Friday, 25 February 2011

The Octavo, by Peter J Carroll - a review

The Octavo, a sorcerer-scientist's grimoire, (Roundworld Edition) by Peter J Carroll.

This is the second book Pete Carroll has brought out in the last two years, after a number of years' silence. In 2008, there was 'The Apophenion', which was something of a departure towards an overall philosophical position, which we might call chaoism, as distinct from chaos magic. Now he presents us with a new synthesis that aims at a much closer marriage of scientific theory and magic than he, or, to my knowledge, anyone else, has attempted.

The first thing you'll notice about this book (other than the excellent illustrations) is the subtitle. The reference will be lost on non-Pratchett experts like me; I've enjoyed a few of Pratchett's books and found others a bit twee for my taste. (I have to admit, though, that he shows superb understanding of the thermodynamics of godhood in 'Small Gods', and a brilliant vision of the Other in 'Lords and Ladies.') Apparently, there's an Octavo of Discworld spells, and it seems this volume is using the conceit that it's the Roundworld equivalent in order to show how physics and magic can be combined in two very different universes.

The second thing you'll notice is the physics. Publishers say that every equation in a book halves the readership, and there are a lot of them in The Octavo*. More, in fact, than in Liber Kaos, but they - at least the ones in the first few chapters - are of a very different kind.

The 'Equations of Magic' in Liber Kaos have always been problematic: they dealt in quantities which are not measurable, and probably never will be, like 'degree of gnosis' and 'magical link'. So, they are not really equations, but things that look like equations; what they amount to, at best, is a mental checklist, a summary of what we know about magic so far. With a shorthand like that, all that matters is that it's easily memorable, and the physico-mathematical symbolism does not help at all.

The equations in Octavo are very different. They are much more ambitious, genuinely cosmogonic in nature, and I suspect they have some very important things to say - to those who understand them rather more deeply than I do. I did get lost for much of chapters 2 and 3 (I only have maths to just short of A-level), but surfaced again at the start of Ch 4, where he compares Discworld and Roundworld physics, and comes out with some pretty profound stuff.

One of the things that's particularly interesting about Carroll's science is the way he attributes real physical - or aetheric / shadow-physical - reality to quantities that appear in the fundamental equations of physics. In Liber Kaos for instance the wavefunction in the Schroedinger equation is a measure of a real quantity in shadow-time, rather than a mere mathematical convenience, to be discarded as soon as possible in the course of calculations. No, Carroll finds a home for these misty, despised quantities, integrating them into a description of a magical universe. In The Octavo, he comments about quantum superposition, which is a concept we're normally just supposed to get our heads round, that it actually has fine detail which makes it much more physically real - the alternative forms of the particle are kind of parked in sideways-time. For me, that is a distinct improvement on the usual way superposition is described.

This realistic use of mathematical entities recalls Galen Strawson's 'real materialism'**, as does this (p97):
'A visualized or imagined event can have a similar effect on the imaginary time plane as the probability function of a material event, because it too constitutes a wave-particle event'.
In other words, 'thoughts are as real as rocks', to the real, Strawsonian materialist. Carroll also gives a physico-mathematical reality to Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields - they are the information contained in the virtual radiations emitted by everything all the time.

I do like the depiction of particles as closed universes (p23), and it's satisfying to read Theories of Everything, but the problem for the mathematically sub-literate becomes: how can I distinguish the true ones? I'm not sure that Carroll's doing away with the Big Bang (a dirty job, but someone had to do it) yields a truly more complete ToE than the current one: a steady state model of the universe comes no closer to explaining where everything comes from than the expanding-from-a-point one does, it simply makes it an unaskable question, which is not the same thing. His cosmological explanation of the red shift (the core mystery of cosmology) involves something like a new mechanism for Zwicky's previously-rejected 'tired light' hypothesis, and I have asked a mathematical friend of mine how viable an explanation it is.

