Book Review: The Apophenion
by Peter J. Carroll
(Mandrake Press 2008) $23.00
Reviewer: Ian Vincent
“It’s all ‘cos of Quantum.” — Sir Terry Pratchett.
It’s a common meme in New Age writing is to use physics paradigms, from vague hand-waving about “vibrations” and “energies” to the movie What the Bleep Do We Know!?. Rarely does this go beyond crude wielding of metaphors not actually understood by the proponent. (Fair enough — you don’t have to be a physicist to make use the metaphor. . . but most often it’s used lazily.) So it’s a real treat to see this idea explored well.
After a long absence from the field, Pete Carroll, the Father of Chaos Magic, comes back with a new interpretation of the Chaos paradigm, heavily rooted in his own background in mathematics and a strong appreciation of modern physics, as well as his extensive magical investigations.
He starts with a simple distinction — between being and doing. Considering what an object or person or phenomenon does, rather than what it is allows one to examine the assumptions that underlie so much of western thought, especially the processes which fuel division and bigotry: “. . . the seemingly innocuous idea of ‘being’ encourages sloppy thinking and prejudice, it allows us to create idiotic religious ideas, it prevents us from understanding how the universe works, and it renders us incomprehensible to ourselves.”
From this simple basis, he extrapolates a plausible and coherent system of thought which encompasses magical phenomena and materialistic science without the need for a separate controlling/ creating godlike entity.
He’s taking a similar tack as the later work of the last truly great writer who combined quantum models and magical thought, Robert Anton Wilson (especially in books such as Quantum Psychology), but Carroll’s take is more methodical and much clearer.
It’s also instructive to compare his perspective to the tenets of the “New Atheist” position on the nature of consciousness and evolutionary reasons for the existence of belief — especially in Chapter 4, where he says;
“. . . where does the widespread idea of literally real gods and spirits come from?
It comes from the same ‘theory of mind’ facility that has evolved to equip us with a working hypothesis about the existence of minds in other people (and animals), and a self-image.”
… a position many neurotheologists would consider entirely reasonable. I suspect however that few of them would be able to make Carroll’s (from my perspective, entirely reasonable) leap into a (his term) Neo-Pantheism, which holds scorn for the fundamentalism of both faith and science.
His description of the (no shock!) eight underlying principles of Neo-Pantheism are one of the many very precise pleasures of this book. I found myself nodding in agreement with each of them.
Later chapters expand on these basics, discussing consistent (and verified as plausible by several anonymously-thanked physicists) models in both quantum and astrophysics which allow not only for magic to work but for it to fit our understanding of the physical world. No small trick — and the science bits (though complex) are elucidated well (though visualizing a “vorticitating hypersphere” was beyond me!).
Then, to cap it all off, he introduces us to the newly-minted goddess Apophenia. The word apophenia is usually taken to mean “false pattern recognition” (it was that usage of the term by William Gibson that first drew my attention to it), but as Carroll points out, that just means, “finding pattern or meaning where others don’t” — something many magicians do on a regular basis.
Apophenia is often acquainted with a similar trait (also incarnated as a goddess here) called Pareidolia — best illustrated by the excellent blog on the subject Madonna of the Toast. Carroll illustrates the difference between them thus: “. . . whilst Apophenia could bring the Universe to us in a grain of sand, Pareidolia merely distracts us with the face of the Virgin Mary in a pavement pizza,” (though he does note Her influence in art and mystical religion).
The ritual given for working with Apophenia — and to a lesser degree her sisters Pareidolia and Eris (who should need no introduction!) — does require some background in the working style of Chaos magic in general and IOT-based ritual work in particular, but even if you don’t swing that way, it holds a lot of useful tools.
The appendices give deeper explorations of the maths involved in his model and a brief description of how the concept of Apophenia-as-goddess was born.
Like any paradigm there are a few things he takes for granted, and sometimes these assumptions are not fully explained or justified — but for the most part it all holds together nicely and it certainly held the attention of this reviewer (who, though someone who uses Chaos concepts in my work, was not the biggest fan of Carroll’s earlier books). Though the paradigm is not perhaps a complete one (and to his credit Carroll says precisely this) I suspect it’s as close to a Unified Field Theory of Science and Magic as we’re going to see for quite a while.
The whole thing is leavened with Carroll’s characteristic dry wit — for example: “I describe anyone I’ve not actually net as ‘imaginary.’ (Only lunch can translate imaginary people into real people.)” Several pages also have more poetic insights, including a new-variant Tree of Life, nicely illustrated by Ingrid Glaw.
A small book in size, but enormous in scope. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their own praxis or models of the universe, to magicians looking for ways to reconcile their worldview with modern scientific thought, and especially to pagans who need convincing that Chaos Magic isn’t all about wearing black and not believing in anything.
Review content ©2009 Ian Vincent
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Ian Vincent was born in 1964 and is a lifelong student of the occult. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying wider aspects of the Art. He blogs on magical theory.