Form is the Illusion is a book about Relationship Theory, an unusual system of metaphysics developed by the late David Douglas Thompson. Relationship Theory addresses questions of ontology and epistemology in a way that is likely to be of interest to pagans and occultists.
Form is the Illusion: A Magical Philosophy (4)
“Always ring the changes.” (The Ten Laws; David Douglas Thompson)
“There is no superior rock on which to stand.” (David Douglas Thompson)
Epistemology is the study of knowledge – it asks how we know what we think we know. It isn’t possible to claim any form of knowledge unless you can say what you consider to be real in the first place – but if “interactions are the reality; form is the illusion,” then all claims of knowledge come down to simple assertions that a particular interaction has been experienced.
This doesn’t mean you simply create your own reality – it isn’t that easy to change your relationships at will! Still, the subjective and interactive nature of knowledge implies that truth must be polyvalent, impossible to reduce to any binary, not something you can pin down. Is critical thinking even possible under these circumstances?
Yes, it is – but it does take some flexibility. The epistemology of Relationship Theory is not as permissive as it looks. If reality is defined solely by interactions, it must be defined by all of them. You can’t pick and choose which interactions to include in your reality. You might talk yourself into thinking that your positive thoughts will shape the universe, but when the first of the month comes around rent must still be paid.
A great many descriptions of reality are inadequate, incapable of accounting for all the things we actually experience. Such descriptions of reality may contain partial truths, but are not valid to an equal extent with more functional worldviews.
The first step in Relationship Theory’s approach to critical thinking is to sift out whatever doesn’t work, leaving only those worldviews that seem to account equally well for all our experiences. Most people would prefer to select one of the remaining worldviews on some arbitrary basis, a philosophical or religious dogma. Any such selection, however, would not be provable, as two worldviews that work equally well cannot be distinguished from each other on any absolute basis.
The other option is agnosticism – refusing to choose between the options without more evidence. When you refuse to take a position, you can’t do anything at all, so this approach tends to make any topic it is applied to irrelevant.
The scientific method is to maintain agnosticism on any topic while you gather more information, but to provisionally accept whatever explanation is best supported by the available evidence. That method works perfectly well for most practical questions, but not for questions of metaphysics for which there can be no definitive evidence.
That’s why scientists choose not to address questions for which there can be no evidence, rightly declaring them to be “not scientific.” A number of prominent scientists have used this to argue that metaphysics is useless, because no one can test a metaphysical statement to find out whether it is true or not. Relationship Theory is a way around this problem, a way to think about the things we can’t use science to think about.
Instead of choosing or refusing to choose between equally possible but contradictory viewpoints, Relationship Theory suggests a different approach: “ring the changes” on them instead.
Since the 17th century, bell-ringers at English churches have had a tradition of playing the large church bells in sequence, alternating the bells according to mathematical patterns with names like “Plain Bob” and “Queens”. Teams of expert bell ringers can perform long sequences of these patterns or “changes” from memory, eventually cycling back to wherever they began without ever repeating a single sequence along the way.
Because of the constantly changing sequences of notes, the concept of ringing the changes has long been used as an analogy for other types of change. “Ringing the changes” can refer to turning the tables on a bully or an enemy. It can refer to doing something differently in your daily routine to defeat boredom.
It can also refer to playing with different ideas or perspectives rather than committing to just one viewpoint, a type of polyvalent or “multiple truth” approach to life and thought. Polyvalent thinking is usually seen as a postmodern attitude, a reaction to life in a multicultural world in which there are no longer any universally-held assumptions about almost any aspect of reality.
However, polyvalent thinking is actually much older than that, and bell-ringing has been used as an analogy for polyvalence since at least 1614. In the words of religious writer Thomas Ashe in his work The Divill’s Banket, “some ring the changes of opinions.”
To ring the changes in this sense means to broaden your view, to see the world or the specific problem you’re considering from more than one perspective – in fact, from as many perspectives as possible. Just as a bell ringer can ring the changes with four bells or six bells or eight, you can ring the changes of ideas and worldviews.
