between pastoral Romanticism and soul-crushing industrialism.

In contrast to the praise Carroll gives to Mathers, he has little other than mockery for Aleister Crowley. Although crediting Crowley with adding sex and drugs to the collection of magical techniques, Carroll accuses him of creating a type of neo-satanism by inverting a few ideas. So instead of the doctrine of Original Sin, Crowley gives us the doctrine of the True Will, and instead of self-sacrifice he recommends self-indulgence. For the dying god in the form of Christ, Crowley enthrones the “Crowned and Conquering Spoiled Brat of the Aeon of Horus.” Carroll will have more to say on these points later on in the book.

But science kept progressing, revealing the universe as an unimaginably huge and uncaring place wherein our planet, civilizations, and individuals had no cosmic significance. The PPM model of the all-perfect Unity/God descending through successive emanations into material manifestation looked increasingly naïve. As the atheist trends in Western societies grew more popular, religious functions got replaced by sciences, and gods (when people thought of them at all) came to symbolize psychological structures in the mind and sources of moralistic myths. For over 2000 years, people thought spirit controlled and formed matter, but now it appeared to happen in reverse, with matter giving rise to mind and/or spirit.

Yet, replacing God with Man, as Crowley attempted, seemed unsatisfactory. Science revealed the sheer horror of our fragility on our little ball of life in the mostly empty and extremely hostile vacuum of space. Humans appeared as puny inconsequential creatures, and if we wanted to find superior intelligences it seemed best to look towards the stars. And so, with humanity transfixed by the potentially awesome and likely dangerous inhuman beings on other worlds, H.P. Lovecraft began writing science fiction mixed with horror.

The Elder Gods that Lovecraft came up with possess knowledge and powers which could prove hazardous to humans. Carroll lists these as: “Direct power over the mind and the brain itself, power over the core processes of biology, the power of creating life and physical immortality, the understanding of the strange and secret geometries of the universe at both the cosmic and quantum levels, and the power to manipulate them, the powers of chaos and of creation itself.” Whereas for Lovecraft these ideas constitute “Things Which We Should Not Know”, that kind of tease has always motivated magicians to investigation. Thus, Carroll proposes using the Elder Gods as imaginary stand-ins and psychic anchors for accessing alien knowledge that almost certainly exists somewhere in the universe. Adding only slightly to CMT, he suggests that information leaks weakly across space-time in a non-local manner. By invoking gods and elder gods, humans create psychic links to information that allows for interaction in a personable manner with otherwise abstract concepts – as has been done since the days of unadulterated animism and shamanism.

In answer to the Fermi Paradox (with alien civilizations so probable, why don’t we see any?) Carroll contends that interstellar travel seems either impossible or else so resource intensive that civilizations see it as unprofitable. Alternatively, perhaps an interstellar civilization has access to an unimaginably great energy source, and if so, it would seem very unlikely that they would find us or our planet of any interest at all. Even if they did investigate us, they would undoubtedly have the ability to avoid detection.

Carroll names the emerging metaphysical theory Quantum Neo-Pagan, in contradistinction to the PPM. Keep in mind that, unlike many New Age authors who use “quantum” to mean something like ‘mysterious’ in order to give their ramblings the appearance of scientific credibility, Carroll usually does nothing of the sort. The amount of physics and math in his earlier books has deterred many a would-be Chaos magician, and the math in the EPOCH seems surprisingly sparse in comparison. Nonetheless, although he does base CMT on quantum mechanics and usually uses the word accurately, in this case with QNP he does appear to use “quantum” somewhat colloquially. Don’t let that fool you, however, into thinking he means anything like the nonsense New Age gurus mean by it (if you can figure out what they mean at all).

The main difference in the QNP model lies in replacing the ‘ultimate oneness’ at the top of the PPM model with a multitude of imaginary extraterrestrial Elder Gods who act as repositories for whatever actual alien intelligences in the universe that possess the forbidden knowledge we desire. The Kabalistic Tree of Life, for the last couple centuries, has served as the symbolic map for PPM, showing the descent of The One down through the celestial spheres culminating in the physical world. To reconcile the need for a symbolic map fitting the QNP model, Carroll will present a new glyph in the next chapter – the Chaobala.

(Get used to quirky naming conventions within Chaos magic. Carroll doesn’t call it ‘E-prime’, for instance, but ‘V-prime’ for vernacular prime, and eventually ‘Chaos Prime’ which also substitutes ‘we’ for ‘I’ in accordance with the multimind idea. Discordianism has had an important influence on Chaos magic as well.)

Lastly in chapter 1, Carroll summarizes the three grimoires:

Elemental Magic. The Realm of the Elements, The Circle of ‘Imaginary Forces’
Here lie earth, air, fire, water, and aether, as archetypes of the physical forces and associated ‘spirits’ and servitors, the humoral personality traits and abilities, and the five basic magical operations of enchantment, divination, evocation, invocation and illumination.
Planetary Magic. The Realm of the Gods, The Sphere of ‘Imaginary Allies’
Here lie the eight, rather than seven, ‘planetary’ archetypes or archons where each of these god-forms represents one of the core emotive driving forces of the human psyche, and which create the human condition.
Stellar Magic. The Realm of the Elder Gods, The Hypersphere of ‘Imaginary Adversaries’
Here lie the archetypes of the higher knowledge and powers to which elements of humanity and many magicians aspire, despite the dangers they also bring with them.”

Chapter 2

Perhaps because the book concerns (and comes with) a deck of cards, Carroll begins chapter 2 with a brief history of tarot. Without any surprises, he tells the standard history of tarot arising as a card game in the 14th century, getting adopted by fortune-tellers, misinterpreted as ancient Egyptian wisdom until hieroglyphics got deciphered, and finally acquiring esoteric associations with the Hebrew alphabet and Kabbalah in the 19th century. When he asserts that the tarot trumps have no underlying scheme, consisting of essentially random images, it makes me wonder if he has not read Paul Huson’s excellent Mystical Origins of the Tarot, which gives a compelling argument that the trumps derive from well-known symbols and characters appearing in medieval Catholic mystery plays used to teach Christian mythology to a mostly illiterate society.

A good point gets made that the symbolic system occultists historically embedded in tarot by layering limited symbol sets one upon another yields a tarot that seems bloated and vague. Yet instead of suggesting an expanded tarot without  a 78 card restriction, the text switches to discussing the 54-card Portals of Chaos deck, which seems a little odd because aside from both consisting of “cards with pictures on them used by magicians”, they have little, if anything, in common with each other. Rather, the Portals deck consists of a pictorial collection of entities suitable for evocation and invocation, with only minor application to other types of workings. In contrast, the tarot, while useful in other types of magic, seems optimized for divination.

Next, Carroll gives a quick explanation of the advice to “Enchant Long and Divine Short”, talking about the exploitation of the indeterminacy that builds over time, and in particular citing the extraordinary difficulty of magic such that a 20% success rate with enchantment constitutes a useful skill, while 20% success rate in divination would lead to plenty of errors if acted on. He notes, however, that most diviners don’t do straight prediction so much as lateral thinking based off of the randomized symbols used in the divination. At this point, readers unfamiliar with Carroll’s theories might scratch their heads, as he talks about how “they may get a flash of certainty when intuiting an unexpectedly high probability sending a signal back from the future” which refers to his theory of three-dimensional time.

The discussion of divination transitions to a more detailed analysis of evocation and invocation by telling the reader that dealing with the cards as representations of god-forms for working with should come before divining or enchanting with them. Invocation consists of ritual procedures done with the goal of getting possessed by an entity, while evocation seeks only communication with, or command of, an entity. Such practices exist all over the world, and though magicians argue about the reality of the gods and spirits involved and how it all works, the techniques and expected outcomes remain the same. So while most religious systems and many modern day non-chaos magicians treat spirits as objectively real beings, Carroll says that most Chaos magicians believe that invocation involves “calling forth” hidden parts of our subconscious and that evocation involves creating an “imaginary friend by controlled schizophrenia using ritual procedures which, as in Invocation, provide protection against madness by using deliberate procedures of calling and banishing.” As such, its grounding in the psychological paradigm goes a long way towards appeasing atheists who might otherwise balk at the idea of conjuring spirits.

