A Dialog About Magic* and Science by Representatives of Both Traditions – Part 1

December 28, 2023
IONS Communications Team

* The word magic in this discussion refers to esoteric practices of real magic, and not to magic tricks or stage illusions.

Dean Radin, MS, PhD, is Chief Scientist at IONS and Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at AT&T Bell Labs, Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, and SRI International. Dr. Radin is author or coauthor of hundreds of technical articles, some 125 peer-reviewed journal articles, four dozen book chapters, and four best-selling, popular books. He has given over 750 invited presentations and interviews for government, military, business, scientific, and other groups around the world.

Peter Carroll developed the theories and practices of Chaos Magic, which caused a revolution in magical and esoteric thinking in the last few decades of the twentieth century, and they continue to heavily influence it in the twenty-first century. As the first in a new tradition of Sorcerer-Scientists, Carroll developed a paradigm in which Magic lies far closer to science than to religion. He formed a worldwide magical order to promote and develop new insights into magic and then largely disappeared from public view to procreate and build a business empire and continue scientific and metaphysical research in private.

Peter was invited to this dialog by Andrea Centore, the co-founder and Managing Director of the Research Network for the Study of Esoteric Practices (RENSEP), a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing scholarly exploration of esoteric practices. At the heart of RENSEP’s mission lies the commitment to propel esoteric research through financial support and fruitful collaborations. In pursuit of this commitment, a remarkable initiative has been launched this year, aligning them with Dean. Notably, Dean will be leading experimental investigations into the efficacy of sigil magick. As he navigates the complexities of his endeavor, he is eager to engage in an illuminating discussion with practitioners of expertise. The following is the first part of Dean’s conversation with Peter:

Peter Carroll: I do not participate in parapsychology experiments, and I advise my students not to do so. Magic works capriciously and non-repeatably. We should not squander our abilities on things that do not really matter to us. 

I refer you to the equations of magic, where all factors lie on a scale of 0 to 1: 

Pm = P + (1-P)M1/p  and M = GLSB.

The first equation quantifies the difference to the probability of an event that an act of magic M can make, and it’s not much unless the magic value lies close to unity. The second equation qualifies what you need to put into an act of magic – Gnosis, Magical Link, Subliminalisation, and Belief, and these remain impossible to objectively quantify and problematical in laboratory conditions.

I prefer the mass of humanity not to believe in magic, that way we do not get persecuted for it or end up working behind barbed wire. I make fun of magic to most of my friends and acquaintances, so they don’t fear me or make impossible requests, even so, quite a few seem jealous of my improbable successes in life.

Trying to objectively prove that sigils or any other kind of spell actually works seems as problematical as trying to simply prove that ‘some wishes sometimes come true’.

Having said that, I remain interested in collaboration for knowledge for its own sake.

Similarities in magic and psychic abilities

Dean Radin: Please allow me to explain a bit about my interests in magic. I’ve been involved in parapsychology (psi for short) as a scientist for about four decades, working in academic, industrial, and government positions. In those settings, I’ve run and published dozens of controlled psi experiments, and as part of my job and personal interests I’ve studied esoteric traditions and practices, I’ve been a meditator since the 1970s, and I’ve lectured about psi at Cambridge University, Stanford University, Princeton University, etc. I’ve used practices derived from all of the above to create and sustain a scientific career that, from a mainstream view, isn’t supposed to exist. I.e., my interest has always been to put magical concepts to the test, although until recently I’ve avoided using that term. My 2018 book, Real Magic, explains all this in some detail.

The bottom line is that I see little difference between the interests of magicians and scientists who are engaged in psi research. We are both studying or using the same underlying phenomena. We just take different approaches. 

Thus, your equation of magic makes perfect sense to me. And elements of that equation are regularly put to use in experimental tests. The stereotype of the controlled study of psychic abilities is based on how ESP card tests were run in the 1950s. Most modern psi tests have moved beyond those designs and are focused on what you’ve described as the GLSB factors. Some of these factors are less easy to objectify than others, but it is possible to study them all, and the results of those tests support your model.

You’ve noted that magic works capriciously and non-repeatedly. The same is often said about psi studies, and this does appear to be the case if one examines each study in isolation. But since the 1990s we’ve known that this is merely a matter of statistical power. That is, from a cumulative perspective, using modern meta-analytical techniques to assess the repeatability of an experimental outcome, there is little doubt that these effects are independently reproducible. Experiments that require conscious responses, like ESP card tests, generally result in smaller effect sizes than those that rely on unconscious responses, like physiological measures, because the all-important elements of GLSB are difficult to optimize when asking someone to consciously “be psychic” (or “do magic”) on demand.

