The subtle art of insanity

Most of us are afraid of insanity, yet in a sense we go insane every day. Being sane is keeping your thinking on a pre-defined track, keeping on some pre-defined train of thought. The social definition of sanity, the 'clean' way of living, the 'right' track, is only one definition, one world-view: indeed, it could be argued that the current social definition of what is sane is itself so insane - in the literal sense of 'unhealthy' - that we cannot be personally sane in this culture. To be personally sane, it seems, we must be socially insane.

We have arrogant images of other cultures, but fail to see the insanity in our own: we can't see our own point of view from that point of view. For example, many people express horror at the enforced placement of Soviet dissidents in mental hospitals: but look at it from the Soviet point of view. From that view-point the Soviet state was, by definition, the nearest to perfect that can be achieved, so anyone who disagrees with it is mad, and should be placed in a mental institution for their own good. And we do much the same, in our own ways: anyone who doesn't fit the neat rules of the system - like the eccentric who moves in different circles - is neatly forgotten, or hounded as a 'subversive'.

To admit such insanity - anything which doesn't fit - into the sane world with its so-sane, so-safe belief system is indeed subversive: anything which can shift our way of thinking from its pre-defined tracks could destroy the whole tidy but brittle logical structure, and with it that sense of reasonableness, of 'rightness' - 'with God on our side' - that that structure brings.

Yet that is exactly what we have to do when we learn any skill: we have to change the rules, the assumptions we use in working on the world. Looking at a bicycle for the first time, you know you cannot ride it: with only two wheels, it's inherently unstable. In particular, you know that you can't ride it. Yet all around you are people riding bicycles... So how do you learn to include into your world-view the new rules necessary to ride it; and what would the use be, anyway? What's the point?

In essence, how do you learn how to discover; how do you learn how to learn? Not, it seems, by being 'reasonable':

The origin of discoveries is beyond the reach of reason. The role of reason in research is not hitting on discoveries - either factual or theoretical - but verifying, interpreting and (developing them and building a general theoretical scheme. Most biological "facts" and theories are only true under certain conditions and our knowledge is so incomplete that at best we can only reason on probabilities and possibilities.

[W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation]

Being reasonable can only tell us more about what we already know, in a logic we already know: it cannot tell us or give us anything new other than this delusory sense of 'rightness'. If we are to learn, we must discover - and this is, as Beveridge says, 'beyond the reach of reason'.

The analytical mode of thinking, on which most training is based, works only with the statement "Here is a question: what is the answer?". It can only be used to deduce an answer from premises, assumptions, already provided, where all the conditions are known: it's not so successful in the real world, where 'facts and theories are only true under certain conditions'. In practice, real-world problems tend to come up not as the tidy "Here is a question: what is the answer?", but something more like "Here is an answer: so what was the question?"

I know this problem only too well from computer programming. A digital computer, by definition, is a logical beast: unless something is physically wrong with its electronics, it will always do exactly what it is told to do, and only what it is told to do. So when a program 'goes wrong' - does not produce the results I wanted - it's not the machine's fault: it did exactly what I told it to do, it answered precisely the logic I gave it. So what on earth did I tell it to do?

It's relatively easy to analyse your way through a simple program, but the process can be slow; for a complex program, ridiculously so, to the extent that proper logical test procedures for many programs could take thousands of years to run. So if we can't be logical, we have to be illogical - or at least non-logical - in our thinking.

In debugging a program, everyone's techniques will be different: there is no set method. If you rush in with assumptions about where the problem is, you can easily spend hours looking in entirely the wrong place: it pays to be slow, methodical, careful, listening to the 'sense' of the problem and the conditions around it. One technique I tend to use is to look at things from the program's point of view and, by pretending to 'be' the program, get the program to tell me the circumstances, the context, in which the error occurred. But anything goes, anything will do; the only criteria, as we've seen before, is that it should be efficient, reliable, elegant (if you like), and appropriate.

