Being Athanor

Related articles: Of Magic and Machine

The Alchemist as Cyborg

Abstract: Is an alchemist’s athanor part of her?

It was deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc
and then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh, then she was wood.
// Leonard Cohen, “Joan of Arc”

The word cyborg first appeared in Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline’s 1960 article, “Cyborgs and Space,” as an abbreviation of cybernetic organism, referring to human-machine systems that could survive the hazards that space travel threatened the “natural” biology of humans [1]. Today, the cyborg of popular fiction re/sembles the vulgar dichotomy between mechanism and vitalism: cold metal and wires conjoined with warm flesh and blood. But cybernetics offers a theory of how mind “is not limited by the skin” [2], that is anything but monstrous or bleak, and I propose it has as much to do with the Great Work as with space travel or the body electric, and is as old as Thoth, the tongue and heart of Ra.

I don’t think this tendency towards cognitive hybridization is a modern development. Rather, it is an aspect of our humanity which is as basic and ancient as the use of speech, and which has been extending its territory ever since. [3]

As Norbert Wiener coined it in 1948, from the Greek kybernētēs for “steersman” (who pilots or navigates a vessel), cybernetics is “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine” [4]. Control and communication because goal-oriented action (such as control of the path of a ship) requires information (where are we going, where are we now, what is the difference, and how do we close that gap; repeat until we arrive at our destination), and animal and machine because goal-oriented or purposive behavior is not limited to so-called living organisms. Wiener explains:

When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human or animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages. [5]

It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. [6]

The transmitter, signal, receiver, and especially response in Wiener’s explanation make up a feedback system. Cybernetics describes how feedback produces (brings forth) order from disorder (cf. chaos, entropy, noise). Notice the circularity in feedback, which is a recurring (!) theme in cybernetics as well as alchemy (e.g., Ouroboros), and is illustrated in Gregory Bateson’s consideration of where a blind man ends, which also speaks to the coniunctio of natural and artificial:

Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being transmitted. The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. If what you are trying to explain is a given piece of behavior, such as the locomotion of the blind man, then, for this purpose, you will need the street, the stick, the man; the street, the stick, and so on, round and round. [7]

In a sense (established by the observer who makes sense of what she observes; cf. the differentiation of forms from the First Matter), the blind man’s walking stick is part of him, and I shall now demonstrate two senses in which the alchemist’s athanor — as metaphor for her laboratory — is part of her.

Many alchemical processes require long gestation periods, and the athanor furnace was developed to maintain regular temperature and fuel supply while the alchemist attends to other matters. (Note that regulatory and autonomous behaviors are both cybernetic concepts, but I will not elaborate on them here; instead, I will focus on how the structure of the athanor is analogous to the purpose for which it was created, and how its operation informs the behavior of its operator.) The operations taking place within the belly of the machine no less than demonstrate the mysteries of alchemy. These demonstrations are the alchemist’s means for making sense of her world, for giving and finding order and integrity to it, with it, in it. She presents sulfur and mercury to the athanor, and the athanor tells her what happens when they come together. She re/cognizes allegory in the athanor’s tale, and extends the marriage of sulfur and mercury to objects that are not sulfur or mercury per se — including, perhaps, herself and the athanor.

This process of interactively discovering-inventing reality is treated explicitly in cybernetics and its epistemological constructivism [8]. Cybernetically speaking, the alchemist and athanor are structurally coupled and determined. Their inter-actions (cf. con-versations) involve changes in each which re/produce co-responding changes in the other (cf. the Hermetic Principle of Correspondence: “as above, so below”). The alchemist does something to the athanor, the athanor reacts to the alchemist’s action, the alchemist reacts to the athanor’s reaction, and so on. Each re/action occurs concurrently with structural changes in the re/actor, hence the import-ance (worth taking in) of the alchemist’s labor-atory (place of work).

Sad as it is to say, you never understand anything by merely reading a book about it. That’s why every science course includes laboratory experiments, and why every consciousness-liberation movement demands practice of yogas, meditations, confrontation techniques, etc. in which the ideas are tested in the laboratory of your own nervous system. [9]

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. [10]

The outer and the inner are one thing, one constellation, one influence, one concordance, one duration, one fruit. [11]

Now I would like to turn your attention from how the athanor is like the alchemist, to how the alchemist is like the athanor.

