Cheap Shots #29: Faith, Hope and . . . Disparity

I sometimes wonder how those of us who practice divination – especially those for whom “faith” is not the normal mode of approach to all things spiritual – reconcile what we believe to be true about our pursuits and what we’re able to confirm as truth. The gap (the “disparity” of the title) between what we believe – what we must believe if we are to take ourselves seriously and aspire to offer more than “entertainment value” – and the hard evidence of our effectiveness is usually glossed over. Accuracy of the anecdotal (informal) type is as far as many of us go since the scientific method of fact-checking has made few inroads into the realm of non-statistical prognostication, at least at the social level where most of us operate. (Efforts by self-proclaimed impartial researchers – whom I suspect are really “stealth debunkers” – have been scarce of late.) The rise of on-line reading has complicated the picture because feedback, if it occurs at all, is frequently not instantaneous. So we strive to “feel good” about our pronouncements and want our sitters to “feel good” about their experience, which can lead to claiming a success rate that is weakly substantiated at best and imaginary at worst.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that there is much more to the Universe than what we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch.  But I’m not persuaded that most divination as practiced today does more than scratch the surface of what is knowable in more than a  speculative way by the human mind. I like to say that the ultimate state of the divinatory arts is to mature into a reliable form of mental physics or “mentation” that we don’t yet have the ability to measure or quantify. Predictive astrology, with its long history of verifiable data, is farther along the path to credibility (scientifically described as “repeatability”) than the more purely internal means of prediction, whether or not augmented by tools such as cards, crystals, pendulums and the like. Although my case file is still rather slender, I can claim a confirmed success rate of better than 70% when using horary astrology to find lost items; as astrological writer John Frawley says in The Horary Textbook, a lost item either is where the chart says it is, or it isn’t – there is zero ambiguity and the results of the divination are incontestable

My other main divinatory interest, cartomancy of various types, is typically much more elastic and open to interpretation. Tarot, because it has been swept up in the psychological groundswell of Jungian analysis that overwhelmed astrology in the ’70s, can be more susceptible to anecdotal fuzziness than other systems. Consequently, those of us who think critically about such things resort to what I call “weasel words:” language that imparts a sense of probability rather than certainty to our readings. For example, when I encounter high-risk cards in a spread, rather than saying “You will be run over by a bus on Saturday,” I will suggest “Be careful where you walk when you go downtown next week-end.” Some of the most-used (and potentially over-used) terms and phrases are “suggests, implies, indicates, seems like, makes me think, could mean,” and other indefinite expressions of relative likelihood. On the other hand, Lenormand cards have a less fluid interpretive range that does not lend itself to the same kind of squishy psychological “binning,” and they therefore afford a much more literal  perspective on almost any situation. This assumes, of course, that the question is asked in a particular rather than generally inclusive manner. As you can probably guess, Lenormand has become my system of choice for most cartomantic purposes.

There is no question that I love and trust the cards, but I do so with my eyes wide open and my “bullshit detector” set on “high.” As John Houseman might have said had he been a fortune-teller and not a spokesman for Smith Barney: “We make our credibility the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” Sloppy approximations, especially of the vague “feel good” sort, are of no use to anybody unless the goal is self-hypnosis. (I can hear Law of Attraction fans grumbling.) Equally dubious are mind-reading forays into the intentions of another person, which may unjustifiably raise or dash a sitter’s hopes with little basis in reality. Professionalism demands a more solid footing in the domain of reason than intuitive guesswork supported by anecdotal evidence can provide.

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