Note, too, that a technique that's appropriate at one point - checking the values of variables, for example - may be a waste of time at another. You build a 'toolkit' of ideas, of techniques, of methods, using each as appropriate. What you do not do is stick slavishly to one technique: that's sometimes known as the 'Birmingham screwdriver' approach - using a big hammer for everything! It has some unexpected uses, perhaps, but not for everything...

The failure of logic

Yet this is only within the artificial world of a computer program: all the rules have been pre-defined and are, somewhere, known. Many people would, I suppose, say that the aim of science is to discover all the rules of reality, the 'laws of the universe', and link them into one tight network of logical correlations: but this is, in reality, doomed to failure by its own logic.

At first sight, a logical analysis of reality, a reduction into ever smaller and smaller parts, looks as though it would actually work: but in practice this approach is a classic example of what de Bono describes as the 'magnitude mistake'. Reality is simply too big. To enmesh the whole of reality into this network, we must include every factor, every incident, every possibility: if we fail to do so, we cannot reliably analyse anything, since it may be affected by some factor we have not yet included. For each factor we tie into the net, we increase the correlations factorially; when only two factors are compared, there are only two correlations, with three there are six (1 × 2  × 3), for four there are twenty-four (1  × 2  × 3  × 4), and so on. With only seven factors, seven aspects whose variations have to be taken into account, there are over five thousand correlations to make; yet in our experience, we know that there must be an almost infinite number of factors to take into account whenever we work on the real world.

So we have an impossibly huge number of correlations to make - the nonsense number of 'infinity factorial' - which, since each correlation takes a finite amount of time, however it is done, will take an almost infinite amount of time to do. And since many of the factors operate within time, and are related as events within time, we have an impossibility: not in theory, but in practice. We cannot do it: as is so often the case, science works as a world-view in theory, but not in practice.

If we are to work on the real world, in practice, we simply do not have the time to analyse everything. In practice, to learn about how people learn how to learn, we must look elsewhere for guidance.

Beginner's luck

The sequence with which we seem to learn many skills gives us a good starting point. At first, we can get the right result straight away: 'beginner's luck', we call it. Then, after that initial burst of success, everything seems to collapse: we cannot hit the target however hard we try. Yet after a long period of practice, confidence and skill return: we finally know what we are doing, and how and why.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

[TS Eliot, Four Quartets]
But let's look at this in a different way. At that beginner's stage we know what the target is: so we get there. Without preconceptions, without assumptions, and with enough encouragement to convince us that it is possible, we simply get there. For example, on occasion I've had to teach dowsing to people very quickly: one example was on a television chat-show, where I had less than three minutes to show ten people how to find, as a team, a pipe under the lawn outside the studio - live, in front of the cameras. They did it, too. Whether they could do it again after the show was another matter...

The crucial point is that when we first start at a skill we know the target, but we do not know 'the way', the method, that we are expected - by tradition, by 'experts' or whatever - to use in order to reach the target: so we are free to invent any way of our own that will get us there, reliably. We make up the rules as we go along, in whatever way suits us.

The catch is that we often don't know what rules we've invented: we then have a long haul through analysis of one kind or another, through other people telling us 'what we really did' - and which usually stops us from getting anywhere near the target for a long time. It's only when you find out, through practice, what works for you that you can start again, working towards the target: and this time, since you've studied all the factors, in practical experience, you'll know how it works - for you - and why it works - for you. But not necessarily how and why it works for anyone else. You're following rules that you have invented for you: it's your point of view, not 'fact' at all.

There are facts, of course: the materials you work with, their responses, their textures, their strengths and weaknesses. You learn, quickly, that you don't apply the same force to a glass screw-thread as you would to a brass one. Even the most rigorously selected materials will have variations, which you will have to allow for; you may have to change your design, for example, to go round a knot in a piece of wood. The study of these problems, in all their fine detail, makes up what most people think of as technology.

But perhaps the most important facts relate to the way in which we approach those facts of the physical world: the study of 'gumption', that uncommon 'common sense', as Pirsig. described it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or, as Beveridge put it in his Preface:

Elaborate apparatus plays an important part in the science of today, but I sometimes wonder if we are not inclined to forget that the most important instrument in research must always be the mind [of the researcher]. It is true that much time and effort is devoted to training and equipping the scientist's mind, but little attention is paid to the technicalities of making the best use of it.

