Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Symbols, sigils, and reality

When I was little, I had a near-obsession with figuring out whether things were real.

I remember pestering my mom over and over, because I felt sure there was some essential piece of understanding I was missing.  After much questioning, I was able to abstract a few general rules:

  • People like Mom, Dad, Grandma, and our next-door neighbor were 100% real.
  • Some books were called non-fiction and were about people like Abraham Lincoln, who was real even though he wasn't alive any more.
  • For people in live-action shows, like Lost in Space,  the actors were real people, but the characters they were depicting were not real.
  • Cartoons were one step further away.  Neither Bugs Bunny's adventures, nor his appearance, were real, but his voice was produced by a real person who, unfortunately, looked nothing like Bugs Bunny.
  • Characters in fictional stories were even further removed.  The kids in The Adventures of Encyclopedia Brown weren't real, and didn't exist out there somewhere even though they seemed like they could be real humans.  
  • Winnie-the-Pooh and the Cat in the Hat were the lowest tier; they weren't even possibly real.

So that was at least marginally satisfying.  At least until the next time I went to church and started asking some uncomfortable questions about God, Jesus, the angels, et al.  At this point my mom decided I'd had about as much philosophy as was good for a five-year-old and suggested I spend more time playing outdoors.

The question of how we know something has external reality never really went away, though.  It's kind of the crypto-theme behind nearly all of my novels; a perfectly ordinary person is suddenly confronted with something entirely outside of his/her worldview, and has to decide if it's real, a hoax, or a product of the imagination -- i.e., a hallucination.  Whether it's time travel (Lock & Key), a massive and murderous conspiracy (Kill Switch), an alien invasion (Signal to Noise), a mystical, magic-imbued alternate reality (Sephirot), or the creatures of the world's mythologies come to life (The Fifth Day), it all boils down to how we can figure out if our perceptions are trustworthy.

The upshot of it all was that I landed in science largely because I realized I couldn't trust my own brain.  It gave me a rigorous protocol for avoiding the pitfalls of wishful thinking and an inherently faulty sensory-integrative system.  My stance solidified as, "I am not certain if _____ exists..." (fill in the blank: ghosts, an afterlife, psychic abilities, aliens, Bigfoot, divination, magic, God) "... but until I see some hard evidence, I'm going to be in the 'No' column."

This whole issue was brought to mind by an article in Vice sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia a couple of days ago.  In "Internet Occultists are Trying to Change Reality With a Magickal Algorithm," by Tamlin Magee, we find out that today's leading magical (or magickal, if you prefer) thinkers have moved past the ash wands and crystal balls and sacred fires of the previous generation, and are harnessing the power of technology in the service of the occult.

A group of practitioners of magic(k) have developed something called the Sigil Engine, which uses a secret algorithm to generate a sigil -- a magical symbol -- representing an intention that you type in.  The result is a geometrical design inside a circle based upon the words of your intention, which you can then use to manifest whatever that intention is.

So naturally, I had to try it.  I figured "love and compassion" was a pretty good intention, so that's what I typed in.  Here's the sigil it generated:

Afterward, what you're supposed to do is "charge" it to give it the energy to accomplish whatever it was you wanted it to do.  Here's what Magee has to say, which I'm quoting verbatim so you won't think I'm making this up:

Finally, you've got to "charge" your creation.  Methods for this vary, but you could meditate, sing at, or, most commonly, masturbate to your symbol, before finally destroying or forgetting all about it and awaiting the results.
Needless to say, I didn't do any of that with the sigil I got.  Especially the last-mentioned.  It's not that I have anything against what my dad called "shaking hands with the unemployed," but doing it while staring at a strange symbol seemed a little sketchy, especially since my intention was to write about it afterward.

Prudish I'm not, but I do have my limits.

Later on in the article, though, we learn that apparently this is a very popular method with practitioners, and in fact there is a large group of them who have what amounts to regular virtual Masturbate-o-Thons.  The idea is that if one person having an orgasm is powerful, a bunch of people all having orgasms simultaneously is even more so.  "Nobody else has synchronized literally thousand of orgasms to a single purpose, just to see what happens!" said one of the event organizers.

One has to wonder what actually did happen, other than a sudden spike in the sales of Kleenex.

In any case, what's supposed to happen is that whatever you do imbues the sigil with power.  The link Magee provided gives you a lot of options if meditating, singing, or masturbating don't work for you.  (A couple of my favorites were "draw the sigil on a balloon, blow it up, then pop it" and "draw it on your skin then take a shower and wash it away.")  

Magee interviewed a number of people who were knowledgeable about magic(k)al practices, and I won't steal her thunder by quoting them further -- her entire article is well worth reading.  But what strikes me is two things: (1) they're all extremely serious, and (2) they're completely convinced that it works.  Which brings me back to my original topic:

How would you know if any of this was real?

In my own case, for example, the intention I inputted was "love and compassion."  Suppose I had followed the guidelines and charged it up.  What confirmatory evidence would show me it'd worked?  If I acted more compassionately toward others, or them toward me?  If I started seeing more stories in the news about people being loving and kind to each other?

More to the point, how could I tell if what had happened was because of my sigil -- or if it was simply dart-thrower's bias again, that I was noticing such things more because my attempt at magic(k) had put it in the forefront of my mind?

It might be a little more telling if my intention had been something concrete and unmistakable -- if, for example, I'd typed in "I want one of my books to go to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List."  If I did that, and three weeks later it happened, even I'd have to raise an eyebrow in perplexity.  But there's still the Post Hoc fallacy -- "after this, therefore because of this" -- you can't conclude that because one thing followed another in time sequence, the first caused the second.

That said, it would certainly give me pause.

Honestly, though, I'm not inclined to test it.  However convinced the occultists are, I don't see any mechanism by which this could possibly work, and spending a lot of time running experiments would almost certainly generate negative, or at least ambiguous, results.  (I'm reminded of the answer from the Magic 8-Ball, "Reply Hazy, Try Again.")

So the whole thing seems to me to fall into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.  I'm pretty doubtful about sigil-charging, but there are definitely worse things you could be spending your time doing than concentrating on love and compassion.

Or, for that matter, pondering the existence of Bugs Bunny.  Okay, he's fictional, but he's also one of my personal heroes, and if that doesn't give him a certain depth of reality, I don't see what would.


The advancement of technology has opened up ethical questions we've never had to face before, and one of the most difficult is how to handle our sudden ability to edit the genome.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a system for doing what amounts to cut-and-paste editing of DNA, and since its discovery by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, the technique has been refined and given pinpoint precision.  (Charpentier and Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for their role in developing CRISPR.)

Of course, it generates a host of questions that can be summed up by Ian Malcolm's quote in Jurassic Park, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."  If it became possible, should CRISPR be used to treat devastating diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia?  Most people, I think, would say yes.  But what about disorders that are mere inconveniences -- like nearsightedness?  What about cosmetic traits like hair and eye color?

What about intelligence, behavior, personality?

None of that has been accomplished yet, but it bears keeping in mind that ten years ago, the whole CRISPR gene-editing protocol would have seemed like fringe-y science fiction.  We need to figure this stuff out now -- before it becomes reality.

This is the subject of bioethicist Henry Greely's new book, CRISPR People: The Science and Ethics of Editing Humans.  It considers the thorny questions surrounding not just what we can do, or what we might one day be able to do, but what we should do.

And given how fast science fiction has become reality, it's a book everyone should read... soon.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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