Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts About Epistemic Closure

Now that the November election is over and most of the results have been tabulated, a new phrase has become vogue in some of the left-leaning political blogs, and that phrase is epistemic closure. It’s a fancy word that describes the fantasy-level wishful thinking that many on the political right had in regards to the predictions that President Obama would be re-elected by a sizable margin of voters and win a landslide of electoral votes.

It would seem that right-wing political pundits and various prognosticators were absolutely shocked that Obama cruised to an election victory on the night of November 6. I recall watching TV and the presidential election was called a little after 11 pm CST, when it became pretty clear that Obama had won the state of Ohio, much to the amazement of the Romney campaign. Mitt Romney had been so convinced that he was going to win the election that he had not bothered to write up a concession speech. Even Karl Rove tried to get FOX news to recant its projection that Obama had won the election while on TV before millions of viewers, and spent a terribly embarrassing twenty minutes or so disputing the projection for Ohio with the FOX news number crunchers. Those who had passionately backed the Republican ticket went through a period of utter denial and disbelief, saying that somehow the election had been erroneously called and that the news outlets were all in on some kind of national conspiracy.

Anyone who had been perusing the internet just a few days before the election would have found that the consensus of poling aggregators (like Nate Silver) had pretty much predicted an Obama victory, and that the national pols weren't as trustworthy as the individual battle ground state pols, which has become something of a pattern in the last several presidential elections. Yet the right-wing bloggers and pundits predicted a Romney landslide, which only made his defeat more astonishing, shocking and bitter to them. It was a situation where reality harshly intruded on the wishful thinking and collective denial of many Republicans who ardently believed and passionately desired the incumbent president to be decisively defeated. They had thought that the election was theirs to win, but the truth was that the Obama campaign was probably one of the best political organizations to be assembled in quite a number of years. They had little chance of winning once the Republican primaries were finished.

Now, nearly a month later, many of the right-wing pundits and commentators have proposed various nefarious scenarios where the election was somehow stolen by voter fraud or a series of underhanded manipulations. They have responded to their shock and disbelief by engaging in greater leaps of fantasy and self-serving rhetoric, saying the nation was now doomed and headed to a complete moral and financial collapse. All of these foolish beliefs and misinformation represent the fact that many on the right are living within their own “bubble,” and their apparent disconnect with reality has been correctly labeled by left-wing pundits as a form of epistemic closure. It’s a neat term that describes in philosophic terms the fact that some people are living in their own reality and refuse to acknowledge that the real reality is much more complex, nuanced and subtle than they realize. 

We don’t live in a world where obvious factions of good are combating against the obvious factions of evil. The good guys don’t wear white hats and the bad guys, black, since at times it’s hard to determine who is really good or bad. In fact, such a simple judgment of good and evil just doesn't make any sense at all. We really live in a grey secular world, and trying to project upon that world one’s overly simplistic religious mythology is likely the first step to becoming a certified nutcase (or at least talking like one).

Examples of the kind of lunacy that lurks within our supposed free thinking society are often found in the emails sent by anonymous trolls to the Daily KOS web page, and they are displayed in all their pathetic glory for all to see every Saturday morning. The spelling and grammar is atrocious, but the ideas espoused are completely over the top. It’s hard to imagine someone cogently thinking these thoughts, writing them and sending them to a liberal blog web page. I don’t believe that these emails are faked or in anyway edited or changed. They represent the true mental health of a small minority of right-wing individuals. Here a couple of samples that you can examine for yourself, and every Saturday there are several more presented in a blog article called the "Saturday hate-mail-a-palooza."

Obama will execute his evil plan through a mind-control technique called the Delphi protocol. This was developed by the NWO-connected Rand corporation during the cold war, and the stolen election was the first large-scale attempt to deploy the Delphi protocol.”    

Do you know what God looks like?  You aren't even fit to get on your knees before his likeness! You should be ashamed. Your plan to pull the plug on my grandma will not work, if I have to stand watch over her bedside for the Obamaloons come to smother her with a pillow every damn day of my life!!”  

I have already made some of these points in a previous article that I posted the day after the election, and if you missed it, you can read it here. However, I am more than a little bit concerned by the continued presence of epistemic closure that seems to be haunting the right-wing political machine in this country. It can be a pernicious malady resistant to change and oblivious to facts, but if it isn’t overcome, it could set the stage for an epic failure.

As occultists and magicians we should be looking at this social phenomenon as an example of what might happen to anyone who ends up believing too much in their own personal hype and who, therefore, refuse to allow objectivity to mitigate their emotional and mental excesses. Objectivity is the one palliative that can truly correct one’s erroneous beliefs and assumptions. Working magic alone for many years and being socially isolated and without any objective engagement with a peer group of fellow magicians will likely produce a state of epistemic closure. This is something that we collectively need to avoid at all costs.

