Once upon a time, long, long ago, religion, science and magic were not seen as separate disciplines. Indeed, it appears that there were no separate words that could be used to indicate any demarcation between religion, science and magic. Later, some folk developed strong views about what was acceptable and who should be allowed to know and do what. That led to a desire to suppress some areas of study and practice.
In order to decree what was acceptable and what was not, it was necessary to have some way to distinguish between those areas. Words had to be created to discriminate between the practices so that those things someone considered ‘bad’ could be prohibited. So it was that religion, science and magic became separated. Perhaps we should also include that handy ambiguous word superstition as one of those categories, it being a useful term of derision that could be applied by anyone subscribing to any one of the categories to describe any of the other categories.
The fiction of these divisions is shown by the difficulty of establishing precisely what fits into which category, and the problems of finding corresponding words in different languages to identify the same category. That issue became evident at the earliest stages when the church prohibited magic only to find that, by doing so, they had prohibited practices common amongst churchmen. So natural magic and demonic magic had to be invented to distinguish between those things the church wanted to ban, and those they did not.
We struggle with those categories today. So much baggage and innuendo became attached to the term magic that the common response from any unfamiliar with it is still derision, disbelief or apprehension.
Yet, after some centuries of living with those false divisions, we are perhaps now seeing something of a convergence of ideology and terminology.
Those visiting these pages will be likely to be aware of Dion Fortune's The Cosmic Doctrine and the oft repeated phrase that ‘these images are designed to train the mind, not to inform it’. The ideas and images are intended to assist in developing an understanding of things that cannot be described by common language and cannot be understood by direct comparison with something we already understand.
Is this any different from the way symbolism and allegory is used in exoteric science?
Early in the twentieth century J J Thomson developed his Plum Pudding Model to depict the structure of the atom. Of course he did not mean that the cosmos was formed of tiny plum puddings, but that the idea of the plum pudding could be easily understood by many. That form could be used to explain his ideas of the form of the atom, which could not otherwise be easily visualised. He knew electrons were negatively charged and knew the overall atom was neutral so he conceived of the sponge part of the plum pudding as being a positively charged cloud with the negative electrons being studded through it.
Bohr then came up with the idea of an atom having a central nucleus with electrons whizzing around it in circular orbits. Then quantum mechanics was born with the idea that those electrons could only exist at discrete energy levels. Consequently they could not be distributed throughout the pudding but could exist only at discrete quantum levels. A form that fitted this idea was that of a series of shells round a nucleus. The electrons could only exist on those shells. They could move between them as their energy changed by a quantum leap.
Of course, we are all thinking of the nucleus and electrons as little balls are we not? That is the way the descriptions fit best with things that we are familiar. But it was found that their behaviour could be like a ball but it could, at other times, be like a wave. Neither the idea of a particle/ball nor the idea of a wave is wrong. They are both correct. How the things behave appears to be related to how they are measured by some intelligent observer.
This takes us into the time of Heisenberg and Schrödinger. The former’s uncertainty principle described how the more precisely the position of any particle was known by experimentation, the less precisely the momentum could be known. Hence, the greater the certainty of one parameter then the greater the uncertainty of the other. Which leads us to the long suffering cat that Schrödinger committed to that blasted box. Until someone looks, the cat is neither alive nor dead, nor anything in between. It is in a state of superposition. It is not until the intelligent observer comes along, opens the box and realises whether the cat is alive or dead that the cat takes on that reality.
As ever, all of the above ideas had slight flaws in that equations relating to each model never quite matched with the things they were trying to depict. To remedy the error, hadrons and quarks were invented/created. Folk again tend to talk of these as though they are particles. They are far from that, though the things they were created to represent might seem to behave as a particle, or a wave, or perhaps both. A quark is simply the name given to something that no one understands but that, by assuming it exists, and by accommodating that concept in the equations, makes those equations more accurate than the ones that went before. Still all was not quite right so different types of quarks had to be created. Rather than describing them as different types, they are described as different flavours. Why flavours and not types? – well, we all like to introduce a little mystique to our work do we not?
Still all did not quite fit perfectly and so string theory came along. Not that the idea of particles is wrong. And not that the idea of waves is wrong. It is just that sometimes the tiny things that make up the cosmos behave as tiny strings. Or, more accurately, if one assumes they are strings and describe them as that in an equation, then the equations will be more accurate than the earlier equations, in some circumstances.
The idea of particles, waves, strings, quarks and so on in quantum mechanics does not mean that they exist in the way we tend to visualise them when they are described in that way. They are simply concepts to help understanding of something that does not fit easily with anything in our prior understanding. They are images that help our future understanding, not actual things that take the form our mind gives them.
Here we return to The Cosmic Doctrine. Just as the scientists use concepts and images to depict the unknown, so The Cosmic Doctrine uses images to train the mind, not inform it. The images and ideas are steps we can take towards greater comprehension of things we cannot currently conceive of.
As a final thought, let us return to Heisenberg and Schrödinger. With them we met the idea that nothing has any fixed reality unless it is seen by an intelligent observer. We have to look into the box to give Schrodinger’s cat a fixed reality. What intelligent observer is looking in on the cosmos from the outside so that it has the fixed reality that we believe we know it has?
The ideas of quantum mechanics and The Cosmic Doctrine have been, of necessity, somewhat simplified in this paper, hopefully without introducing too much inaccuracy. We would welcome further ideas on these and connected areas. Please join us in the forum.
Written by Nova Genista