Towards a General Theory of Divination

by Sam Webster, m.div., mage, July 1993, ed. 2002

Divination has often been vilified as mere fortune telling. Its preoccupation with the future has made divination the object of ridicule. A common view is that either the future is undetermined and can not be predicted or it is predestined and so we have no free will and no amount of prediction will change our fate. Both of these views are unnecessarily extreme. By knowing about the present we have some knowledge of the future but not a complete knowledge. And, since not all of the decisions about the future have yet been made those future decisions will yet effect future events. Thus we can say that the future is conditioned by the present but not wholly determined by it.

In any decision-making it is to our advantage to learn what we can of the present so that our decision may be well informed. Divination has long been used in this manner. Now is an opportune moment in which to examine how divination works. New philosophical and analytical tools have been developed that can interpret the process of divination as something intelligible and not wholly ineffable. For this study we will apply the philosophy of organism developed by Alfred North Whitehead also called ‘process thought,’ general systems theory developed by Ervin Laszlo, and cybernetics as presented by Gregory Bateson. Besides understanding the issue better, the value of a theory is that we can generalize from one application to others. We who practice magick are aware of the reality of our work. It is time to explain ourselves so that we may better understand ourselves and so that we may be intelligible to those who would seek to understand us.

Two questions emerge when we attempt to form a general theory of divination. First, how can the world in which the diviner operates effect the divinatory system or technique, and second, how can the divinatory system adequately express the real condition of that world.

To describe the link between a divinatory system or technique and the diviner and their world many would use the Hermetic aphorism, “As above, so below.” But, since our planet is whirling around its star through space which has no up or down, some interpretation of this metaphor is necessary to apply it.

In the first place the diviner, or querent, is coterminus with their world. No real separation can be made and so what is happening in the world in also happening in the subject. In our tradition this is described in those expressions that see the human as a Microcosm of the World as Macrocosm. While this is an apt poetic or metaphorical expression it does not tell us how the process works. To explain it we turn to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

The relationship between a Macrocosm and the Microcosm arises out of the real and mutually dependent relationship that the world, the entities in it, and the moments of their existence each have in the process of their genesis. Creation is not finished but is a continuous process constituted by the coming into being of each moment of experience. Each moment is a manifestation and a result of the total process of the world and everything in it. A moment comes into being fleetingly, and is the experience of that moment, and then time passes on to the next moment. The moment that was ends, but in its ending becomes a factor that effects every moment there after.

There are several important aspects of this process; the whole world effects every individual moment of existence, each moment of existence embodies the influence of the rest of the entire world, and that moment, after it has ended, will effect all future moments. An important quality of any individual moment is its unity. Any given moment may be constituted by several parts, such as the diviner, the querent and the pack of cards, but the moment of the reading possesses a unity from being a single experience.

Returning to our aphorism, “as above, so below,” ‘above’ can now be interpreted as the world that impinges on and determines the becoming of each moment. ‘Below’ is then the actual moment that is becoming and which recapitulates that which is ‘above’. When we apply this to a divinatory reading, all of the past finds expression in the moment in which the reading is made. This includes the diviner, the querent and their intentions as formulated in the question, and includes the world in which the moment of the reading occurs.

Another factor contributing to the unity of the moment of the reading is the effect of feed-forward and feed-back between the reading and the divinatory technique. The discipline that examines this process is called cybernetics. ‘Cyber’ means pilot and we will have further use of the piloting metaphor later. However, now we may draw out the unity of the process through this example from Gregory Bateson: The consciousness of a blind man walking down a street, feeling his way by means of his cane can not be limited to just his brain, or the hand perceiving through the cane. Rather it must be seen as spread throughout the whole loop from brain to hand to cane to foot to ground to ear, etc., feeding back perception and feeding forward course corrections. In the same way the consciousness of the reader can be said to be spread through the device as well as through her body, the querent, the world, and so on. Thus the reader and the technique all form a unity whose character is conditioned, as discussed above, by all antecedent influences. Like the blind man’s use of the cane, a divinatory system is used to extend the range of the reader’s senses.

Since everything within the feedback-feedforward loop of the moment of the reading (to combine both approaches) is effected by the influences of the world, an undetermined potential, such as the randomness of the cards or coins or taps on sand, will be determined by the influence of the world of the diviner and querent. The mechanism of ‘chance’ is used as a means of harvesting the subtle effects of the world upon the reading. The undetermined arrangement of the symbols through the randomizing of those symbols during, for example, the shuffling of the cards, is made open to determination by those influences that can effect otherwise ‘random’ events. The randomizing lays the symbols open to subtle manipulation. This is because there can be no true randomness in actuality, only in potential. Once the cards are shuffled they must be in some determined order. Traditional cultures had long concluded that the Gods were able to influence the outcome and so used the drawing of lots or ‘sortiliage’ to determine answers. Hence this discipline is called divination, as it gives the Gods a chance to speak. What was the potential of randomness before the reading is now conditioned by the presence of the question and the questioner, and presents the influences it is able to express to the reader. What is needed is a way to harvest those influences adequately.

