The Precept of Magic

Content Warning: Can be viewed as moral imperatives. Neuropsychological Infohazard.
Previous in Series: The Precept Against Hate
Followup to: Highly Advanced Tulpamancy 101 for Beginners, Rationalist Magic, Dark Arts of Rationality

A placebo, in its original conception, is a pill, designed to do nothing. That is, it dissolves in the stomach and is digested like food and has no effects on anything. Researchers studying various medications would give people in one group a test medication and would give another group the placebo. Both groups are told they have been given the medication, which lets the researchers test the efficacy of the drug against a neutral baseline.

However, researchers began to notice some odd things. People who had been given a placebo for a medication they were told had side effects, got the side effects despite being on the placebo. Some people saw marked improvements to their conditions solely from the effects of the placebos. These people believed things into happening to them. Real, measurable, concrete things, in a consistent enough way to study. It was also discovered that placebos don’t stop working even when we know they’re placebos.

This is the power of ideas and beliefs to shape reality. It’s not literally magic, but it is literally magic. Beliefs have exactly the power they are given in the minds of those who hold those beliefs, and investing a lot of power into a belief can have real effects on the world.

But not everything can be powered by belief alone. You can believe that a glass of water will make your headache go away, but the effect doesn’t seem to scale to cancer. Understanding the power and limitations of your beliefs, and how your beliefs interface with your actions and shape your behavior is important, even moreso on the strange playing field presented to us by our evolved bodies. We get into weird situations where it’s instrumentally rational to locally believe things that are globally untrue.

Thus we come to the 11th Major Precept:

11. Acknowledge the power of magic if you have used it to obtain your desires.

Acknowledge is important here. There’s an indirect causal link through your body connecting your beliefs to changes in the world, and understanding how changes to those beliefs change your behavior and thus the world lets you push past what you believe to be hard limitations. But we must also be careful here not to create a situation where beliefs are shielded from inquiry, so we’ll have to define our minor precepts carefully.

  1. Beliefs have an effect on the world mediated by the humans housing those beliefs.
  2. Changing your beliefs about the world can change your actions and thus the world.
  3. Changing your beliefs about the world cannot change the world independently of your actions.
  4. Believing the world to be different can change the perception of the world, but not the world itself, only actions can do that.
  5. Changing perceptions about the world within domains can be useful to bring about a change in actions.
  6. A belief can be useful, even knowing it is an inaccurate perception of the world.
  7. Ignoring the world or believing inaccurate things about the world does not change the world.
  8. When belief and reality contradict, reality wins.

This may not be enough caveats to avoid bugs in the system, but it seems like a decent start, just remember that even if changing your beliefs makes you happier and improves your life, it doesn’t change the actual structure of the world. All the quarks just keep doing their own thing, only the ones in your brain are affected by the change in beliefs, and as always, the precepts are not the precepts.

Part of the Sequence: Origin
Next Post: The Precept of Consent
Previous Post: The Precept Against Hate


One thought on “The Precept of Magic

  1. “A placebo, in its original conception, is a pill, designed to do nothing… However, researchers began to notice some odd things.” I think that historically, it worked the other way around, namely the use of placebos was introduced precisely because people noticed the placebo effect, and realized that comparing a medicine to “nothing” is a measurement of placebo effect + active ingredient effect, and therefore, isolating the active ingredient effect variable requires comparing a medicine to a placebo.

    Also, it’s worth linking to previous rationalist debate on the subject of the dark arts (“magic”), e.g. and Personally, I’m on the moderate pro-magic side: IMO magic is very dangerous but still useful (mostly for increasing motivation).


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