Some of my reservations about this book stem from Carroll's over-willingness to form Laws. Right near the beginning of the book, he has concreted the 'multiple selves' model into one. The idea of selfhood as multiple arose out of a very postmodern milieu of thought about what we are, and has proved very useful to magicians. However, it does suffer from a vagueness at its core: it would be a good idea to clarify the difference between personalities and the moment-to-moment sense of selfhood. The former may be usefully thought of as multiple, but the sense of self is always and ever phenomenologically singular. I challenge anyone to describe how it can be sensed otherwise.

This excessive taste for laws surfaces again on p66, where Carroll attempts to prove that there is always ' an even number of selves', with an argument I found so unconvincing I suspect the author is self-consciously preaching to the choir, knowing we'll indulge him.

My main criticism of the book is that the 'Equations of Magic' reappear in Ch6. I've said above why they are not equations, but simply tally-sticks; they remind me of Frazer's useless laws of magic, but with added algebra to put more people off. Has a magician ever told you they've helped him or her plan a working?

Their inclusion wouldn't be such a bad thing if it wasn't for the very high quality of arguments pursued using real equations in the cosmological parts of the book: to someone who hasn't been following the maths very closely but can see how the EoMs cannot be real equations, they simply serve to cheapen the value of the other equations and arouse suspicion about their validity. And to use them to derive, via a complicated chain of reasoning, the conclusion that group magic is no more powerful than individual magic is pure tautology, because the only way anyone could get that conclusion would be by building it into the 'Equation' in question.

By the way, can we have a straw poll on this? My feeling is that group magic is immensely more effective for some kinds of enchantment.

The final complaint I have is a purely aesthetic one. Sure, it wouldn't be a bad idea to replace the phrase 'material base' with something else, because we do talk about servitors quite a lot. But the term 'groundsleve', to my ear, is down in the flooded and odious basement of English, along with 'staycation' and 'bromance'. (OK, I suppose that means I'll have to come up with one myself.)

Back to a few final words of praise: One of the satisfying things about this book is the way Carroll fills out and brings up to date old ideas, some of which he has developed and used years before. Like the way the good old GPR gets completed into the GCR, a much more symbolically satisfying and complete thing.

Proper weight is given to the Apocalypse, and what wizards can do to help avert the collapse our stupidity has got us into.

I have to make a special mention of the llustrations. If there was an award for 'best occult book graphics of the year', then Matt Kaybrin's would sweep it, with these bold, dark, unusual mixtures of traditional and cyber-art.

In the end, I would definitely recommend this book. It is important, maybe very important, and will stir some interesting thoughts even in the non-mathematically-inclined. Carroll's basic attitude to mysteries is the only healthy one: not to try and banish them, like the Dawkinsian parascience bunch, or use them to obfuscate, like the religious do. He writes: 'Mysteries should present challenges, not opportunities for dumb belief.'

*I showed the book to a mentally tough shaman I know, and as soon as he saw the equations, he declared he'd rather chew his leg off than try to understand them.

** Check my blog from 22/11/2010 for a review of a book by Strawson.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Online Breathwork Discussion Group starting

I've just started a discussion group based round my booklet-CD set 'Connect Your Breath!' People with the book are doing breathwork sessions, then I am offering coaching advice online.

The venue is the new Runa College, at , although you might have to go to first to learn about the College and enrol.

Here's the blurb from the course:

This group is all about the experience of breathwork. It is highly practical, and has as its one requirement that you possess a copy of my book/CD set ‘Connect Your Breath!’ The CD is a ‘virtual coach’ you can use for a 50 minute breathwork session on your own or with someone else.

Breathwork benefits our moment-to-moment awareness and cultivates the observing position or 'observer self'. It is a much more interesting way of learning to meditate.

It cultivates our relationship with the deep parts of us that guide our development through bodily sensation - in other words, it opens us up to our 'bodily wisdom', the semi-conscious and unconscious channels through which the Wode-Fetch complex communicates with us.

