The subject of retro-enchantment – that is, casting spells into the past in order to make changes – came up in the discussion of my post on the feasibility of time travel
. In the chaos magick system, such as it is, the idea is treated seriously and a number of people claim to have done it successfully. I, on the other hand, have not. Or, more to the point, all of the experiments I have done trying to exploit this method explicitly have failed to work, or at least failed to work any better than rituals performed without any retro-enchantment component.
It is true that if you look at a particular result and trace it back to its causes, you often can find some precipitating event that took place before you performed your ritual. Some take this to mean that either (A) the ritual effect went backwards in time, or (B) that the result was something that was going to happen anyway with or without the ritual. According to my quantum information model of magick, neither of these suppositions is precisely correct. I can illustrate how I think this works in practice using a simple thought experiment.
Basically this is the same idea as Schroedinger’s Cat, but I like cats so instead of a thought experiment in which a cat might or might not be killed, I’m going to go with two light bulbs. The experimental apparatus is designed as follows: inside a light-proof box, you assemble a quantum diode (a simple random number generator) and connect it to a red light bulb and a blue light bulb. For each trial, the quantum diode returns either 1 or 0 based the decay of a radioactive element inside it and calibrated to produce a perfect 50/50 probability differential. On a 1, the red bulb lights. On a 0 the blue bulb lights.
While their findings are disputed by capital-S Skeptics, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory showed that human intention could create a shift of between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent, depending on the subject. So the first step in testing this red/blue light device would be to see if it shows a similar shift. If it does, you can proceed – and anyway, this is a thought experiment, so for purposes of argument I’m just assuming that it works and you can reliably show a shift of that magnitude.
Ideally you would want the best subject you can find, so let’s say that you can identify somebody who can do a 0.5. You conduct the test two ways. For the first set of trials, test the diode after you have your subject concentrate on the desired result. For the second set, test the diode before they concentrate on the desired result. Then you compare your data sets. According to my quantum information model of magick, these two sets should both show the same deviation from chance, my hypothetical 0.5. If they reliably differ, that’s a flaw in the model that would need to be corrected.
Like I mentioned in my comments on the time travel article, quantum systems exhibit a property called non-locality prior to observation. In effect, until a particle is observed and the "wavefunction collapse" happens (whether a physical or simply a mathematical event) it either does not occupy a fixed position at all or its position and momentum are disturbed by the observation in such a way that the result can only be predicted by statistical means. Until you open the box and see which bulb is lit, you don’t actually have a final result.
So it doesn’t matter when the diode is tested. What matters is when the result of the trial is determined. And it is my contention that this same mechanism can explain some retro-enchantment observations. When you cast into a situation – that is, a complex system of quantum events – the overall wavefunction doesn’t "collapse" until you arrive at a result. The result you want could ostensibly be caused by something else that happened before your ritual, but until your test is complete it remains in an indeterminate state.
Joseph Banks Rhine did some experiments like that using Zener cards back in the 1930’s and 1940’s at Duke University. What he found was that it didn’t matter when he shuffled a set of cards and placed them into an envelope. What mattered was when the cards were taken out and checked against his subjects’ predictions of their order. Rhine concluded that this meant psychic abilities were in some fashion unbound by time and space, but in my opinion the "wavefunction collapse" idea is a far more straightforward explanation of this observation, just like it is for magick.
A second effect that can explain other retro-enchantment observations has to do with timing. Ten years ago, one of the freeway bridges here in my home town of Minneapolis collapsed. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I was a magician who was angry at the bridge or something and cursed it to collapse the day before. Just to be clear, I did nothing of the sort. When investigators looked into the bridge collapse they found that the contractors who built it used smaller gusset plates to hold the bridge together than the design specified. The bridge collapsed because the plates couldn’t handle the weight of traffic over time and eventually cracked under stress.
