Cosmic Dualism: The Elements and Game Theory
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all!
—”Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
Warm and cool, dry and moist, light and shadow — As human beings, our conceptual frameworks freely draw upon dualistic oppositions. Because we who practice magic are human, our magical paradigms partake of these conceptual divides, though as Magicians we have an intellectual responsibility to question whether our basic assumptions about the world are beneficial, or even warranted, for our magical development. When we find ideas which are useful for our occult endeavors, then cultivating our understanding of these ideas should facilitate their adaptation and application. On the other hand, when our paradigms constrain our capacity to engage our world constructively, we should make the intellectual effort to modify — or even to jettison — the offending assumptions.
From the above examples, we can readily see the influence of dualism and binary reasoning both upon ancient proto-science and within contemporary occult theory. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, when sketching out the fourfold division of the elements so integral to our contemporary magical thought, assigned to each element a primal quality based upon temperature and another based upon moisture, so that Fire was hot and dry, while Water was cold and wet. These pairs of essential qualities proposed by Empedocles — warm and cool, dry and moist — subsist upon binary thinking; without the assumption of either-or, they largely fail to “click” upon an intuitive level. An object may partake of some quality “Alpha” only insofar as the object does not partake of the opposing quality “Beta.” The composite substances which populate our visible world inevitably fall somewhere between these various extremes, yet by this thinking, the composition of any particular substance can always be defined with reference to absolutes, absolutes which can only exist in opposition one to another. Contribute heat, and thereby we move the object further from the primal absolute of cold. Take away water, and so much less does the object partake of the primal absolute of moist.
Taking the four primary composites of these qualities — what we would call the four elements — we have Fire (warm and dry) opposed to Water (cold and wet), and Earth (cold and dry) opposed to Air (warm and moist). Even in non-occult circles, there is the sense that each element acts as foil for its opposite. So when the practicing Magician first encounters the Watchtowers — and whatever their true origins and natures, they certainly seem to function as intelligences which personify the four elements — there arises the very natural tendency to perceive these four godforms as opposed, one to another, or to employ the paradigm and parlance of game theory, as engaged in a zero-sum game.
In the social sciences, the field of game theory has emerged to explain various social and economic interactions among several actors. Game theory proposes an individual faced with choices can be regarded as an essentially rational player of some game with defined rules, an actor who makes decisions and selects strategies in order to maximize their own self-interest. There exist many different kinds of games, with various actors and rules. One particularly crucial distinction is that between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. In zero-sum games, one player can only advance when another loses ground by the same amount. If there are only so many bricks in existence, and all available bricks exist as part of two houses, then my house can only expand when yours contracts. (I would very much enjoy a new game room. You weren’t using that foyer, were you?) In non-zero-sum games, by contrast, one player’s advancement does not have to come from another player’s loss, and often there exist cooperative strategies by which all players may advance together. (Let’s work together to build shelter which we can share!)
By the default paradigm, one element meets and potentially neutralizes its opposite upon the zero-sum field of battle. Fire does battle with Water, and vice versa. Earth does battle with Air, and vice versa. According to this paradigm, an individual Watchtower seeks power and influence over the unfolding cosmos, and this power can only come when the influence exercised by the opposing Watchtower wanes. The question arises: Does this conflict-oriented paradigm constitute a legitimate way of viewing the world, and particularly the realms of magical phenomena? Does one elemental force, viewed as rational player attempting to maximize its power and expression, acquire and exert this power only at the expense of another elemental force?
I believe not. To realize the elements are not engaged in zero-sum competition, we need only to consider the visible world. The universe we experience is scarcely possible if we assume all the force of the four elements ultimately sums to zero. In any composite substance, one element would cancel out the opposing element, until only one was left. And yet in our diverse world we almost constantly find objects with the occult properties of opposing elements. Blood bears all the fluidity of water — and, in fact, blood is mostly water — yet blood carries the heat and sustenance so closely associated with Fire that we can hardly consider one without the other. Mountains extend their roots deep into the element of Earth, yet climbing these very mountains enables us to reach skywards and into elemental Air.
Returning to the field of magical correspondences, and especially those found in folk magic, we observe composite elements which defy any attempt to characterize the world as zero-sum. Citrine is one species of quartz, an expression of Earth, and yet citrine bears all the magical resonances of elemental Air. Quite recently I lit incense scented with pink carnation, an object brought to life by Fire, yet with energetic vibrations much more akin to Water. Indeed, “opposing” elements don’t so much neutralize one another, as they engage in complex interactions — often graceful dances, occasionally violent clashes.