Religions tend to stick to evocation for communication in the form of prayer in order to connect with their god-form and receive its inspiration and influence, while often prohibiting invocation to possession and evocation for command because these tend to disrupt established hierarchies by producing novel revelations and power asymmetries. I suspect that a lot of the fracturing currently seen in Pagan and magical communities comes from the popularization of the techniques that generate new ideas and individualized traditions, but I don’t see this as a bad thing, merely a proliferation to refill a void, much like the explosions of biological diversity following mass extinctions. Eventually, I expect memetic processes to lead to the settling out of major systems and institutions will get built around them to handle the full range of personal revelations – hopefully.

Next come basic instructions on the use of the three grimoires. Magicians should work with the elemental cards by invocation and evocation, but only evocation for the simple elemental spirits (sylphs, salamanders, undines, gnomes, and sprites). This echoes the traditional advice, one doesn’t want to let a simplistic ‘lesser’ spirit possess them, likewise with gods or spirits with significantly negative traits. One should invoke the eight major planetary gods as they represent the basic selves of the integrated human personality and the magician seeks to let them all express themselves to gain psychological health. The bi-planetary gods in the system one can approach by invocation if one considers their traits desirable, or by evocation to gain allies (which Carroll here calls “daemons” as differentiated from “demons” which seem malicious and cause harm, consisting of malfunctioning psychological modules in his view). Dealing with the Elder Gods can easily produce demons and/or madness, and the magician should have a thoroughly integrated personality established by working with the planetary gods before considering encounters with the Elder Gods. This warning sees much repetition throughout the text, with the preparatory work analogized as building “sanity points”.

A short interlude follows with general advice on divination, particularly cartomancy. This almost seems obligatory simply due to having a deck of cards, even though their size makes sortilege awkward and they don’t seem particularly suited to divination. One suggestion in this section stands out to me – the idea that divining the state of knowledge of yourself in the future provides a ready magical link, because presumably you have a natural link with your future self.

At last we reach the presentation of the Chaobala, Carroll’s symbolic superstructure for arranging the forces and deities represented in the Portals of Chaos deck and meant as an analogous replacement for the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. In brief, at one end we find the five elements representing a simple break down of our physical reality on earth, and at the other end five Elder Gods who represent dangerous knowledge and various transhuman and alien ideas. Between the two lies the “Octaris Mindstar”, a fully interconnected octagon suggesting a complex psychological model of combinations of the eight basic selves. The division seems like a natural one into world, self, and other. Between the three realms lie two transition spheres: Baphomet, representing the life of the biosphere or the World Soul lies between the elements and the psyche, and Nyarlathotep, who acts as the emissary of the Elder Gods.  Although Carroll says that the diagram resembles a neural network rather than a tree, with the magician capable of starting anywhere not just “the bottom”, the direction of ascent remains as clear to me as in the Tree of Life – Earth, Planets, Stars. Indeed, he says that rarely does a magician start off with the Elder Gods, and I imagine if one did so it would produce similar results to a program of Qabalistic magic that began with an attempt to cross the abyss at Da’ath.

Carroll makes a couple errors in this section. He calls the popular Hermetic version of the Tree of Life “the Naples arrangement”, attributing it to the Golden Dawn, when actually the ‘Naples arrangement’ refers to Crowley’s sort-of-dimensional correspondences for the Sephiroth on the Tree that he came up with while in Naples – descending from the top as in the PPM model: point, line, plane, solid, motion/time, consciousness, Ananda (Bliss), Chit (Thought), Sat (Being), and fulfillment. “The Kircher Tree” refers to the popular form of the Tree of Life used in modern Hermetic Qabalah since the 17th century. Additionally, the statement “There is no part of me which is not of the gods.” did not originate with Crowley. He got it from Mathers, who got it from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The description of the elemental and stellar pentagrams in the Chaobala mentions “secondary spheres” between the major ones, presumably much like in the central portion with the bi-planetary gods, but these oddly don’t actually appear in the diagram. One must imagine that the text refers to an early version of the glyph where the secondary spheres showed up in all three sections. Perhaps they made it look cluttered, or maybe their inclusion suggested the need for many more cards.