So would my hypothetical spell have worked by going back in time to 1964, when the bridge was built, and convincing the contractors to cut corners on the gusset plates? Probably not. A more parsimonious explanation suggests that the bridge would have failed at some point, but the function of the spell would have been to shift probabilities so that the failure happened the next day. In fact, one of the easier things to do with magick is to make something that’s already fairly likely seemingly happen on cue. That does mean that if all I cared about was that the bridge failed at some point, I wouldn’t have needed to do a ritual. It would have happened anyway, probably in the relatively near future. But you do the ritual if you want it to happen within a specific timeframe.
As far as some of my own experimental results, as I mentioned above the times I have tried to make use of the retro-enchantment idea have not produced convincing results. The basic idea behind a number of these experiments was to see if retro-enchantment could be employed to produce an "instant" probability by doing all of the operation’s work in the past. So what you do is cast a spell with the specific charge that the spell will project into the past and begin working over, say, the previous month, and then resolve to a result in a very short period of time like, say, a day.
A little of the necessary background to understand why this is a good test – a magical result is essentially a probability shift P multiplied by time T. P * T essentially measures the "work" that a spell can do. Time is not a factor with pure probability results like lottery numbers that are not part of chaotic system with many degrees of freedom, but in real-life situations it is very important. The butterfly effect from chaos theory is what you need to keep in mind in these situations – a probability shift may initially be small, like PEAR’s 0.5 percent. But if that shift (A) is maintained and (B) hits the system you are trying to influence at a critical point, time will magnify it substantially.
My experiments comparing retro and standard enchantment involved (A) trying to cast into the path and use the previous month to build up an effect and (B) cast forward and give the operation a month to manifest. If retro-enchantment worked, you would expect to see similar results from both these methods – and you probably would use retro all the time because the result would be faster. But that isn’t what happened. The retro results for "previous month plus one day" were about the same as "one day," and the "one month" results were substantially better.
Now understand that I am not saying this doesn’t work. What I’m saying is that it hasn’t worked for me, and after spending a couple of years trying to work out a methodology that would hold up to testing I eventually gave up. There may be a trick to it that haven’t figured out, but so far what I’ve been able to do can more easily be explained by either a wavefunction collapse approach or a "ready to happen" approach, neither of which requires any retro-causation to work. If any of you have had worked out anything reliable in this area, I’d be interested in hearing it. Maybe there’s a trick out there that I might have missed.
A more plausible technique that was brought up in the discussion has to do with projecting into the past to modify beliefs and so forth, but that one’s easy. There’s nothing "retro" about it, because it’s basically just a form of "memory hacking." And again, to be clear, maybe "just" does this technique a disservice, because modifying your memories is potentially quite powerful. Stepping back into your memories is necessary to modify them because basically, that’s how your brain’s "search" mechanism works. As for the rest, scientists are working on a protocol using the drug propranolol to erase the traumatic components of memories. You administer the drug, have them recall the memory, and in many cases it works.
I suppose that if you want to work on editing your memories and frame it as some sort of retro-enchantment, you can if that’s what really motivates and inspires you to do the work. Personally I just rely on meditation tricks. For example, when I feel a thought start to arise but before it "grabs my attention," I can dismiss it by imagining myself cutting it down, swiping it aside, or switching my attention to some other thought or memory in that moment. This seems to do a similar thing over time – any traumatic components of the memory in question are reduced, and eventually the details fade away as well.
I guess my point is that for me, retro-enchantment is still something of an extraordinary claim. I have yet to see a case that can’t be explained by simpler mechanisms, and my explicit attempts to use it in particular ways have never worked even as well as straight conjurations. It may yet turn out that the wavefunction "collapse" is mediated by exotic particles moving backwards in time or something like that. So far I haven’t seen any evidence of such particles both existing and being related to the wavefunction, but it also is possible that laws of quantum physics like the uncertainty principle make those observations difficult if not impossible.
Whatever the case, it certainly is true that this is a cutting-edge area of magick that is ripe for exploration. Even if it turns out to not work, the data compiled from experiments on it is likely to prove useful to magicians like me who are in the process of trying to work out viable physical models for how magical processes influence the exterior world.