When the masters in alchemy say that little time and money are required to accomplish the works of science, above all when they affirm that one vessel alone is needed, when they speak of the great and unique Athanor which all can use, which is ready to each man’s hand, which all possess without knowing it, they allude to philosophical and moral alchemy. As a fact, the strong and resolute will can arrive in a short time at absolute independence, and we are all in possession of the chemical instrument, the great and sole Athanor which answers for the separation of the subtle from the gross and the fixed from the volatile. This instrument, complete as the world and precise as mathematics, is represented under the emblem of the Pentagram or five-pointed star, which is the absolute sign of human intelligence. I will follow the example of the wise by forbearing to name it: it is too easy to divine. [12]

The athanor is defined as a “self-feeding, digesting furnace, in which an equable heat is maintained.” Is not this a fairly good description of the human body? [13]

Commenting on organization (of the body) as message (cf. Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message” [14]), Wiener said, “the individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than that of a stone, of a form rather than that of a bit of substance” [15]. Paul Foster Case said, “It is the essence of fire, manifested as the human organism, which provides us with the instrument for the Great Work” [16]. What is the Great Work? “[It] is, before all things, the creation of man by himself [17], that is to say, the full and entire conquest of his faculties and his future” [18].

The ‘conquest of his faculties and future’ evokes cybernetics in the sense of Clynes and Kline and our purpose-ful use of technology to improve and extend our lives and our selves. In our “inner” laboratory, we re/combine (solve et coagula) our experiences to inform novel experiments, increasing the variety of re/actions we are capable of and wisdom to know which re/actions are appropriate to various circumstances. It suggests taking response-ability for our participation in the con-struction (building with) of the world, the “outer” laboratory. “In a piece of wood there lie concealed the forms of all animals, the forms of plants of every description, the forms of all instruments; and he [and she] who can carve them finds them” [19].

The ‘creation of man by himself’ suggests self-organization, autonomy, and autopoiesis (“self-creation”) [20], and the idea that any living organism maintains itself through operational closure (cf. hermetically sealed), feedback, and dynamic equilibrium. “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest (let no one belong to another, who can belong to herself).” The “internal” athanor is the womb through which we are born again, of our immaculate conception (cf. incorruptible gold), not violated by “external” in-fluence (flowing in). “For it is not on paper that you will find the words to understand, but in Him [and Her] who put the words on paper” [21].

Books and newspapers, audio and videotapes, street signs and so forth do not contain information, but rather they transport potential information, and that is an important difference. If you don’t understand Chinese, the characters of the I Ching will just look like a bunch of chicken scratches on white paper. The world contains no information. The world is as it is. […] [Informed behavior] takes place in a person who has transformed a signal into a piece of information. (emphasis in original) [22] [23]

What is necessary is to recognize the nervous system as a unity defined by its internal relations in which interactions come into play only by modulating its structural dynamics, i.e., as a unity with operational closure. In other words, the nervous system does not “pick up information” from the environment, as we often hear. On the contrary, it brings forth a world by specifying what patterns of the environment are perturbations and what changes trigger them in the organism. The popular metaphor of calling the brain an “information-processing device” is not only ambiguous but patently wrong. [24]

The older point of view saw, say, an ovum grow into a rabbit and asked “why does it do this” — why does it not just stay an ovum?” The attempts to answer this question led to the study of energetics and to the discovery of many reasons why the ovum should change […] Quite different, though equally valid, is the point of view of cybernetics. It takes for granted that the ovum has abundant free energy, and that it is so delicately poised metabolically as to be, in a sense, explosive. Growth of some form there will be; cybernetics asks “why should the changes be to the rabbit-form, and not to a dog-form, a fish-form, or even to a teratoma-form?” […] Even whether the system is closed to energy or open is often irrelevant; what is important is the extent to which the system is subject to determining and controlling factors. So no information or signal or determining factor may pass from part to part without its being recorded as a significant event. Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control — systems that are “information-tight” [cf. autonomy — J.M.]. (emphasis in original) [25]

The “outer” and “inner” athanor correspond to practical and spiritual alchemy. “There are two Hermetic operations, the one spiritual, the other material, and they are mutually dependent” [26]. Cf., “Some events have the appearance of proceeding from the outside into us, and others appear to originate within us and proceed outward. The lesson of all higher ecstasies is that this difference is arbitrary and unreal” [27].