As above, so below — So speaks the ancient and timeless wisdom penned by Hermes Trismegistus. Just as there are four elements which, together with ineffable quintessence, compose the macrocosm of our visible world, there are four elements which compose the microcosm of the human experience, and each macrocosmic element finds its echo within the microcosm. Thus we correlate the Mind with elemental Air, the Soul with elemental Fire, the Heart with elemental Water, and the Flesh with elemental Earth. Within these pairings, we discover further evidence that straightforward oppositions — and the resulting conflicts they suggest — rest upon an ultimately untenable paradigm, for the apparent oppositions implicit within the microcosm flow along different lines. Within the human spirit, the intellectual Mind is opposed not to the Flesh, as the macrocosmic Air-Earth relationship might suggest, but to the emotional Heart, which properly corresponds with the macrocosmic element of Water. Likewise, the physical Flesh finds its opposite not in the Mind, but in the spiritual aspect of Soul, an aspect which metaphorically burns with the passionate energy of elemental Fire.
Does the microcosm of the human experience really rest upon lines of battle different from those of the macrocosm? Does elemental Water quench elemental Fire outside the human soul, only to find its counterpart of human emotion at odds with the microcosmic equivalent of Air? Do the four elements we know so well, both outside and in, obey one set of interactions above, and quite another below? Such a disharmonious arrangement seems at odds with the Hermetic saw, and I daresay with our experience of the world as Magicians. My solution, which I hope will be no great innovation for most of my readers, is simple: To assume a world of straightforward, binary oppositions, subsisting within the context of a zero-sum game, misses the beautiful and terrible complexity of our world.
The apparent oppositions between Fire and Water, Earth and Air, are nothing more than assumptions which we as humans make about the most primal components of our world, assumptions which ultimately fail to capture adequately the complex interactions of these elemental forces. Likewise, our own microcosmic experience of the apparent conflict between Flesh and Soul, Mind and Heart, are persistent and pernicious illusions which keep us from conceiving the human experience as this experience really is. To be sure, we conceptualize such oppositions quite naturally within the context of our shared culture, and not without reason. The mistake is in assuming that these elemental forces exist in perpetual conflict with one another, a zero-sum game wherein one element only gains at the expense of another. Rather, we must consider the alternative model of the non-zero-sum game, wherein all players can advance (or decline) together. If we consider the Watchtowers as elemental intelligences which participate as players in the universal game of reality, we can observe more clearly the ways by which our shared reality reflects this essential premise of non-zero-sum games.
Considering life in all its myriad complexities, we observe life forms composed of all four elements, whether we regard the macrocosm of classical elements or the microcosm of human experience. These forms of life, upon the material plane and elsewhere, assume ever more sophisticated ways of interacting with their world and with one another, and while I’m hesitant to assign moral value to complexity in itself, certainly the development of sentience and the capacity for magical interactions with the world points towards life-affirming tendencies which evolve across time. This evolution occurs not within the context of a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, but through non-zero-sum interactions wherein — through the complex dance composed of cooperation and dynamic tension — the Watchtowers intertwine to create the sophisticated and magnificent world we perceive everyday. Within this world, Air can imbue with power objects made from Earth, and the vibrations of Water can be placed in motion by the power of Fire.
Perhaps even more critically for the practicing Magician, across the human experience we all conceptualize certain oppositions which dissolve upon genuine introspection. The philosophical paradigm into which our civilization defaults recognizes a vast conceptual divide between human reason and human emotion. Through the Enlightenment, emotion was often shunned as something passive, something by which the outside world impinged upon the soul, all too often to the individual’s detriment. Today, alternative fields of study which brush up against the New Age movement often suffer from the opposite extreme, denigrating reason in favor of commitment to one’s emotions. The conflict between these two aspects of the psyche arises at least in part based upon our English language, which places Mind and Heart in opposition to one another. (By contrast, the German language contains the one expression, “geist” — etymologically related with the English “ghost” — which encompasses both Mind and Heart as one singular entity.) Understanding these apparent oppositions cannot lock the elements into zero-sum conflict, we can instead focus our attention upon those ways via which Mind and Heart can work in concert, in order to effect our True Will.
Mayhaps the most cogent argument for the conception of elemental interactions as an essentially non-zero-sum game may be found within the Magician’s Circle. Within this astral construct, we call all four elements, both macrocosmically and microcosmically. (And indeed, both macrocosm and microcosm meet within the context of the Circle!) As we call each of the Watchtowers, the power flowing into our Circle grows ever stronger, precisely the opposite of what we would expect if the apparent oppositions neutralized one another and summed to zero. Rather, we acknowledge all four elements both without and within, and through this acknowledgment we become part of the cosmic dance, the dance of ever increasing complexity which arises from non-zero-sum encounters among the primal forces of creation!
Over the coming months, I challenge you to consider the ways in which the elements combine and interlace to compose the beautiful and terrible cosmos which we inhabit. I’ve offered my intellectual arguments against that view of the universe which reduces to conflict, and ultimately to annihilation into a zero-sum state. I simply don’t believe we inhabit so bleak a cosmos. My faith in the cooperative nature of the elements, however, stems from something more experiential, moments of precious insight acquired through magical practice and developed with heartfelt introspection. I challenge you to practice, to reflect both with Mind and with Heart, and to arrive at those cosmic truths which best speak towards your experience of the world.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey