“Human beings do not have very many natural defenses. We are not all that fast, and we are not all that strong. We do not have claws or fangs or body armor. We cannot spit venom. We cannot camouflage ourselves. And we cannot fly. Instead, we survive by the means of our wits.” — Nate Silver
As a species, humans have always been keen on predicting the future. And why wouldn’t we be? In nature, it is our competitive advantage.
We cannot fly. We cannot play dead. We cannot climb trees or burrow deep underground. We can think about a problem, imagine possible futures, and select the course of action most likely to lead to an ideal outcome.
This awesome power enabled us comparatively puny mammals to move from savannah to civilization — to the top of the food chain. Naturally, we took that power with us, integrated it into society, and have since tried to push its limits.
We tried in 400 BC at The Pythia, home to the Oracles of Delphi — a lineage of priestesses divinely inspired by Apollo. Men like Aristotle, Plato, and Ovid would visit these seers over 12 centuries in an attempt to glimpse the future and determine how to lead their lives.
We tried in 1948, when we foretold…this?
And we’re still trying today, as we tease apart the future of automation, the future of work, the future of education, and the future of the 2016 presidential election.
Of course, a comprehensive study charting the increasing success or failure of human prediction across history does not exist. Depending on which examples you choose, we might look like fantastic visionaries (Nicola Tesla called WiFi in 1909)or laughable failures…
But on the whole, it’s been shown that our abilities to predict the future aren’t getting much better.
The data is there (and it’s growing), but it’s still up to us, as human beings, to make sense of the numbers…something we still struggle with as much as ever. If you want proof, look to the 2000 US presidential election (Gore was forecasted to beat Bush by 11 points) or the 9/11 attacks no one saw coming, or the fact that so few foresaw the 2008 financial collapse that they became the subject of a bestselling book and major motion picture.
So, let’s be generous. Let’s say our predictive abilities as a species are about as good as a coin toss.
Magical Thinking vs Scientific Reasoning
If we call human predictive abilities a coin toss, we’re talking about averages — there are certainly individuals with better track records than others. Nate Silver, whose quote I used to open this article, is one — he almost perfectly predicted the last two presidential elections. There’s a whole group of Superforecasters that compete in tournaments to predict the outcome of geopolitical events with a degree of accuracy that’s much better than a 50–50 coin toss. And then there’s more conventional examples, like Warren Buffet.
But we can all agree that it’s not so easy to become the next Warren Buffet or Nate Silver. These guys have a bit of a superpower when it comes to gathering data, interpreting that information, and crunching the numbers. Something most of us mere mortals lack, which reminds me of a famous Arthur C Clarke quote.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Intellectually, we know that there is a lot of research, math and science behind what these superforcasters do, but lacking the ability to understand their methods, we chalk it up to magic. And when we step outside the political or economic arena for a minute and look at our own lives (where we’re most interested in predicting the future), we lack data or algorithms. The solution (for many) is mysticism.
We turn to astrology, tarot, and “psychological” quizzes like Myers-Briggs (MBTI) for enlightenment even though we know, deep down, that there’s no evidence that any of these tools work. But we listen anyway. We want to know the future so badly that we’re willing to take the readings into consideration.We want to believe.
We want to believe that we should stay home and watch Netflix because our MBTI says we’re introverted. We want to believe that our emotional coldness is due to our astrological sign rather than a resistance to change. We want to believe that we’ll find love because the cards say so. And rather than taking responsibility for our future (or lack of forecasting abilities), we rely on mysticism, magical thinking, and pop-science because it’s easy. Because the outcomes are simple and certain — after all, when was the last time your fortune teller gave you a confidence interval with her prediction?
Discovering Rational Mysticism
On Austin Kleon’s recommendation, I picked up Jessica Crispin’s The Creative Tarot — a book, unsurprisingly, about applying tarot to the creative process. I was curious from a structural perspective. I was planning to use the book as research for something I wanted to write, and I wasn’t much interested in the subject matter itself. That is, until I discovered Crispin’s incredibly rational approach to tarot.
“It [tarot] is not necessarily about telling the future. It is about retelling the present.”
I believe in science, reason, and data. I believe in Nate Silver’s ability to predict elections. I do not believe a deck of cards has the power to tell the future. But Crispin was the first to show me that tarot isn’t necessarily about predicting the future so much as it is about “retelling the present.”