Notes & References

  1. Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics, September 1960.
  2. Gregory Bateson, Step to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballentine Books, 1972) 454. Cf. Paracelsus: “[Man] is enclosed in a skin, to the end that his blood, his flesh, and everything that he is as a man [i.e., a Little World or microcosm] may not become mixed with the Great World [macrososm].” This agrees with the operational closure of autopoietic systems.
  3. Andy Clark, “Natural-Born Cyborgs?” Science at the Edge: Conversations with the Leading Scientific Thinkers Today (New York: Union Square Press, 2008) 73.
  4. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (New York: Wiley, 1948) 19.
  5. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (New York: Avon, 1967) 25.
  6. Ibid., p. 38.
  7. Bateson, op. cit., 459.
  8. For more about constructivism in this context, see Lynn Segal’s The Dream of Reality: Heinz von Foerster’s Constructivism, 2nd Ed. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2001).
  9. Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising (Tempe: New Falcon, 1983) 28.
  10. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: Bantam, 1984) 293.
  11. Paracelsus and Jolande Székács Jacobi (Ed.), Paracelsus: Selected Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  12. Éliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual (York Beach: Weiser Books, 2001) 115.
  13. Paul Foster Case, Esoteric Keys of Alchemy (Vancouver, BC: Ishtar Publishing, 2006) 11.
  14. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Mentor, 1964) 23. Cf. Paracelsus: “the shape of man is formed in accordance with the manner of his heart.”
  15. Wiener, op. cit., p. 139. Cf. p. 130: “It is the pattern maintained by homeostasis which is the touchstone of our personal identity. Our tissues change as we live: the food we eat and the air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and the momentary elements of our flesh and bone pass out of our body every day with our excreta. We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides but patterns that endure.” Cf. also, “Pythagoras stood for inquiry into pattern rather than inquiry into substance,” in Bateson, op. cit., p. 449.
  16. Case, op. cit.
  17. Cf. the Tetragrammaton and Exodus 3:14: “I am that I am.”
  18. Lévi, op cit., p. 113.
  19. Paracelsus, op. cit.
  20. For more about autopoiesis, see Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowlegde: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Revised Ed. (Boston: Shambhala, 1987).
  21. Paracelsus, op. cit.
  22. Heinz von Foerster and Bernhard Poerksen, Understanding Systems: Conversations on Epistemology and Ethics (New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 2002) 96.
  23. Cf. Von Foerster’s Hermeneutic Principle: “The hearer, not the speaker determines the meaning of an utterance,” in Sara B. Jutoran, “The Process from Observed Systems to Observing Systems,” Nova Southeastern University School of Humanities and Social Sciences 26 Nov. 2008.
  24. Maturana and Varela, op. cit., p. 169.
  25. W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1957) 4.
  26. Lévi, op cit.
  27. Peter J. Carroll (talking about the magical wand and cup as will and perception), Liber Null and Psychonaut (Boston: Weiser, 1987) 188.

Lectio Divina Cybernetica

Ora, lege, relege, labora, et invenies (Pray, read, reread, work, and you shall find) [1].


This article outlines two methods for participating in a profound understanding of cybernetics and systems, based on the religious practice of Lectio Divina [2].




Find a place and time where-when you can think and feel quietly and without distraction. If LDC is to be practiced regularly, it may be best to practice at the same place and/or time every day.


Do something to move from an ordinary state to an extraordinary one, such as a banishing ritual, no-form exercise, or just center yourself and take several deep breaths.

Invocation (optional)

Traditional LD practice was intended as a deepening relationship between the participant, God, and the Word of God i.e. the the Holy Bible. For LDC, it may be necessary (particularly for the last two phases of the first method) to invoke a deity with which you have strong intuitive associations of being generative and/or nutritive of cybernetics and systems.

