605. The well (VII)
On the intellectual level, here is a problem with Aleister Crowley’s work: Crowley claimed that he had repurposed magic as a science. “Our goal is religion, science is our method” served as his slogan, and as a slogan for his followers. By this, Crowley meant that he took a practical approach to magic similar to experimental science; so he fiddled around, adjusted the parameters here and there until the ceremony or spell worked; he kept detailed notebooks and referred back to them, adjusted until he achieved the required result. To buttress his claims, he made repeated references to Einstein, Russell, and other scientific figures of his day—and you see a similar trend continued in contemporary videos about cosmic consciousness and the link to quantum physics today.
The problem with Crowley’s approach is that elsewhere he admits that the kabbalah—magic more generally—amounts to pure number or the higher mathematics. Now, the higher mathematics might be connected to science but it is not science—in many ways it is much more like an art. Crowley was steeped in a late-Victorian scientific sensibility and I think that carries through into his approach to magic. People forget that the Victorians were sedately scientific and quite confident that science and technology brought almost automatic progress; everything had to be translated into scientific terms to be respectable—and often this was done in quite a crude way, scientism is old. Further, early on, Crowley met a chemist who was interested in alchemy and taught him much about the subject—Crowley, impressed by the man, seems to have carried “the scientific approach” into his other work.
What Crowley means when he says he is “scientific” is that he adopts a practical and common sense approach to the subject. The situation is analogous to when you change a wheel on a bike: the process is not truly scientific; but it requires a commonsensical approach that involves observation, reaction to empirical changes (the nut fell off again), and a willingness to iteratively change your approach as you work. Although all these elements are present in experimental science, I think they are really covered under the following headings: common sense, craft, and art.
For Crowley to say magic was “a science” concealed that it really touches on ontological matters—on what is prior to science—and does so in a fashion that is expressed in artistic or craftsman-like ways (after all, it is witchcraft). Mathematics and philosophy are linked, not only by the fact that they attract the highest IQs but because the two really concern the same area (at least as far back as Plato)—and both are especially linked via logic. So magic touches on areas that are, in fact, prior to science—and to call it “a science” is to drag it down into base matter, it represents a falsification and a degeneration.
This explains why Crowley’s poetry was so bad, he had rejected art and craft—eventually, his “magick” would be turned into “chaos magic”; an even more pared back “that’s what gets results” formulation, with even Crowley’s minimal artistry stripped out; and, even more than Crowley, chaos magic presents itself as science.
If you look at Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you see much more clearly what Crowley meant by “scientific magic”; the motorcycle is built with knowledge derived from science, and its construction is a technological feat—yet the motorcycle’s conception and its maintenance occur at a qualitative level that really concerns art and craft (the curious “gumption traps” where you get stuck in the maintenance process are resolved in moments of mystical clarity)—and both art and craft draw us back to the extreme abstraction that occurs in higher mathematics and philosophy, since both concern “knowledge about knowledge”—meta-knowledge, or, more simply, metaphysics. In this respect, magic becomes a craft that operates on Nature—with mathematics and philosophy being the abstracted rational procedures that examine Nature, and religion being magic codified for the masses.