Despite these minor issues, the arrangement of the Chaobalistic pantheon seems reasonable. I have thought for many years now about the main idea – replacing the top of the Tree with a multitude and reversing the causality. The rejection and inversion of Neoplatonism seems like a growing realization among magicians; John Michael Greer refers to the emerging religious sensibility that rejects the idea of wanting to escape from the world, Jake Stratton-Kent talks about the monotheist derived, anti-cosmic, world-hating aspects inherent in Neoplatonism and Qabalah in his Geosophia. Several years ago, before reading these accounts, I decided to reject the cult of The One and purged my magic of the Qabalistic monotheism that comes with stock Hermeticism these days. So I sympathize with the need to redesign the Tree of Life – I did it myself to suit my own revelations.

So when Carroll writes, “Such transcendentalism, with its implicit denial of the value of the lower emanations, would not have appealed to the classical pagans, and today it fails to appeal to neo-pagans and post monotheist philosophers and psychologists. Every pantheon or cosmogony resumes a theory of what the mind does, or should do, and the theory that it should strive to become somehow beyond worldly things and attain a heavenly disembodied state no longer seems credible or attractive.”, I find myself nodding in agreement, and wondering about how magicians with wildly different beliefs about the nature of magic, spirits, and reality find themselves converging towards an idea that has seemed heretical for an astrological age.

Oh, yes, welcome to year 5 of the Age of Aquarius.

Monday, June 23, 2014

We’re All Going to Die!

Having ended my review of Vitruvius with a link to Guy McPherson’s Climate-change summary and update, where he explains his Near-Term Extinction (NTE) idea, it seems worthwhile to explore the matter more fully lest my readers conclude that I’m endorsing this particular brand of doomerism.  For those who learned about NTE and now find themselves filled with any sort of strong emotional reaction, read this.
Feel better?

I’m not going to discuss the merits of one case against the other, as I don’t have the time, inclination, or expertise to follow up on all the claims and references. I don’t know if McPherson is right or wrong or partially both right and wrong. In fact, despite inflammatory rhetoric and cherry-picked and debatable ‘facts’ on both sides, nobody knows the fate of the world for the next week, much less the next few decades. I rather hope he’s completely wrong, but the scenarios he lays out seem at least somewhat plausible. Instead of assessing whether or not we should believe in NTE, I want explore how it can be a useful idea irrespective of whether or not it’s true, how just considering it improves your humanity, and how people come to consider ideas dangerous.

Our present society seems obsessed with knowing only one story, or rather, determining the One True Story, which, as John Michael Greer points out in one of his early blog posts, is a deadly mistake. There may well be some sort of absolute truth to things, but we’ll never know it with any kind of absolute certainty. Science doesn’t work that way, but proceeds by induction, with each new measurement having the potential to reverse long established principles. As a consequence, science can never be completed. The data can never be fully collected; experiments are never finished and scientific knowledge never finally settled. Having only one hypothesis invites confirmation bias. Commitment to only one possible future leaves you vulnerable to the near certainty that you’ll get the future you don’t expect.

Human extinction as an abstract concept is easy enough; all species, as far as we know, go extinct. But it’s different to imagine witnessing the extinction and being part of it. Apocalypse stories are as old as history, likely because our species has lived through a few major global catastrophes, such as post-ice-age flooding with rising sea levels and some serious volcanic eruptions, but we did survive and there are always survivors in our narratives. Even in the event of all-out nuclear war or a comet impact we imagine people living as long as necessary in underground bunkers. NTE adds a new story, one where not only do we have complete die-off, but it happens in our lifetime, and it’s our fault.

