Divination and the Limits of Possibility

Recently on the Twitters, one of my fellow occultist friends, the lovely Rachel Izabella from The Way of the Transgressor is Hard, asked whether I was ever worried whether “divinations sorta quantum collapse possible futures and precipitate the one future that’s divined”.  It sparked an interesting conversation between us, but given the response lag and enforced brevity of Twitter, it wasn’t the greatest medium for such a chat.  The idea was originally spurred from Kalagni’s post (which I hadn’t read before) on using the Tarot to both read and influence probable events.

To this, I gave a befuddled “no”, and after some more talking a more solid “no”.

First, some background. Quantum entanglement is basically the idea that, on a quantum level, the positions, behaviors, and all its theoretically possible quantities and qualities of a particular object exist simultaneously until observed.  Upon observation, the object falls into one particular configuration of its qualities and states.  Basically, until something is observed (seen, heard, touched, informed about, sensed in any way, etc.), literally anything can happen and is happening constantly, but once observation occurs, what happens is what’s observed, and since observations of multiple states in the same object cannot occur simultaneously, the object must fall into one particular state.  This is called “collapsing the waveform” or some similar phrase, depending on the author.  However, pleasing as this idea might be, it only applies on the quantum level.  Things that exist bigger than a few molecules don’t follow the rules of quantum physics.

Every generation of occultists since the 1700s has wanted to help occultism and magic “catch up to speed” with modern science and industrial innovation, in some weird kind of keeping up with the metaphysical Joneses.  Read back on some of the literature from those days, and you’ll find claims that magic works based on rays of light, electricity, magnetism, or (even today) some kind of unspecified energy.  Indeed, the notion of “energy” as we (kinda sorta) understand it today in magic didn’t exist until electricity became widespread; there was no “energy model” of magic.  Whether occultists believed magic to work literally on these physical concepts or metaphorically, it’s still kept up today with notions of “galactic alignment” or, you guessed it, “quantum physics”.  Whether these theories apply to magic doesn’t concern me; I just don’t bother, since magic was reckoned as a more-or-less complete system for thousands of years before we had these newer ideas.  Admittedly, some of these ideas offer a useful interpretation of magical operations, but by no means do I conflate the two.  And, given the micro/macro divide in physics, notions of quantum physics and waveform collapsing as applied to my life and work are next to meaningless.

I was a little placated once it was cleared up that Rachel only intended her question metaphorically instead of physically, since it cleared up the conversation to get to the real meat of the topic: does divination affect outcomes in addition to relaying information about them?  Now we get to an interesting topic, and here’s where philosophy really kicks in.  To talk about this, some background information might be required, which could very easily tip this talk of a narrow aspect of divination into a huge blogosphere-churning debate about the entirety of the art (or maybe I’m just flattering myself).  For the sake of the question above, let us assume the following:

  1. Divination is done in earnest by the diviner, not fraudulently.
  2. Divination obtains omens, messages, or some other symbols containing useful information from some occult, metaphysical, or spiritual source.
  3. Divination doesn’t care who benefits from the reading (the diviner, the querent, anybody else), so long as information is delivered.
  4. Divination is performed strictly for the sake of gathering information, not to intentionally change it by the act of divination itself.  (This precludes Kalagni’s probability wave Tarot technique, which I would claim is divination plus magic instead of just divination.)

Is divination as a skill necessarily accurate?  No, but why this might be depends.  If the divination is inspired like prophecy, the inspirer might be a trickster spirit or the god, if authentic, might intentionally deceive or lie in the message; the first is usually protected and warded against, and the latter is rarely heard of, so neither of these cases are likely.  However, I have heard of cases where diviners were intentionally misled due to the will of God for some other purpose, so it may still happen.  If the divination is technical like Tarot or geomancy, the diviner might misinterpret the omens, or in generating the omens the diviner might not have a clear enough connection with the source of information.  If one believes set and setting to be important in divination, then anything from turbulent current affairs, local spirits interfering, or even the weather might upset the transmission of the message from the source to the diviner.  If one assumes perfect circumstances, with clear and correct interpretations of omens and messages, then divination relies on another question…

Is reality fixed?  The answer to this relies on one’s worldview.  The prevailing opinion is that reality and the flow of time isn’t fixed, and that what divination shows is only one possible way that flow might go.  Divination might show the most likely path or outcome, but not necessarily the only one.  This is where one’s ideas of fate and free will mingle and mix and mangle each other to unrecognizable conceptual pulps.  Personally, I think that there is a kind of “divine plan” that indicates what should happen, but not how it should happen.  I point out the Fall of Troy, which was destined to happen by the will of Zeus.  However, Poseidon mentions to an impassioned Aphrodite that if he had known Aphrodite held Troy so dear to her heart, he would have given the Trojans better walls to last even longer against the Greeks, though they would still have had to fall eventually.  This indicates that although certain events might be “fated” from on high, how they might be brought about depends on the actions of us down below.  What things are fated and what’s not, however, isn’t known to me, or whether either of those is an illusion based on the other.  For my worldview, I assume that there is a high-level set of fixed events that will eventually be brought around in some manner or another, the which manner may have otherwise chaotic side-effects that do not change the occurrence of the fated events but affect other non-fated or less-fated events.  In short, “what will happen will happen”, but how it will happen is up to us.  It’s like writing a software program: so long as the program fulfills its requirements and constraints, the actual flow of bits and commands sent to the CPU don’t have to follow any set or known pattern.