In traditional societies the notion of ‘omens’ and the practice of reading them is common and important. Omens are moments in time where certain phenomena co-occur and are able to be interpreted by someone attentive to the pattern the phenomena embody. These classically occur at the moment in which a crucial decision must be made. Then a flight of birds, a over-boiling kettle, or the sudden sighting of a particular meaning laden number clarifies the choice to be made. In recent days C.G. Jung termed this ‘acausal co-arisal of events’ synchronicity. What is happening in an omen and its interpretation is the intuitive apprehension of the general character of a whole series of events (the decision, its antecedents, its consequences and all concerned with them), in a single event (the omen).

The relationship of part to whole determines the adequacy of the divinatory system’s expression. In the same way as an event which is part of an entire stream of events show the character of the entire stream, so can a set of symbols, what we are usually dealing with in divinatory systems, show the character of the entire world for a question. The adequacy of any system of divination directly dependents on how well that system of symbols models the larger system that is the diviner’s or querent’s world and life. If it can not represent a particular influence impacting on the individual it will not be able to indicate that in the reading. In our world however there are innumerable influences that impact us. Representing them all with individual symbols in a system of divination would render it huge and unwieldy. Nor would it be able to engage influences that had not previously been catalogued.

There is a principle in the world that will permit us a way through this dilemma. It is the ‘systems’ nature of all experience. The essential nature of a system is that it has an inside and an outside. While this is a spatial metaphor it also applies to temporal phenomena in that every event has both a beginning and an end which ‘bracket’ the temporal ‘region’ in question.

Systems, by the fact that they enclose, have a property of wholeness about them that can be exploited for divination. Any wholly enclosed region comes into contact with the whole of the rest of the world at its boundary. In this way the part of the whole world that is the system under study maps the ‘space’ outside the system onto the ‘surface’ of that system. Transferring this analogy to a semantic system of symbols, the adequacy of a symbol set comes through the degree to which it maps the whole of the world it addresses.

Every divination system (that I have seen) contains a finite number of parts. Through the permutations of those parts it is able to present a description of a situation in the larger world of the diviner. Whether it is doing this through the 78 Tarot cards, the 64 I Ching hexagrams, or the 16 Geomantic symbols, it is doing so by means of the correlation between a whole set of symbols and the ultimate whole that is our World.

Although they do not look exactly alike, a set of images (i.e., Tarot) and the human-experienced environment both have deep structural similarities because they are both closed finite sets. Obviously the 78 cards are finite, but so is every occasion of human experience as it has a beginning and an end, if only birth and death. This finiteness enables each to be compared, even if the finiteness of the one is as a symbolic representation of the Universe and the other a temporal finiteness of a life.

Two differences between systems of divination are particularly relevant. One is that some have more parts and possess more potential interrelationships among the parts than others do. More parts mean a greater ability to model the manyness of the given world. In other words more parts provides greater resolution. The other is the finite arena of experience the system addresses in its constitution.

Respecting this finitude, Tarot for instance, can be described as focusing on the unfolding of the soul in its initiatory journey while African Geomancy is excellent for matters of business and wealth and for love and simple happiness. This is partly because its power is rooted in the Gnomes, but also the symbols it employs principally have their associated meanings in those areas. For determining subtle influences respecting spiritual development Tarot is better, and for determining the time of actions, Astrology is better. This guides the choice of system used by the diviner and is a qualitative matter best left to the practitioner. The I Ching is especially helpful when a choice of action is to be decided.

However, the focus of this point is quantitative. By having more symbols with which to represent the factors impinging upon the querent a finer degree of resolution about the matter is available to the diviner. One has more detail about the matter at hand. However, too much detail will muddy the reading. The problem respecting the quantity of detail is evident in the numbers of cards used in a Tarot spread. For some questions a single card or a set of three is adequate but usually it does not give enough data. However, a spread that uses most of the deck would overwhelm the reader and render the reading worthless. Besides which, you’d be looking at the whole work at once, the condition you were in before starting the reading. Thus it is common to use but a fraction of the deck. Doing so essentially asks the question: What of the whole of the universe am I facing in this question. The whole of the universe is represented by the whole deck. The part being faced is represented by the set of cards drawn in the reading.

Now we may return to our cybernetic analogy. Cybernetics is the discipline of choosing between actions towards some goal. It is interactive in that choices have to be made again and again in response to circumstances that change with each choice. With cyber meaning pilot, the root metaphor of cybernetics is that of a ship being piloted on its course which is constantly modified by the wind and waves and with respect to the shore and undersea terrain. Feeding back to the pilot is the perceptual skill of determining location by sighting on the sun and stars and reading maps, buoys and the effects of wind and wave. Feeding forward is the pilot’s skill at manipulating the rudder and engines. In combination this brings the ship to its intended harbor.

The use of divination is functionally identical. We learn from the reading about the forces impinging upon us and adjust our actions accordingly. We can make judgments about the future by reading the influences of the moment. However, this metaphor can be expanded still further if we recognize that the ‘space’ we are piloting through in divination is a semantic ‘space’ of meanings and values.