[W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation]

To put it another way, we need to develop a technology of mind.

Yet that is exactly what many people would describe as magic. This is more than that sense of magic that comes through in the process of discovery: the magical tradition has developed as a group of technologies in its own right. Historically, those technologies are primarily concerned with 'the technicalities of making the best use of [the mind]' - and through that, to changing the world through the way that we see the world and ourselves.

We could also rephrase this from a different viewpoint, that of skills-psychology. We can say that skills, as experienced, can be separated into three interdependent aspects: the mechanics of each skill, the outward form and the physical principles involved; the methods and techniques used, the outer actions; and the approaches of the individual to the work being done.

In that sense, the mechanics of the skill are the objective aspects, those which are common to everyone; the approaches to it are the subjective aspects; and any methods used are the means by which each individual resolves those aspects of themselves and the 'real' world in realising - literally, making real -the skill.

In effect, a method is a technique is also a belief. You make it up, you invent it: within the reasonable limits of the mechanics of the skill, anything goes.

The objective and the subjective - the mechanics of the skill and our approaches to it - define the context of the skill. You derive meaning yourself from that context, from the skill as you perceive it and from what you believe about it and yourself; and put it into practice as actions, as methods, as techniques.

So it's interesting to note that in present-day skills education, almost all training is based on method - which, as we can see, is the worst thing we could do. Very occasionally - as with Philip Harben's books on cookery, for example - we see the mechanics of the problems discussed in detail before methods are presented: but it's definitely unusual. And references to the 'approaches' aspects are extremely rare: the classic is Eugen Herrigel's seminal Zen and the Art of Archery - from which Pirsig derived his whimsical title of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (followed by a few Californian-style titles like Spiritual Tennis, about which I'd prefer to forget). It was precisely because there was no book available for his students that Beveridge wrote The Art of Scientific Investigation - and, forty years later, it's still almost the only book of its type. And so it goes on: a typical problem created by people trying to tackle technology as if it were 'applied science'.

On occasion, when technology has been viewed as practice rather than theory, there have been books about its practical realities. One that comes to mind is How to Invent, by Laithwaite and Thring (pioneers in magnetic-levitation transport and magneto-hydro-dynamic electricity generation respectively), in which they stress the importance of 'thinking with the hands', and using chance, imagination and analogy as sources of ideas. But these are still so depressingly rare: as Pirsig put it, perhaps what we really need in universities are courses on 'gumptionology', the study of common sense...

Inventing reality

But let's return to the magical side of the discussion. Once we understand that paradox about 'things have not only to be seen to be believed, but also have to be believed to be seen', we can start to understand at least one peculiar aspect of skills. We have to believe that we can do it: otherwise our tramlined thinking, following its usual trains of thought, cannot conceive of the possibility of our doing it. We can't, for example, simply try harder:


Try harder to relax.

Not good enough - try harder!

Now you must put some effort into this: try hard to relax.

which, unless you're one of the lucky ones, will have left you anything but relaxed...

We have to invent the possibility of doing something new - and we create this from nothing. Indeed, as James Burke suggested in his book The Day the Universe Changed - a study of the cultural impact of changing technology - we don't really discover new 'facts' about reality: we invent them.

This has some important consequences. One side of this I first came across in a science-fiction story called Noise Level, by Raymond F. Jones. In the story, a group of researchers are called to a conference, in which they are shown convincing filmed evidence of an anti-gravity device. The inventor, now dead, worked alone, in a house stuffed full of all sorts of confusing items: a fully equipped engineering workshop and a physics lab, for example, side-by-side with a very complete library of books on magic.

Eventually, by working through the concepts involved, the researchers in the story re-create a just-about working anti-gravity device. Or think that they've re-created it: in fact they've invented it, for it turns out that the original device was a fake, the 'dead' inventor was an actor, and the whole conference an exercise in thinking - giving them enough random information to open up the 'noise filters' of their previous assumptions and let them invent new ways of working.