First Method

Lectio Divina has been likened to “Feasting on the Word.” The four parts are first taking a bite (Lectio), then chewing on it (Meditatio). Next is the opportunity to savor the essence of it (Oratio). Finally, the Word is digested and made a part of the body (Contemplatio). [3]

Spend about 15 minutes each or one hour total on the following four activities.

Lectio (reading; the eyes)

Choose an article from the book and read it slowly and carefully, several times. Remember that such an article is a passage: it takes you somewhere.

Meditatio (reflection; the head)

Meditate on the meaning of the read article.

Oratio (prayer; the heart)

Open a dialog with your invoked deity, about the intuitive meaning of the read article.

Contemplatio (contemplation; the gut)

Rest joyfully in the presence of the invoked deity, allowing those things which have perturbed your heart and mind to permeate your gut and throughout your body.

Second Method

This is based on John Uebersax’s “A Method for Lectio Divina Based on Jungian Psychology” [4]. See the article for suggestions on how to successfully operate in each phase.


Read the chosen article as a sensual experience, i.e. without trying to make sense of it, without trying to comprehend its meaning.


Re/read the article again, slowly and carefully, playing with the words and making mental associations.


Re/read the article again with intent to bypass your intellectual mind and gain an intuitive experience of the words’ meaning(s). Do not focus much on the words themselves, unless one calls to you intuitively.


Re/read the article again, and as with the previous phase (Intuiting), do not attend much to specific words. Experience the text emotionally, and rest joyfully and gratefully in the presence of Greater Good.

Notes & References

1. Isaac Baulot (?), Mutus Liber.

2. Luke Dysinger, “Accepting The Embrace Of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina,” (1990).

3. Wikipedia: Lectio Divina.

4. John Uebersax, “A Method for Lectio Divina Based on Jungian Psychology,” (2007).

Of Magic and Machine

Related articles: Being Athanor: The Alchemist as Cyborg | A Concise Expression of My Synthesis of Cybernetics and Magic

This article was originally published in Patterns: Newsletter of the American Society for Cybernetics, and has since had some minor, aesthetic edits.

Oh cyborg, as a man you’re magic; as a machine you’re mean, mean, mean.
// The Legendary Pink Dots, “Love in a Plain Brown Envelope”

The words magic and machine have common etymological ancestry in the Proto-Indo-European magh-, meaning “to be able, to have power.” A machine is a thing that can (cf. the Little Engine That Could), and a magician is one who can (beyond ordinary limits).

We use the word magic colloquially to label things we have trouble explaining or articulating, including “impossibly” mis/fortunate circumstances, the feeling of being in love, and awe of religious experience (mystery). Academic definitions of magic vary, but many distinguish magic from religion by its emphasis on efficacy; again, can-ness. Prestidigitation presents the illusion of a magician’s extraordinary ability to influence her environment, that produces a sense of wonder in her audience. We (often pejoratively) call nonscientific causal reasoning magical thinking. “[Science] regards magic as a pernicious delusion that encourages sloppy thinking and erodes the educational base that supports the glorious progress of the machine age” [1].

By contrast, a machine’s “dynamisms are apparent” [2]. The disparity between a magic trick’s actual mechanism — the reason it works — and its suggested mechanism, qualifies the deceit. (From this point forward, when I use the word magic, I mean in its paranormal sense.)

The opposition of magic and technology as causal agencies has been featured in some science fiction, e.g., the Bene Gesserit vs. the Spacing Guild in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Shapers vs. Mechanists in Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, and the inverse relationship between a person’s “essence” (which determines her capacity for magic) and her “cyberware” (electromechanical implants) in the Shadowrun franchise. These fantastically echo the vitalism vs. mechanism debate. See also Orga vs. Mecha in the film A.I., and natural vs. artificial. (For a good look at magic as technology, and the evolving relationship between magic and information technology, I refer you to [16 pp.179–189].)

Mechanism says all natural phenomena including life can be explained by physical causes, and has associations with reductionism. Vitalism says there is something extra — a vital spark, spirit, soul (mind), intelligence, or other animating force at work — that distinguishes life from other phenomena, and is related to animism, which says plants, animals, and even some objects we would otherwise consider in-animate, more or less possess this extra something (the words animal and animate derive from Latin anima, “soul”). Vitalism and animism tend toward top-down development: there is some Great Spirit/Soul which somehow informs all spirits/souls, if it does not altogether control them. Mechanism tends to develop bottom-up: complex systems emerge from interactions of simpler (sub)systems.