In this semantic space we may continue to use the analogy of motion. We are either moving ‘towards’ an influence upon our lives which means that it is increasing in predominance, or we are moving ‘away’ which means that it is decreasing. There are naturally many influences upon us all at the same time. Its is the union of them that constitutes the total influence. Each influence, as it were, is a single cord pulling us in its direction and we are at the confluence of a number of such cords each pulling with a different strength. The resultant of all those pulls is the ‘direction’ we actually travel.

In divination we are seeking to determine what is pulling on us and with what intensity respecting the other influences. In a divinatory system that models the whole of the world like Tarot, each of the cards represents one influence. If we were to express this spatially we could arrange the cards about our point of view on the surface of a sphere. Let us imagine each card (though this could work with I Ching hexagrams or geomantic figures as well) as a facet cut in that sphere. In abstraction from any real situation, we could say that all of the cards have an equal influence upon us. Expressed in terms of cords as above, each of the cards’ cords would have an equally strong draw. For this reason they are arrayed equidistantly from us on the surface of the sphere. This symbolically represents the whole of the universe in a systematic manner. In a real situation, when we lay out a spread, a portion of that whole becomes visible. We expressed this above as the portion of the universe being faced by the querent. The cords associated with each of the cards visible in the spread may be said to be stronger than those not visible. Also, their strengths respecting each other will be graded by their placement in the spread and the nature of the question. The more important the card, the stronger would be its cord. For example in a question about the past, the ‘past’ card will be most important while in a question about spiritual influences the ‘above’ card would be most important (in, e.g., the Keltic Cross).

While this model is really too simple for the Tarot, that is cards don’t really all have the same weight, it gives us a picture of a spherical arrangement of known influences about the person of the reader. As Cybernaut or pilot one may perceive the influences expressed in the cards or other divinatory symbols as a ship’s pilot does the stars. In a reading one takes sightings of the ‘stars’ that give location and direction to one’s travel. This constitutes the feed-back phase of the cybernetic cycle. However all divinatory symbols can also be used for feed-forward purposes to make ‘course corrections’. To do this requires a symmetric reversal of the process of divinatory reading.

In a reading we use randomization to permit the World and the Gods to effect the outcome and make their influence known. In this case the World and the Gods provide both meanings, in terms of the symbols presented, and the relative values of those meaning-symbols by their relationship to querent and question. To reverse this process we must provide both the meanings and the values. Meaning is easily provided by the choice of symbols and their arrangement to the senses of the practitioner. Value can only be derived by the extent to which the practitioner feels the influence of the symbols. The more strongly they are felt the greater the impact they will have on the life of the practitioner. This process invokes the principle presented above that every moment effects every subsequent moment. Fortunately the ritual and meditative techniques of magick provide excellent methods for doing this.

To use our cybernetic spatial metaphor what we are doing is strengthening the cords associated with the symbols used in the feed-forward process. This changes the balance of the influences effecting us and thus changes our ‘direction of travel’. We are piloting our lives.

Divination in general can be seen as a process of harvesting from the world the subtle influences upon the matter. Those influences effect the reading in the same way as they effect everything else, through participating in the process of their becoming as elements in their constitutions. Divinatory systems can adequately express the real condition of the World by presenting the World systematically and the relevant part of that World through a portion of that system. The result of the use of divination is the ability to choose a course of action in its feed-back mode and to effect a course adjustment in its feed-forward mode. Divination is a tool for magickal piloting.

Can a divination always be trusted?

Divination is a technique for harvesting information about the nature of the world. It can be trusted to the same extent as any other information harvesting system and no more.

In a reading there is always a ‘problem situation’ which spurs the reading. This may be monumental and explicit or it could be trivial and implicit such as in a daily reading. Regardless, it is the task of the divination, or any other information harvesting technique, to be able to tell us something useful about the situation.

However, there are three general areas in which any technique may fall down. First, the question posed may or may not be relevant to the problem. Skill and experience usually eliminates this problem, but it is often the case that the querent presents the a question fairly far afield from the real issue.

Second, the technique may or may not be calibrated to the critical influence respecting the question. One might use geomancy for a subtle spiritual problem or Tarot for a question respecting physical wealth. Here we come up against the principle limitations of any system. Whole systems design such as we see in the Tarot and discussed in the previous essay handles the problem elegantly.

Third, the diviner may or may not be able to interpret the reading accurately. Here lies the greatest source of error. It does not matter if our technique gives us the correct information if we can not understand it. Our own emotional static may distort our interpretation. We may be inexperienced with the issue at hand and thus unable to truly comprehend the data. Or simply we may not have sufficient skill or technique to fully employ the information harvesting tool.

Several problems are special to divination. One may invoke the wrong force to inspire the reading which is like asking the wrong person for information. Or, if you are really unlucky, an inimical intelligence may interfere and then your skills had best extend beyond divination.

Lastly we must reckon with what we have learned from post-Newtonian physics. Heisenberg demonstrated that any measurement of a system will change that system and so it is impossible to not to change the outcome by the very asking of a divinatory question. This should remind us that we have free will and any reading is subject to a change in decision.


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