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The Disreputable Art of Divination
In many circles, you could hardly get yourself branded a weirdo1 faster than by broaching the topic of divination—an age-old endeavor we can define, per Robert Moss, as "provoking an omen." But no, to bring up throwing the bones, reading the leaves, interpreting a hawk's flight? You might as well wear to the company mixer your old bearskin, the pelt smelling of sour milk and burnt roots. No, some kinds of magic aren’t quite polite.
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Here's the thing. By engaging in any divination stronger than the watered-down tea of newspaper horoscopes, you acknowledge that the world is a magical place--a realm governed by forces stranger and more wonderful than linear causality. And that breaks an unwritten societal rule about what's real and what's not. Or at least, a rule about what's reputable.
We'll get to deconstructing that shortly.
First, let’s note that paying divination any credence whatsoever breaks a written rule as well. And here, friends, we must take an ever-so-brief Biblical2 detour.
Deuteronomy 18:10: "There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer." Yes, in case you missed it, this verse puts reading for others on the same footing as sacrificing one's own child.3
But I'm mainly interested in how the art of divination, a key part of healing traditions and spiritual life from Ancient Rome to present-day Siberia4 (not to mention every crystal shop in the known universe), finds itself in such a tight spot in the West. Caught between a rock and a hard place, divination is condemned not only by the orthodox Christian religion (notwithstanding all the Christian world's juicy, syncretic, spiritist corners) but also by the other main orthodoxy of our day: good ol’ reductionist materialism.
We're talking about a worldview that has--through sheer obliviousness, as it seems--survived the scientific revolutions of the past 117 years. A worldview that is as anachronistic as a Model A Ford pulling up at the start line of a Formula One race.5
By all rights, the revelations of quantum theory make ashes (or alpha particles) out of all that neat, mechanistic universe stuff--you know, those little atoms bouncing around as tidily as billiard balls, not a probability cloud in sight.
Quaint. But since the days of Einstein, de Broglie and Schrödinger we've been blessed and burdened with a numinous knowledge that reality is a lot weirder. A lot harder to wrap our poor, stability-seeking minds around.
Here's quantum grandfather Niels Bohr on the implications of twentieth century physics:
“Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real." Thus: "If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.”
"Profoundly shocking" is a fair description of the revelations coming from the quantum realm--our realm, only at a very fine scale. Electrons are measurable as particles, yet interact like waves. Somehow they're both at once, both discrete and diffuse.
Pause. Take that in. Try and picture it.
The image refuses to resolve.
These things (for lack of a better word) behave like waves when we treat them as waves, happily making the kind of interference patterns you’ve seen at the beach out of their peaks and troughs.
Fine. Only they’re equally happy to show how they’re discrete units, distinct and irreducible as bullets from a gun. Try and pin them down, they refuse to be cornered: they’re both right here in a tidy bundle, and smeared out over time and space in a wave. Both at once, and not really either one.
Light is just as bad. Worse, actually, when we note per Einstein that light has an additional quirk. Light serves as maximum speed limit for the universe. This doesn't sound so odd, until you find that no matter how fast you go, you'll clock light speed at exactly the same rate.
Digress with me here, indulge the one-time physics major in a little boggling of the mind. This is the good, heady stuff.
Imagine a traffic cop, parked, whose radar guns measures a speeding vehicle going 89 mph. Now, if a drone going 80 mph in the same direction also measures the speeder's speed, you expect him to measure 9 mph, the difference in speeds. Basic arithmetic. Except that if the speeding car is made of light, that's not what happens. Not even a little.
Here's what’s observed instead.
No matter how fast the drone is moving, it still measures light speed as the cosmic equivalent of 89 mph (about 300 million meters per second). It makes no sense, but it happens to be true. Even if the drone is chasing the speeding light at 99% of light speed, he still measures the speed of light to be same as a cop (or experimental physicist) at rest.
This is an outrageous truth. A paradigm-shattering truth. In order to accommodate such a truth, other beliefs long held as truths have had to bend or break and make way.
As a consequence of relativity, for instance, we learned that time is not experienced in the same way by all. Turns out it depends on velocity. Even if the effect only becomes significant at speeds approaching the speed of light, it's nonetheless true that someone in motion experiences time more slowly compared to someone at rest. This has been experimentally verified: atomic clocks sent into orbit come back out of sync with identical clocks that stayed home.
To summarize: Time is bendy. Space is bendy. Matter is bendy, and it vibrates and de-coheres, and turns out to blink into and out of existence spontaneously.
It gets weirder still, but the point is made.
Real science entails stretching the mind to accommodate the observed reality, however bizarre it may seem. It does not entail discarding an inconvenient fact because it happens to threaten one's preferred theory.
The fact that divination works is exactly such an inconvenient fact.