We invent new ways of working on the world every day. For example, we all know about 'willing' traffic lights to change, or 'manifesting' a parking space just when there's no parking to be had. Or, as another friend described, learning how to sense when his motorcycle needed attention, rather than relying on textbook checks and timetables. All coincidence, you could say, of course - but putting coincidence to use.

Another side of this takes us even further, beyond 'coincidence', into areas that are more readily thought of as magic. Here's one first-hand description of an extraordinary incident in otherwise very ordinary circumstances:

It was late one night, and a member of our small party [of musicians] had left his bags in the studio reception area. Unfortunately, on arriving at the studio, we found the door locked. We rang the bell, and waited [for the security guard]. We rang several times, but nothing happened.

Finally, one of our group walked forward, inscribed some brief designs on the door with his finger, and mumbled a few words under his breath. With a loud bang, the door swung almost wide open. I reckon it would have taken the simultaneous impact of three people on the door to have the effect of opening it so far. We went in before the door closed on its spring, and went over to the bags.

<small>The door didn't close completely, however: it couldn't, as the tongue of the lock was still in the locked position. It was as if the door had been unlocked, pushed open, and relocked in the open position.

But this had not occurred... neither had I been hypnotised, and so persuaded that the door had been opened by an invisible agency: that would not have got me past the door, and it would not have explained the bewilderment of the security guard when he finally arrived. What had occurred was a magical operation with an objective result.

[Richard Elen (unpublished manuscript)]

(Since including a fuller version of this report in a previous book, Needles of Stone, I've had the details confirmed independently by another member of the group involved). This interesting piece of magical 'lock-picking' wasn't an exercise in altering people's perception of reality - as is the case with many magical operations - but of altering, locally, the physical definition of reality.

In effect, what are often called the 'laws of physics' are like any other 'laws' within English law: they describe guidelines to be interpreted, not final facts.

In effect they describe what happens by default: the 'objective' world of public science is best described as a default reality. If we do nothing else, that is the physical reality we will perceive; but we can change our perception of it, and thus reality as we - and others - perceive it.

Another example: the Geller affair. Uri Geller was a much-publicised 'magician' (choose your own interpretation here) who demonstrated, under televised but suitably chaotic conditions, the 'magical' bending of metal objects such as spoons and watches. Whether he was faking it or not is actually irrelevant here: what matters is that he was convincing enough to be thought credible by respected authorities, who conveyed that impression to the people watching the programme. The result was that a large number of people found, overnight, that they could bend metal objects.

I was working with the British Society of Dowsers at the time and, despite the lack of any obvious link with our own work, many people came to talk to us about it. I remember, for example, one distinctly worried student who described how a spoon had wilted in his hand while he'd watched the programme; and a mother who said that her son had done the same, and had been able to repeat it at school the following day. She also said that he was bullied at school for years as a direct result: most people, including children, do not like their tight definitions of reality shattered in quite such a visible way.

After a time, of course, the whole affair fizzled out: the 'default reality' re-asserted itself. But during the affair, for many people, this non-normal metal-bending was included in their definition of reality. For them, and for those around them, it was real.

We don't have to look far for other well-documented examples of the bending of the rules that make up the default reality: fire-walking, psychokinesis and poltergeist, to name only three. In most cases we do know some of the circumstances in which these phenomena are created: for example, work by psychologist Kenneth Batcheldor and engineer Colin Brookes-Smith on the creation of conditions for relatively reliable levitation of objects under full instrument recording was published by the Society for Psychical Research more than two decades ago.

We don't know how these things work, and we probably never will; but we do know, to a surprising degree, how they can be worked. And that - how things can be worked - is all that a technology ever needs to know.

So if we are to create a magical technology, in which magic and technology are combined, we have these other tools at our disposal: we can change that 'default reality' if we need to. Which, if abused, as so many of our current tools are, could be a frightening prospect...