It also confers mundane benefits, of relaxation, de-stressing, pain management, the overcoming of insomnia and panic attacks, and increases our appetite for life. And it is also a cure for boredom!

What to do:

Have a look at my website,, and read a bit about breathwork.

Get your copy of the book, start to practice breathwork and then there are two (not at all mutually-exclusive) options – email me personally to ask for advice on your own breathwork practice, and bring your experiences to this Forum for discussion.

Out of this discussion group, I will at some stage create a course on Breathwork, with more coaching options.

More on that later!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

High Society, Mind-Altering Drugs in Culture and History - Review

High Society, Mind-Altering Drugs in Culture and History. Exhibition at Wellcome Collection, until 27 February, Admission Free. Details at
And book,

As you walk in the door, the first thing you see is a massive display case. It is choc-a-bloc with drug-taking paraphernalia from all around the world and throughout the ages, from ancient South American vessels for psychoactive snuff, through bongs, opium pipes, a crack pipe made from a pierced cola can to some wineglasses, full of red and white wine, sealed across the top for some recent corporate event or other. If you needed convincing of the basic idea of this exhibition, that 'Every society on Earth is a high society', then you probably needed look no further.

Artefacts around drug-taking are what this exhibition displays, not only the drug-taking kits themselves, many of which are a tribute to human ingenuity in the matter of achieving extraordinary states of consciousness, but also artworks - paintings, photos, sculptures and audio-visual installations about both the effects of psychoactive drugs on the individual and on the society he or she inhabits.

'High Society' is divided into themed sections, and one of those themes is 'The Drugs Trade'. Paintings of opium warehouses and factories give us an idea of the breathtaking scale of Anglo-Indian opium manufacture, a cornerstone of the vast wealth of the British empire at that time. Do all empires depend on addictive drugs?

The section 'From Apothecary to Laboratory' traces the medicalization of drug use, via the enormous number of patent medicines rich in heroin and cocaine which were freely available until a little under a century ago. Some of these are part of drug mythology, like the original 'Forced March' cocaine pills, produced until 1924, and popular with troops in WW1.

'Self-Experimentation' covers a wide range of the drugs people use for transformative experiences and fun, from hashish and mushrooms to the delights of nitrous oxide intoxication in the 1823 etching 'Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas', in which the good Mrs Syntax and the Doctor look like they're having far too much fun, by modern medical standards.

There are some absorbing video installations, among which is the delightful 1955 BBC film of (in)famous psychedelics researcher Dr Humphrey Osmond sitting with Christopher Mayhew, whom he has just dosed with a substantial hit of mescalin. Osmond was infamous for poisoning various animals, including one unfortunate elephant, with LSD in an attempt to interpolate an LD50 for humans*, but here we see him in a more humane mode 'experimenting on a human', as the blurb has it.

It is not often one gets the chance to see a Tory MP tripping his tits off, talking about how, when Osmond questioned him, he was calling him back from an experience which took place in a realm beyond time. The BBC decided they'd gone too far on their Panorama programming with this one, and it didn't appear on our screens for many years later. Apparently, Mayhew said the experiment was one of the most interesting things he had ever done.

In 'Collective Intoxication' we sample the earliest report by a European, Richard Spruce, of intoxication with the DMT herbs of Amazonian shamanism, in the 1850s, and see a photo of Queen Elizabeth receiving a bowl of sacred kava drink from the Fijian head of state in 1982. In 'A sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?', we learn of the dilemma, voiced in those words by a public figure of the day, of how late Victorian society was to cope with mass availability of the highly addictive derivatives of poppy and coca then commonplace in high street pharmacies.

History has shown us that the decisions those legislators made have turned out to be bad ones. We have a 'drug problem' where over a billion pounds a year are spent on drug enforcement in the UK, and the official estimate of the proportion of heroin that is actually stopped from entering the country and getting distributed is 1%.

