This week I’ve been thinking about Hermetic applications of Wittgenstein’s ladder, but to get there, I need to take three steps back. I hit upon the idea in Terry Pratchett’s books, where it’s called lie-to-children, which is taken from Cohen and Stuart. An example I can think of is when Neil Gaiman wrote a Doctor Who episode called “The Doctor’s Wife” in which the Doctor and his companions were in a tiny pocket universe. When asked to explain it, the Doctor said roughly, “Can you imagine a big soap bubble with a second, tiny soap bubble stuck to the side? Well it’s nothing like that.”
That’s a lie to children, or a rung on Wittgenstein’s Ladder. It’s a lie, in the strictest sense of a deliberate untruth, but its function is to teach a person sufficient that, when they have more data, you can use that model to illuminate something which is more closely in line with the complexity of reality.
Initially I was thinking of it in terms of a story. A few centuries ago, a magus completed some Original Research which has the effect that once you reach a certain score in Vim, let’s say 12 for this example, all spells in Vim become a magnitude easier, just because you’ve reached the point where you are no longer interacting with Vim through a limited conceptual model, a lie to children, but have actually grasped the material. Over time, people have performed additional research, to make better lies for children, and so the score at which you strike this effect has fallen to 11.
Just recently, a second magus has discovered a similar simplification-and-complexification at score 22. Now magi of Bonisagus and Criamon are really excited, because they want to see if, when they finally manage to make the original effect fall to score 10, if it alters when new students hit the second realisation. Will it still be unchanged at Score 22, one level lower at Score 21, or retain its place at double the lower score, at 20?
It matters a great deal to people who study Vim,, because if simplifying the model at the lowest score multiplies out, it may draw down the similar simplifications. For example if, in the original scheme, the scores were 12 and 24, but the breakthrough concerning the lower automatically shifted the higher down, then it may have also moved a theoretical simplification at 36 down to 33. This means getting the lowest score down to 10 might drag two undiscovered, simplifications down to 30 and 40, which is within the theoretical range of specialist magi. If fully integrated, this would allow magi to cast spells four magnitudes more powerful before hitting the barrier that makes tenth magnitude spells rituals.
For your own campaign you can swap out Vim for any other Art. I’ve used it here because there are so few PCs who specialise in it that a radical improvement in Vim scores won’t much affect the game. If this turned up in, for example, Creo, or Terram, there would be whole House throwing resources at the problem, which might give your covenant a focus, and funding. Even if your characters weren’t interested in the research, they might handle the covenant’s daily business while the researchers focused on their task.
The ladder is also probably used in Mystery Cults. I know I’ve been critical of the “choose your own” buffet nature of ordeals in the current system. I think it breaks the barrier between player and character knowledge. That being said, there is a concept in Buddhism which may explain this: upaya.
An upaya is a way of approaching enlightenment which works, but works less well than a more conventional teaching. What counts as an upaya, and what is the best road, varies according to different schools. Nonetheless, this explains why you can get Buddhists who drink and fornicate to reach Enlightenment, when it clearly goes against the teachings. For them, it’s a lie to children that gets them to the point where they can eventually abandon it and go on with a better practice. Mystery Cult Lores may just be a series of lies to children. The riddles in Zen are quite like this in a sense: the point is the mental state the riddles guide toward, not the answers to the riddles themselves. There’s a similar idea in Taoism, that the Tao which is written is not the Tao. This isn’t so much a riddle as a statement that, to choose another metaphor or lie-to-children, the Tao is the path, not the map showing the path. This could explain why self-directed initiation scripts are possible, but harder then the conventional ones: they are using upaya.
This view doesn’t work so well in the West. Buddhism means different things to different schools, but basically the state of the universe is such that Enlighenment without the assistance of a God is possible, as an innate feature of humanhood. That’s not the general view of western mystery cults. Sure, there are a few, but basically the idea of Western Mysteries is that there’s a supernatural force that you are drawing toward by participation in ordeals. You don’t get to say “I don’t like the way Christian baptism is done, so I’m going to add some honey and bloodletting”: there’s something that judges your ordeals. That being noted, the upaya model gives us a bit of wiggle room in some of our cults: particularly those which are interested in powers innate to the human, rather than through service is an external, spiritual force.