Changing the rules

Analytical thinking is what is still taught in schools as 'thinking'. It follows rules, precisely, to arrive at the correct answer to be deduced from those rules and the information it has to hand. In fact, computers do it better and faster than people can; so people have become worried by the implication that computers can think better than we can.

But this 'thinking' is hardly thought. An analytical program on a computer can only follow rules: it cannot create them. And a set of rules is simply a point of view, which itself selects the information which selects the point of view which selects the information... We have to be able to move outside of that cycle to see whether the rules we are applying are the best we could use.

I have a favourite dowsing example of this. One Australian author on the subject, who shall remain nameless, wrote a book describing what he called 'radial detection: a guide to the use of the radial detector, miscalled the divining rod'. 'Radial detection' was, he said, the sensation of specific physical radiations that he hadn't yet identified; but these 'radiations' could only be sensed by people who had no 'personal disadvantages' - no scars, no fillings in the teeth, no glasses. (I've yet to find such a perfect specimen of middle-aged humanity: presumably he was so perfect).

He later discovered map-dowsing, which caused him some intellectual difficulties: he couldn't understand how these physical radiations from distant places could emanate from maps. Yet they must do, he said; but you could only map-dowse if you had no personal disadvantages (again), had the map and yourself aligned precisely north-south, beneath a bare electric light-bulb, at midnight, and you must have no clothes on... Apart from being cold, it's not a very efficient method of map-dowsing: not surprisingly, I don't know any map-dowsers using this method.

He claimed, though, that this was not so much a method, as the only way in which it could be done. We can see how his logic, and the limits of his point of view, built up a set of rules that prevented him from seeing any other way of doing it. And if we are to take a technological view of magic (or is it a magical view of technology?), we need to look at the ways in which we operate on the world, to build a set of rules for each circumstance, each occasion: a set of rules that is efficient, reliable, elegant (if you like) and appropriate.

We need to use ideas, beliefs, techniques as tools. We need, as a friend once put it, to build a 'cosmic toolkit' of ideas and rules and points of view to be used - and to be put back in the toolkit again once we've used them.

To do that, we need to know how to change the rules.

Changing the rules means a temporary end to analytic thinking. That kind of thinking can only follow one set of tracks at a time: if you need to change tools, you'll need to change your trains of thought. If the new skill is a 'magical' one, you need to review your assumptions about the default reality; and also to overcome the psychological barriers that Batcheldor labelled as 'witness inhibition' and 'ownership resistance' or, more simply, 'this can't be happening' and 'it's not me that's doing it'.

The processes for creating and allowing these changes have been the main subject of magical and mystical study throughout the ages: this, if you like, is the real technology of mind. It comes up in any real study of science, too: Beveridge's chapter headings in The Art of Scientific Investigation include 'Chance', 'Imagination', 'Intuition', 'Reason: limitations and hazards'.

Scientific research has been described as 'one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration': analysis and reason may provide ninety-nine percent of science, and all of its public image, but without that one percent there would be no science at all. One of the best-known examples in the history of science (also quoted by Beveridge) is Kekulé's description of his discovery of the ring-like structure of benzene - now one of the cornerstones of organic chemistry - at a time when all molecules were assumed to have chain-like structures:

"But it did not go well; my spirit was with other things. I turned the chair to the fireplace and sank into a half sleep. The atoms flitted before my eyes. Long rows, variously, more closely, united; all in movement wriggling and turning like snakes.

"And see, what was that? One of the snakes seized its own tail and the image whirled scornfully before my eyes. As though from a flash of lightning I awoke; I occupied the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis... Let us learn to dream, gentlemen."

[F.A. Kekulé, quoted in W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation]

As any student of early chemistry will know, this choice of symbol was peculiarly apposite: Ourobouros, the serpent eating its own tail, is one of the key images of alchemy, symbolising an endless process of death and rebirth. Again, it's just a coincidence, like everything else: yet definitely one with a magical air to it.

There are, as you would expect, any number of methods for getting beyond the limitations of analytic thought. We can, though, break them down into three main classifications.