John Michael Greer dismisses NTE (as he must to fit his own story) as another example of apocalyptic narrative like every other failed prediction before it. As he sees it, NTE is an excuse to give up and do nothing, mocking McPherson as peddling “dispairoin” in contrast to McPherson’s detraction of his critics’ “hopium” peddling. As much as Greer’s ideas have and continue to influence my own, far more than McPherson ever could, it seems disingenuous to take the possibility of NTE off the table. The failure of apocalyptic fantasies to manifest does not preclude their possibilities, though they may remain next to nil. Greer seems committed to assuming all ideas reduce to their underlying narratives, which is of course true, but the question remains if the narratives accurately describe reality or not. The answer to that question can only be ascertained after the fact, and by then we will have deluded ourselves into thinking that the narratives were obvious, or else (as Nassim Taleb points out) will have constructed new stories so that we can think that they were obvious. Yet, if NTE is true, then no one will be left to speculate about it.

Memento mori, Latin for “remember death”, was a phrase whispered in the ear of a conquering Roman general to remind him that for all his present glory, he too will die, and thus should retain some measure of humility. And so must we all. The importance of the contemplation of our mortality is currently quite unpopular in modern industrial societies. The delusion of immortality, once recognized as a common youthful mistake, now feeds the imaginations of wishful technologists who dream of robot bodies housing their uploaded minds in a synthetic utopia, ironically unaware that their fantasies differ in no appreciable way from the fundamentalist Christian rapture or the salvation of humanity by beneficent aliens. Those technologists with less implausible dreams than an immanent super-AI that solves all our problems are working on things like treating aging as a disease, or nanotech that repairs our cells like so many miniature surgeons. These approaches make quite a few spurious assumptions, like using machine metaphors for organisms, or thinking robots small enough to pass through cell membranes can’t possibly do something unexpectedly harmful. Besides, the ability to imagine something does not mean that it exists, or can exist, or should exist. Even if the technology to accomplish these feats were not about to become economically infeasible in short order, or if they could be free of the unforeseen, and often horrific, consequences that accompany almost all of our technological “advances”, there is no reason at all to think that an end to death would be a desirable state of affairs.

Death gives life meaning, and without it we would cease to be human. The problems resulting from overpopulation are already scheduled to result in huge complications and likely mass die-off. Evolution proceeds by the death of older generations freeing up resources for the younger ones; science (and culture generally) proceeds in the same way. As Max Plank said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The end of death, even were it possible, would mean the end of meaningful life and the end of any sense of progress, however dubious that concept may be. Thus, those who seek physical immortality are profoundly anti-human, and anti-life. “Afterlife” and “after-death” are, after all, semantically identical; life and death are sides of a coin. To oppose one is to oppose the other.

The contemplation of mortality, however, enriches life by forcing decisions and value judgments about what to do with the time we have. Far too many humans waste precious years doing (and not doing) things they will regret on their deathbeds. The cultural fantasy of perpetual youth reinforces the problem and yields middle-aged adults unprepared for the right-side of the curve of a lifetime, with the attending psychological crises now common phenomena.  Greer and others, such as Jared Diamond, have argued that the same process plays out in civilizations that fail to consider that their lifetimes mirror those of individuals.

Meditations upon corpses are an integral part of traditional Buddhist practice; the idea there being to provoke disgust with physicality and thus motivate striving for the alleged permanence of nirvana, with the resulting acceptance of mortality from this seen as side-effect. The philosophical obsession with the impermanence of material forms has a long history in the West as well, starting with Buddha’s contemporary Pythagoras (and likely before him), on through Platonism and Neoplatonism and eventually Christianity. Western philosophy contrasts the physical world with the spiritual world, a dualistic system of binaries including evil-changing-multiplicity versus good-unchanging-unity. These types of worldview seem to be born of harsh times, when escape from the toils of physical life becomes the only reasonable concept of salvation. There is reason to believe that it was not always this way, and that the emerging religious sensibility of our age is reversing the metaphors. Greer refers to this fear of physical life as “biophobia”, a world-hating anti-cosmic ideology characterized by escapist afterlife fantasies and a denigration of matter that contaminates the thinking even of some modern non-religious people with obsessive concern about sterile environments and ‘pure’ substances. It remains to be seen if the relative comfort of modern life that possibly gives rise to the non-biophobic, life-affirming, world-loving attitudes will survive the crushing depression that the age of limits is set to impose.

