A Scientific Test of the Efficacy of Magickal Sigils

June 30, 2023
IONS Chief Scientist Dean Radin

The words “scientific” and “magick” are generally not found in the same sentence, so an explanation is in order. Science involves two related efforts: methods for carefully observing and evaluating phenomena, and theoretical explanations of the resulting measurements. These endeavors are like two sides of a seesaw. Together they form the most effective way of understanding reality that humanity has devised, so far.

Sometimes theory runs ahead of observations, and sometimes observations lag behind theory. An example of the former is Einstein’s theoretical predictions of curved spacetime and the equivalency of matter and energy, both of which were revolutionary departures from previous assumptions about the nature of the physical world. But both predictions were eventually confirmed. An example of the latter are psychic phenomena, like telepathy and precognition, which have been empirically confirmed to high degrees of confidence in thousands of experiments published in peer-reviewed journals. But so far there are no widely accepted theoretical explanations.

As a result, from today’s scientific perspective the latter seesaw is unbalanced, and thus magick is regarded as little more than a superstitious belief about supernatural powers and nonphysical entities. But magick has never disappeared, and it remains vibrantly alive in the form of a reliable trope in the world of entertainment, and as a matter of faith in numerous religions.

Then what is the connection between magickal practices, like the use of sigils, and science? As I described in my 2018 book, Real Magic, when the broad range of esoteric practices are arranged into a taxonomy, three main classes emerge. I label them divination, force of will, and theurgy. These practices are all amenable to scientific study, and they have been investigated for over a century under controlled conditions within the discipline of parapsychology.

Divination involves perception through space and time. In parapsychology these same phenomena are labeled clairvoyance, and the preponderance of the empirical evidence is clear – these abilities do exist. Force of will involves the use of focused intention to affect aspects of the physical world. In parapsychology, this claim has been studied on a wide range of physical targets, from the subatomic to the macroscopic. And again, we can say with some confidence that mental intention does affect aspects of the physical world. The observed effects are usually small in magnitude and appear to involve modulation of probabilistic effects rather than application of forces or fields. But it exists. Theurgy involves communication with spirits. Here the evidence is less clear, although scientific studies of mediumship have convincingly shown that talented mediums who claim to communicate with spirits (e.g., deceased humans) are able to gain accurate information even under well controlled double, triple, and even quadruple-blinded conditions. But whether that information is obtained from spirits, or by telepathy from the living, or some other psychic ability, is not yet unambiguously settled.

Thus, from a purely empirical basis, claims about the existence of some magickal practices can be confirmed. Of course, these effects are nowhere near as reliable or as robust as the superpowers portrayed in fiction. But they are nevertheless quite real. What is missing are persuasive explanations for how these effects can exist. This is why psychic phenomena are not yet considered part of mainstream science, and similarly why few scientists are comfortable publicly admitting that they are interested in magickal practices, to say nothing about actually studying them. I use the word “publicly” because we know from anonymous surveys that a large majority of scientists and engineers have personally experienced psychic phenomena, and many are likely to be interested in magickal concepts. But in the educated Western world these topics remain taboo, so serious discussions mostly remain sub rosa.

Returning to sigils, in its modern form a sigil is a custom-made symbol or glyph that symbolizes a desired intention. The process involves creating and then focusing intently on the symbol, then “charging” it with emotion to embed the intention into the unconscious. Then the sigil is “released” to remove it from conscious awareness and to allow the unconscious to manifest the goal. The underlying theory is based on a common metaphysical philosophy held within the esoteric traditions, namely that consciousness is fundamental. That means it is primary over the physical world.

Metaphorically, we may view consciousness as an iceberg, whereby everyday conscious awareness is the tip of the iceberg above the surface, but the rest of it – the vast majority – is below the surface. At the deepest levels of this iceberg there are no longer clear distinctions between mind and matter, like how in the deep (microscopic) physical world virtually all of our everyday assumptions about space, time, matter, and energy dissolve into abstractions and relationships. Allowing intention to operate from these depths is said to “cause,” like tiny bubbles rising from the depths of the ocean, noticeable physical manifestations in the everyday world.

I placed the word cause in quotes because within this metaphysical perspective ordinary ways of thinking about cause-and-effect no longer apply. This type of intention-mediated manifestation appears to be more like a teleological effect, or “final cause” in Aristotelian terms, or perhaps due to some form of acausal modulation of probabilities, similar to Jung’s concept of a synchronicity.

As with the various manifestation and affirmation practices, there are ample anecdotes about the successful use of sigils as a way to shape the physical world according to one’s will. But so far there haven’t been any controlled experiments to test if these experiences may be due to expectation effects, selective memory, or other mundane psychological explanations.

Of the various categories of experiments investigating intentional effects on the physical world, three classes of physical target systems stand out: tossed dice, random number generator outputs, and photon interference. The first class involves about a half-century of experiments involving the tossing of dice, from the 1930s to the 1980s. A review of all published relevant studies indicates that over time these experiments became progressively more rigorous as potential loopholes found in earlier studies were identified and closed. The most rigorously controlled studies continued to show small magnitude but statistically significant effects in experimental conditions, and null outcomes under control conditions when no one was trying to influence the outcomes.

Of historical interest, perhaps the first prominent figure to propose tossing dice to see if the “force of imagination” could affect the physical world was Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the founder of modern empiricism. Bacon suggested that by keeping track of how tossed dice fell, it would be possible to objectively test the limits of creative imagination. That is, it would allow us to tell if one’s focused will really did affect the world at large, or if it was only imagined.

