Interactions Are the Reality


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 (3)

“Proposition: We (humans) know only the various relationships an object has with ourselves and the rest of the universe as seen from our point of view. We cannot know the thing in and of itself, only observe its interactions with other objects.” (Notes on Relationships; David Douglas Thompson)


“Interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.” (The Ten Laws; David Douglas Thompson)


Although my father referred to this concept as Relationship Theory, it isn’t actually a theory in the scientific sense. Relationship Theory is a philosophy, highly similar to Interanimism, Agential Realism and similar currents in contemporary magical thought. The main difference between Relationship Theory and similar philosophies is that these philosophies are generally materialist in orientation whereas my father’s Theory is neither materialist nor idealist.


Philosophers have proposed a number of different answers to the question of what reality is, but most of these answers are variations on materialism, idealism and dualism.


Materialists assume that there is nothing except matter, and that anything that seems non-material (such as the mind) is actually just a side-effect or emergent property of matter. This is the most common view among modern scientists, although not the only one.


Idealists believe the exact opposite – that there is nothing except for mind, and anything that seems non-mental (such as matter) is actually just a manifestation of consciousness. This view is counterintuitive for most people, but it has a lot more going for it than it might appear to at first glance and historically has been a difficult position to effectively challenge. A few scientists in the modern era have been idealists, because it is easier to resolve some of the most complex paradoxes of physics if you assume a universe of mind rather than matter. Idealism is also the basis for mystical philosophies like Vedanta.


Dualists believe that both mind and matter are real and distinct from each other. The dualist mindset formed the basis of early modern science but is now out of favor among both philosophers and scientists, although a lot of people assume a dualist worldview without realizing they are doing so.


Of course, there are many philosophies that don’t fit neatly into one of these three camps, but most of them are actually variations on one of the three. For instance, some people believe that there is nothing but mind and that there are an infinite number of different minds. Others believe that all of reality is just a single mind. Both of these positions are idealist philosophies, but they have very different implications.


Immanuel Kant was a less extreme sort of idealist. He never said that mind was the only reality, but his philosophy does imply that we can’t possibly know otherwise. We would have to use our minds to even ask the question, so we can think about it all we want and apply any form of evidence we like – and all that thinking, measuring and experimenting will still be happening inside our minds. If there is any reality outside the mind, we can’t know what it really is in and of itself. Kant’s form of idealism is called “Transcendental Idealism,” and it had a huge influence on all subsequent philosophy.


Richard Tarnas, in The Passion of the Western Mind, described the dilemma of modern thought as the collapse of objectivity, the death of the illusion of absolute truth, and the alienation we experience as a result:


“The world is in some essential sense a construct. Human knowledge is radically interpretive. There are no perspective-independent facts. Every act of perception and cognition is contingent, mediated, situated, contextual, theory-soaked. Human language cannot establish its ground in an independent reality. Meaning is rendered by the mind and cannot be assumed to inhere in the object, in the world beyond the mind, for that world can never be contacted without having already been saturated by the mind’s own nature. That world cannot even be justifiably postulated. Radical uncertainty prevails, for in the end what one knows and experiences is to an indeterminate extent a projection.”


In such a world as the one Tarnas describes, there can seemingly be no metaphysics, because all metaphysical arguments depend on the ability to make definitive statements about reality based on the logical structures created by human reason. As these structures themselves cannot be objective, they can ultimately tell us nothing at all about reality itself.


The mind that observes the physical universe has no way of getting out of its own way while it performs its observations. All knowledge is provisional and contextual; there is no reliable way to determine whether anything we are experiencing is “really real.” To take one popular example, how can we know that our reality is not a simulation created by a superior intelligence?


It seems to me that before we can ask what we consider real, we ought to ask what we mean by “real.” If we’re trying to ask what is real in and of itself, then the question is unanswerable. The absolute perspective is not available to us, and it is logically untenable that it ever could be – unless a person could somehow step out of the universe, abstracted from all particulars, and watch the whole thing from outside. So the question of what is absolutely real is an incoherent one – it presupposes what might be called a “God’s eye view,” which is simply not available to us.