And yet, the concept of NTE adds something new. It’s not hard to imagine your own death, or even some far-off abstract extinction of all life on Earth by the Sun’s red-giant phase enveloping the Earth’s orbit, but the death of our entire species within our lifetimes seems unprecedented. The worst visions of environmentalists, involving things like the cutting down of the last tree or the melting of all ice, rarely assert human extinction, and if they do it’s imagined as a problem our grandchildren or more distant descendants might face. Seriously thinking about personally witnessing a good part of our species’ extinction (up until your own time comes) lends a visceral urgency to the meditation, something not dealt with in religion or philosophy thus far.  By considering the possibility of NTE, even those self-interested people who consider it okay to sacrifice future generations for a few more years of opulent industrial lifestyles (a position fairly characterized as evil) must conclude that they too have skin in the game.

As an idea, NTE therefore has the potential to increase empathy, though not necessarily. McPherson certainly thinks that it does, as he advocates that we collectively go through a grieving process and treat the living creatures of Earth, including ourselves, as if in hospice. He recommends that people adopt a simple environmentally-friendly lifestyle and try to be kind and generous with each other, because no one is going to survive and the best we can do is minimize suffering as we go down. Initially, he thought (along the lines of Derrick Jensen’sEndgame”) that bringing down industrial civilization within a couple years could conceivably slow down the positive feedback loops enough to allow some species, maybe even some of us, to survive. But recently he’s considered the potential impacts of the 400+ nuclear reactors which must be continually fueled with electricity lest they go into meltdown, and also of global dimming – the phenomenon of air pollution actually lowering the atmospheric temperature by a couple degrees that was discovered when airline traffic was grounded for a few days after the events of September 11, 2001. So it appears that the sudden collapse of industrial civilization would result in NTE by different means.

Greer critiques NTE by suggesting that believing there is no hope will lead people to give up, do nothing, and continue to live their current lifestyles, even though this is neither what McPherson advocates nor how he lives. In fact, the lifestyles of Greer and McPherson are rather similar, with the exception that Greer refuses to drive or fly and insists that McPherson’s continued flights around the country to give presentations demonstrate bad faith on the part of the environmental movement. This is because Greer believes in Gandhi’s admonishment to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – an idea that radical environmentalists like McPherson and Jensen explicitly reject by framing environmentalist action not as a popularity contest to win minds, but as a war to be won by force, political or otherwise. McPherson argues (correctly) that the planes will fly whether or not he is in them, nor should he to be viewed as a role model. Although McPherson believes humans are finished, he still associates with radical environmentalism in a bid to spare some fraction of other species.

For his part, Greer also recommends a grieving process, but for industrial civilization rather than humanity. Both men anticipate huge effects from both peak oil and global warming including the end of industrial civilization and massive die-off of humans and many other species; their predictions differ only in magnitude rather than kind. Greer’s rejection of NTE appears to be based solely upon its similarity to other apocalyptic narratives, despite these almost never involving total extinction and ignoring the geological fact that extinction-level events can and do happen, as well as the assumption that people will respond to NTE by not changing anything. However, people who accept NTE do not seem to be continuing life as usual, but making radical changes, sometimes going off-grid, taking up organic gardening, and caring for each other in a more profound way than they did before, all of which I presume Greer would find agreeable.

Of course, it’s conceivable that some people may do nothing, or worse, go on a hedonistic polluting binge having given up all hope for the future, but we should not judge ideas by how a psychopathic minority might react to them. If a majority were to respond in this manner, it would be fair to say that NTE is a dangerous idea. But then, the belief in progress that got us into this mess in the first place is then definitely a more dangerous idea. But can an idea really be dangerous? From the perspective of an industrialist, if everyone went back to living off the land and quit their jobs, industry would be ruined, and therefore voluntary simplicity would be a dangerous idea. Creationists think evolution is a dangerous idea, and evolutionists think likewise about creationism. It would seem that “dangerous idea” is more of a rhetorical label for a personally disagreeable position than an objectively discernible notion.