We can play a game of Venn diagrams and imagine, as others have [3], that there exists a circle encapsulating those things which modern science agrees belong to Nature, the domain of phenomena ratified by scientific method, and that beyond this circle is the province of the extra-ordinary, meta-physical, para-normal, and super-natural, inhabited by gods, ghosts, aliens, miracles, and other anomalous entities and events. We might find people rejecting extracircular experiences because they do not fit inside the circle (cf. cognitive dissonance), and we might find people seeking extra-circular experiences in order to see if there is anything outside the circle (note how because and in order to relate respectively to efficient and final causality [4]). We might find people who believe everything outside the circle can be explained by something inside the circle, and people who express difficulty describing anything outside in terms of things inside.

We might even find what was once outside the circle is now inside the circle. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” [5]. We might find the acquisition of new knowledge and abilities involves some change in the circle’s boundary or contents, and that new circles become old circles become new circles. “Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions” [6]. We might find this process continues ad infinitum. “Liberation, remember, is indefinitely progressive” [7].

We might find people whose circles include things beyond the circle of mechanism, who reject the hypothesis that humans can be entirely understood as machines, or that any artifact can genuinely simulate (!) a natural human, because such hypotheses make their world — their circle — smaller. And we might imagine that beyond the present circle of mechanism, “there is the possibility that we may progress towards making artifacts so remarkable that they utterly transcend our present ideas of what constitutes a ‘machine’, and of what a machine’s limitations must be” [3 p.17].

Today it is common to talk about machines that think and talk, as microcontrollers and network communications are becoming ubiquitous. (Of course, in philosophy and science, our assumptions should be explicit and our language precise. The validity of machines thinking and talking depends on how we define thinking and talking, often determined by our observations of things whose thinking and talking we take for granted.) Philip K. Dick observed [8]:

[…] our environment, and I mean our man-made world of machines, artificial constructs, computers, electronic systems, interlinking homeostatic components — all this is in fact beginning more and more to possess what the earnest psychologists fear the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves.

I emphasized that last phrase because it speaks to how human technology resembles human wants even as it changes them. “There is circularity here: the world determines what we can do and what we do determines our world” [9]. In his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Raymond Kurzweil predicts that by 2099, humans and machines will converge until it is nearly impossible to tell them apart.

Perhaps the Age of Spiritual Machines began in the Paleolithic era, with the “mystical solidarity” of Paleoanthropic hunters and their prey [10]. Insofar as humans are machines, some of our models pray for guidance and intercession, query oracles, exhibit talismans, manipulate poppets, evoke daemons, invoke deities, ascend out of our bodies, and descend into spiritual underworlds. By and large, we do these things in order to understand and improve our circumstances (not because they do).

With a nod to Warren McCulloch, I ask: What is magic, that a person may do it, and a person, that she may do magic? For my purposes in this article, I find Jesper Sørensen’s definition of magic most appropriate [11]:

Magic is about changing the state or essence of persons, objects, acts and events through certain special and non-trivial kinds of actions with opaque causal mediation.

‘Opaque causal mediation’ appears earlier, in Aleister Crowley’s “De Machina Magica” [12]:

Lo! I put forth my Will, and my Pen moveth upon the Paper, by Cause that my will mysteriously hath Power upon the Muscle of my Arm, and these do Work at a mechanical Advantage against the Inertia of the Pen. I cannot break down the Wall opposite me by Cause that I cannot come into mechanical Relation with it; or the Wall at my Side, by Cause that I am not strong enough to overcome its Inertia. To win that Battle I must call Time and Pick-axe to mine aid. But how could I retard the Motion of the Earth in Space? I am myself Party of its Momentum. Yet every Stroke of my Pen affecteth that Motion by changing the Equilibrium thereof. The Problem of every Act of Magick is then this: to exert a Will sufficiently powerful to cause the required Effect, through a Menstruum or Medium of Communication. By the common Understanding of the Word Magick, we however exclude such Media as are generally known and understood. Now then, o my Son, will I declare unto thee first the Nature of the Power, and afterward that of the Medium.