The most extreme alternative, however, seems intuitively false – that is, to consider all of reality to be completely subjective, controlled by our thoughts and beliefs alone. According to this view of the universe, all I can say is what is real to me, and my view is no more or less valid than any other – regardless of its relationship to anything else. This extreme form of subjectivism is simply untenable. If I step off a building I will fall, and it won’t really matter what I think about it.


What is needed is a more precise and yet more flexible understanding of what we mean by reality, one that adequately accounts for all observed phenomena without making any unsupportable claims to absolute truth. This is what Relationship Theory attempts to do, beginning with the assertion that there is no perception without contrast.


Suppose any situation in which there is no contrast of any kind – a field of white light or a pitch-black void – and the result is blindness. An example from the real world would be the condition known as whiteout, in which the white sky of a winter storm and the white of the snow on the ground produce snow blindness. For anyone to see anything, there must be some form of contrast.


This applies to other forms of perception as well. If your hand is at a higher temperature than the water you dip it into, then the water will be perceived as cold. This won’t happen if the water and your hand are both at the same temperature. A piece of silk feels smooth to the touch because it is smoother than your own skin. Perception is always a kind of confrontation, in which two things which are in some way unalike come into contact with each other. This encounter between unlike objects is by definition a relationship, an interaction between entities. The moment we encounter the world, we encounter relationship.


I look down at the desk on which I am writing this and am aware of its presence, due solely to a series of interactions. Beams of light passing into my eyes, changing as they are reflected by the lens, create a picture in my mind. My hand resting on the surface of the desk sends a message to my brain, creating a sense of its solidity and shape. All these experiences are perceptions of contrast, of that which is other than me in its encounter with me, of an entity which is contrasted in some way with the other factors in its environment and the interactions of that entity with those other factors. Without this interaction between opposing entities, I would be unable to perceive the desk at all, or anything else.


Our entire experience of the world we live in, the premise underlying all daily existence, is the interaction between things that are unalike. If either factor is not present, then there is no perception. Two entities that did not interact, either directly or indirectly, could not ever become known to each other or affect each other in any way. They would, essentially, not exist to each other, although for this to really be possible in a strict sense they would have to occupy different universes. Two entities so completely alike that no contrast could be perceived between them on any level would not be perceived as two entities but as one. To exist in the universe, we require the other. Erase the other and you erase the world.


Therefore, a thing cannot be known in and of itself, but only as part of a particular relationship. This is something we encounter on a daily basis. There’s no way for me to see you as you see yourself, because I cannot have the experience of being you from the inside but only from the outside. I don’t encounter you at all, but my interpretation of you. I cannot see the table as it is in itself, but only as it appears in its relationship with me. I cannot see this book as it is in itself, or the walking stick in the corner, or the floor beneath my feet.  There is nothing whatsoever that I can experience as it is in itself, because everything I do experience must be mediated by my senses, and then by the mind that interprets that information.


What I encounter in all my interactions is simply a flow of information, a set of relationships of which I am a part.


“Interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what form a thing has or seems to have (whether mind or matter, real or unreal, relative or absolute) – the only thing that matters is what interactions this thing has with other things.


In Relationship Theory, the categories of mind and matter are done away with and replaced by something called a “zed object.” An interaction or relationship is called a “zed,” so a zed object is anything capable of having an interaction with another thing. A human being is a zed object, each cell in that human being’s body is a zed object and every thought in that human being’s head is a zed object too. Every atom in the universe is a zed object, but all of the things made out of those atoms are also zed objects. Concepts and percepts are both zed objects. A gene is a zed object and a meme is a zed object.


Another way of putting it is that a zed object is simply a piece of information – any information of any type. So, where a materialist believes that everything is matter and an idealist believes that everything is mind, Relationship Theory says that everything is information. If we start from the assumption that all of reality is an infinitely complex network of interactions between information-units, we no longer need to analyze or question whether these information-units are “in your head” or outside it. We only need to look at what they do.