One percent: it is clear to any but the most blinkered individual that the 'war on drugs' (which, as Robert Anton Wilson pointed out, should be called the 'war on some drugs') has been 'lost'. I use quote marks because the expression 'war on drugs' is so utterly silly, it could only have been coined by a cynical politician, for a public deep in the throes of the hallucinations engendered by a skillful blend of fear and lies.

Just before we leave the exhibition, we walk through a room filled with an installation called 'Afyon', consisting of a 4-screen projection of opium fields in Turkey. The effect is mesmeric, both serene and troubling at the same time, and just outside the main rooms, on the wall of a side-corridor, there is a framed news clipping, a review of the show from The Independent. The reviewer found the exhibition a little too tempting for his taste, advising anyone trying to kick a habit to give it a miss; thinking of those fields of poppies, it's hard not to sympathize with such a view.

However, what are we to do with the facts about drugs? Sweep them under the carpet and not have exhibitions like this? I'm reminded of the disgraceful debacle over Prof David Nutt, the UK government's chief advisor on drug policy. This man was sacked for speaking the truth, as uncovered by studies on the official figures for hospital admissions and other parameters, about the relative scale of harm done by different drugs, legal and illegal.

The government didn't like the truth, and didn't want the Prof going round telling it to people, so they sacked him and issued a statement containing some drivel about what 'messages' Nutt's discoveries were sending to young people. In other words, they preferred convenient lies to proper science.

This illustrates the delusional thinking underlying all contemporary drug legislation. There is a belief afoot that humans just 'don't need' drugs, that they are some atavism of our stupid past, or some evil terror inflicted on us. This flies in the face of everything this exhibition is showing us, graphically, repeatedly - that the human being is a drug-taking animal, that this is part of a drive to transcendence that must be in our very genes, it is so universal.

Modern thinking about recreational and sacramental drug use is stuck in a fingers-shoved-tightly-in-ears-whilst-mouth-gibbers- outright-nonsense denial of the facts of nature. It reminds me of Victorian attitudes to sex, how the medical profession was at the forefront in denying the universal importance of sexuality to human beings.

Sure, there are individuals who don't take drugs and don't want to, just like, to wring some more use out of the sexual analogy, there are medically healthy couples who only have sex once a month. This doesn't invalidate the basic truth and the core message of this superb exhibition: broadly speaking, humans take psychoactive drugs: deal with it. When we deal badly with it, we get the results indicated by the final exhibit: a photograph of gold-plated handguns, from Mexico City's Museum of Drugs.

Surely we need some sort of socialized control over drugs - no-one wants to see children taking powerful psychoactives, but at the moment, we seem to have legislated the worst of all possible worlds. The responsible drug-user is punished with draconian jail sentence, young people are criminalized for possession of a herb, and the gigantic profits made possible by illegality make drug dealing the profession of choice for the most violent elements in society. If, for instance, the possession and small-scale growing of cannabis were decriminalized, I would bet any fortune I could lay my hands on that youth crime figures would slump to a fraction of present levels; much of the economic basis for the vile culture of youth gangs would be swept away overnight.

'High Society' only has another 3 weeks to run. Go and see it. I shall go again. There is also a book of the same name, which a very generous breathwork client gave me after visiting the exhibition. It's beautifully made, full of pictures, carries the message of the exhibition and would make a fine item on any coffee table, or wine table or....

As if to draw a final thick line under this message, when my friend and I got on a bus back to South London, we noticed that the well-dressed, neatly coiffed young woman seated across the aisle from us was doing her texts or somesuch whilst nipping on a bottle concealed in an orange Sainsbury's carrier bag. Humans take psychoactives: deal with it.

*He got it wrong: the lethal dose he came up with was a fraction of the 'heroic' dosages later ingested by some of the most hardcore 60s experimenters, like the poet Robert Hunter.