Regarding your comment, “I prefer the mass of humanity not to believe in magic,” most worldwide surveys show that the majority already believe in magic. So that cat is already out of the bag. High levels of belief also occur among scientists as long as the surveys are anonymous, and the wording of the surveys avoid use of sensitive terms like magic or psi or psychic.

You also offered that, “Trying to objectively prove that sigils or any other kind of spell actually works seems as problematical as trying to simply prove that ‘some wishes sometimes come true.’” I can see why it might appear to be that slippery, and yet, this is precisely what lab studies investigating mind-matter interactions do. We cannot guarantee that any given “wish” comes true, but we can test if a bunch of wishes headed in the same direction do manifest. And so, from a cumulative perspective we do indeed find that wishes (operationalized in terms of an assigned intention) do modulate objectively measurable aspects of the physical world. The intentions and target systems used in lab studies seem to differ quite a bit from the spells found in a typical grimoire. But that’s just a matter of semantics. 

My interest in conducting a test involving magic is because the experimental design I’m using addresses a long-standing problem in mainstream physics (the quantum observer effect), and if it turns out that magical practices can enhance the results of such an effect, then that would be an interesting advancement for both magical practitioners and for physics.

Finding common ground between magic and science?

Peter Carroll: We are both of a very similar age and both of us have had the privileges of a science education and exposure to counter cultural ideas in our formative years. We have both presented our ideas to the public in a way that acknowledges the scientific rather than the religious worldviews of our cultures and this seems reflected in our overlapping audiences. 

You say that – “most worldwide surveys indicate that the majority already believe in magic.” I would agree to the extent that “magical thinking” always remains present to some degree in all individuals – we all believe to varying extents that “thoughts have effects” and that “phenomena have essences.”

Science on the other hand begins with the assumptions that an observer’s thoughts should not affect experimental outcomes and that phenomena consist only of their behaviour.

You have made a career out of trying to persuade others of the reality of parapsychological effects – mainly that thoughts and intents can have a direct effect on reality by mechanisms as yet unrecognized by science, and that reality can be perceived by the mind by unrecognized mechanisms, and that minds can communicate by unrecognized mechanisms.

I have made a career out of trying to persuade myself and others that we can do extraordinary things if we believe we can, by both recognized and unrecognized mechanisms. We both stand condemned by science for selection bias and confirmation bias, and for our inability to elucidate upon the unrecognized mechanisms.

Your approach seems based on the idea that if you could prove the effects then the as yet unrecognized mechanisms would require acknowledgement and investigation. My approach has been to embrace selection bias and confirmation bias more or less openly, on the basis that belief enhances capability. (Yes, I know that’s a quasi-religious tactic.)

Concerning parapsychological mechanisms – I have no good answers here, the old spiritual theories have little or no explanatory or predictive power, and the quasi-scientific ideas of astral light and various aethers seem little better. Quantum physics superficially looks as though it might have much to offer, but the deeper I look into it (and I do so rather obsessively) the more problematical it becomes.

Your statement that – “My interest in conducting a sigil test is because the experiment is aimed at addressing a long-standing problem in mainstream physics.” – intrigues me, would you care to elaborate?

Dean Radin: First, let me address your comment, “Science on the other hand begins with the assumptions that an observer’s thoughts should not affect experimental outcomes and that phenomena consist only of their behaviour.” Yes, that is true for classical physics. But not for quantum physics. Observer participation in the physical world is one of the two radical breaks from the classical worldview that we’re still struggling to understand. The second break is entanglement (or equivalently, nonlocal or superposition states). It is probably not a coincidence that nearly all of the founders of quantum mechanics were deeply into mysticism, and that from a mystical perspective both of these “new” ideas are not really new or radical at all. A case can be made that core ideas underlying quantum mechanics, including its equations, were actually founded on mystical concepts.

And next your comment, “you have made a career out of trying to persuade others….”  I suppose this is how it might appear. But I’m really not interested in persuading anyone other than myself about anything. Trying to persuade others who don’t want to be persuaded is an excellent recipe for frustration. 

So, like most scientists, I am interested in understanding the nature of reality and our role in it. One can do this by exploring the leading edge of the already understood, but I’ve done that and found it mostly boring. What is not boring are the anomalies that don’t seem to fit any (mainstream scientific) theories at all. And among the basket of anomalies I’m aware of, I’ve found psi to be the most interesting because unlike spontaneous things that go bump in the night, many psi experiences are perfectly amenable to careful study in the lab. I’m not concerned about the sporadic nature of psi, or its generally small magnitude, because all of the empirical sciences rely on statistical methods, which when used properly can provide high confidence even for extremely subtle or weak effects.