This doesn’t mean that all opinions are created equal. Why? Because any useful description of reality must account for all the relationships, it must deal with everything that is experienced. If you believe something contrary to what you yourself experience, your belief is not useful; it cannot account for all of your interactions with the universe.


For instance, if you experience yourself as having wings, but fall to your death when you attempt to fly, then your description of reality obviously failed to account for the entirety of your own experience. On the other hand, there is no need to second-guess whatever you do experience, to ask yourself if you are really just a brain in a vat being controlled by a computer. When you say that something is real, you are only saying that you directly experience it – there is no other meaning to the word “real.”


According to Hilary Putnam in Reason, Truth and History, metaphysical realism can be defined as the belief that there is “some fixed totality of mind-independent objects”. The problem with this philosophy is that it allows for only one description of reality to be complete and accurate – and that leads to some bizarre unintended consequences.


When you say the word “house,” it either refers to a real house that is actually there outside the mind or to an imaginary house that does not exist outside the mind. If you’re really nothing but a brain in a vat, then none of the houses you have ever seen is a real house. Popular science writer Neil DeGrasse Tyson expressed strong support for this view at the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, stating that the odds we are all living in an elaborate simulation of reality “may be very high.”


In Relationship Theory, the word “house” does not refer to some hypothetical mind-independent object called a house. It only refers to the direct experience we call a house. Relationship Theory treats whatever we experience as being real. This has just as many bizarre implications as metaphysical realism, but they are implications we can work with.


One of those implications is that there can be no single complete and accurate description of reality, as that would require “some fixed totality of mind-independent objects” and leave us stranded in the simulation problem. If reality is simply an infinite network of interactions between information objects, then there must be multiple different functional descriptions of that reality. So what do we do with that implication?


(Next: Ringing the Changes)

Image by William Blake


A Metaphysics of Relationship

Walter Crane, Freedom, 1885

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 (2)

Relationship Theory is both a theory of knowledge and a theory of being.

The ontology of Relationship Theory can be summarized in the phrase “interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.” In other words, the theory draws no distinction between different forms of existence. Material objects and mental objects are both referred to as “zeds,” or entities capable of being in relationship. The theory concerns itself only with the interaction between these zeds, without assessing which of them can be said to have some sort of objective validity and which cannot. The question of whether a particular zed “really exists” is treated as irrelevant because it is inherently unknowable.


We are constantly taught to doubt the reality of our own spiritual experiences – some of the most meaningful and beautiful experiences we have as human beings. Traditional religions teach us to question them as potentially demonic, while skeptical materialism teaches us to dismiss them as mere illusions. The constant presence of both these ideas is a barrier to experiencing real magic, because we cannot simply inhabit the worldview of our ancestors for whom the reality of the spiritual world was totally unquestioned. Rather than vainly attempting to inhabit a mental space we can no longer reach (and producing weak magic as a direct result), we can simply step around the barrier.


Interactions are the reality, so our relationship with the magical world is all that matters. Form is the illusion, so questions about its real nature are simply not relevant.


The epistemology of Relationship Theory can be summarized in the phrase “always ring the changes.” Because no distinction is drawn between different types of entity, it is taken for granted that there will always be many different possible ways of understanding the universe. Some of these worldviews work better than others, but there is no valid reason to arbitrarily choose between equally functional worldviews.


Rather than picking a worldview and sticking to it, the Theory encourages us to shift playfully between different worldviews, like bell-ringers changing the patterns while ringing church bells. This approach is basically the same as the practice of paradigm shifting in Chaos Magic. This is only to be expected, because both approaches are steeped in the postmodern experience. However, the application is somewhat different. In Chaos Magic, the magician is encouraged to completely adopt one worldview at a time, shifting between them as needed but believing in each one as deeply as possible while using it. The change-ringer is encouraged to hold on to the echoes of one worldview even while playing with the next, so that seemingly contradictory truths are held in the mind at the same time.