Perhaps a better criterion can be derived if we require that “dangerous” involves some substantial risk to society. Creationism and evolution then can’t really be dangerous, as someone’s ideas about these things have no consequence upon anything in their life or those of anyone else. Even telling captive school children that Jesus rode dinosaurs or that the god of monotheism doesn’t exist can’t be considered serious harm in any real sense, as other ideas can readily compete with them. These are merely ideas, we would say, leading to no appreciable harm. It may, in fact, be more harmful (but only on a mental level) to remain sheltered from a wide range of competing ideas, which would inhibit the mechanism of memetic cultural evolution, lead to shallow belief systems, and undermine the basic project of philosophy.

The idea that owning people as property is morally acceptable is now widely considered an evil and dangerous idea. Yet slavers argued for a long time that abolition was a dangerous idea threatening the economy and social order of the day. Some people may consider the argument that the abolition of slavery had more to do with the industrial revolution than the progression of moral conscience a dangerous idea, as it’s then easy to imagine slavery returning as industrialism runs out of fuel. Regardless of its implications, if true, it would be a costly mistake to ignore it, especially for those at risk of enslavement (which is highly doubtful to fall along racial lines). So even in this case, the dangerousness of the ideas is relative to the moral reasoning of individuals.

Heresy as a taboo has been with us as long as monotheism. Ancient pagan thought and philosophy, being naturally diverse, used the term to mean simply “choice”, “opinion”, or “school of thought” and it was the task of educators to provide numerous ‘heresies’ for consideration and debate. Monotheism turned the word into the pejorative we know today. Thus, we can now have scientific heresies, with certain ideas considered too dangerous for research due to political correctness or for their potential consequences. Steven Pinker wrote an essay called “In Defense of Dangerous Ideas” as the preface to the collection of such ideas in “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?”. Pinker’s essay is worth reading, as he covers the topic more thoroughly than I can here. Although his concern is with scientific inquiries that violate social taboos, such as racial and gender differences, rather than the more obviously harmful ideas of weapons research or things like the insertion of “terminator” genes into food crops.  The very concept of dangerous ideas is thus fraught with complications and looks like a philosophical quagmire.

Which gets us back to NTE. From Greer’s perspective, NTE is a dangerous idea because it has the potential to lead to inaction when he believes certain actions will be helpful in cushioning the coming crises. From McPherson’s perspective, Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse is a dangerous idea because it gives people false hope when he thinks their time would be better spent psychologically preparing themselves for the inevitable extinction. From the perspectives of peak oil and climate change denialists, both Greer and McPherson are spreading dangerous ideas that threaten the economy and the social order of our day. Who is right and who is wrong? Does it matter?    

I contend that it doesn’t matter who is correct about these differing predictions. Failure to consider any one of them leaves us less capable of recognizing the signs of whichever one does eventually develop. There are always many possible worlds with many alternatives, and the ones that history will finally settle on can’t be known until after they occur. Having multiple stories keeps us flexible. The rhetorical hammer of ‘dangerous ideas’ is itself a dangerous idea used to shut down consideration of different theories.

The one thing we can be certain of is that we are all going to die. (Contrary to the aphorism, taxes are not certain.) Whether we all die collectively in a mass extinction is uncertain, but taking the possibility off the table is a mistake, as is regarding it as a forgone conclusion. We live in a world composed of ever-changing probabilities of various degrees, making convictions of certainty a terrible vice.

This discussion of dangerous ideas developed from my reading of Peter J. Carroll’s latest book which concludes with a grimoire for obtaining alien knowledge that poses inherent dangers to our sanity. This struck me as interesting, as I had not before considered any ideas to be actually dangerous. Therefore, although I’ve merely touched upon it thus far, for my next post I will write more explicitly about magick as I review Carroll’s “The EPOCH”.