I emphasized the sentence that intersects with Sørensen’s opacity (note ‘generally known and understood’ = vulgar), but I also want to point out the many cybernetics-friendly concepts alluded to: volition, mechanism, constraint, amplification, ecology and dynamic equilibrium, and control and communication. Crowley asserted that all intentional acts are “magickal” (he restored the terminal ‘k’ to distinguish “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” [13] from legerdemain), and that the proper use of magic is to find and do one’s “True Will.” Cf. cybernetics as the study of teleological mechanisms.

If we admit a model of causality that includes a cause (input), effect (output), and rule of transformation, then what distinguishes a magical technique from a mundane one is that the rule of transformation is unknown — cf. a black box. We might trivialize the relationship between the cause and effect as correlation or “mere coincidence” (cf. Jung’s synchronicity: “an acausal connecting principle”), but at the cost of “legitimate” inquiry (“questions to which the answers are unknown” [14 p. 209]).

Cybernetician-cum-magician Heinz von Foerster defined some differences between trivial and non-trivial machines in “‘Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception” [14]. Most devices we refer to when we say “machine” are trivial. “A trivial machine is characterized by a one-to-one relationship between its ‘input’ (stimulus, cause) and its ‘output’ (response, effect).” Trivial machines are predictable and so agreeable to scientific method. If the actual output is not identical to the expected output, we infer the machine is broken or there was something different about it input, and usually we are correct, i.e., we can adjust the machine or its input until the output again conforms to our expectation (notice the role of feedback in our relation to the machine). Clearly, a person is not a machine in the trivial sense (though we are not lacking attempts to demonstrate that she is), but has something extra. When we call someone a robot or automaton, who behaves like a mindless or emotionless machine, we implicitly accuse her of behaving trivially in the sense of not being response-able.

By comparison, a non-trivial machine’s “input-output relationship is not invariant, but is determined by the machine’s previous output” — cf. feedback. Such machines are, like chaotic systems, determinate but effectively unpredictable: the same input will not necessarily generate the same output. Von Foerster explains:

In order to grasp the profound difference between these two kinds of machines it may be helpful to envision “internal states” in these machines. While in the trivial machine only one internal state participates always in its internal operation, in the non-trivial machine it is the shift from one internal state to another that makes it so elusive.

The dynamisms of non-trivial machines are not apparent; they are literally occult (the word person derives from Latin persona, “actor’s mask”). As with trivial machines, we can observe their behavior and so infer their “internal” operations, but the more input-output combinations there are, the more difficult it becomes to conclusively establish something we can consistently reproduce in laboratories and text books. Often such lawfulness requires trivializing complex systems — cf. discrete analysis of a continuous series (digital vs. analog). Urban Kordeš observes, “The advantage of the analytical-reductionist approach lies in the fact that [unlike magic — J.M.] it always comes up with a result” (his emphasis) [15].

Kordeš adds, “the phenomenon of life cannot be treated as a trivial affair, neither can living beings be considered as mere trivial systems.” There is the specialty of life, again. I suppose his distinction between trivial and non-trivial parts of phenomena is meaningful and useful as a distinction between mechanical and magical thinking and doing — here we might recognize constructivist epistemology (emphasis in original):

[…] the dividing line runs along the border between the part we can satisfactorily describe as separated from the observer and the part for which such idealisation is no longer functional.

Cf. Davis’ distinction between causal and participatory frameworks for ordering reality, based on Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality [16]:

Causality boils down to the pragmatic rationalism of science: The detached individual ego divides and fragments the welter of the world according to objective and explanatory schemes based on neutrality and instrumental action. In contrast, the world of participation plunges the individual into a collective sea that erodes the barrier between human agency and the surrounding environment. In this world, which I am associating with the magical paradigm, language and ritual do not objectively delineate the world but help bring it into being; objects are organized according to symbolic resemblances and the rhetoric of dream rather than the dry and objective classifications that pack scientific texts or corporate reports.

Davis adds that “though our [modern] cosmology is scientific, our cultures, psyches, and collective rituals are not.”