In the 1960s, after the development of electronic circuits that could generate and automatically record random events, dice studies declined, and electronic random number generators (RNGs) became the primary physical target used in many parapsychology laboratories around the world. By the late 1980s, hundreds of RNG experiments had been reported. Several meta-analyses have since been published to review and integrate these studies, and the results again showed small magnitude but statistically significant effects.

Near the turn of the 21st century, investigators began to expand this type of research into an unsolved problem in physics called the “quantum measurement problem” (QMP). This refers to an intriguing phenomenon whereby quantum objects, like photons or “particles” of light, behave differently when they are observed than when they are not observed. This effect is most readily observed in a double-slit optical system, because with that apparatus if one observes which of the two slits a photon passes through, then the pattern of light observed on a screen after the photons go through the two slits will indicate that the photons behaved like particles. But if one does not observe the photons then the pattern of light will indicate that the photons behaved like waves.

This “wave-particle duality” depending on observation remains a persistent puzzle because it violates the commonsense doctrine of realism, which assumes that the physical world is completely independent of observation. This conflict thrusts into stark contrast our everyday assumptions about the nature of reality, as sometimes expressed by the question: Is the moon still there if you don’t look at it?

This puzzling phenomenon compelled the developers of quantum theory to deeply ponder the meaning of observation. Some, like Wolfgang Pauli, Pascual Jordan, and John von Neumann, believed that some aspect of consciousness, specifically meaning awareness, attention, and/or intention, might be key to understanding the QMP. For example, Jordan wrote, “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel [the electron] to assume a definite position…. We ourselves produce the results of measurement.”

This strong view of the role of consciousness in the QMP has been endorsed by many other prominent physicists, including a sizeable minority of contemporary physicists and scholars who specialize in studying the foundations of quantum theory. The prominence of those who originally proposed this idea has made the idea difficult to blithely ignore, but to many it challenges their deeply held intuition that the physical world must have been in its present form long before consciousness evolved to observe it. That resistance is, of course, based on the philosophical (and current scientific) doctrine of materialism, which assumes that consciousness evolved from matter. This is opposed to the esoteric view that consciousness is fundamental, which assumes that it was the material world that evolved, and not consciousness. Perhaps many contemporary physicists continue to resist this consciousness-related explanation of the QMP because they’ve forgotten, or never knew, that the founders of quantum theory were not merely interested in esoteric and mystical concepts, but that they used those concepts to assist in developing the mathematical formalisms of quantum theory.

History and philosophical preferences aside, the double-slit experiment suggests an intriguing way to explore the meaning of observation in the QMP, and in particular the possible role of consciousness. If one takes the idea that consciousness is more fundamental than the physical world, then awareness itself should transcend everyday space-time constraints, in which case conscious entities like humans may be able to become aware of anything, anywhere, by narrowing their focus of attention to a particular location. If that were possible, then in principle one could gain which-path knowledge about photons passing through a double-slit interferometer. And if that happened, then the photon interference pattern would shift from wave-like behavior to particle-like behavior, in proportion to the degree of certainty of the information gained. The ability of humans to precisely control awareness in this way would presumably be weak and variable due to the unavoidability of mind-wandering, but it would nevertheless be a way to test the “consciousness-collapse interpretation” of quantum mechanics, where the term collapse refers to a change in the quantum wavefunction, the probabilistic wave-like description of the physical world.

To conduct such a test in practical terms, individuals would be invited to focus their attention toward or away from a double-slit system while holding the intention to gain information about the photons’ path. Starting in 1998, some 30 experiments based on this idea have been reported by five independent labs using different protocols, optical setups, and analytical approaches. Of those tests, 14 were reportedly statistically significant at p < 0.05 (two-tail), where just one or two significant results would have been expected by chance. The probability of this outcome (a rough estimate of repeatability) is associated with odds against chance beyond a billion to one. This suggests the existence of a genuine mind-matter interaction effect as proposed by John von Neumann and others.

With that as background, the experiment to test the efficacy of sigil magick will use a similar optical apparatus. The precise design of this apparatus, and the details of the experimental protocol, are still under development. Some aspects will be discussed in a future blog. The final physical target system, the protocol, and the methods of data storage and analysis will be preregistered with third parties, but many of those details will not be publicly revealed until the experiment has been completed and fully documented. The reason is simple: This experiment, like any study exploring the role of intention in the physical world, must remain strictly shielded from others’ intentions. For example, if you were studying cell cultures in a biology lab, then of course you must use clean test tubes, otherwise you risk contaminating the experiment.

Withholding some aspects of this study may seem antithetical to the scientific aspiration of full transparency. Nevertheless, that aspiration is not appropriate for this study because to ensure that our “test tubes” are spotless, we are obligated to work within a clean intentional space. But all will be revealed when the experiment is complete and the data and analytical results have been double-checked and confirmed by third parties.

This study is being conducted with the generous support of the Bial Foundation and RENSEP (the Research Network for the Study of Esoteric Practices). The Bial Foundation is supporting the design, execution, and documentation of the experiment, and RENSEP is supporting the development and fabrication of the custom-built optical apparatus that will be used in the experiment. These combined grants provide resources to develop both a more comprehensive study plan and the design of a more sophisticated optical system than I had originally envisioned, and as such I am immensely grateful to both funders.

This article was published by RENSEP on June 22, 2023.

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