Embracing questions

By Thomas Zwollo | March 12, 2014

Portrait of Aleister Crowley, by Thierry Ehrmann

I have always liked the motto Aleister Crowley gave to his journal The Equinox: The Method of Science—The Aim of Religion. The first part in particular. Today science is something that many people connect with technology. In some sense, science and technology are inseparable. The beginning of the twentieth century was not without its technologies either. The Equinox began to be published in 1909 and by then, early versions of today’s ubiquitous technologies were emerging. The escalator, air conditioner, neon lights, gas-motor powered airplanes, vacuum diode, sonar, instant coffee, and even the theory of relativity all came to life in the first decade of the twentieth century. But when Crowley stated “The Method of Science…,” he was not talking about any of these technologies, nor ones to come. Instead he was referring to the way science is approached and practiced. Science has a method and at the centre of that method are questions.

When Crowley advanced the method of science it was, more than anything else, an attitude or an approach to reality. It is one of curiosity, open mindedness, and discovery. It was a method that elevates the question and only sees answers as doorways to other questions. For instance, Crowley was quick to experiment with rituals, invent news approaches to magic and initiation, and challenge established structures and groups. Now we find advocates within the Thelemic community bristling at any kind of experimentation. The rituals of Crowley, initiatory or otherwise, have become sacrosanct and stale. In addition, occult writers want you to think they have all the answers. If you have questions or conclusions that challenge their answers, they dismiss you and shut down the conversation. Their work does not open up space for questions, instead it does the opposite. This is against the overall method of science, and thus against the kind of approach to magic Crowley encouraged. Throughout Crowley’s life he asserted the need to experiment, explore, and seek answers for oneself. The goal is to learn by doing, by gaining experience, and by examining the past to improve future results. This is also why he stressed the magical diary. He wanted magicians to keep track of all the factors involved with their work so that, in retrospect, they might identify patterns associated with both failure and success. Just as a scientist records the ways experiments are conducted so they can be recreated, Crowley envisioned the diary to be a tool to help improve magical work.

Between the Worlds Conference 2015

Recently I listened to an interview of an astrophysicist. He commented that it was more important to embrace questions in science than answers. The interviewer was surprised by this response and quickly quipped, “Isn’t science all about finding answers?” The astrophysicist remarked, “Of course it is. But the best answers lead to more and more questions.” Science, he noted, is driven by questions, not answers. I wonder if the occult community, today, has forgotten Crowley’s motto and that questions drive the method of science, and not answers.

With so many books on occultism trying to answer everyone’s questions, few authors challenge the reader to try to answer questions for themselves. While it is useful to have those who have some experience share it, and a smart person learns from the mistakes and successes of others, this does not mean that the author should explain everything, leaving little to the imagination, and even less motivation for the magician to practice and find answers for themselves. It seems to me that the best essays are ones that talk about the questions that drive the author, perhaps give some of the insight they have obtained, but most importantly, they also discuss the way those answers have led to new questions still waiting to be tackled.

Throughout his life, Crowley was asking himself questions, and he encouraged his students and readers to ask questions. This included questions about the things they read, the rituals they performed, the conditions of their magical work, and even to interrogate the entities they invoked. He embraced the method of science, and thus he embraced questions more than answers. I often challenge myself to remember this in my own work. When I think I have an answer, I ask myself, “so what?” If the answer does not open a new horizon or direction for exploration, then I am clearly missing something.

Image credit: Thierry Ehrmann.


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About Thomas Zwollo

Zwollo comes from a family environment that, at times, embraced occultism and Freemasonry. He continues to carry on this family interest in the esoteric. While having been a member of a few occult, esoteric, and fraternal organizations in the past, today he is currently an active member in none. He has a keen interest in the esoteric, in all its varied forms, and has studied it for over twenty years by a variety of ways and in a number of venues. Though he has a particular interest in Thelema and Aleister Crowley, and has studied other forms of occultism, including the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, and Enochian. His interests outside of occultism include art, history, movies, and travel.


5 thoughts on “Embracing questions

  1. enso says:

    I think you are raising a very important point here and I agree with you whole-heartedly, that the need to question and to inquire is crucial to being a “good” (in terms of proficiency and not morality) magician. I am all too familiar with magicians who would take Crowley’s word for anything they do, fearing the experiment or simply considering it heresy.
    But there is one thing that is extremely important to note when attempting to scientify magic, and that is objectivity. I believe science to be, in our times, yet another dogmatic religion. It’s shoved down our throats making everything else, everything non-scientific, worse, bad, illogical and irrelevant. Science strives for objective proof and while it’s all fun and games to see it as a path to inquiry and understanding, all too often it’s used to undermine spiritual, highly individual pursuits.
    I might be coming here from a bit of a bias against materialistic reductionism, but this is merely a result of my own experience, so forgive me if I seem to be generalizing a bit. I feel the courage to question is important, but I don’t think the entirety of scientific method can be applied to the work of magic. A certain level of relativism in those “occult” things makes it difficult to reconcile with the way some people think of science.
    So yes, I’d say – be inspired by scientific inquiry – but don’t try to squeeze the entirety of your magical experience into a box labeled “science”.

  2. Thomas Zwollo says:

    Enos, Thank you for your comment. I don’t think your caution is misplaced. In fact, I share it. Perhaps we should emphasis the method of science, but not its totalizing ideology? As you reiterate, objectivity is the key. We must test our ideas and conclusions. But this can be done without accepting the ‘scientism,’ or reductionism that has been paired with it. It is science’s method, but the aim of religion. That last part should not be forgotten.

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