The change formulae of Relationship Theory describe how zeds interact with each other, and in what circumstances these interactions can change. These formulae provide a philosophical framework for magical experience, a tool for understanding the rhythms of enchantment.


We have a lot of ground to cover here, but we’ll take it one step at a time – first theory, then practice. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the ontology of Relationship Theory and the reasoning behind the assertion that “interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.”

(Next: Interactions are the Reality)

Image by Walter Crane

A Magical Philosophy

Evelyn de Morgan, Aurora Triumphans, c. 1886

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 (1)

Magic has been intellectually disreputable for a very long time now. The world we have created together is so thoroughly disenchanted that the phrase “magical thinking” describes a fallacy, an error of logic that assumes causality where there is no causality and imagines personality where there is no personality. We inhabit a world without any magic in it, a change in perception so fundamental we can no longer imagine our own ancestors without thinking of them as fools.


The effects of this worldview are increasingly destructive, and the scale of the destruction increasingly threatening. By convincing ourselves and each other that the world was inanimate, we gave ourselves and each other permission to murder it.


In giving ourselves permission to murder our world we may have begun the process of mass suicide. If we cannot find a way to restore some form of animism, the ability to relate to everything as a being with agency, then our future as a species seems precarious and bleak. If magic itself is only a fallacy, then the negative consequences of disenchantment are sadly irrelevant. A true proposition does not become false simply because it has harmful consequences. But what if the harmful proposition is also questionable in the first place? What if enchantment is a more useful working assumption than disenchantment?


Occultists have often defined magic in purely instrumental terms, as the ability to impose change on reality through an act of will. This is not what I mean by magic. Traditional magical practices are intended to produce results, but they include underlying assumptions about reality that are much more than a mere set of techniques for controlling what happens. These assumptions include the following core ideas:


  • That the world and everything in it is in some sense alive, even if this life is more sentient in some forms and less sentient in others.
  • That there is no hard boundary between life and death, only a transformation from one state to another.
  • That all entities have some form of agency: people, animals, vegetation, natural elements, complex systems and emergent patterns.
  • That it is possible to engage in relationship with any of these entities.
  • That there are methods for doing so, many of which use symbolism and ritual behavior as a type of language.


These assumptions are at the heart of many magical practices, but because they are assumptions they are usually not stated or debated but simply acted on. The philosophical examination of these assumptions could be described as “magical philosophy,” the theme of this work.


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy provided generations of magicians with a mental framework for their practices – an elaborate structure of ideas combining Christian Neoplatonism, astrology and the ancient pagan gods. To work effectively within this system, the magician would have to be able to completely inhabit Agrippa’s worldview. Living in a society with a very different perspective on reality, this is no longer easy for us. From childhood onward we are told that magic isn’t real, that the gods don’t exist, that visions and ecstasies are not to be trusted. We are always aware of other worldviews – fundamentalist religions, skeptical materialism and other claims on our headspace. We either distrust all claims to absolute truth, or we latch on to one of them with the fervor of someone who knows he can never truly believe.


If we want to escape this labyrinth and experience some magic, we need a theory that accounts for the world we live in today. The ideas in this work derive from a notebook written by my father David Douglas Thompson around 1984, containing cryptic formulae on the subject of metaphysics. These formulae seek to explain the patterns governing the interactions between all entities, the source-code or deep structure of reality as he saw it. He claimed to have been given this gnosis in a dream or vision, but the formulae themselves are simply philosophical propositions. Their application to questions of magic and pagan theology is only one small part of the idea.


My father referred to his system as Relationship Theory, because it treated relationships as the base-unit of reality. However, he was highly reticent to share or even fully explain his ideas in his own lifetime. Shortly before his death in 2006, he discussed the possibility of collaborating on a book to explain his concept, but died soon after and was unable to do so. The only record of his theory is in two short sets of notes. “The Ten Laws” presents the basic principles of the concept, although not in systematic form. “Notes on Relationships” presents the change formulae.

(Next: A Metaphysics of Relationship)

Image by Evelyn de Morgan