Does divination affect the future or merely relay information about it?  Technically, divination only ever relays information without changing it, but I have to say both yes and no to this, because it depends on whether something is one of those fated events or one of those non-fated incidental side-events I mentioned above.  It’s because of the human element that may want to change things, and may have the power to do so when armed with particular knowledge through divination if and only if the event is non-fated.  For instance, it is fated that we will all die one day.  The method by which we die may not be fated, or may not be fully specified (consider that terrible series of movies Final Destination, where everyone was supposed to die and eventually did but not necessarily in the manner foreseen).  In my experience, what was said to come to pass in divination in fact did come to pass, even when I’ve tried to act contrary to it…except sometimes when magic is involved, actions that mess with fate and the wills of the gods and whatnot. 

I guess I don’t have a concrete answer to this, at least for now.  Trying to answer this question for divination brings up the same question of any method of relaying information, from news media to any other kind of communication.  Hell, it brings into question the notions of fact, truth, correctness, and accuracy of information, consciousness, and reality itself (how can we know that what we see is real? do two people seeing the same thing recognize the same thing? etc.).  This is way more philosophy than a single blog post, or even a whole blog, can cover.

At any rate, to answer her actual question about whether I “worry” about it, no, I don’t.  As a magician, I use information to my advantage.  I’ve likened magic and divination to a river with both treasure and junk flowing down it; using divination, we can figure out where to position ourselves to catch the treasure and avoid the junk, but with magic we can lure the junk to us and keep the trash away.  If I know something is going to happen and I don’t like it, either I’ll change it to something else I like or I’ll be changed to like it, or some combination of the two.  I’m never worried that I’m whittling down the range of possible events that could happen, but rather I aim to have my preferred events happen as much as possible given the circumstances amongst all possible events.

What do you guys think about divination, accuracy, free will, fate, and the like?  This is a really hairy topic, but I’d like to hear your ideas and opinions on the matter.


About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

6 Responses to Divination and the Limits of Possibility

  1. I’m stuck writing ebooks today so I can’t give a detailed reply. So I’ll limit it to this:

    Go read The Apophenion and The Octavo, then come back to this.

    Yes, doing a divination does affect the future, if we act upon that information.

    • polyphanes says:

      I’d counter with Tiresias and the Thebans: they knew the future, which happened all the same as Tiresias predicted despite having tried to act against it. It’s never mentioned whether Tiresias also saw how Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, but the event itself was foretold and came to pass.

  2. It is quite imponderable whether we do unintentional magic. Experience suggests that doing so with a macroscopic effect is probably rare, since doing it on purpose takes a big effort. For the bit about Quantum arm waving, see The Reënchantment Project http ://wp.me/p129fs-gt via @wordpress

  3. Rachel Izabella says:

    Reblogged this on The Way of the Transgressor is Hard and commented:
    Reblogged from that handsome genius Polyphanes’ blog. He even mentions me. As if I were somebody!

  4. Raul says:

    I think the question is simple. The destination content with the cards we are given, and we are free to play them the way we want. If someone is haunted his fate worsens, and if then released the fate improvement, or rather, starts running the way it should be run, free of unnatural barriers. So if by a curse can harm the target, for a blessing we can improve to some extent.

    The magic occurs modifications, and indeed every action is only a modification, so you can not say that fate is fatal except for what is not dependent on you because you do not have any power or not enough power to produce a sufficient change in what was predicted by divination.

  5. livingnexus says:

    Well, gee, I would HOPE that divination would allow us to alter events; otherwise what’s the point, other than a bit of fun or to sate curiosity? As for whether or not the future changes simply by virtue of the information being delivered, I think that depends on how our subconscious decides to process it.

    I do think, though, that there are self-fulfilling prophecies, such as the example of Oedipus you mentioned, where the result that the divination delivered was assured because knowing the future was sure to bring about that result. This I think is the true danger, and I suspect that it is the result of our own broken (imperfect) consciousness.

    Basically what I’m getting at is, the divination that Tiresias and Thebans commissioned returned the “most likely result.” The reason it was the most likely result is because they chose to do the divination. If they hadn’t, the most likely result probably would have been something else.

    All that aside though, hasn’t this theory already been beaten to death by every time travel story ever?

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