It is trivializing to treat all magical entity-events as myths intended to describe a (trivial) causal phenomenon. A shaman does not invent spirits to fill gaps in an otherwise rational representation of reality-as-it-really-is. She experiences them empirically or intuitively, and tells a story of her experience in an appropriate language. Her story might become myth as it passes into the hands of analysts who labor to separate fact from fiction, but that distinction was not part of her original operation [17]. The shaman does not create myths; she participates in the bringing-forth of her world through ‘special and non-trivial kinds of actions’.

Perhaps instead of reducing deities and daemons to archaic explanatory contrivances, we might treat them as interactive agents. Could Pask’s Conversation Theory apply to evocation or invocation? (Note that Turing’s famous test for artificial intelligence does not test for any specific mechanism of intelligence. Intelligence or lack thereof is inferred through “natural” dialog, same as with any person we may meet in the street. Why not as well a daemon in a triangle or the spirit of a tree?)

Can we treat magic as a boundary phenomenon, exploring it as part of a “socio-somatic-semiotic process of differentiation” [18]?

Can the state transitions formalized by cybernetics help us understand and perhaps improve the “altered” states of consciousness and “internal” states of awareness that magicians are renown for [19]? Can we usefully map divination and enchantment to knowledge and variety attenuation and amplification? Can we map the sensors and actuators of a machine to the perception and will of a magician, and what might attempts to do so teach us about these individual, combined, and converging systems?

What could the final causality of cybernetics have to do with the retrocausality described by some magicians [20] and parapsychologists [21]?

How does a cybernetic treatment of the mind-body problem accord with the “mind-over-matter” experiences reported by so many people? How does embodied cognition accord with so many reported “out-of-body” experiences? How does the position that “nothing can be said about a transcendental reality” [22] accord with so many reports of transcendental experiences?

In summary, I suggest we may re/combine the analysis of science and synthesis of magic, in useful and interesting ways, and that cybernetics — with its full range of interests from life-like machines to observer-created universes — is a suitable place to begin.

Notes & References

  1. Donald Tyson, Ritual Magic: What It Is and How to Do It (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1995) 97.
  2. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in “machine,” Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems, 18 June 2008
  3. Ramsey Dukes, Words Made Flesh (England: The Mouse That Spins, 2003) 4–9. Cf. [6 pp. 45–46].
  4. Heinz von Foerster, in Lynn Segal, The Dream of Reality: Heinz von Foerster’s Constructivism (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2001) 46.
  5. Arthur C. Clarke, in “Clarke’s Three Laws,” Wikipedia, 18 June 2008’s_three_laws.
  6. Norbert Wiener, The Human use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (New York: Avon, 1967) 66.
  7. Paul Foster Case, Introduction to Tarot (Los Angeles: Builders of the Adytum, 1961).
  8. Phillip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human,” Phillip K. Dick Fans, 18 June 2008 %20Human.htm.
  9. Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987) 177.
  10. Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981) 5.
  11. Jesper Sørensen, A Cognitive Theory of Magic (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2007) 32.
  12. Aleister Crowley, Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly, The Hermetic Library, 18 June 2008
  13. Aleister Crowley, “Definition and Theorems of Magick,” Magick, Liber ABA, Part 3: Magick in Theory and Practice, The Hermetic Library, 18 June 2008
  14. Heinz von Foerster, Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2003) 207–209.
  15. Urban Kordeš, “Participatory Position,” Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems 3.2 (2005): 77–83.
  16. Erik Davis, TechnGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998) 174.
  17. Michael Harner, “Shamanism, Myth and Reality,” CD, Foundation for Shamanic Studies (2004).
  18. Yair Neuman, Processes and Boundaries of the Mind: Extending the Limit Line (New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 2003) 82.
  19. See Dennis R. Wier’s Trance: From Magic to Technology for development in this area.
  20. Peter J. Carroll, Liber Kaos (Boston: Weiser Books, 1992) 33–40.
  21. See Thomas Etter and Richard Shoup’s works on Link Theory and psi, for developments in this area, apropos of Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form
  22. Humberto Maturana, in Ernst von Glasersfeld, “Distinguishing the Observer: An Attempt at Interpreting Maturana,” Oikos, 18 June 2008