A complete bell-ringing change always begins and ends with the same sequence of bells. For instance, the smallest bell with the highest note followed by a second slightly larger bell with a lower note, a third and still larger bell with an even lower note and finally the largest bell with the lowest note. This sequence would be described as 1234, and any change beginning with 1234 would always end with the same sequence when ringing a “full peal” of bell changes. This particular sequence on four bells is known as Plain Bob, and the complete pattern looks like this:
1234, 2143, 2413, 4231, 4321, 3412, 3142, 1324, 1342, 3124, 3214, 2341, 2431, 4213, 4123, 1432, 1423, 4132, 4312, 3421, 3241, 2314, 2134, 1243, 1234.
To ring the changes on a set of ideas means a lot more than to just consider them. You should actually convince yourself of each one in turn, thinking as seriously as you can about all the implications of each perspective. For example:
1- If the universe is made entirely of matter, then the mind is just something generated by the brain – an epiphenomenon of the brain, as scientists and philosophers would say. Your thoughts and your feelings are just chemicals and electrical impulses; your sense of self is merely an organizing principle that helps your brain run the show. What implications does this have for life and death? For spirituality and religion?
2- If the universe is made entirely of mind, then everything that seems like solid matter is really just a mental phenomenon. But whose mind is doing the imagining here? Is it your own mind? An infinite number of separate minds? A universal consciousness? If it’s all your own mind, why can’t you control reality just by thinking about it – or is it possible that you actually do, and it’s your own mind you can’t control? If “you” can’t control your own mind, then what is this “you” if it’s not your mind?
3- What if both things are true at the same time, so that the brain appears to generate the mental world if you look at the brain first but the mind seems to generate the physical world if you look at the mind first? Or what if mind and matter are two distinct yet equally real things? If that’s the case, then how can mind and matter have any effect on each other? If mind and matter are both real yet separate, can the mind continue when the body dies?
4- What if mind and matter are both illusions, and the true nature of the universe is something else entirely? Buddhism declares that all things are void of any essential nature or existence. What does it mean to say that the phenomena we encounter on a daily basis are void of any essential nature? If they aren’t “really” mind or matter or any other thing, then what are they and what are you?
There are also patterns for six bells and eight bells. There is no need to use these specific patterns when applying the concept to ideas and worldviews, although it can be an interesting exercise to think of the bell-ringing changes as templates for a polyvalent logic system. For example:
If p, then q.
1- P, therefore q.
2- Not p, therefore not q.
3- Usually p, therefore usually q.
4- Usually not p, therefore usually not q.
5- Sometimes p, therefore sometimes q.
6- Sometimes not p, therefore sometimes not q.
7- Occasionally p, therefore occasionally q.
8- Occasionally not p, therefore occasionally not q.
This pattern can be applied to any question assertion you can think of. For example:
“If empiricism is the only valid epistemology, then magical thinking is a fallacy.”
1- Empiricism is the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is a fallacy.
2- Empiricism is not the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is not a fallacy.
3- Empiricism is usually the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is usually a fallacy.
4- Empiricism is usually not the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is usually not a fallacy.
5- Empiricism is sometimes the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is sometimes a fallacy.
6- Empiricism is sometimes not the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is sometimes not a fallacy.
7- Empiricism is occasionally the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is occasionally a fallacy.
8- Empiricism is occasionally not the only valid epistemology, so magical thinking is occasionally not a fallacy.
When you’re ringing the changes, you should try not to move on to the next change until you have really experienced the current one. Even if you’re strongly inclined to one particular perspective, you should try to really feel the truth of the opposite perspective before you move on from it. When you move on to the next step, don’t leave the previous step behind – play the next bell while the echoes of the previous bells are still ringing. Hold the paradox in your mind without choosing between the different worldviews.
What’s the magical benefit of this? If absolute reality is unknowable and everything comes down to interactions, then whoever can look at the world from the broadest possible range of perspectives has the greatest access to the magic. Not trapped or defined by any single narrow worldview, the person capable of ringing the changes can play reality like a peal of bells.
(Next: The Ten Laws)
Image by Evelyn de Morgan)