You can try it out right now using any of dozens of means, from the I Ching to a random image generating website. Go ahead. Find your question, your hot topic, the one that’s been knocking around in the back of your head all week. Muster up your courage and sincerity. Take a blind leap and cast the coins, or click the button. Note the not-so-random nature of the response, which (I’m willing to bet) speaks to your situation, answering your question, if not directly, then by cutting to the heart of the matter, the question behind the question.6
Well then, what the heck is going on? If you’re a hard-core materialist, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, you’ve got to wonder. You mutter something about confirmation bias. But it’s troubling, the way the random keeps configuring itself as anything but. Almost as if there’s an intelligence at work. Almost as if the universe is somehow winking at you.
You see, divination is a stone in the shoe, a fish bone in the craw of a mechanistic worldview.
The crack that divination reveals goes all the way down. (Yep, past the turtles.)
But back to Bohr.
The Danish physicist had a healthy impatience for dogmatists and the small minds of his day. “No, no, you're not thinking," he said to one: "you're just being logical.” Here was a man with an appreciation for the non-linear and the offbeat. He once told a colleague “Your theory is crazy, but it's not crazy enough to be true.” After all, what theorist could have cooked up the patent absurdities of the quantum realm, which are a case of truth turning out stranger than non-fiction?
His mind thoroughly blown by the quantum mysteries he peered into, Bohr only felt he was on the right track when faced with an out-and-out paradox: "How wonderful we have met with a paradox, he's reported to have said. "Now we have some hope of making progress.”
If you're thinking that the legendary physicist is starting to sound like a man open to mysticism, you're onto something. Here’s Bohr again, that atheist saint:
“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won't get us very far.”
But that doesn't stop us from trying, now does it!
We split and split again with these mincing minds of ours, as if by dividing things up finely enough we’ll come out the other side and wind up with a whole.
Meanwhile, out in the world, things are getting rather serious.
I don’t need to recite the litany. The endless wars, the growing certainty of widespread ecological collapse. You can take it as read.
We’ve all stared into the abyss of how to respond to such an enormity of trouble; all, I suspect, felt paralyzed at the prospect of trying to do anything meaningful at all.
Bohr's response may seem surprising. He said, “There are some things so serious that you have to laugh at them.”
Here our quantum sage echoes his contemporary, the 20th century Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who said "What we're doing is so important, we'd better not take it too seriously!"
If we can just keep sight of the absurdity of our predicament (whatever predicament we pick). The comic dimension, which so often comes simply from a zoomed-out perspective on the same old mess.
It is absurd that we keep making the same mistakes. That history is such a nightmare. What are the chances that we might awake?7 If only we could pinch ourselves, wipe the sleep from our eyes, and remember that the world is made of the malleable stuff of mind. That the outside reflects the in. That we're at once the playwrights, producers, actors and audience in this earthly drama. Can’t we make it less brutal, more beautiful, a good bit funnier?
Strange as it sounds, the disreputable art of divination is one way of waking up to the dream-like nature of our world. Especially when it’s approached as a playful and collaborative process, a mutual exploration of meaning as it arises from the mind of the universe through the portal of the seemingly random.
When played this way, as a divine game, the practice of divination pokes holes in self-important, rigid thinking--that is, in fundamentalism of any persuasion, be it religious or (faux) scientific. It connects us to fundamental magic of life, a magic that no amount of dogma or discrimination can do away with.
Cards on the table: engaging in divination's sacred play is nothing less than an act of mind-expanding defiance against the creativity-killing, earth-sucking status quo. An ongoing reminder that if the impossible turns out to be true, it’s time to re-examine your definition of possibility.
“Weirdo” is a fitting term, given the etymology: weird from Old English wyrd, signifying ‘fate’ or ‘destiny.’ One’s wyrd is exactly what divination, when well played, helps one reckon with.
I can’t help but note that the Bible we know is precisely those texts that survived censorship by the early Church authorities: the more subversive and mystical bits didn’t make the cut. (But did survive in caves in Egypt, until they were re-discovered in 1945).
As I understand it, the basic Christian view on divination goes something like this: the problem with trafficking with spirits and the occult isn't that spirits aren't real. It's that spirits are real and fundamentally dangerous. The proposed solution? A blanket ban on communicating with the unseen world (save for the One God-- you know the guy, white beard, booming voice, jealous streak). This policy is akin to banning communication with living humans since, after all, people are dangerous and unpredictable.
And really just about every place else. Outside of the gringo-verse or the non-syncretic Christian world (where the only oracles left are weathermen and Punxsutawney Phil), I can hardly think of a culture that does not make robust use of some form or other of divination.
Someone tell the driver: If you want to be ahead of your time, you have to go back much farther - to be ancient, not merely old.
Poet James Merrill writes in his divination-inspired epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, that the tutelary spirits he accesses via the Ouija board answered questions “we lacked the wit to ask.”
Following Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.