The reason I’ve given hundreds of talks and interviews, and why I write popular books, is that I’ve been annoyed by the astonishing amount of misinformation, disinformation, and general nonsense one finds in college textbooks, academic articles, and pronouncements by people who claim to know what they’re talking about (regarding psi), but don’t. I also seek to educate lay and professional people who are sincerely looking for reasoned arguments and data about these topics, rather than polemics. Based on the feedback I’ve received, I know I’ve reached many who fit that description. That’s good enough for me.

Regarding your comment, “We both stand condemned by science for selection bias and confirmation bias, and for our inability to elucidate upon the unrecognized mechanisms.” I would revise this slightly by saying that the condemnation I see comes not so much from scientists (although some are definitely curmudgeons), but from amateurs who have unwittingly fallen into the cult of scientism. Many academics are also uncomfortable about appearing in public to be sympathetic to the reality of psi. Their concern is reasonable, because it is dangerous to challenge what everyone knows to be true (but ain’t, as Mark Twain quipped). Expressing such sympathies could prove damaging to one’s career. But in private, it’s another story. I know this by having given many invitation-only presentations to serious professional audiences in academia, business, military, and government circles.

The long-standing problem in quantum mechanics that I mentioned is the measurement problem, aka the observer effect. From a materialistic perspective, the observer effect makes no sense at all. Likewise, the “hard problem” of consciousness has also proved to be completely intractable. These two puzzles revolve around the nature of qualia and quanta.

From an idealistic (or panpsychist, or dual-aspect monist, or etc.) perspective, these puzzles are much easier to resolve. More importantly, adopting a worldview where consciousness is as fundamental as matter/energy (or maybe more so) is not a rejection of materialism. I.e., we should not throw away our existing physics, chemistry, and biology textbooks. All we need to do, and which has been done throughout the history of science and scholarship, is to simply recognize that all of our theories are special cases of a more comprehensive theory that will one day arise. E.g., classical physics still works perfectly fine in certain limited circumstances. But now we understand that it is a special case of a more comprehensive physics. This sequence whereby a “theory of everything” morphs into a “special case model” is found in all scientific disciplines, and for most scholarly disciplines as well. It even happens in religions, as much as theocracy tries to hold on to orthodoxy.

With that as a brief background, I’ve dubbed the study I’m working on the SIGIL experiment, where that title has two meanings. One is an acronym, a Scientific Investigation of Gnostic Interactions with Light, where the term “gnostic” means deep intuitive knowing, similar to the term “noetic.” The other meaning is a reference to the practice of sigil magic.

This experiment follows up on a decade of studies we’ve conducted exploring whether observation by the mind’s eye (understood as imagination, or clairvoyance) that is assigned to focus on a double-slit optical system can cause a change in an optical interference pattern. The bottom line, after some two dozen experiments using a range of different designs, lasers, etc., and replicated in four other independent labs so far, is yes, gnostic or noetic-type observation does seem to matter. This in turn implies that mind directly interacts with matter. The effect is modulated by ability to focus, by belief, and by several other factors, all of which are, again, consistent with your model of how magic works.

The specific magical element comes into play in the SIGIL experiment because I want to recruit participants who are practiced in maintaining tightly focused attention, in suspending their disbelief about what is or is not possible, and who have experience in mentally manipulating the world to some degree through magical methods. Those who use sigil magic nicely fit that bill, and so they’ll be part of the candidate pool I’ll draw upon. Other participants will be meditators, martial artists, or others who have similar high attention-training skills, but do not use magical techniques.

I might add that I’ve conducted some of my previous double-slit experiments online, which provided interesting results. Those studies provided nearly perfect control over the “matter side” of the experiment because the apparatus was secured in our lab and the participants were located at distances ranging from 1 km to 18,000 km. But online studies cannot provide tight control over the “mind side” of this study because we could not control or even monitor what people were doing during an experiment. Maybe a person started the experiment, and a cat finished it.

This is a problem because the mind side is at least as important as the matter side in this type of study, and so I’ve built a batch of custom-designed optical systems, and I will mail one to each of the selected participants. This will allow them to directly work with the actual physical target in the comfort of their home, and to gain immediate feedback about their performance. The devices include an optical interferometer as well as a number of other sensors that can measure many aspects of the ambient environment, and it also incorporates ways of securing the integrity of the resulting data.

The fun thing about this experiment is that if it is successful then it will simultaneously provide evidence that magic (at least cast in terms of a practical psi application) works, and that magic is also relevant to understanding the quantum measurement problem. Two “impossible” outcomes in one.

I realize that magic is not easily controllable. But neither is psi, and I believe for the same reasons. Fortunately, psi still works well enough on demand, and in a controlled context, that with sufficient data and refined analytical methods, you can still see it.

Read Part 2 of this insightful dialogue. 

Dean’s SIGIL experiment is now live. Click here to learn more.

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