Tarot, like astrological signs and MBTI, are not predictive tools. They are tools for understanding the current situation. They give one version of present events and allow you to draw conclusions about how you should proceed.
As part of this “rational approach to tarot” (my term, not Crispin’s), she draws from psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of Synchronicity — that coincidences have meaning. She gives the example of a person who thinks about a friend they haven’t spoken to in a while, then that friend calls. Thinking about that friend did not make the call happen — that’d be crazy. But the fact that you were thinking about that friend lends added significance to the occurrence.
“…Our tarot spreads are not random, but are guided by the same principle. A particular card will show up because, in some way, we need it to. We are not causing the cards to fall the way they do, but each card is a meaningful coincidence.” — Jessica Crispin
Allow me to illustrate with a brief example from my own life:
Last weekend, I did a tarot reading with a friend. I was concerned about a podcast I am trying to start. There was a mountain of work in front of me but I was stuck — I didn’t know how to proceed. So I turned over three cards representing the past, present, and future.
Without getting too deep, the basic interpretation suggested that I was looking at my situation with a “glass half empty” perspective. I had made more progress than I was giving myself credit for and was focusing on negative emotions. The way forward would be through a more rational, structured approach to the work and the results would be a strong partnership (which made sense given that it’s something I am working on with my girlfriend) and positive emotions.
The pattern fit the situation perfectly. Was it magic? No.
In fact, a criticism might be that most cards (like most horoscopes or astrological sings) are vague, that they are repetitive, and that it would be impossible not to see your situation in the cards, no matter which three I flipped over. To the criticisms, I say those are strengths not weaknesses.
The value of the cards is not in their ability to specifically tell the future. Their strength is in organizing the present, giving a method for seeing a pattern where there might not be one, and suggesting a way forward. I can act in accordance with the cards or I can not. That’s up to me.
They make the limitless future finite and comprehensible. And therein lies their power — rather than predicting the future, they give me the power to manifest it.
How to Stop “Seeing” the Future and Start Creating It
Steve Jobs famously said that creativity is simply connecting things. But I cannot make connections if I’m not paying attention. Tarot (and other mystical fortune telling tools) do just that — they force me to pay attention to things. They ask me to see a pattern.
That’s how humans have survived and thrived. It’s how we semi-accurately predict the future. Not mystically but by noticing what’s happening around us, making assumptions with that information, and then acting. A rustling in the grass may mean there’s a tiger nearby. Polling data, news cycles, and economic numbers might imply a particular election outcome.
There’s so much data out there. Much of it conflicting or uncertain. But on its own data is just noise. Superforcasters make use of that data by finding patterns, telling a story and making an educated guess on where we might end up. In our personal lives and our creative lives, we must do the same.
But unlike politics or economics, we have a special power in our personal lives. We don’t have to stop at seeing the pattern and guessing the outcome of the masses. The act of illustrating the pattern actually allows us to create our future — if only we’re willing to be active participants in our lives rather than passive observers.
“We give things meaning by paying attention to them, and so moving your attention from one thing to another can absolutely change your future. Exactly who are what is doing the work here — whether fate is choosing the card, or your unconscious, or random chance — doesn’t matter as much as the act of seeing, sensing and paying attention.” — Jessica Crispin
After all, that’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years…
The Oracle of Delphi was not divinely inspired by Apollo. In fact, it’s widely believed that the oracles weren’t insightful at all. The Oracles lived in a cave, and that cave was inside a volcano, which was full of noxious gas. The Oracles’ predictions were often given in the form of incoherent babbling and uncontrollable spasms. She had no mystical powers — she was ill.
But isn’t it just like man to invent patterns, to find omens of victory and warnings of defeat, in what amounts to nothing more than random noise?
- Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise
- Jessica Crispin’s book, The Creative Tarot
- A history of prediction from the archives of Scientific American
- The Oracle of Delphi
- Accuracy vs ambition in future prediction
- Freakonomics on The Folly of Prediction and Superforcasting
- Some scarily accurate historical predictions and some hilarious failires
- The Myers-Briggs test, which has been widely debunked
- Philosophical presentism — the present creates the future
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