So how does one fall prey to this terrible state of affairs? How do occultists or practicing magicians end up living in their own bubble, divorced from objective reality or scientific fact? I can say from experience that it sneaks up on you completely unaware, and it evolves over a period of time. It is subtle, at first, and after a period of time, it can ultimately lead one from conjecture and inference to complete distortion and delusion. Entering this state happens gradually, often without a troubled thought, warning or even an intuition of impending doom. By the time close associates, friends or family become aware of it, the bubble has completely closed and only reflects back one’s absolute sense of certainty and even destiny. Nothing can seem to penetrate that insular enclosure, just short of personal disaster. The trick is to either insure that it never happens or at least leave the door of possible dialogue always open to friends and family. Still, reality has a way of intruding sooner or later, since most pipe dreams are unsustainable.

I have personally experienced this kind of phenomenon when I was a member of Bill Schoebelen’s “Coven From Hell” many years ago. I was not alone, since all of the members of that small group ended up living in a bubble of misinformation, projected myth and outright delusion. When any of us were kicked out of that coven (and that eventually happened to everyone except Bill and Sharon), we found ourselves trying to cope with the cold and cruel objective world that had suddenly appeared before us. Our dreams and fantasies about living forever in an idyllic Wiccan Camelot were simultaneously and completely annihilated. I went through that terrible awakening and realization, and I know all too well why some would be very reluctant to do so. Yet in order to grow and evolve, it was an important and necessary thing to experience, since otherwise I would have become quite incapable of functioning in the real world.

Combating an occult version of epistemic closure requires first and foremost the ability to doubt oneself and one’s beliefs. If you are absolutely certain that you are right about your spiritual and occult beliefs, then it is likely that some form of closure is already occurring. In fact, it is healthy to doubt and question yourself about nearly everything at some point. Never be completely satisfied with any explanation or supposed irrefutable fact when it comes to occultism and mystical spirituality. You can accept proven scientific theories, but it becomes important to be a little bit skeptical about anything that is based on subjective experience, particularly experiences with paranormal or occult phenomenon.

It’s also important to be open minded about alternative possible perspectives or opinions concerning these phenomena, in fact I would say that it’s important to be open minded, period. It is prudent to avoid unproven dogma as well as urban myths and popular misconceptions. Gullibility and credulity are serious flaws in judgment that an occultist or magician should avoid wherever possible. A quick perusal of such web sites dedicated to debunking urban myths and misinformation can really assist one in staying above the cultural baloney factor, like the site Snopes dot com located here.

What keeps all of us magicians and occultists on the objective path is to get input and criticism from one’s peers. In fact, it is the peer group that acknowledges personal claims and accolades as either facts or fallacies. A magician can make all sorts of claims and brag about what he or she has accomplished to others, but a peer group of magicians is most qualified to make a judgement or determination about such claims and accomplishments. Likewise, a peer group can question the misinformation or even delusions that a magician might be operating under and save them the trouble of embarrassment or even disastrous consequences by pitting objective rationality against subjective illusions or delusions.

The reason why a peer group of magicians is so important is that they won’t judge a fellow practitioner’s claims as obviously false, but instead they will at the very least compare it to their own experiences, and at the most, they can test it for truth by taking the time to perform the same rites under analogous conditions. Also, there is no greater objective test of any magical working than doing it with a group of fellow magicians. While each participant will certainly experience something different and unique, the points that they will experience in common will undoubtedly reinforce and objectify the overall experience of magick. 

This is one reason why I believe it’s important for the beginner to have a group of individuals with whom he or she can perform group workings. Other magicians will certainly understand what a ritual magician has undergone while performing a working, and if they happen to have been there with him or her, they can certify that what was experienced was real and not fantasy based. Yet those who have no experience or knowledge of magick could never adequately judge whether a magician was experiencing something credible or not.

Therefore, cultivating a peer group and expanding beyond the typical impersonal social network of Face Book friends, Twitter feeds, blogs, email and other internet exchanges will ensure that the magician has a more healthy relationship with reality than otherwise. Looking for help and guidance from strangers on the internet is not very helpful or productive. Most towns have some kind of occult social collective, or at least, one can travel to the nearest metropolitan area to acquire that kind of social connection if it is lacking in the area close by. Finding other like-minded individuals who are not only sympathetic to magick but who are actual practitioners in their own right is just as important to a magician’s development as collecting the latest cutting edge occult lore or even finding a teacher. (Having recourse to a second opinion is important to curb the excesses of badly written books and teachers who are either incompetent or untrustworthy.)

As you can see, we can do a lot to make certain that regularly working magick and studying the occult doesn't put us into a socially isolated life situation. I have stated my opinion numerous times in this blog about the hazards of working forms of heavy or intense magick alone and without any input from other practitioners. We now have a name for the malady that can develop if magicians pursue their magical avocation without recourse to any degree of objective criticism or a rational examination of their work. 

Avoiding the pitfalls of epistemic closure is an important behavior and practice for the practicing ritual magician to adopt. While it might not drive someone insane to unwittingly undergo this malady, it can certainly make his or her occult path more difficult and could even force occult seekers to end their search prematurely. A key point is that a closed mind is a terrible curse to have to experience, particularly when reality harshly and decisively intervenes.

Frater Barrabbas            

1 comment:

  1. I like this Frater, you have made an excellent point here that has a massive import for all practitioners.

    Well done.