The first class set out to knock the analytic mode out of action, to force the train off the rails. Another, if imprecise term, is 'brainwashing': the analytic mode is hammered through any number of confusions into giving up its control. In political circles, the usual target is to put the mind 'back onto the right track', regardless of any damage to the train or its passengers. In magical circles, though, and particularly in mystical circles, the process is done with far more care, since there is no 'right' target to aim for. In these circles, alternate states of consciousness may be induced through violent dance, through fasting. through drugs or, more gently, through insanely repetitive chants and movements: but always under the direction of a 'master', or at least of someone who has some idea of what is going on.

It works, but I feel it's rarely appropriate in the more practical realms of technology. Putting it bluntly, it carries more dangers than advantages: it's not worth the trouble and the risk, let alone the discomfort. And it seems a sad fact, in my own experience, that none of the groups I've met that worked with these techniques really had much of a clue about what they were doing. The dangers are real: if you remain stuck 'off the rails', you're stuck in insanity.

The second class take a more gentle approach: they aim to lull the analytic thinking to sleep. They put the imagination to work: they suggest (rather than demand) parallels, comparisons, lines of thought, through analogy, allegory, myth and, perhaps most of all, through humour. Both the mystical and the magical traditions abound with a wry sense of humour, to suggest gently that there's always another way of looking at things, to show the limitations of 'normal' ways of thinking:

Nasrudin was carrying home some liver which he had just bought. In the other hand he had a recipe for liver pie which a friend had given him.

Suddenly a buzzard swooped down and carried off the liver.

'You fool!' shouted Nasrudin, 'you may have taken the meat - but I still have the recipe!'

[Idries Shah, The Exploits of the
Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin

The same tools of analogy and imagery are used in technology, particularly in 'brainstorming' sessions and the like. For example, the current design of zip-fasteners for space-suits was derived by analogy from the Daedalus myth of threading a shell by tying a thread to the leg of a spider; and the peristaltic pump - a pump for corrosive fluids, with no moving parts in contact with the fluid - is based on the workings of our own digestive systems.

Another approach is that of 'twisted logic', in which premises and assumptions are moved around an apparently reasonable way, like pieces in a chess game. Each step will have its apparent logic: but at the end of each sequence of moves a very different game is in play. (In case you hadn't noticed, it's the main principle used in this study ... )

And there are plenty of other tools, of course: as we've seen before, anything goes.

Meditation and similar techniques form the last class, which aim to raise another mode of thought to dominance. These are the hardest of all, but in many ways the most reliable: a slow process of meditation and the like can lead to a state in which the true/false judgements of logic become irrelevant. In the mystical tradition at least, this state is loosely described as 'enlightenment'.

To get to that stage, though, involves a total commitment and, usually, a total separation from the world in one sense or another, climbing higher and higher on some religious pole. And since, as technologists, as magicians, we are concerned with working in the world rather than viewing it in isolation from above, these approaches are probably not that important to us. Even so, the general techniques of meditation, for example, as tools for focussing the mind on one task, can be useful: as Leo put it in SSOTBME, 'all those boring books on meditation are roughly the equivalent of a chemistry primer' if the subject of study is the practical workings of the mind.

Most magical work plays games with the imagination, to realise and make real those images in the world that we - and others - experience. In technology, the imagination seems limited; but perhaps only because, as so-objective 'applied scientists', technologists have preferred not to show their human side. Yet that is insanity: for our technology is ourselves.

We should remember, too, that whatever we imagine is real - in imagination. It stays there until we realise it, until we make it real. We cannot cut bread with an imaginary knife; we cannot eat our words. (You can, said one magician friend, but they're not exactly fulfilling ... ) It's all too easy to get stuck in an imaginary world: the all-too-real world of nightmares, of paranoia, or of a dreamland that refuses to come into reality; or the frustration that comes when your skills fail to match your ambitions. And that, too, can lead to insanity - permanently.

So learning new skills, particularly those from the worlds of our imagination, we tread a delicate balance. We know, moving around the swamp of points of view, that we can go anywhere: but we have to do it with care.

This process really is 'the subtle art of insanity'; yet it leads us on to the practical art of magic.